In the middle of the 19th century the opening to a prehistoric souterrain used to be in evidence on the north-side of the single track road running past old Skerray Mains house. It was mentioned in Hew Morrison’s (1883) historical guide, albeit briefly and without ambiguity:
“Below the house of Skerra Mains is an artificial cave that enters from below the road and extends 40 or 50 yards in length. Two urns were found it when it was discovered but they soon crumbled away on being exposed to the air.”
More than thirty years later, the Royal Commission (1911) lads ventured to check it out, only to find that it had just recently been covered up:
“At the farm of Skerray Mains is an earth-house, the mouth or entrance to which was recently exposed by the farmer. It is situated about 15 feet distant from the northeast window of the dwelling-house, and is now entirely covered over again.”
Of the old locals I met here, only one of them remembers hearing of it, but the precise location of its entrance had been forgotten. Surely it aint gonna be toooo difficult to find it again?
Difficult to reach, this large protruding rock on the west side of Thorrisdail Hill, was known as the Thorrisdail Stone in the old boundary records. It’s a bittova giveaway when you find it, as its name is inscribed on the lower face of the stone – etched a century or two ago by the look of it.
It’s a difficult rock to climb upon if you aren’t used to such things – and you need to do this if you want to see the cupmarks; although they’re hardly worth seeing unless you’re a petroglyph freak! If you go to the trouble so see them, make sure to squat down carefully, being even more careful not to fall off (you’re screwed if y’ do). Once in position, you’ll see between three and five very faint shallow cups etched onto its flat surface. You can just make one of them out in the photo here. The more impressive thing to see here is the small standing stone that seems to artificially crown the top of the rounded hill to which the Thorrisdail Stone is attached.
Acknowledgements: Huge thanks to Sarah MacLean for her company and landscape knowledge in visiting this and other nearby antiquarian remains. And to Aisha Domleo, for getting me into this neck o’ the woods.
There’s no simple way to reach here – but the landscape alone makes the journey worthwhile. Roughly halfway along the A836 between Bettyhill and Tongue, take the minor road up to Borgie, past the recently revamped Borgie Hotel for half-a-mile (0.8 km) where, on your left, is Deepburn Cottage. On the other side of the road, on your left, go through the gate and follow the path uphill. It curves up and to the right where you hit some overgrown walling. Walk up and along this wall for nearly half-a-mile (it’ll feel like twice that!) and as you approach the crystal blue waters of Lochan a’ Chaorruin, veer right and start walking up the small Torrisdale Burn. Less than 200 yards along, you’ll see the large isolated rock on your left.
Archaeology & History
Previously unrecorded, this large boulder sitting above the edge of Torrisdale Burn was rediscovered by Sarah MacLean—hence its name—and has between five and nine cup-marks etched, primarily, on the topmost ridge of the rock. Its eastern steep-sloping face also has a cup-mark near the middle top-half of the stone. Apart from three of them (visible in the photos), the other cups aren’t very distinct and unless the lighting is right, you won’t see much here. This one is probably gonna be of little interest unless you’re a real hardcore petroglyph freak.
Further up this tiny winding glen we reach the faint cup-marked Thorrisdail Stone and a little further on is the impressive ritual site of Allt Thorrisdail.
Take the A836 road between Bettyhill and Tongue and, roughly halfway between the two villages, a few hundred yards west of the turning to Borgie, park up at the roadside. Cross the road and through the gate, follow the waters of Allt Loch Tuirslighe for 100 yards and then walk uphill onto the moors. You’re damn close!
Archaeology & History
This megalithic stone row was uncovered in the late 1970s – which is no surprise to be honest. It is a very low parallel row of small upright stones, which Freer & Myatt (1982) initially found to consist of two rows of standing stones, twelve in all. When we visited the site a few days ago, I could find only ten of them that could appreciably be termed authentic – and that was stretching it a bit!
Several of the low stones
Close-up of the small stones
Of the two stone rows presently visible, the easterly one is easier to see and consists of seven small stones, running almost in a dead straight line NNE. A few yards west we find the second stone row, in which I could only discern three tangible contenders, also running NNE, but slightly fanning outwards and away further north. When standing in the middle of the two rows, they align to a small natural rocky outcrop on the near-horizon 100 yards away, upon which Paul Hornby recently discovered 3 or 4 faint cup-markings. If we turn 180 degrees and look in the opposite direction, the alignment of stones points to the highest peak in the far distance.
Myatt’s 1988 survey
Gourlay’s 1996 survey
All of the stones are small and difficult to see upon initial exploration. The highest of them stands no more than 1½ feet tall, with their average less than 1 foot. One of the stones in the eastern row is covered completely by vegetation. However, in earlier assessments of this site, quite a few other stones were visible. Its brief history and appearance was described in Leslie Myatt’s (1988) survey of such monuments in this remote region, where he told:
“This very ruinous setting of stone rows was fist recorded by the Archaeology Division of the Ordnance Survey… Peat cutting has taken place in the area and undoubtedly a number of stones have been removed from the site.
