In September 2016, after the close of my international conference at Salford, Colin and I fled the city for a fortnight away in the Southern Hebrides. We began with three days on Bute, based at The Victoria Hotel in Rothesay, and then went on to the cluster of Southern Hebridean Islands: Jura, Islay, Colonsay and Oronsay. All the photos are as ever on Flickr.
Bute, nestled into a notch of the Cowal peninsular, is a delightful and surprising little island, with the Highland Boundary Fault running across it, giving wooded highlands to the north and lowland pastures to the south. Ettrick Bay opens at the western end of this fault and is home to the remnants of a fine ritual landscape.
We are currently in the Quarternary Ice Age of the Earth, which began 2.5 million years ago. Ice Ages include warm interglacial periods (like the one we’re in now) and colder glaciation periods, when the northern hemisphere in particular is covered in ice sheets. The last of these was from 110,000 to about 12,000 years ago, and itself included some minor fluctuations. The last peak of the last glacial period of the current Ice Age is known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and occurred about 22,000 years ago. After the last of the ice of the LGM finally melted in Scotland by around 9000BC, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers began to take advantage of the flora and fauna that soon began to populate the newly unfrozen lands. Sea-level was consistently on the rise for a while, but the landmass, free of ice, was also enjoying a ‘rebound’ out of its magma foundations, so that the shoreline was at times both higher and lower than it is today during these millenia. As a result, the remains of Mesolithic camps, where people prepared flint tools (known as microliths), cast away the shells of seafood, and roasted hazlenuts, can be found on the ‘raised beaches’ inland from today’s seashore, and occasionally be exposed at very low tide out in the bays and estuaries that were once dry land.
The Neolithic, that agriculture/animal husbandry/settlement combination (with pottery added a little later) that began in the Middle East in c10,000BC, could be seen arriving from as early as 3900BC in timber buildings in Aberdeenshire, and with the incredible stone buildings of the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney, as early as 3500BC. In the islands, too, some traces of Neolithic settlements and funerary monuments are still found. But the Bronze Age in Scotland (c2100-750 BC) has left many of the most stunning of such early stone monuments – the Standing Stones and Stone Circles that pepper the Hebridean islands. The ‘Megalithic’ culture, as it is known, straddling the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Bronze Age (when bronze tools first started to complement those which continued to be made of stone), stretched from the islands of the Mediterranean round the Spanish and Portuguese coasts all the way up and along the Atlantic seaboard – including all of the British Isles – as far as Denmark and the Baltic coast, with sites inland as far as the eastern Portuguese border with Spain, central France, and the plains of northern Germany.
For details of these historic developments, Steven Mithen’s very accessible book “After the Ice” is an excellent read (which I took on this trip with me), guiding one through the fifteen thousand years from 20,000BC to 5,000BC, and then there are a host of fine texts on the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, too numerous to mention, though David Caldwell‘s books on the Hebrides are excellent, Francis Pryor’s “Britain BC” makes a good introduction, and there are many more on the Northern and Outer Hebrides!
Bute boasts a number of such monuments, including some ‘Cairns’ – the Neolithic communal grave sites, and ‘Cists’ (pronounced ‘kisseds‘) – the square single graves used in the Bronze Age, and many single standing stones, stone rows, and a couple of stone circles. These are often found in clusters known as ritual landscapes, where single stones and stone rows act as outliers to stone circles, giving lines of sight to clefts and peaks among distant mountains, often themselves the site of cairns and/or cists. Cists, too, are also often found added later to such landscapes, even in the middle of stone circles, sometimes with mounds built over them and kerbs built around them (as at Kilmartin). Later still, ‘Celtic’ Christianity arrived from Ireland in the 7th and 8th Century, most famously in the person of St Columba, who established a first priory on Oronsay, and then moved on to Iona where his Abbey became a capital of Celtic Christian activity for centuries, spawning numerous other Abbeys, Priories, Churches, and Saints. Both these Hebridean Christian traditions, and the Pictish peoples of mainland Scotland, repurposed many of the standing stones by carving them down into the exquisite Stone Crosses and Pictish Symbol Stones, many of which still survive across the islands and across mainland Scotland. The Iona School of artists, in the 8th century, created some of the very finest.
Ettrick Bay is one such ritual landscape, on Bute, and did not disappoint, except in one regard – when we tried to see the carved cross at East St Colmac Farm the farmer said he knew nothing of it, that there was a stone the other side of a paddock (to which he waved vaguely) but no carving on it that he was aware of. Nonetheless, the stone circle opposite the farm was really atmospheric, and clearly treasured by at least one contemporary pagan worshipper, who had deposited large quartz stones from the beach beside many of the standing stones of the circle. Two outlying single stones, moreover, besides the one later carved into a cross, gave the feel of quite a powerful landscape, and one could close one’s eyes, standing in the circle, and imagine lines of megalithic people, torches held aloft, processing across the rich pasture at the highpoints of the year.
