Fiscary (4), Farr, Sutherland

Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 72858 62620

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6437

Getting Here

Approaching Fiscary 4, north

Approaching Fiscary 4, north

A mile east of Bettyhill on the A836 road, watch for the large piles of rocks up on the hill on your left (north).  Turn left on the tiny road past the first house for 150 yards and then on the track past the sheep-fanks through the gate and up the small hill.  The cairn is the smallest of the pile of rocks in front of you.

Archaeology & History

Of the four giant cairns clustered here at Fiscary, a mile east of Bettyhill, this one has received the least attention.  It is found amidst a massive cluster of archaeological remains running from the 19th century all the way back into the neolithic period. Quite impressive!

Sitting on top of the cairn the view is impressive: looking 360º with the Orkney islands s to the northeast, Durness and the rising mountains west and southwest, and endless craggy moorlands peppered with lochans driving in all directions to the south countless miles away.  This panorama of wilderness is something to behold…

Looking west out to sea

Looking west out to sea

Looking southwest

Looking southwest

The tomb itself, with the acceptable scatter of fallen rocks to the edges, is nearly 50 yards in circumference, measuring more than 12 yards east-west and nearly 14 yards north-south, with the Earth covering the older rocks to the edges with more and more vegetation as the years pass.  It stands about 5-6 feet high with the typical internal mass of thousands of stones making up the cairn.  No known excavations have ever been made here.

In the otherwise superb Royal Commission (1911) survey of Sutherland, they only had scant information to say about this tomb, telling that,

“The fourth cairn…measures 28′ to 30′ in diameter and is about 6′ high.  There are no signs of chambers visible and the cairn has been a good deal dilapidated.”

Even when R.J. Mercer (1981) came to give this area greater attention, he passed by the Fiscary 4 cairn with equal brevity, noting simply its dimensions, elevation above sea level and the fact that it is a “circular cairn on crest of hill.”

The tombs of Fiscary 12 and 3 are very close by some beginning some 257 yards (235m) to the east.  I cannot recommend this entire complex highly enough!

References:

  1. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  2. Mercer, R.J. & Howell, J.M., Archaeological Field Survey in Northern Scotland – volume 2, University of Edinburgh 1981.
  3. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  4. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.

© Paul Bennett,  The Northern Antiquarian 2016

 

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  58.533039, -4.185383 Fiscary 4

Fiscary (3), Farr, Sutherland

Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 73222 62484

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6446
  2. Pict’s House

Getting Here

Fiscary 3 giant cairn, looking west

Fiscary 3 giant cairn, looking west

Along the A836 road from Bettyhill to Thurso, a mile east of the village keep your eyes peeled to your left (or to the right if you’re coming the other way!), looking north, and you’ll see some very large piles of stones a few hundred yards away. Go through the gate onto the rough grasslands and the first one you reach is the cairn in question. Y’ can’t miss it!

Archaeology & History

On 1878 OS-map as Picts House

On 1878 OS-map as Picts House

Close to the Fiscary 1 and Fiscary 2 tombs, this is the third and southernmost of the three giant cairns on this moorland hillside and is the second largest of the trio.  Curiously it was the only one highlighted by the Ordnance Survey lads in their cartographic analysis here in 1873—they somehow missed the others—when they told it to be a ‘Pictish House’, or broch.  A few years later when the Royal Commission (1911) fellas got their noses up here, they said that this,

“which is the most easterly, is circular in form, is about 68ft in diameter, and 15ft 6in to the apex, on which a small pile of stones has recently been erected.  The cairn does not appear to have been excavated, but the stones in several places have been pulled out, probably in attempts to discover the chambers or in pursuit of rabbits.”

Looking into its centre

Looking into its centre

Long stone at southern edge

Long stone at southern edge

Considering the size of this giant cairn and its close association with is neighbours 150 yards northwest, I’m surprised at the lack of attention it’s been given.  Within the collapse of stones on its southern-side we find an elongated stone which seems to have stood upright at some point in the past, either at the very edge of the cairn, or just inside it.  It may even have been a covering stone to a collapsed entrance, but without an excavation we’re not gonna know for certain.