“(The illustration) shows the result of a survey carried out by the author showing a total of only 16 stones not more than 20cm above the surface. Because of the small number of stones remaining, it has not been possible to superimpose a geometric construction on the site. The ground slopes upwards to the north-northeast, at which end of the setting is a low peat-covered mound about 10m in diameter. It has no distinctive features, although it does not appear to be natural…”
The site is described in Alexander Thom’s (1990) major survey, but sadly he didn’t turn his direct attention here, so we still have no accurate geometric or astronomical assessment. A few years later Aubrey Burl (1993) gave us details of the larger initial size of the complex and told us that at
“Borgie, near Torrisdale Bay on the north coast of Sutherland, perhaps an early site, has three or four lines with the suspicion of a fifth. The rows narrow from their base 20ft (6.1m) across to 18ft 8in (5.7m) over a distance of 59ft (18m), a contraction as they worm uphill towards a peat-covered mound of hardly a quarter of an inch in a foot (0.6: 31cm).”
The small peat-covered mound which the stone rows lead up to was suggested by Robert Gourlay (1996) as “perhaps a small cairn.”
Burl, Aubrey, From Carnac to Callanish, Yale University Press 1993.
Freer, R. & Myatt, L.J., “The Multiple Stone Rows of Caithness and Sutherland,” in Caithness Field Club Bulletin, 3:3, April 1982.
Gourley, Robert, Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide, Birlinn: Edinburgh 1996.
Myatt, Leslie, “The Stone Rows of Northern Scotland,” in Ruggles 1988.
Ruggles, Clive, Records in Stone: Papers in Memory of Alexander Thom, Cambridge University Press 1988.
Thom, A., Thom, A.S. & Burl, Aubrey, Stone Rows and Standing Stones – 2 volumes, BAR: Oxford 1990.
From Bettyhill village, take the A836 road west towards Tongue. Several miles along the road, keep your eyes peeled for Borgie and Skerray on your right. Go down here for half-a-mile or so until, a hundred yards or so before the Borgie Hotel, a dirt-track on your right takes you down into some trees. As you enter the edge of the woodland, right by the trackside on your left, a large stone lays in the grass. A few yards from this is the hole in the ground.
Archaeology & History
When I was first shown this place, I could find no previous description of it in any of the archaeological records. I was fortunate in being taken here by one of the land-owners hereby, who told me that it had been known about locally for some years – but informing the archaeologists (patronizing as they were to the people hereby, as can be the case sometimes) was the last thing on their minds….
Immediately beneath the ridge where the Borgie chambered cairn once stood, the site was uncovered quite by accident when a local man went to move a large stone on the grassy embankment, to make use of it in walling or something similar. But much to his surprise, the boulder covered the entrance to an underground chamber known as a souterrain – inside which, local lore tends to tell, the little people once stayed. It’s an impressive structure! When Donna Murray took me to see this a few months ago, she said it was only a few yards long – but once I’d got inside, found it to be much longer than this. After dropping perhaps six feet down into the hollow, the very well-preserved wide chamber beneath – some 6-8 feet across – curved around to the north-northeast and into pitch blackness. I walked perhaps ten yards into the chamber, completely upright, and as the chamber curved and went further into the Earth, the pitch black stopped me venturing more.
The walls of the souterrain were very well structured indeed and were made up of hundreds of good-sized stones, akin to those used to build old stone walling in our northern hills. The floor was, typically, muddy and apart from a scatter of a few stones I could see little by way of a ‘floor’ beneath my feet (but it was dark!). However, the roofing was made up of large flat stones measuring 6-8 feet across, as wide as the structure itself, running parallel all along the chamber. I did not walk to the end of the chamber – but would assume that this roofing continued to the end of the souterrain.
In a number of souterrains we find examples of cup-and-ring carvings (the one at Pitcur, Perthshire, being one of the very best), but I could discern no such petroglyphs inside this chamber. However, considering how dark it was, another investigation with torches is necessary before any definitive remarks regarding internal petroglyphs can be made.
It’s in damn good condition indeed and is well worth looking at if you venture this far north. Other unrecorded prehistoric monuments are found all over this remote landscape – from cup-and-rings, to stone circles, to tombs, enclosures, cairns, you name it! If anyone knows of any permanent rental properties up here – please let me know and get in touch so that I can spend the rest of my life working here meandering, discovering and recording the prehistory of this truly archaic landscape! I’m serious!
Acknowledgements: Immense thanks to Donna from Borgie, for showing me this ancient monument and other sites.