Out in the bay, moreover, lay the tiny island of Inchmarnock: a private place not open to visitors, but home of a 2000BC cist burial of what has come to be known as the Queen of Inchmarnock, and her exquisite jet necklace. Jet – black petrified wood found only at Whitby in the British Isles, on the north-east coast of England – was clearly highly prized, as was the glassy pitchstone found only on Arran and Eigg. The fashion for black stone perhaps originated in the Middle East, some thousands of years before, and the rich deposits of obsidian in Anatolia, as good as flint for making blades, but shiny enough for jewellery too. More obsidian is to be found in the Mediterranean on the Greek Islands of Melos and Giali, the Sicilian islands of Lipari, Pantarola and Pantelleria, and at Monte Arci on Sardinia where I acquired some in 2011.
Besides Ettrick Bay, down in the south of the island there are also the strangely shaped remains of a further circle at Kingarth, with its outlying stone row of Largizean. These are quite atmospheric, but did not have quite the impact of those at Ettrick Bay.
Lastly, and perhaps one of the most interesting experiences on Bute, for me, was our visit to the ruins of the church of St Blane’s, on the southern tip of the island just beyond Kingarth. Originating from Iona – like most of the oldest Christian sites in this area – the ruins of a 12th century church on the site of a 7th century original were incredibly atmospheric: there was a really sacred feel to the place on our visit. We were alone, there are no shops, little in the way of interpretation beside a few well placed plaques, and the quiet and tranquility of a place of contemplation, meditation and peace. A delightful visit.
Jura is a fascinating place. The most conspicuous feature is the famous three Paps of Jura, the tall conical mountains visible from everywhere nearby, dominating the landscape of the whole Southern Hebrides. This mountainous area is to the south of the island, with lower lying moorland to the north. The two halves of the island are split by Tarbert Bay, which almost completely halves the island, save for a few kilometers of land. This valley was – for millenia – a highway for travellers between east and west, seeking to avoid the treacherous whirlpool of Corryvreckan (Gaelic Coire Bhreacain meaning “cauldron of the speckled seas”) to the north of the island, still avoided to this day by the ferries and any other self-respecting seafarer.
As Gordon Wright relates in his “Jura’s Heritage” booklet, which you can buy on the ferry, the name Jura may derive from Gaelic ‘Iubhar’, meaning Yew, making it the “Island of Yew Trees” – perhaps referring to the Glen of Yew trees found near Inver, to the north of Tarbert on the East Coast, where Steven Mithen has excavated Mesolithic activity. It’s equally possible that the name is Norse, from ‘Dyr-ey’, meaning deer-island. Certainly deer are a-plenty nowadays, though there is a question over how many were here in the more distant past.
Wright tells us Edward Furlong’s reading of Homer’s account of the travels of Odysseus suggest a possibility that in the Greek Bronze Age, c1000BC, Odysseus (who made the Trojan Horse, but then took ten years to return home from Troy) may have journeyed to Ireland and the Scottish Isles on his travels. In Homer’s account he reaches “the cavern of Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis.” Wright continues, “Is the whirlpool of Charybdis the whirlpool of Corryvreckan? Adomnan – the biographer of St Columba – calls the Corryvreckan whirlpool ‘Charybdis brecani’. Later Odysseus comes to an island which he calls Thrinacia. Thrinacia means three pronged and Mr Furlong suggests it gets its name from the three Paps of Jura.”
Apart from another Iona-related chapel at Tarbert, much of the settlement activity, old and new, is in the south-east corner of the island, nearest to Islay. Here, the enormous Camas an Staca Standing Stone rises out of the peat twice the height of a man, surrounded by further rocks and outcrops which Canmore (Scotland’s inestimable archaeological database) includes two conflicting and rather confusing accounts of. The feel of the place – the lines of sight and the general atmosphere – gave me a strong feeling that Camas an Staca could be another Callanish under several thousand years of peat deposit, with the single stone still visible the monstrously high centrepiece of something far greater and more impressive. Who knows if an archaeologist may yet have time – and funding – to take a closer look. [Calanais, on the Isle of Lewis, one of the most impressive and largest stone circles and ritual landscapes in the whole of the British Isles, erected around 3000BC, was almost completely buried under 1.5m or so of peat for (at least) 1500 years, only first recorded in the early 17th century, and the peat finally all dug away to reveal it in all its glory in the mid-19th century.]