The fact that this cairn is on the slopes south of the crowning cairns of Fiscary 1 and Fiscary 2 implies that this was built some centuries later than them.  Also notable here is that the view to the north is blocked and we are instead only looking across a panorama east, south and west.

Folklore

Looking across into the east

Looking across into the east

Local tradition told that this was a Pict’s house, or broch (it may well have been) and is shown as such on the first Ordnance Survey account of the region in 1878.  Otta Swire (1963) told that this landscape was once peopled by giants who made the land and played a part in the creation of some of the giant tombs around here.  One time local school-teacher at Bettyhill, Alan Temperley (1977) also told us how the fairy folk lived close to the giant tombs of Fiscary.

References:

  1. Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
  2. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1963.
  3. Henshall, Audrey S., “The Distant Past,” in The Sutherland Book (edited by Donald Omand), Northern Times: Golspie 1991.
  4. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  5. Lelong, Olivia C., “Writing People into the Landscape: Approaches to the Archaeology of Badenoch and Strathnaver,” University of Glasgow 2002.
  6. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  7. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.
  8. Sutherland, George, Folk-lore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
  9. Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.

Acknowledgments:  HUGE thanks to Aisha Domleo and for getting me up here.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.531911, -4.179048 Fiscary (3)

Fiscary (2), Farr, Sutherland

Chambered Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 73112 62604

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6445
  2. Carn Chaoile

Getting Here

A mile east of Bettyhill along the A836 road, watch out for the large piles of rocks up on the hill on your left (north).  Go through the gate, past the Fiscary 3 cairn and 150 yards northwest you’ll reach the crowning cairn on the hilltop itself – the Fiscary 2 cairn.

Archaeology & History

Fiscary 2 cairn, looking NW

Fiscary 2 cairn, looking NW

The second of the three giant chambered cairns on this moorland hillside is the largest (only just!) of them all.  Positioned right on top of the small hill, this great mass of rocks stands out from the roadside a quarter-mile to the south quite blatantly, yet it somehow evaded the eyes of the early Ordnance Survey lads in their visit here in 1873 (though the nearby Fiscary 3 cairn was plotted).  Odd…

Aisha against the size of the cairn

Aisha against the size of the cairn

When I came here with Aisha and her clan a few weeks ago Nature was blasting us with full gales and so half her bunch returned after a short while, leaving us to get thrown about in the winds!  Even just trying to stand upright on this and its associated tomb proved difficult.  But despite this and the low grey clouds—typical of northern Scottish weather—it was obvious that the views from here would be superb, seeing far into the distance with a 360º view.  I have little doubt that other important prehistoric sites would be speaking with this giant neolithic cairn, but there is nothing in the archaeology accounts to help us on such matters.

The giant tomb is almost linked to its companion—Fiscary 1—by a low scatter of rocks running between them, with only a yard or two separating their disturbed masses.  Several archaeology students have posited that the two seemingly separate sites were, many thousands of years ago, perhaps one elongated chambered tomb, just like the ones found nearby at the Coille na borgie and Long Skelpick cairns; but it seems unlikely in this case…

Fiscary 2 Cairn, looking SE

Fiscary 2 Cairn, looking SE

Fiscary-2 on 1908 OS-map

Although Adam Gunn (1893) mentioned the “four large cairns” at Fiscally (the fourth and smallest is 262 yards to the west), the first real description I can find of the place comes from an article by a local man called Cathel Kerr (1892) who told us it was “about 220 feet in circumference, and 15 or 16 in height”; but most of his article dealt with his excavation into the adjacent Fiscary 1 tomb, which he noticed was connected by a stone platform that ran between the two sites.  This was the first mention of such a connecting platform—and a curious feature it is indeed.  When the Royal Commission lads came here in May 1909 they also noted this connecting platform.  They found that the cairn itself,

“does not appear to have been excavated.  It is circular with a diameter of about 52ft and is some 10ft high to the top of the modern pile of stones on its apex.  It presents a peculiar feature.  At the north end is clearly visible a broad platform of stones extending to a distance of 25ft from the base of the cairn and, though largely overgrown with turf, traceable by the outline of stones almost entirely around it.  This platform has been described as a neck connecting the two cairns (Fiscary 1 and 2, PB), but in reality it stops 7ft distant from the adjacent cairn.”

