Cragganester (19), Kenmore, Perthshire

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NN 66627 38647

Getting Here

Cragganester 19 stone

Although you could just as well follow the directions to reach the Cragganester 22 carving (exactly 100 yards away), it’s probably easier to get there from where the track leads down to Balnasuim, but there’s nowhere to park any vehicle here—unless you’re on a bike!  Across the road from the Balnasuim track is a gate.  Go thru this and then follow the fence immediately on your left, running parallel with the road for roughly 250 yards (218m), until you reach a denuded wall that runs onto the hillside above you.  Follow this up for roughly 200 yards (96m) until you reach a grass-lined track.  Walk to your left and keep your eyes peeled for a reasonably large rounded boulder next to the track 40 yards on.  That’s it!

Archaeology & History

2 cupmarks highlighted

This is one of the many simplistic petroglyphs in the Cragganester complex, probably only of interest to the fanatics amongst you!  There are two distinct cup-marks on this nice rounded ‘female’ stone, one near the top and one near the middle, amidst the olde lichen growth.  Loch Tay stretches along the glen below here, but only a portion of it is visible nowadays.  In times gone by, tree growth probably prevented any vision of the waters below…

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Cragganester (22), Kenmore, Perthshire

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NN 66585 38564

Getting Here

Looking across Loch Tay

It’s a bittova pain-in-the-arse to reach this and its associated carvings, as there’s little place to park along here.  The easiest is to park 600 yards east of Tombreck at the spot just by the small bridge at Craggantoul.  Keep your eyes truly peeled!  From here, walk along the road for ⅔-mile where you’ll hit a gate taking you onto the boggy hillside.  Go diagonally up here for 150 yards where you’ll hit an overgrown track and small disused quarry.  Some 50 yards along you’ll see a small rock outcrop on your left (as if you’re going back to the road).  That’s the spot!

Archaeology & History

Close-up of cupmark

Not previously recorded, this simple petroglyph on a small rock outcrop—barely 50 yards above the A827 Killin-Kenmore road—comprises of one clear cup-mark prominently etched near the middle of the upper surface; and another possible cup on the left (eastern) section of the rock.  Cragganester carvings 19 and 20 are respectively about 100 yards NE and NW of here but, like other carvings nearby, is only gonna be of interest to the fanatic nutters out there!

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Abernethy Den, Abernethy, Perthshire

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NO 1883 1610

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 185835

Getting Here

Hidden by creeping ivy

Along the main A913 Perth Road that runs round the northern edge of Abernethy village, as you approach the village from the western side, go right at the mini-roundabout up the Main Street into the village.  However, just where this roundabout is, there’s a footpath into the trees known as the Castlelaw.  Walk up here, keeping to the left-side of the burn (don’t cross over onto the right-hand side!) and after about 200 yards or so, keep your eyes peeled for a large upright stone, almost overgrown in dark vegetation on your left.

Archaeology & History

An intriguing standing stone in a most unusual position: a small wooded glen with a steep slope on its immediate eastern side, very enclosed.  It’s quite a big thing too, standing some six-feet high with the usual worn rounded crown, typical of olde stones.

The olde stone, unmasked

In the very brief account of this site by Hallyburton & Brown (2000) they describe this “previously unrecorded /lost standing stone and possible ruinous stone circle.”  This is also echoed in Canmore’s description.  A standing stone we certainly have, but in several visits here there was no evidence of any stone circle either side of the burn.  It was suggested that the “circle” may once have been atop of the slope immediately above this stone, but again there is no evidence at all to suggest this and old maps show nothing.  I’m extremely doubtful of any megalithic ring here (I’d love to be wrong though).

References:

  1. Hallyburton, I. & Brown, R., “Abernethy Den (Abernethy Parish),” in Discovery & Excavation Scotland, New Series – volume 1, 2000.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

Giant’s Stones, Arnbathie, Perthshire.