In Norman Newton’s tourist guide to Islay the last chapter tells of Jura and of a lovely Gaelic folklore tale from John Francis Campbell’s ‘Popular Tales of the West Highlands’, concerning “the Old Woman or Witch of Jura” and her “magical powers. There was a Caileach (old woman) in Jura who had a magic ball of thread by means of which she could draw any person or thing towards her. MacPhie (or MacDuffie) of Colonsay was in her clutches, and was not allowed to leave Jura; on several occasions he tried to escape to his native Colonsay in his boat, but always the Caileach would spot him, throw the magic ball of thread into his boat, and so bring him back to shore. Eventually MacPhie found out that the magic of the Caileach’s thread could be broken, but only if it was cut by an equally magic hatchet; thus he pretended to be content with his bondage until he found the chance to steal the Caileach’s magic hatchet, and then he made his escape from Jura in a small boat. When the Caileach noticed his absence, she rushed as usual to the top of Beinn a Chaolis, [the tallest of the Paps] and … hurled the magic ball of thread into MacPhie’s boat, but he cut it with the Caileach’s magic hatchet and made his escape. She was distraught … [and] in despair she slid down the mountain to the sea shore, pleading with MacPhie to return. But he would not, and the marks left by the old woman’s heels as she slid down Beinn a Chaolis can still be seen. They are called Sgriob na Cailich – the slide of the old woman.” The best view is from the ferry from Port Askaig to Colonsay.
By far the most significant event for us during our stay on Jura, was at Inverlussa. Knowing that microliths are still found from time to time amongst the pebbles of the Lussa river as it enters the bay, we went up the eastern shore road almost as far as it goes, to Lussa Bay, and pottered about on the beach there for an hour, looking through the pebbles for microliths. To my astonishment, however, although no microliths were to be seen, instead, in about an inch of water amongst the pebbles on the southern shore of the river only thirty or so yards from the sea I found what I have since (tongue-in-cheek) been calling, the Lussa Venus. It is a (horse’s? whale’s?) tooth, (or ivory,) carved in the semi-abstract, semi-lifelike form of a female, missing both head and feet, but with the arms folded formally across her abdomen supporting her breasts, and clear lines delineating legs and buttocks both front and back. It is a truly remarkable find. Teeth and ivory can survive in the ground or in the water, undamaged, for a very long time, David Caldwell told me, when I showed him my find at Finlaggan, on Islay, a week later, where he was directing a dig. Unlike the microliths I didn’t find, it is not Mesolithic – I sent a photo of it to Steven Mithen and he graciously replied straight away, uncertain what it was but confident it was not of his period – 20,000-5000 BC. David Caldwell recalled a recent discovery of carved teeth that proved to be 14th century. It could, of course, he said, equally well be something African or East Asian, brought back to Scotland during Empire days. It seems rather risque to be Victorian, at any rate, and would more likely have been porcelain in that period. I sent photos of it on to David Caldwell, at his request, for him to share with colleagues at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. No less than Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator of Early Prehistory, got back to us straight away with a pretty clear indication that it is not an ancient Scottish artefact. The likelihood, she thought, was that it was either carved by a local in the last few centuries, or brought back from elsewhere – though she suspects the “similarity with Cycladic figurines is purely coincidental (and not close, in any case.)” I’m not greatly surprised, but it is a lovely item nonetheless, and such an amazing find, amongst the pebbles, in that tranquil remote bay.
Our stay on Jura was crowned, finally, with a magnificent steak of Jura Venison washed down with very fine 2007 Pomerol, on our last night, and by a fabulous rainbow the following morning just as we got into the car to set off for the ferry back to Islay.
As David Caldwell’s books make clear, Islay is a place of great historical interest. Today, for the tourist, perhaps the greatest draws are the birds (the RSPB have a strong presence here [many thanks to Phil, RSPB warden at the Mull of Oa, for helping me change the wheel after my punctured tyre!]) and, of course, the eight distilleries, making some of Scotland’s finest whiskies, including no lesser names than Laphroaig, Lagavulin, and Ardbeg. My personal favourite, however, was Bruichladdich’s Valinch, which has spent its full term of 12 years in Sherry casks. Very smooth!