Henshall's ground-plan of Fiscally 1 & 2

Henshall’s ground-plan of Fiscally 1 & 2

Holding onto her hat at Fiscary 2

Holding onto her hat at Fiscary 2

Indeed, this “platform” seems to have been either deliberately constructed with the hilltop cairn positioned on top of it, or has been set around the tomb.  It’s difficult to say with any certainty.

The great Audrey Henshall (1963; 1995) wrote extensively about this ancient monument in her works, finalizing her site entry in The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland (1995).  After describing in some detail the archaeological association this site has with Fiscary 1, she turned her attention here and wrote:

“The larger south cairn (Fiscary 2, PB) is bare, steep-sided, and has been little disturbed.  The diameters are between 19.5 to 21.5m, and the height is 5.5m measured from the NW.  The edge is clear for about half of the circuit.  The surrounding platform is quite low and is partly covered with peat and deep heather which in places obscure the edge.  The platform varies in width from 4.8 to 7.3m.  On the SE side the cairn edge is clear and there is no sign of the platform.  It appears on the NE side where it is largely free of heather, and the cairn material merges into its stones.  This part of the platform is edged by a rough kerb which fades away westwards into the spread of stones which links the two cairns.  In the area between the cairns the stones are mainly covered by peat on which grow turf and heather.  The spread of stones appears to be thin, but on the NW side of the cairn, where there is evidently a drop in ground level, breaks in the peat cover show that here the stone spread has considerable depth.  Round the W side the platform is heather-covered, and along the SW part, where the hill drops away steeply, there is a rough kerb at a lower level than elsewhere, within which the surface of the platform rises to the base of the cairn.  The S end of the platform, which here is bare stones, seems to turn sharply towards the S edge of the cairn, though the actual edge of the platform is indefinite.”

The likelihood is that this cairn is the oldest of the cluster of three found here, most likely constructed in the neolithic period.  Its position in the landscape would indicate that the site would have been built to commemorate the spirit of a local tribal elder, a King or Queen.  It’s a superb site and I’ll be visiting it again very soon indeed!

Folklore

Bouncy elven sprite rushes by

Bouncy elven sprite rushes by!

Otta Swire (1963) not only told that this landscape was once peopled by giants who made the land and played a part in the creation of some of the giant tombs around here.  The one time local school-teacher at Bettyhill, Alan Temperley (1977), also told us that the fairy folk lived close to the giant tombs of Fiscary.

References:

  1. Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
  2. Gunn, Adam & Mackay, John, Sutherland and the Reay Country, John Mackay: Glasgow 1893.
  3. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1963.
  4. Henshall, Audrey S., “The Distant Past,” in The Sutherland Book (edited by Donald Omand), Northern Times: Golspie 1991.
  5. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  6. Kerr, Cathel, “Notice of the Excavation of a Chambered Cairn in the Parish of Farr, Sutherlandshire,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 26, 1892
  7. Lelong, Olivia C., “Writing People into the Landscape: Approaches to the Archaeology of Badenoch and Strathnaver,” University of Glasgow 2002.
  8. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  9. Sutherland, George, Folk-lore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
  10. Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.

Acknowledgments:  To the beautiful Aisha Domleo, for her images, bounce, spirit and madness – as well as getting me up to see this cluster of sites. 