Legendary Stones: OS Reference – NO 16695 26086

Getting Here

The two stones in relation to each other

Travelling north from Perth on the A94, take the right turning for Murrayshall just before entering Scone, then take the first right and continue up to the road junction, and park up at the trackway opposite.  You’ll see the big stone in the field to the right, up against the road embankment; and the small stone is in the paddock to the left of the trackway at the edge of the trees.

Archaeology & History

Two large glacial erratics which have acquired mythic status and picked up a Christian triumphalist message on the way.

Folklore

In Lawrence Melville’s (1939) excellent local history work, he thankfully put to pen an all-but-forgotten tale of oral tradition:

“Where the road from the Muir of Durdie leaves Kilspindie parish, a grass grown road leads north to Boglebee….. A few yards from the highway lie two large stones, said to have been flung from the Giant’s Hill in Collace parish – the flat topped eminence lying due north from the stones, about two or three miles away, better known as “Macbeth’s Hill”, or “Dunsinane Hill”.

The ‘string’ marks of legend
The smaller stone with its ‘string’ marks

“When the church dedicated to St John in Perth was being built and its tower began to appear, a witch living in Collace was enraged to see this proof of the approach of Christianity and determined to destroy it. She had a son, a giant (after whom the hill receives one of its names), whom she sent to the top of the hill, giving him two huge stones with which to destroy the rising church.

“By her incantations she had supernatural power and knew that when Christianity came her power would be destroyed. She gave him her mutch from her head to be used as sling and in it the giant put the two huge stones. Whirling it around his head, he aimed them in a line with the tower, but, just as he let them fly, the string of his mother’s cap broke and the stones only went the length of Boglebee. The marks on the stones are said to be the marks of the witch’s mutch strings.”

Another view of the larger stone

A familiar folkloric message is remembered the length of Britain:  a giant, a devil or other supernatural being throwing stones that either spill out of an apron or otherwise miss their mark.  And in this case an unsubtle message to anyone trying to take on the might of the church.  But what was the original story of these stones as told by the old time oral storytellers before Christian missionaries stalked the land?

If the string hadn’t broken and the stones had followed their original trajectory they would have fallen south of St John’s Kirk, but it was the thought that counted….

Reference:

  1. Melville, Lawrence, The Fair Land of Gowrie, William Culross: Coupar Angus, 1939.

©Paul T. Hornby 2020, The Northern Antiquarian


Temple Tree, Templeton, Newtyle, Angus

Sacred Tree: OS Grid Reference – NO 31339 42894

Getting Here

The tree is at Templeton on the west hand side of the Newtyle to Balkeerie Road travelling north, just before the bend in the road at Templeton Farm.

Archaeology & History

The only written record of the tree is in Strathmore Past and Present by the Reverend J.G. M’Pherson (1885): 

Standing Proud

“After driving two miles eastward from the village of Newtyle along a most excellent level road, we enter the united parishes of Eassie and Nevay.  The time-honoured boundary-mark is a conspicuous old ash, which popularly goes by the name of the Temple-tree. Tradition cannot guess its age. It is of considerable diameter, but quite hollow from the ground upwards for twenty feet. The bark is stripped off in several parts, and the thin shell of wood exposed is quite worm eaten; here and there being quite worn through, forming a rude door and rugged windows for the weird like interior.

“Large branches spread out, half dead-and-alive, with some foliage, scantily furnished with the life-giving root-sap. Could it speak it would tell of many a strange incident in its vicinity or underneath its arms. Its appearance might almost take one back to the time when the Templars left the neighbourhood; thus fixing its curious appellation”.

Sadly the tree described in the above quotation from 1885 has perished, but, just as it was not growing at the time of the Knights Templars’ local involvement, it is not unreasonable to speculate that it was a daughter of an ash tree that had formed a parish boundary marker of the original estate at the time of the Templars or even before.  And now a daughter tree of that venerable 1885 tree grows in its place, the Temple-tree of the present day.

Various writers have attested to the Templar presence in Meigle, indeed M’Pherson writes:

“When the Knight Templars were in pomp…they had considerable interest in Meigle, several lands in the parish still being known as the Temple Lands. We prefer this derivation to the common one of templum, any religious house”.