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
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
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
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…
Get yourself to the Baile Mhargaite Enclosure 1 and walk less than 150 yards southeast. Keep your eyes keenly peeled on the ground as you can easily miss this one!
Archaeology & History
One of Baile Mhargaite’s cists
The only archaeological note I can find of this small singular prehistoric grave is in the Canmore entry, which is far from clear as to the position and situation of many sites hereby. They described this small sand-filled grave (which they describe as ‘Cist b’) as being “on a gravel ridge and is oriented N-S. It measures 0.8m by 0.6m.” That’s it!
Looking down on the tomb
But saying that, it is a small single little thing amidst a huge mass of material. It may well have been covered by a larger cairn at an earlier date, as there are many such monuments on this elevated sandy plain and the slight surround of smaller stones at, and just beneath the surface may validate this. It is also possible that this was the spot where “beaker fragments…found in a cist at Bettyhill” came from, but the archaeological records (Abercromby 1912; Mitchell 1934) are not accurate. Two other cists close by are the other potential candidates!
Take the A836 road west through Bettyhill and downhill, turning right and going over the small bridge at the bottom. 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 rise ahead of you and, to the left (west) a burn tumbles down from the hills above. Walk up it and head to the rocky rise on the level 50 yards past the burn. You’re here!
Archaeology & History
Once you’ve clambered the rocky hill to reach the broch, you’ll be damn impressed. This is a real beauty – although from the outside it looks nothing of the sort. The outer wall is a veritable jumbled mass of rocks piled on top of each other in a manner that looks as if human hands once fumbled them in some sort of order, long since fallen away. Around the western side of the structure, faint remains of steps lead up towards more ordered-looking walling ahead of you. Before you walk up the remains of steps, notice the more structured walling, about three feet high to your right, curving around the large structure you are already inside the edges of.
Whether you walk up the stepped remains or simply up the outer walling, once you see the internal stone walling of this high cliff broch, you’ll be impressed. It’s a big bugger – and in damn good condition when you consider that it’s probably 2000 years old, or more! A large round walled structure, about three feet high all round, well sheltered from the wind and rains, measures some 30 feet across.Arc of outer western wall
The internal living quarters
Eastern section of the broch
The site is still known by some local people as a “Pictish Tower” and was described as such on the 1878 Ordnance Survey map (see above) and its Gaelic name is Ca an Duin(Mackay 1906). The probability of the brochs as being Pictish in origin is more than likely. Tradition up here speaks of them as such – and we know that such traditions go back many centuries in these isolated areas. An early mention of this Pictish Tower was given in James Horsburgh’s (1870) essay, but it wasn’t described in any real detail until the Royal Commission (1911) fellas looked at the site. They wrote:
“On the summit of the hill which rises to the W of the gravelly plateau opposite Bettyhill, and on the N side of the track which leads from Strathnaver to Torrisdail, is situated a broch. It is called the “Sandy Dun”. The wall is probably erect for a considerable height, but the interior is largely filled up with blown sand. The entrance is from the SW. The interior diameter is 29 feet and the thickness of the wall 12 feet. Near the top of the wall in the interior is a projecting ledge, about 10 feet wide, running all around. The slabs which form it are an integral part of the structure and the wall is thicker below than above. The outer face of the wall is much ruined…”
Gazing NE from inside the broch
Although some of the internal walling has been taken away since the 1911 survey, the interior of the site has been cleaned up by local people and it is presently in a very good condition indeed. The broch may have been built onto an earlier fortified structure, rising above the stunning prehistoric settlements and necropolis on the sandy plateau immediately below. It would make sense – as many earlier Neolithic and Bronze Age remains look up at the prominent rock pinnacle it’s built upon from the sandy plain below, almost as if it was a natural temple in the animistic traditions of the earlier peoples.
If you visit this gorgeous region, the Baile Mhargaite broch should definitely be on your list of sites to see.
Old lore told that this broch was attacked by outside invaders many centuries ago. Mr Horsburgh (1870) told that,
“an old woman hid a croc of gold previous to the dun being attacked, and measured the distance from it with a clew of thread.”
A singular reference to this site appears in James Horsburgh’s (1870) early article on the prehistoric remains of Sutherland. It seems he was on an early road-trip (or dirt-track-trip as it would have been in those days, as there were no real ‘roads’) and as his journey took him along the remote tracks in the far North, visiting places that are still intact and mentioning those which, oral tradition told, had passed into memory, local folk told him about a couple of brochs that had recently met their demise. This was one of them. He wrote:
“Between Farr and Tongue, after crossing the Naver Ferry… some miles on, near Borgie-farm house, there was a Pictish tower, now demolished, and on the side of the old road to Tongue, another.”