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.532963, -4.181047 Fiscary 2

Fiscary (1), Farr, Sutherland

Chambered Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NC 73102 62629

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6445
  2. Carn Chaoile
  3. SUT 29 (Henshall)

Getting Here

Fiscary 1 cairn - from Fiscary 2

Fiscary 1 cairn – from Fiscary 2

A mile east of Bettyhill on the A836 road, watch for the large piles of rocks up on the hill on your left (north).  Go through the gate, past the Fiscary 3 cairn and 150 yards northwest you’ll reach the crowning cairn of Fiscary 2 on the hilltop itself.  Fiscary 1 is just a few yards in front of you.

Archaeology & History

Although this is the smallest of the Fiscary cairns, it is the one that has had been investigated more than the others in this cluster—and you can tell as it’s been dug into.  However, saying that, when Aisha and me were here a few weeks ago, the wind was blowing with such strength that we could give it little more than a cursory overview, as we were both getting blown about like a pair o’ puffters in the gale that was raging in from the sea!  Twas quite overwhelming…

Fiscary 1 to the rear

Fiscary 1 to the rear

One of the first things you notice is how this cairn is inextricably linked, both physically and otherwise, to its close partner on the hilltop only yards away: the Fiscary 2 cairn.  Fiscary 2 reaches outwards towards where we now stand—slightly below the larger tomb immediately north (the airt of Death itself): almost as if an ancient Queen and Her King were resting still hand-in-hand in their respective burial sites.

Aisha on top!

Aisha on top!

…And although such romance may seem nothing more than that, recall that we are probably looking at two giant archaic monuments whose birth emerged in the neolithic: when time was measured by night, not day; when the Moon was Prima Mater’s aide and portender; and patriarchy had yet to be borne…. Giant hilltop cairns were the places of our ancient shaman-kings, queens and tribal elders, whose integral relationship with the cycles of the world to which we are (still) bound, were culturally very different in some fundamental ways, before rites of passage were disposed of…. But I’m moving away from the modern history of the Fiscary tomb…. Soz!

Around the time when some of the indigenous northerners up here were seeing the fading lights of their animistic cosmology disappear into the emergence of ‘history’, when the traditional tales were ebbing, Fiscary 1 was at least being written about—albeit in a detached way, as a museum piece, a piece of architecture.  It’s the way things have become.  The tomb was excavated by a local man called Cathel Kerr in the latter half of the 19th century, although he reported that it had already been dug into a few years earlier.  Kerr told that some of the stones had been taken by an unnamed local for building purposes (not good!).  “It had been opened from the top” he said—continuing:

“and there was abundant evidence around the cairn, that large slabs of stone had been removed from the interior.  A little observation showed that there was the appearance of an internal chamber… The…cairn is about 150 feet in circumference and about 9 or 10 feet in height, and between it and (Fiscary 2) there is what seems to me to be a neck of stones joining the two cairns… Most of the neck joining the two cairns is covered over with turf, but a very slight observation reveals the fact that underneath it the mass of stones is continuous.  The apparent depth of stones is from 3 to 4 feet. It is most unlikely that this neck could have been formed by stones falling from the top of the cairns.

“The chamber, when opened, proved to be tripartite.  The entrance is from the west or northwest side, between two upright stones, with a large heavy slab thrown across them.  The passage is only 3 or 4 feet long, and about 3 feet high, and nearly the same in width.  This leads into a small chamber measuring about 6 feet by 3 feet.  In front of it, on the north side, a large upright slab projects, and helps to form part of the end of the inner chamber and a division between the two on the south side.  In all likelihood the stone corresponding to that one has been removed, so that there is nothing to mark the division between the chambers on that side.  The larger chamber measures 6 feet 4 inches by 7 feet 9 inches.  The sides are made up of large upright slabs and masonry, built up between the slabs.  The corners are all rounded and there is the appearance of vaulting by the stones overlapping one another.  The height of this chamber at present is about 5 feet.  The end of the chamber is made up by two upright stones, with nearly 2 feet of an entrance between them, leading into the innermost chamber.  This chamber is a very irregular oblong; indeed the ends are rounded.  On an average it is 5 feet 9 inches long, by 33 inches wide, and 3 or 4 feet in height.  It had the appearance of being covered over with slabs, some of which stood on edge inside; but of this I am not very sure, as the roofing of all the chambers has been interfered with.