In describing the now famous Meigle Pictish stones in the New Statistical Account, the Reverend William Ramsay (1845) writes;

“…A more satisfactory account of them has been suggested by Captain T.P. Mitchell, …He considers them as neither more nor less than the monuments of the Knights Templars, who unquestionably had a burying-ground at Meigle”.

While Mitchell was wrong in his attribution of the carved stones, he was clearly aware of the continuing memory of the Templars.

Modern research has shown that many of the Templar estates and lands in Scotland remained as separate fiscal entities within the Hospitaller lands up until at least the Reformation, which may explain the enduring Templar nomination of our tree.

Note: The tree formed the 19th century boundary of the parishes of Eassie and Nevay to the north, and Newtyle, both in Angus.  We must assume the Templar lands boundary has been incorporated into the later parish system.

Note: This is not a clooty tree – please treat her with respect.

References:

  1. Rev William Ramsay, Parish of Alyth, The New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1845. 
  2. Rev J.G. M’Pherson, Strathmore Past and Present, S. Cowan & Co: Perth, 1885. 
  3. Robert Ferguson, The Knights Templar And Scotland, The History Press: Stroud 2010

© Paul T Hornby 2020, The Northern Antiquarian

Montalt, Dunning, Perthshire

Cup-Marked Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NO 06 13

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 26675
  2. Mount Alt Farm

Archaeology & History

Montalt’s curious cup-marked stone

This is a curious stone and may not be the type of ‘cup-marked’ rock we’re used to.  Maybe… It is presently housed in Stirling’s Smith Art Gallery & Museum, where a small note tells that is was originally found “on the top of the Ochils, near Mount Alt Farm, Path of Condie in 1893.”  The stone was found at the same time, and adjacent to, a prehistoric collared urn—which implies it had an association with a cairn or cist, or burial site of some sort (which isn’t uncommon).  However, the exact location of its original whereabouts has been forgotten.

Broken off from a larger piece of stone, the remaining piece of rock has six cup-markings cut into it, between one and three inches across.  The smallest cup is what we might call a ‘normal’ size, but the rest of them get increasingly large and may have been more functional than purely mythic in nature.  In a small note attached to the stone in the Museum, they add the interesting note that,

“There are…indications that in some places they may be related to transhumance: the practice of moving sheep, cattle and goats to higher pastures in the summer, where they may have been used to mark routes or sources of water.”

They may indeed – amongst a variety of other things too.  But the suggested relationship with cattle occurs in stones found near Haworth, West Yorkshire, where large man-affected carved ‘cups’ such as the ones here, were known to be filled with milk at specific times of Nature’s calendrical rhythms, for the spirits of the place to give good fortune to the farmer and local people.  We know of one instance where this practice still occurs and goes back generations in the same family.  Examples of this animistic practice have also been found in the Scottish Highlands.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


St. Ninian’s Well, Stirling, Stirlingshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – NS 79690 93012

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 46210
  2. St. Ringan’s Well

Getting Here

St Ninian's Well, Stirling

St Ninian’s Well, Stirling

A short distance south out of Stirling town centre, along Port Street where it meets with Ninian’s Road, walk across at the traffic lights then turn immediately left down Wellgreen Road.  Barely 100 yards down (before you reach the roundabout), note the path on your right.  Walk along here and as it bends round into the car-park, look to your left and see the small ivy-covered building hiding away in below you, with an information plaque at its side.

Archaeology & History

“St Ninian’s” is a district unto itself on the south side of the ancient city of Stirling—and it has this holy well (and the demolished chapel that once stood by its side) to thank for this. James Johnston’s (1904) place-name study of the region showed that it had acquired its association with St Ninian as early as 1242 CE when it was described, “Ecclesia Sancti Niniani de Kirketoune.”  It was mentioned again in 1301 CE as the site of “Saint Rineyan”, or St Ringan, which was the other name given to this saint who spent much of his time at Whithorn, Galloway, where he “preached the gospel among the southern Picts.” (Attwater 1965)

The waters in the building

The waters in the building

The old well building

The old well building

At some later date, Ninian is thought to have ventured north and sanctified this already renowned water source which, in his day, would have been open and surrounded by ancient trees and an abundance of wild flowers and healing plants.  But today, typically, it is hiding almost secretly away, behind locked doors and not in view for the general public.  This needs to be changed!  Standing outside of the unkempt and overgrown building, you can faintly hear these ancient waters still flowing within their darkened enclave.