The Rinns, that westernmost part of Islay that juts out into the Atlantic barely attached to the rest of the island, is in fact quite an oddity. The southern part is mostly Lewisian Gneiss, like Iona to the north, (and of course much of the Outer Hebrides), and during the last glacial maximum the ice sheet came only as far south and west in this part of the Hebrides as the main part of Islay: the Rinns were not covered in ice 22,000 years ago. This is significant because it means that Ice Age hunters may indeed have visited the Rinns, on their tours at the edges of the ice sheet, and left some of their ancient flint tools behind. It is perhaps all the more significant because the flint that is so prized by stone-age people for tool making is mostly ground down by ice sheets, and in this area of Scotland the only really good source of flint is the beaches of the Rinns. There are, therefore, no less than four mesolithic sites on the Rinns, where hunter-gatherers prepared such tools, before venturing back onto the tundra and the increasingly wooded landscape of Scotland after the ice finally melted. The area is also rich in Neolithic and Bronze Age remains too, such as the cup-marked stone at Kilchiaran, and including Islay’s only complete Stone Circle, at Cultoon.
Odder still, however, for reasons now unfathomable, Cultoon Stone Circle, which includes two upright and twelve horizontal great stones, from the evidence gathered in excavations in the 1970s, was clearly not finished. The twelve stones were never erected, and the site abandoned before completion.
Of the later, Celtic Christian era, the Rinns boasts two of Islay’s three carved stone crosses, at Kilnave and at Kilchoman. But perhaps the two finest historic sites to visit are the stone cross at Kildalton, and the islands in the loch at Finlaggan. The Kildalton Cross dates from the 8th century, and is almost certainly one carved by the Iona School of artists, and probably in the best condition – due to the kind of stone and its relatively sheltered position – of all the stone crosses of this era throughout Scotland and the North of England. On a fine day it is truly a wonder to behold, amongst the scattered gravestones of the cemetery of a ruined church in the south east of Islay.
In the north of the island, kept by the Finlaggan Trust with its own interpretation centre and a suitably easy wooden bridge across the reed-choked loch, is the “great” and the “council” islands within the loch at Finlaggan. The “council” island, a small island next to the “great” island, has been shown to have once been a crannog – a man-made island created with tree-posts and a lot of rubble in the Bronze Age. It is tiny, but supported a Bronze Age broch – a small defensive tower. The “great” island includes 8th-9th century graves: it was clearly occupied during Columba’s time, by one of his missionary monks, St Findlugan. But for the most part what remains on the island is 12th to 14th century, and represents the capital of the Kingdom of the Isles, where the King – and later Lord – of the Isles resided, and, after the manner of the Isle of Man Tingwall, held Council meetings with the nobles, thanes, lords, Bishop of the Isles, and Abbot of Iona. At its greatest extent the MacDonalds ruled not just all the isles but a good part of the mainland, too, ultimately threatening the King of Scotland in Edinburgh: reason enough, in the end, for its demise.
Colonsay and Oronsay
But if you are visiting the Southern Hebrides, it would be churlish not to include a day-trip to the small islands of Colonsay and Oronsay, visible from the coasts of Jura and Islay, out into the Atlantic. Colonsay boasts two or three villages, including a hotel and a shop at the ferry port of Scalasaig. Oronsay has just one farmhouse, built from the rubble of the fallen Oronsay Priory. Parking on the beach on the south coast of Colonsay, and waiting for lowtide, we walked out across the Strand between the two islands to visit the Priory. It is wise to know exactly what time the tide is at its lowest, and to stride out as soon as one can, in order to get the most time on Oronsay before needing to return! We inched our way across, seawater around our ankles, covering the mile or so of distance across the sand, until finally climbing up onto the beach of Oronsay for the mile and half walk round the low hill to the Atlantic facing side of the island where the Priory sits. Here there are more Iona School stone crosses, and a collection of medieval carved grave slabs including effigies and carved swords and celtic knotwork. It is a fine place, though the atmosphere is perhaps not as secluded as that at St Blane’s, amongst the bustle of the working farm that shares the site – and much of the stone building blocks.
We were unlucky on the one day of the week that Caledonian MacBrayne’s ferries go to and fro between Port Askaig and Colonsay: it was the worst weather of our trip. We got quite cold trying to cross the Strand, and didn’t stay long at the Priory, heading back across the now almost completely dry Strand to the car just as the rain started to come lashing down.
The one other site we did manage to visit was Fingall’s Limpet Hammers, a stone row of just two standing stones, at the head of the valley of Loch Fad – in fact three lochs one after another all called Loch Fad – that cuts through part of the Island. Quite impressive stones, with a view down through the valley and out into the sea. But the rain by now was becoming very heavy, and we – like all the rest of the small group of tourists taking the same day trip – sheltered in Scalasaig’s little hotel bar, for a half-and-half: once upon a time half a gill of whisky and half a pint of ale, now just a sixth of a gill of whisky. It’s a popular combination in these isles, both warming and thirst quenching, sipping from each glass in turn.