“Inside there lay on the floor a large quantity of broken stones and black earth.  Underneath there was what seemed a mixture  of ashes and earth, with numerous pieces of charred wood, but no charred bones as far as I could see.  Underneath that layer there was ordinary gravel.  I found some fragments of bones on the innermost part, and some in the larger chamber.  They do not appear to me to be of very great antiquity.  A small vitrified mass was found on the floor.”

When the Royal Commission (1911) lads turned up to see the site in 1909 they reported—in a rather exaggerated manner—that the cairn “is now completely destroyed” and then in the next sentence said,

“The chamber is half filled-up with debris and only two or three large slabs remain, the others having disappeared.  Its diameter has been about 46ft, and its height 4ft to 5ft.”

If the Royal Commission believe that’s an example of something being “completely destroyed”, they should turn their eyes and attention to sites like the Nixon’s Station cairn on top of Ilkley Moor which, when I was young, was larger than any of the Fiscary cairns; but somehow under the watchful eyes of the regional archaeologists in the 1980s and ’90s, was levelled to the ground – i.e., properly destroyed!

Audrey Henshall's ground plan

Audrey Henshall’s ground plan

In more recent years the cairn has received the honourable attention of the great Audrey Henshall (1963; 1995) who, in her updated site profile of Fiscary 1, told us not much more about the site than her predecessor Kerr.  Contextualizing the place with its partner Fiscary 2 and the platform upon which it rests, she wrote:

“The paired cairns appear to be independent structures 8.5m apart, though a platform extending beyond the base of the south cairn, which has no internal features exposed, spreads to the base of the north cairn, which contains a ruined chamber… The north cairn is of bare angular stones with turf and heather only encroaching over the edges.  Its limits are well-defined and give a roughly square plan with short diameters of 16.5m… Kerr exposed the roofless tripartite chamber, and most of the structure which he recorded was visible in 1955 (Henshall 1963).  Less could be seen in 1992 as the chamber had been largely filled by loose stones…”

Much like the situation as it is today.  More recently a small pile of stones has been added to the top of the cairn, from whence the view is excellent to the north, east and west.  The larger Fiscary 2 cairn blocks the view directly south.

Folklore

Otta Swire (1963) not only told that this landscape was once peopled by giants who made the land and played a part in the creation of some of the giant tombs around here.  The one time local school-teacher at Bettyhill, Alan Temperley (1977), also told us that the fairy folk lived close to the giant tombs of Fiscary.

References:

  1. Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return, RKP: London 1955.
  2. Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
  3. Gunn, Adam & Mackay, John, Sutherland and the Reay Country, John Mackay: Glasgow 1893.
  4. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Tombs of Scotland – volume 1, Edinburgh University Press 1963.
  5. Henshall, Audrey S., “The Distant Past,” in The Sutherland Book (edited by Donald Omand), Northern Times: Golspie 1991.
  6. Henshall, Audrey S., The Chambered Cairns of Sutherland, Edinburgh University Press 1995.
  7. Kerr, Cathel, “Notice of the Excavation of a Chambered Cairn in the Parish of Farr, Sutherlandshire,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 26, 1892
  8. Lelong, Olivia C., “Writing People into the Landscape: Approaches to the Archaeology of Badenoch and Strathnaver,” University of Glasgow 2002.
  9. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  10. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.
  11. Sutherland, George, Folk-lore Gleanings and Character Sketches from the Far North, John o’ Groats Journal: Wick 1937.
  12. Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.

Acknowledgments:  Huge thanks to beautiful Aisha Domleo again, for help with some of the photos – and adding your elegant spirit and energy to the place – as well as getting me up here in the first place! 

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

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  58.533190, -4.181226 Fiscary 1