It has been described in a number of local history books down the years, but a lot of the old stories and traditions have sadly moved into forgotten memories… The first major description of the site was by J.R. Walker (1883) who wrote freshly about it soon after his visit—despite being “disappointed” with the architectural features of the building built over the well; which is hardly the right attitude as far as I’m concerned!  The waters, their natural environment, feeling and genius loci are the primary features to sacred wells—nottheir dissolution, nor the artifice of humans to contain and reduce the natural world at such a place!  But, this aside:  for the architects amongst you, here’s what Walker had to say about the well-house:

“Mr T.S.  Muir, in his Characteristics of Old Church Architecture, mentions it as “a large vaulted building with a chamber above it, which is supposed to have been a chapel.” From this notice I was led to think something of interest would be found in the chamber; but as will be seen by the drawing…it is utterly destitute of any feature worthy of particular notice.  On looking at the surroundings, however, which are all modern, and mostly new houses and streets in course of erection, I came to the conclusion that at no distant date the well was doomed, and that consequently I had better make a correct drawing of it.

“The lower chamber measures 16 feet by 11 feet 1 inch, and is covered with a vault running from end to end, measuring from floor to springing 2 feet 9 inches, and from floor to crown of arch 6 feet.  At the end where the spring rises there is a square recess 1 foot 9 inches high and 1 foot 7 inches wide and 17 inches deep; and at the other end two recesses, the largest measuring 2 feet 7 inches in height, 1 foot 4 inches wide and 1 foot 4 inches deep, the other 8 inches high, 8 inches wide, and 8 inches deep.  To what purpose these have been put I have formed no idea; they are on an average 12 inches from the floor to the sill.  The side walls are 2 feet 9 inches thick, and the end gable 3 feet; the other gable, between the well chamber and the adjacent building, being about 2 feet 3 inches.  The room above is the same size as the vaulted chamber below, and is divided by timber partitions to form a dwelling-house.  There is an ordinary fireplace and press in the gable; the press, however, does not go down to the floor, but is simply a recess or “aumbry,” such as we see in old Scotch houses.

“The roof seems to have been renewed at no distant date, although some of the timbers are, without doubt, home-grown.  The ground rises rapidly to the back, so that the entrance door to the house is level with the top of the vault; this door is simply splayed in the Scotch manner, with a square lintel over, and a relieving arch inside.  The door to the well chamber is also splayed, and in like manner the windows; the largest window has been altered, and a new projecting sill put in.

“At present the well is used for washing purposes, and must have been so for a considerable length of time, if we may judge from the table of rates affixed to the building; and a channel has been formed down one side and along the bottom end to carry away the water, the floor being paved with stones.  The vault inside is roughly dressed, very little labour seemingly having been bestowed upon it.

“In the New Statistical Account it is suggested that the chamber was used as a bath, and it also states that, “it is celebrated for its copiousness and its purity. It is a hardish water, but of low specific gravity, and much used for washing. It has been calculated that were all the waters proceeding from this spring forced into the pipes that supply the town, it would afford every individual not less than 14.03 gallons per twenty-four hours.  Its temperature is very cold and it exhibits muriate of lime and sulphate of lime. It is also much used for brewing.”

“Externally the building is roughly cast, or in Scottish phraseology, harled.”