In asking the lady who lives here if she knew anything about the broch, she told that although she didn’t, she’d ask some old locals to see if they knew of any folk remnants about the place. It would have stood a short distance above the little-known Borgie souterrain. If we receive any additional info, the site-profile will be updated. (the grid-reference for this broch is an approximation)
Along the A836 road between Tongue and Bettyhill, turn down towards Skerray at Borgie Bridge for 1.8 miles (2.87km) until you reach the little information sign at the roadside. Walk downhill and cross the little bridge and wander onto the west side of the beach. You’re likely to end up daydreaming… so once you’ve re-focussed, head into the middle of the beach and walk up the steep-ish sand-banks to your right (south). Once at the top, you’ll see a gigantic rock—the Ringstone—bigger than a house.
This gigantic boulder is part of one of Sutherland’s archaic Creation Myths as they’re known: ancient stories recounted by archaic societies about the nature and origins of the world. Such tales tend to be peopled by giants, gods, huge supernatural creatures, borne of chaos, eggs, darkness and primal oceans. Thankfully we still find some examples of these tales in the northern and northwestern mountainous regions of Britain, as the Church and Industrialism never quite destroyed the hardcore communities—despite what they might like to tell you…
The following folktale of the Ringstone was thankfully preserved by the local school headmaster, Alan Temperley (1977), before it disappeared from the oral traditions of local people (as is sadly happening in these mountains). It typifies stories told of such geological giants from aboriginal Australia, to Skye, to everywhere that people have lived. Mr Temperley wrote:
“Many years ago there were two giants, the Naver giant from the river at Bettyhill, and the Aird giant from the hill above Skerray. Normally they got on quite well, but one afternoon they became involved in a heated argument about some sheep and cattle, and both grew very angry. The Aird giant was standing on top of the hill above Torrisdale bay with the animals grazing around him, and the Naver giant stormed across the river to the beach below.
“Those are my sheep,” he roared up the hill.
“No they’re not,” the Aird giant said. “At least not all of them.”
“You stole them. You’re a thief!”
“No I didn’t. They came up here themselves. Anyway, you owe me fifty sheep from last year.”
“You’re not only as thief, you’re a liar!” shouted the Naver giant. If you don’t send them down this minute, I’ll come up and see to it myself.”
At this the Aird giant gave a disparaging laugh and made a rude face, and picking up a great boulder flung it down the hill at his friend.
The Naver giant was speechless with fury, and picking the stone up himself, hurled it back up the hillside, making a great hole in the ground.
The Aird giant saw things had gone far enough.
“I’ll send them back if you give me that silver ring you’re always wearing,” he said.
“Never!” roared his friend, his face all red and angry.
“Suit yourself then,” said the Aird giant, and picking the stone up again he tossed it back down the hill.
For long enough the rock kept flying between them, and in time the giant from Naver grew tired, because he was throwing it uphill all the time.
“Will you give me the ring now?” said the Aird giant.
For answer the Naver giant tried one more time to throw the stone up the hill, but it only got halfway, and rolled back down to the shore.
“Come on,” said the giant from Aird, for he wanted to be friends again. “Give me the ring, and I’ll let you have it back later.”
“No!” said the Naver giant from the bottom of the hill. “I’ll never give it to you!” His eyes began to fill with tears.
“Oh, come on, please!” coaxed the Aird giant. “Just for a week.”
“Never, never, never!” shouted the giant from Naver, and pulling the ring from his finger he threw it on the ground and jammed the great boulder down on top of it. Then he sat down on top of the stone and stared out to sea. Every so often he sniffed, and his friend, looking down at his broad back, saw him lift the back of a hand to his eyes.
They never made friends again, and after a long time they both died.
The ring is still buried under the stone, and so far nobody has ever been able to shift it.”
When I got back from visiting this immense rock a few weeks ago, a local lady Donna Murray asked me if I’d seen the face of the giant in the rock. I hadn’t—as I was looking to see if the name ‘Ringstone’ related to any possible cup-and-rings on its surface, which it didn’t (although I didn’t clamber onto the top). But in the many photos I took from all angles, Donna pointed out the blatant simulacra of the giant’s face when looking at it from the east.
However, on top of the slope above the Ringstone (not the Aird side), I did find a faint but distinct ‘Ringstone’ carving (without a central cupmark). Whether this ever had any mythic relationship to the tale or the stone, we might never know. The rocky terrain above Aird now needs to be looked at…
Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Sheed & Ward: London 1958.
Long, Charles H., “Cosmogony,” in Eliade, M., Encyclopedia of Religion – volume 4, MacMillan: New York 1987.
MacLagan, David, Creation Myths: Man’s Introduction to the World, Thames & Hudson: London 1977.
Temperley, Alan, Tales of the North Coast, Research Publishing Company: London 1977.
Acknowledgments: Massive thanks again to Donna Murray, for her help and for putting up with me amidst my wanderings up in Torrisdale and district.