A few years later when J.S. Fleming (1898) wrote an account of the place in his survey of local holy wells, he described a number of other historical elements not included in Walker’s (1883) account, telling:

“RINGAN” is stated to be the Scoto-Irish form of Saint Ninian’s name. He is alleged to have come from Ireland in the fifth century. St. Ringan’s Chapel was one of three attached to St. Ninians, the others being at Skeoch—dedicated to the Virgin Mary—and at Cambusbarron.  The remains of St. Ringan’s Chapel, a simple, barrel-vaulted chamber, 11 feet by 14 feet, built over the spring, are situated a few yards off Pitt Terrace, the upper walls having been built, in 1731, by order of the Stirling Town Council, and formed into a house for the convenience of the town’s washerwomen.  A niche in the north-east wall has evidently been made to hold the image of the Saint; while there has also been a piscina in the same wall. The flow of water is enormous, and enters the building from under the south-west gable, and after passing through the little chamber, flows out at the east wall.  In 1740, the Town Council, considering the large volume of water of some value, entertained the idea of having it conveyed into the town by means of pipes, and consulted an Edinburgh engineer with regard to the feasibility of the project.  Nothing resulted from their efforts, however.  The water of this spring is stated to be so cold in summer that people cannot stand in it for any length of time; while in winter, again, it is so warm that it rapidly thaws whatever is thrown into it.  Smoke rises from it at times, hanging over it like a vapour on a frosty morning.  These characteristics indicate that the waters must issue from a great depth in the ground.

“This Chapel was apparently held in high repute by King James IV., as in the Exchequer Rolls we find the following entries: — “1497, April 24. — Item to the King’s offerand in Saint Ringans Chapel, besid Strivelin, 14/.” ” Samen day to Schir Andro to get say a hental of messes of Saint Ringans, 20⋅/.”

The site was mentioned in the standard surveys of MacKinlay (1893) and Morris (1981), but with very little additional information other than to cite how the larger surrounding building that once stood next to the well,

“was used as a powder magazine by Prince Charles after the battle of Falkirk, was blown up, and only the tower remains.”

Folklore

Ninian's Well on 1832 map

Ninian’s Well on 1832 map

St. Ninian’s festival date is September 16, but I’ve been unable to find any information about any practices here for that date. However, in 1659, St Ninian’s Well was mentioned as a site used in what the deluded criminal courts of the period called “a case of witchcraft”, against one Bessie Stevenson.  The lady concerned told of performing quite normal herbal practices and similar animistic healing traditions, typical of those found universally in peasant cultures, but which the crazed church-goers saw as something completely different.  Bessie told that for people who were either sick or bewitched, she would wash their clothes in the running waters of St. Ninian’s Well, to wash away any disease and cure the said person.  It is likely that the waters here were commonly used for such rites, much as the christian priesthood still do at many ‘holy waters’ to this very day.  Indeed, of the sacred waters here, St. Ninian himself was said to “have endowed it with peculiar virtues.” (Roger 1853)

References:

  1. Attwater, Donald, The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, Penguin: Harmondsworth 1965.
  2. Fleming, J.S., Old Nooks of Stirling, Delineated and Described, Munro & Jamieson: Stirling 1898.
  3. Johnston, James B., The Place-Names of Stirlingshire, R.S. Shearer 1904.
  4. MacKinlay, James M., Folklore of Scottish Lochs and Springs, William Hodge: Glasgow 1893.
  5. Morris, Ruth & Frank, Scottish Healing Wells, Alethea: Sandy 1982.
  6. Mould, D.D.C.P., Scotland of the Saints, Batsford: London 1952.
  7. Reid, John, The Place-Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire, Falkirk Local History Society 2009.
  8. Roger, Charles,  A Week at Bridge of Allan, Adam & Charles Black: Edinburgh 1853.
  9. Ronald, James, Landmarks of Old Stirling, Eneas Mackay: Stirling 1899.
  10. Simpson, W.D., St. Ninian and the Origins of the Christian Church in Scotland, Oliver & Boyd: Edinburgh 1940.
  11. Walker, J. Russel, “‘Holy Wells’ in Scotland,” in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.17 (New Series, volume 5), 1883.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Our Lady’s Well, Straiton, Loanhead, Midlothian

Holy Well (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NT 2728 6669

Archaeology & History

Our Ladys ‘Well’ on 1855 map

This is another all-but-forgotten holy well once dedicated to the Virgin Mary, close to the south-side of Edinburgh’s outer ring-road.  It would seem to have been one in a cluster of sacred wells not far from each other (with the two Jacob’s Wells and St. Margaret’s Well at nearby Pentland), whose traditional stories have fallen prey to the incredulity of ‘progress’.  I can find very little about the site, other than the note given it in George Good’s (1893) Liberton survey where, in stepping south towards the old hamlets of Broomhill and Straiton, he told:

“A little to the west of the hamlet, and near what was called Straiton Green, is an old draw-well dedicated to the Virgin, and known by the name of Our Lady’s Well. There may possibly have been a cell or chapel near this well, but no tradition or history regarding it is extant.”

We can only presume that the ‘Well’ which is highlighted on the first OS-map in 1855, maybe 20-30 yards west of the old road on what looks like a small park or ‘Green’, would be the ‘Lady Well’ in question. (another ‘Well’ is shown at Broomhill Cottage, which is unlikely to be the contender)

References:

  1. Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of Edinburgh, TNA 2017.
  2. Good, George, Liberton in Ancient and Modern Times, Andrew Elliot: Edinburgh 1893.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Dun Osdale, Dunvegan, Skye

Broch:  OS Grid Reference – NG 24162 46424

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 10832

Getting Here

Dun Osdale, by the roadside

From the A863 Dunvegan road, a mile south of the village turn onto the B884 road at Lonmore, making sure you veer right after a few hundred yards and head towards Glendale.  About a mile along, on the left-hand side of the road, note the small rocky crag that begins to grow just above the roadside.  At the end of this crag you’ll see a huge pile of rocks, seemingly tumbling down, just by a small T-junction to Uiginish.  You can’t really miss it.

Archaeology & History

Listed as one of the duns, or fortified prehistoric structures in Skye by the old writer J.A. MacCulloch (1905), the rediscovery of this broch was, said A.A. MacGregor (1930), one that “became historical only within living memory.”  I find that hard to believe!  The Gaelic speakers hereby merely kept their tongues still when asked, as was common in days of olde—and it was a faerie abode….

Looking at the SW walling

Looking at the SE walls

Once you go through the gate below the broch, the large boggy area you have to circumnavigate is the overflow from an ancient well, known as Tobar na Maor, where Anne Ross said, “tradition that the stewards of three adjacent properties met there.”  This well was covered by an ancient Pictish stone (now in Dunvegan Castle), which may originally have been associated with the broch just above it.  When I visited the site with Aisha and Her clan, we passed the overgrown well and walked straight up to the broch.

Despite being ruinous it is still most impressive.  The massive walling on its southwestern side is still intact in places; but you don’t get a real impression of the work that went into building these structures until you’re on top.  The walls themselves are so thick and well-built that you puzzle over the energy required to build so massive a monument.  And Scotland has masses of them!

Aisha in the broch

Small internal chamber

The site was surveyed briefly when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in 1877, subsequently highlighting it on the first OS-map of the area.  But it didn’t receive any archaeocentric assessment until the Royal Commission (1928) lads explored the area some fifty years later.  In their outstanding Inventory of the region they described Dun Osdale in considerable detail, although kept their description purely architectural in nature, betraying any real sense of meaning and history which local folk must have told them.  They wrote:

“The outer face of the wall of the broch for a great part is reduced to the lower courses, but on the west-southwest a section still maintains a height of about 7 feet; on the south-side, although hidden by fallen stones, it is about 4 to 5 feet high, and on the northeast there is a very short section 3 feet in height.  The stones are of considerable size and laid in regular courses.  In the interior a mass of tumbled stone obscures the most of the inner face of the wall, but on the south and northwest it stands about 8 feet above the debris.  The broch is circular with an internal diameter of 35 feet to 35 feet 6 inches, and the wall thickens from 10 feet on the north to 13 feet 7 inches on the south. The entrance, which is one the east, is badly broken down, but near the inside has a width of 3 feet 2 inches, and appears to have been 2 feet 10 inches on the outside; it has run straight through the wall without checks.  In the thickness of the wall to the south of the entrance is an oval chamber measuring 10 feet long by 4 feet 9 inches broad above the debris with which it is half-filled.  The roof has fallen in, but the internal corbelling of the walls is well displayed.  The fallen stones no doubt still cover the entrance, which has probably been from the interior.  Within the western arc of the wall, nearly opposite the main doorway, is another oval cell 12 feet in length and 4 feet 6 inches in breadth over debris, with a doorway 2 feet 9 inches wide; its outer and inner walls are 5 feet 9 inches, and 2 feet 6 inches respectively.  The roof od this chamber has also collapsed, but from the masonry which remains in position it must have been over 6 feet in height.  Immediately to the west of the cell near the entrance are exposed the left jamb of a door and a short length of a gallery 3 feet 6 inches wide in the thickness of the southern wall, which probably contained the stairs, as traces of a gallery at a higher level than the oval chambers are seen here, the inner wall being about 3 feet and the outer 8 feet thick. Parts of a scarcement 9 inches wide can be detected on the northwestern and southeastern arcs.”

Dun Osdale plan (RCAHMS 1928)

Dun Osdale on 1881 map

Measurements and architectural tedium aside, the broch is worthwhile for anyone interested in our ancient mythic past, not least because of its position in the landscape and its visual relationship with other sites of the same period nearby.  As well as that, there are unrecorded ancient sites still hiding in these olde moors…

Folklore

Tradition tells that Dun Osdale was used as a watch-tower by the tribal folk—which seems quite credible.  But the original inhabitants of Duirinish, the sith or fairy folk, were also said to live here.  It’s one of several places in Duirinish where the legendary Fairy Cup of Dunvegan was said to have come from.  Otta Swire (1961) told its tale:

“One midsummer night a MacLeod, searching for strayed cattle, stayed late on the moor.  In the moonlight he saw the door of Dun Osdale open and the little people come out, a long train of them, and began to dance on the green grass knoll nearby.  Fascinated, he watched, forgetting everything but the wonderful dance. Suddenly he sneezed.  The spell was broke.  The dance stopped.  MacLeod sprang up to fly, but the fairies were upon him and he was dragged, willy-nilly, into the dun.  Inside, as soon as his eyes grew accustomed to that strange green light associated with fairyland, he beheld a pleasing sight.  A great banquet was spread on a large table carved from a single tree: on it were vessels of gold and silver, many of them set with jewels or chased in strange designs.  His fairy ‘hosts’ led him to the table, poured wine into one of the beautiful cups and, giving it to him, invited him to toast their chief.  Now this man’s mother was a witch, so he knew well that if he ate or drank in the dun he was in the Daoine Sithe’s power for ever.  He lifted the cup and appeared to drink the required toast, but in fact skilfully let the wine run down inside his coat.  As soon as his neighbours saw the cup was half empty, they ceased to bother about him but went off on their own affairs or to attend the banquet.  Thereafter MacLeod watched for a chance of escape and, when one offered, slipped quietly through the door of the dun and away, carrying the cup with him.

“The fairies soon realised what had happened and started in pursuit, but he was already across the Osdale river and in safety.  He hurried home, told his mother the story, and showed her the cup.  Being a wise woman she realised the peril in which he undoubtedly stood and at once put her most powerful spell upon him to protect him from the arts of the Daoine Sithe, warning him seriously never to leave the house for a moment without getting the spell renewed.  But she forgot to put a protecting spell upon the cup also.  The fairies soon discovered the exact state of affairs and immediately laid their own spell upon the cup, a spell so powerful that all who saw the cup or even heard of it, were seized with an overmastering desire to possess it, even if such possession involved the murder of the holder.

“For a year, all went well and thanks to his mother’s care the young man went unharmed.  Then he grew careless and one day ventured out without the protecting spell.  A one-time friend, bewitched by the cup, had been awaiting just such a chance and immediately murdered him and went off with the prize.  The fairies, their revenge achieved, took no further interest in the matter, but MacLeod of MacLeod did.  The boy’s mother hurried to him with her story, and he at once gave orders that the murderer be found and brought to justice.  He was duly hanged and the trouble-making cup, now free of enchantment, passed into the possession of the chief and can still be seen in (Dunvegan) castle.”

References:

  1. Donaldson-Blyth, Ian, In Search of Prehistoric Skye, Thistle: Insch 1995.
  2. MacCulloch, J.A.,  The Misty Isle of Skye, Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier: Edinburgh 1905.
  3. MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin, Over the Sea to Skye, Chambers: Edinburgh 1930.
  4. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the Small Isles, HMSO: Edinburgh 1928.
  5. Swire, Otta F., Skye: The Island its Legends, Blackie & Sons: Glasgow 1961.

Acknowledgements:  Eternally grateful to the awesome Aisha Domleo and Her little clan for getting us to this ancient haven on Skye’s endless domain of natural beauty.  Without Her, this would not have been written.  Also, accreditation of early OS-map usage, reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian


Baile Mhargaite Enclosure 1, Bettyhill, Sutherland

Enclosure:  OS Grid Reference – NC 69843 61228

Also Known as:

  1. Bail Margait
  2. Margaret’s Town

Getting Here

Baile Mhargaite 1 enclosure, looking NW

Baile Mhargaite 1 enclosure, looking NW

Take the A836 road west out of Bettyhill, down the road and cross the river on the tiny bridge.  From here, go over the gate on the right-hand side of the road and follow the edge of the river towards the sea. Crossing the large extensive sands, you’ll reach a large sand and gravel rise ahead of you. Once on top of this natural feature, walk NNE for 550 yards (0.5km) until you reach one of many extensive sandy expanses in the grasses (and pass tons of archaeological remains as you walk!).  You’ll get there!

Archaeology & History

Arc of south, west & north walling

Arc of south, west & north walling

On this naturally raised sand-and-gravel platform at the edge of this beautiful sandy coastline in the far north of Scotland, walking in search of this particular enclosure, you’ll meander past a whole host of prehistoric sites and remains – some of which are plain to see, others hiding almost just above ground level, barely visible.  But if you’re an antiquarian or historian, this plateau is a minefield of forgotten history!

The site is shown on the 1878 Ordnance Survey map of the region as a “hut circle”, which it may well have been—but this is a large hut circle and was more probably a place where a large family would easily have lived.  When I visited the place the other week, there were no internal features visible.  It is a large ring of stones made up of thousands of small rocks whose walls are low and scattered, barely a foot above present ground-level in places, and barely two-feet at the very highest.  It has been greatly ruined or robbed of other architectural elements and an excavation is in order.  My initial evaluation is that this structure is at least Iron Age in origin.  In Angus Mackay’s (1906) venture here in the early 1900s, he suggested that this and the other “circular rings” were “cattle folds.”

Aerial view, looking straight down

Aerial view, looking straight down

Looking down from the broch above

Looking down from the broch above

The enclosure measures, from outer-edge to outer-edge of the walling, 16.5 yards (15.1m) east-west by 18 yards (16.5m) north-south, and has a circumference of roughly 52.5 yards (4mm); although an accurate measure of its circumference is hampered by the scatter of spoilage from the collapsed walls stretching outwards.  Only the western walled section remains in reasonably good condition.

Looking south, thru the enclosure

Looking south, thru the enclosure

Close by are many cairns, some of which are prehistoric.  A chambered cairn  on the same ridge less than 200 yards away, with another enclosure of the same type yards away, clearly shows that people have lived and used this raised section of land for thousands of years.  We know that people were still living here at the end of the 18th century which—for me at least—begs the question: what ancient traditions, customs and lore did these people know about, which may have dated back into truly ancient history?  …And then the english Clearances destroyed them…

References:

  1. Mackay, Angus, “Notes on a Slab with Incised Crescentic Design, Stone Mould for Casting Bronze Spear-Heads, a Cup-Marked Stone, Holy Water Stoup, and other Antiquities in Strathnaver, Sutherlandshire,” in Proceedings of the Society Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 40, 1906.
  2. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian