Long Skelpick, Strath Naver, Sutherland

Chambered Cairn: OS Grid Reference – NC 72245 56745

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 6276
  2. Skelpick Burn
  3. Skelpick Long

Getting Here

The huge cairn, looking east

The huge cairn, looking east

From the delightful village of Bettyhill, take the A836 road west. A mile out, just as the tiny road bridge crosses the sea-river, take the tiny road on your left. Go past the roadside lochan until you reach the first Skelpick house several miles down. Walk across the fields on your left (east) until you reach the wobbly wooden tidgy-widgy-bridgey that crosses the Skelpick Burn. Across on the other side – you can’t miss it!

Archaeology & History

The overgrown northern face

The overgrown northern face

As you wander down the poetic geoscapes of Strathnaver, meandering back and forth along the tributaries and Her tiny primal forest remains, on the edges of Her marshes, rivulets and rocky moorlands, tomb after tomb raise themselves to the eyes and feet of the wanderer.  They’re everywhere it seems!  But this one, above all others, hits the eyesight with an unexpected magnitude.  This is a giant–one helluva giant!–and typical of the structure and status of many of the immense prehistoric chambered tombs in this remote northern region of our entrancing heathen isles.

Rising out of the moorland heather to a height of sixteen feet in parts, tens of thousands of rocks make up this elongated artificial ridge, running like a spine NNW-SSE down the direction of the glen, pointing to the lowest dip in the distant southern horizon several miles away.  And although overgrown when we visited the site, at each extremity the elongated cairn has curious stretches of stones projecting out of its sides, like a pair of horns at each end.  Weird!

The long cairn, heading south

The long cairn, heading south

The giant cairn, heading north

The giant cairn, heading north

Once you get on top of the cairn, its northern end is the most impressive section. Wider than the rest of the monument, this is where, some ten feet below the top of the rock-pile, a large internal opening was covered over, hiding an impressive chamber (two birch trees mark the spot).  This is in incredibly good condition when you remember that you are looking at something that was built in the neolithic period some 6000 years ago!

Spider guards chamber of bones

Spider guards chamber of bones

Little Lara at the entrance

Little Lara at the entrance

On my first visit, I sat inside the shelter of the chamber for around an hour, either inside the main ‘tomb’ section, or beneath a huge intact covering stone 12 feet outside the entrance (hiding from both rain and midges) that stretches from one side of the cairn to the other; noting, on its underside, two cup-marks: one is definitely crustacean in nature, whilst the other may be man-made (though we cannot discount it too having a crustacean origin). But we can safely say that this long stone was dragged some considerable distance from the coast to its present position and positioned into this giant cairn.  This covering stone rests precariously on a collection of many small well-placed rocks, themselves held up on two rigid solid standing stones, deeply embedded god-knows-how-deep in the solid Earth. They stand about 3 feet high in their present position above the ground.

Central stone in chamber

Central stone in chamber

Gordon gives idea of its size

Gordon gives idea of its size

The well-preserved ‘tomb’ section at the northern end of the cairn was opened sometime in the middle of the 19th century by James Horsburgh (1870)—although its description as a ‘tomb’ could be questionable here, as no funerary remains have ever been found inside it.  Horsburgh described the site as a,

“long cairn, 80 or 90 yards in length, which I opened and came upon a polygonal-shaped chamber, 11 feet in diameter, the sides consisting of large stones 6 feet high, one of them 7 feet by 4 and 1½ feet thick, placed at a distance from each other of 3 or 4 feet, the intervals being built up with long square stones.  The roof had been formed with very large flags overlaying each other.  The chamber had been opened from the top and the whole inside was filled with stones and rubbish, so that I only cleared it out.  Before I commenced operations, however, there was no appearance of it having been meddled with, and I dug it by chance where the cairn appeared to be highest.  Nothing whatever was found in it.”

This lack of funerary remains may simply be due to the collapse of stones destroying any evidences at the time Horsburgh dug into the cairn—or it may have had other functions instead.  Shortly after Horburgh’s analysis, John Stuart (1870) came to visit the site in his grand tour of the megaliths of the region, telling that,

“on the waterside is a long cairn with a chamber at its north end, of about 12 feet across, formed of six slabs, with the space between them carefully filled up with masonry.  Some of the slabs are of great size.  A passage leading to another chamber is blocked up.  The walls of the chamber begin to converge at a height of 6 feet, and were probably covered by flags.”

Stuart's 1874 ground plan

Stuart’s 1874 ground plan

It was Mr Stuart (1874) who gave us our earliest ground-plan of Long Skelpick, as illustrated here.  But since then the site has been described by a number of antiquarians and archaeologists down the years.  However, the most detailed account is given in the legendary Audrey Henshall’s (1995) updated site profile.  I make no apologies for reproducing her lengthy account of this cairn almost in its entirety, as it is an astonishing megalithic monument.  She wrote:

“…The cairn is 72m long overall, including the horns which define a forecourt at each end… The cairn is about 20m wide across the chamber, narrowing to 14m wide at a little south of centre, and expanding slightly to about 16m wide at the south end.  At the north end the forecourt is difficult to define, though the ends of the horn are clear.  Between them there is loose rubble which rises steeply to merge with the cairn material covering the passage, and which northwards merges into the downward slope of the ground.  The passage entrance is hidden beneath this stony material; presumably there is deliberate blocking immediately in front of the entrance…but this has been covered by cairn material removed from the chamber area when it was investigated. The forecourt is about 13.5m wide by about 7m deep.  The chamber is exposed in a deep hollow in the cairn, but south of it the cairn remains to a height of 3.4m (measured from the chamber floor), and from here to near the south end it continues as a ridge of bare irregular stones.  Except for a few superficial hollows, it appears to be undisturbed, neither robbed nor substantially distorted, and it retains the steep pitch of its long sides.  The cairn gradually diminishes in height southwards to about 2.8m high at about 12m north of the south forecourt.  At this point there is a transverse hollow across the cairn 2.7m wide and about 0.7m deep, which may be an original feature (though in this area a relatively recent deep hollow has been made into the cairn from the east side reaching almost to the median line).  The cairn has clearly been robbed from the south end to within 1.7m of the transverse hollow, presumably to build the square enclosure just to the south.  The southeast horn is clear and the southwest horn can just be traced though it has probably been truncated.  Between them, the edge of the forecourt is rather vague except for two laid slabs near the centre which appears to be part of an edging wall-face.  The south forecourt has been about 10m wide and probably about 3.5m deep.  The west edge of the cairn is clear though overgrown with heather, except for 20m at the north end where it is overlaid with bare stones evidently thrown down when the chamber was opened, and north of this the cairn merges into the natural slope.  All along the east side the cairn merges with the slope of the ridge and has deep heather growing almost to the crest, so that the cairn edge is difficult to trace.

“The axis of the passage and chamber is nearly NNW to SSE, skew by about 13° by the axis of the cairn.  The entrance can only be seen from the roofed passage.  A pair of transverse stones set 0.56m apart forms the portal at the outer end of the passage. They are over 0.7m and 0.4m long, 0.25m and 0.18m thick, and 0.7m and 0.65m high.  The original blocking, a neat stack of six horizontal slabs reaching to within 0.2m of the roof, is in place between them, with the south edges of the stones flush with the south faces of the portal stones.  To the north of the slabs there can just be seen loose stones, smaller than those of the cairn material.

“The passage os 1.8m long and 1.15m wide at the outer end increasing to 1.3m wide at the inner end.  A slab forms most of each wall.  The slabs are 1.36m and 1.31m long by 0.5m and 0.45m high with two or three courses of walling above them, though this is displaced inwards and in a precarious state.  Walling fills the short gaps at the ends of the stones, though missing from the NE corner.  At the inner end of the passage a pair of portal stones forms the entry into the ante-chamber.  They are 0.94m and 0.78m long by 0.26m and 0.44m thick, and 0.86m and 0.77m high, set 0.8m apart.  At the outer end of the passage a lintel rests on the east portal stone and passes a little above the west portal stone, and the north edge of the lintel projects a little north of their outer faces.  The lintel is 0.8m wide by 0.3m thick, 0.7m above the floor, tilted slightly down to the south.  The next tow lintels rise in inverted steps, each overlapping the upper surface of that to the north with the third lintel 1m above floor level.  The fourth lintel is missing and a gap of 0.5m is spanned by rubble; it is likely that a substantial stone at the top of each side wall is an end portion of this lintel, the centre part of which has broken away.  The innermost lintel is lower, 0.86m above the floor, resting directly on the east portal stone and on a corbel stone over the shorter west portal stone at the chamber entrance.  The lintel is over 2m long, 0.65m wide and 0.75m thick in the centre, and the face to the chamber is triangular.

“The chamber walls are constructed of spaced orthostats linked by panels of walling.  All the orthostats are intact.  The walling is of quite large quarried rectangular slabs, in general 0.07m to 0.02m thick, and where well-preserved can be seen to have been carefully built.  At a height of about 0.7m the walling changes to courses of large corbel stones, often 0.23m to 0.4m thick, up to 0.9m wide, and 1m or so long.  They are laid with their long axes running back into the cairn and their inner ends generally slightly oversailing; their appearance is rougher and heavier than the walling below.  There is a considerable amount of displaced stone on the chamber floor, but all vertical measurements are taken from approximately floor level.

“The ante-chamber is about 2.5m long by 2.5m wide at the south end.  The east wall consists of an orthostat 1.3m long by 0.36m thick, and 1.1m high, with a horizontal upper surface.  The spaces between it and the outer and inner east portal stones of the chamber are filled with walling about 1.15m high, and above this and the orthostat are two courses of corbel stones giving a total height of 1.7m with a considerable overhang, at the southeast corner as much as 0.5m though possibly there has been some displacement.  Only a short length at the south end of the west wall is visible.  An orthostat set close to the west outer portal stone was visible in the 19th century…but this is hidden by rubble.

“The entrance between the ante-chamber and main chamber has been spacious, 1.06m wide and probably about 1.4m high.  The portal stones are 0.85m and over 1.06m long, 0.42m and 0.25m to 0.4m wide, and 1.1m and 0.9m high, and their upper edges slope down into the cairn.  The lintel above them is somewhat displaced with its wider face tilted down from south to north.  Its east end rests on a corbel stone supported by displaced walling to the southeast of the portal stone, and its west end rests on displaced walling on the shoulder of the west portal stone and on the panel of walling to the southwest.  The lintel is about 3m long by 1m wide and 0.35m thick.

“The main chamber is 3.5m long by about 3.25m wide.  There are five orthostats in the wall.  That on the axis has a horizontal upper surface and the others are rounded and rather irregular in shape.  From the northeast, clockwise, they are 0.7m, 0.77m and 0.84m (at maximum 1.14m), over 1.3m and 0.86m long and, as far as can be seen, they vary from 0.1m to 0.4m thick.  They are all of similar height, between 1 and 1.22m; the tallest is the northwest orthostat.  Most of the linking walling remains.  Between the east portal stone and the east orthostat only the upper courses are visible; between the east and southeast orthostats there are six neat courses of walling and above them three courses of corbel stones oversailing by 0.3m at a height of 1.7m (though the lowest courses of walling at the north end have been pulled away and the upper part of the wall is in danger of collapse).  The walling between the southeast and the south orthostats has fallen away, but was intact in 1955… Between the south and southwest orthostats walling remains almost level with their tops and butts against the face of the latter, the south end of which is hidden.  The last two panels of walling on the west side of the chamber survive to half the height of the adjacent orthostats.

“Part of the chamber was evidently visible in 1800 (Cardonnel …) and subsequently it must have been filled in.  Horsburgh investigated the main chamber in 1866… His descriptions and measurements are fairly accurate except that he gave the height of the orthostats as 6ft and one as 7ft (1.8m and 2.1m); this seems to be an exaggeration as the present floor level, also extending down the passage, appears to be at approximately at the original level.  He estimated that the roof height of the main chamber had been 10ft (3m)…

Old lichen upon the cairn-stones

Old lichen upon the cairn-stones

Of mosses and lichens hereon...

Of mosses and lichens hereon…

Much of the length of the cairn is very overgrown in a living repertoire of medicinal mosses and lichens which, of themselves, are centuries old in places.  Their profusion is a great indicator, not only of the cleanliness of the air betrayed in the cities of homo-profanus, but also a telling sign that visitors to this distant realm are few and far between.  Tis a beautiful site in a spectacular ancient arena…

…to be continued…

Folklore

There is great superstition amongst some locals even today that this immense cairn should not be tampered with and it is said to be haunted.

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. Horsburgh, James, Notes of Cromlechs, Duns, Hut-circles, Chambered Cairns and other Remains, in the County of Sutherland“, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1870
  6. Mackie, Euan W., Scotland: An Archaeological Guide, Faber: London 1975.
  7. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockford, Ashley, What to See Around Bettyhill, privately printed 2009.
  8. Royal Commission on Ancient & Historical Monuments, Scotland, Second report and inventory of monuments and constructions in the county of Sutherland. HMSO: Edinburgh 1911.
  9. Stuart, John, “Report to the Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Appointed to Arrange for the Application of a Fund Left by the Late Mr A. Henry Rhind, for Excavating Early Remains,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1870
  10. Stuart, John, “Notice of Excavations in Cairns in Strathnaver, Sutherlandshire,” in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 10, 1874.

Acknowledgements:  Huge thanks to Aisha Domleo and Unabel Gordon for not only getting me up here, but also for the use of their photos in this site profile. Ta much you two!

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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Clachaig, Glen Lyon, Perthshire

Stone Circle (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – NN 582 467

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 24237
  2. Kerrowmore

Archaeology & History

Upright slab in graveyard

Upright slab in graveyard

In a discussion about the ancient chapel to St. Eonan (the local name in these parts for Adamnan) that once existed near the Bridge of Balgie in Glen Lyon, the local historian Duncan Campbell (1886) informed us that,

“St. Eonan built his chapel near the only stone circle in Glenlyon.  The stones of this circle have been removed within my memory.  The place is called Clachaig.”

The same writer (Campbell 1888) later told how its remains were still visible around 1848 CE.  Today we don’t know for sure where the megalithic ring actually stood, and although modern analysts think the site may have been underneath the invading forestry commission plantation, local lore puts it closer to the graveyard above Kerrowmore.

Enhanced image of curious near-circular form close by

Enhanced image of curious near-circular form close by

A local dowser thinks that the upright slab in the graveyard at Kerrowmore may be the one remaining stone left here after the circle’s destruction.  A quick meander back and forth on a rainy day here, on the geological ridge at the back (south) of Kerrowmore, found only a curious near-circular earthwork that might have been the original site, but it may be fortuitous. A nearby rock outcrop known as “Coill a’ Bhaird” may have been related to the circle.

Folklore

A local man (thanks Tom) said how tradition tells that some of the stones from this circle were taken and used in making the drive to Meggernie Castle last century.

References:

  1. Campbell, Duncan, The Lairds of Glenlyon, Cowan: Perth 1886.
  2. Campbell, Duncan, The Book of Garth and Fortingall, Northern Counties Newspaper: Inverness 1888.
  3. Stewart, Alexander, A Highland Parish; or, The History of Fortingall, Alex MacLaren: Glasgow 1928.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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Hawklemass Well, Whittingham, Northumberland

Healing Well:  OS Grid Reference – NU 0683 1228

Archaeology & History

Hawklemass Well on 1866 map

Hawklemass Well on 1866 map

References to this site seem very scarce.  A well is highlighted on the 1866 OS-map of the region close to the spot which D.D. Dixon (1895) said it was found, “near to the Howbalk Lane end, where is also the Hawklemass Stile and Hawklemass Well.”  A stone trough could once be seen here, but its presence today needs to be confirmed by local researchers.  The site is listed in Binnall & Dodds (1943) survey, but with no additional comments to those made by Mr Dixon.

Folklore

The historian D.D. Dixon (1895) told that the village of Whittingham only had one ghost, but it was known as the “Hawklemass Ghost” and was occasionally encountered at the Hawklemass Well:

“This was a place never passed after nightfall by the youth of the village without feeling an eerie, creepy sensation, and with many a furtive glance on either side.  This unearthly visitant, in its gambols and uncanny pranks, was said to rattle the chain by which it was supposed to be bound in a fearsome manner.  It was usually seen or heard by persons who, having lingered long at the village inn, could say with Tam o’ Shanter,

“While we sit bousing at the nappy,
An gettin’ fou and unco happy,
We think na on the lang Scots miles,
The mosses, waters, slaps and styles,
That lie between us and our hame.”

One Saturday night many years ago—perhaps fifty—a poor fellow on his way from Whittingham to Glanton fel into the roadside at Hawklemass, where he was found, quite dead, the next morning by some persons on their way to Glanton meeting.  This sad affair may have given rise to the tradition of the Hawklemass Ghost.”

The name of the old lane at whose junction the Hawklemass Well once flowed, ‘Howbalk Lane’, may derive from a lost tumulus, as the word how (and its variants) regularly relate to prehistoric mounds in our more northern climes.  Such an ancient tomb, close to the well, may be the origin of the ghost story.

References:

  1. Binnall, P.B.G. & Dodds, M.H., “Holy Wells in Northumberland and Durham – part 2″, in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 10:2, 1943.
  2. Dixon, David Dippie, Whittingham Vale, Northumberland, Robert Redpath: Newcastle 1895.

Acknowledgements:  With thanks to Gill Rutherford for prompting me to finish this; and to Claire Heron for the OS-map reference.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Posted in Holy Wells, Northumbria, Brigantia (Northern England) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baile Mhargaite, Bettyhill, Sutherland

Broch: OS Grid Reference – NC 69742 60973

Highlighted on 1878 OS-map

Highlighted on 1878 OS-map

Also Known as:

  1. Canmore ID 5786
  2. Invernaver
  3. Lochan Druim An Duin
  4. Sandy Dun

Getting Here

Baile Mhargaite broch from below

Baile Mhargaite broch from below

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.

The outer western wall

The outer western wall

Arc of outer western wall

Arc of outer western wall

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.

The internal living quarters

The internal living quarters

Eastern section of the broch

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).  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

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.

Folklore

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.”

References:

  1. Horsburgh, James, Notes of Cromlechs, Duns, Hut-circles, Chambered Cairns and other Remains, in the County of Sutherland“, in Proceedings Society of Antiquaries, Scotland, volume 7, 1870
  2. MacKie, E W., The Roundhouses, Brochs and Wheelhouses of Atlantic Scotland c.700 BC-AD 500 – volume 2, British Archaeological Report: Oxford 2007.
  3. o’ Reilly, Kevin & Crockfird, 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.

Acknowledgements:  Immense thanks go to Aisha Domleo and Unabel Gordon for their help getting me up here.  This site profile would not exist without their encouragement.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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Ghaist Stane, Fern, Angus

Standing Stone:  OS Grid Reference – NO 4832 6173

Getting Here

Ghaist Stane on 1865 OS-map

Ghaist Stane on 1865 OS-map

Whichever route you take to reach this lovely hamlet, hiding away in deep greenery, when you get to the one and only road junction, where it goes downhill (towards the old church), look just above you just below the first tree.  All but covered in vegetation, the ruined stone lays down there. Climb up and see!

Archaeology & History

Tis up on the verge here

Tis up on the verge here

An exploration of this site was prompted when fellow antiquarian, Paul Hornby, came across the curious place-name of ‘Ghaist Stane’ when he was looking over some old Ordnance Survey maps of the region.  So we met up and took a venture over there!  Last highlighted on the 1865 map (when the old village was known as Fearn, not the modern spelling), even the Canmore lads had missed this one.  But it’s not easy to find….

After meandering back and forth by the village roadside, on the tops of the walls, into the field above, Paul eventually said, “Is that it?!” just above the roadside, almost buried in vegetation below the roots of a tree.  So I clambered back up and brushed some of the vegetation away – and there it was – in just the place that the old OS-map showed it to be (give or take a few yards).

The remains of the stone measure roughly 3 feet by 3 feet; with the present upper portion of the stone being of a lighter colour than the lower portion, indicating that this section of the stone was the portion that was underground when it was standing upright.  Its history is fragmentary, but we know that it was almost completely destroyed in the middle of the 19th century.  Notes from the Object Name Book of the region in 1861 told,

“The “Ghaist Stane”…formerly well known, is becoming little known from the stone having been recently blasted in making the Dike it now forms a part of, but it may be observed in the wall as a huge stone much larger than those beside it in the Dike. It does not project now from the side of the Road.”

Now the stone is almost entirely forgotten and lays covered, ignored, even by local people.  It could do with being resurrected and its heritage preserved before it disappears forever.

Folklore

The uncovered Ghaist Stane

The uncovered Ghaist Stane

The word “ghaist” is a regional dialect word meaning “a ghost or goblin”, inferring that the site was haunted.  And, considering the inherent animistic cultural psychology of the people here in earlier centuries, we must also consider the distinct possibility that the stone itself was the abode of a resident spirit, perhaps an ancestral one of a local chief, or queen, or elder of some sort.

In James Guthrie’s (1875) analysis of the folklore of Fern township, he told of the peculiarly odd violent brownies of the district and thought that they and the spirit of the Ghaist Stane were one and the same.

“In addition to the leading characteristics of Brownies in general the more prominent of these being, that they forded the rivers when their waters were at their highest, and that the sage femme always landed safely at the door of the sick wife—the brownies of Ferne are connected with scenes of cruelty and bloodshed.  This peculiarity would seem to indicate that the brownie and the ghaist of Feme, were one and the same.  The Ghaist Stane is in the vicinity of the church.   To this piece of isolated rock, it is said this disturber of the peace was often chained as a fitting punishment for his misdeeds, but tradition is silent as to the brownie being similarly dealt with, which strengthens the supposition that they were, in this quarter at least, generally regarded as one being.”

The spirit of the Ghaist Stane roamed far and wide in the district it seemed, and a long rhyme telling a tale of the ghaist was once well-known in the area which, thankfully, Mr Guthrie gave us in full:

THE GHAIST O’ FERNE-DEN

There liv’d a farmer in the North,
(I canna tell you when),
But just he had a famous farm
Nae far frae Feme-den.
I doubtna, sirs, ye a’ hae heard,
Baith women folks an’ men,
About a muckle, fearfu’ ghaist —
The ghaist o’ Ferne-den!
The muckle ghaist, the fearfu’ ghaist,
The ghaist o’ Ferne-den;
He wad hae wrought as muckle wark
As four-au’-twenty men!

Gin there was ony strae to thrash,
Or ony byres to clean,
He never thocht it muckle fash
0′ workin’ late at e’en!
Although the nicht was ne’er sae dark,
He scuddit through the glen,
An’ ran an errand in a crack —
The ghaist o’ Ferne-den!

Ane nicht the mistress o’the house
Fell sick an’ like to dee,—
“O! for a oanny wily wife!”
Wi’ micht an’ main, cried she!
The nicht was dark, an’ no a spark
Wad venture through the glen,
For fear that they micht meet the ghaist —
The ghaist o’ Ferne-den!

But ghaistie stood ahint the door,
An’ hearin’ a’ the strife,
He saw though they had men a score,
They soon wad tyne the wife!
Aff to the stable then he goes,
An’ saddles the auld mare,
An’ through the splash an’ slash he ran
As fast as ony hare!

He chappit at the Mammy’s door—
Says he — “mak’ haste an’ rise;
Put on your claise an’ come wi’ me,
An’ take ye nae surprise!”
“Where am I gaun?” quo’ the wife,
“Nae far, but through the glen —
Ye’re wantit to a farmer’s wife,
No far frae Ferne-den!”

He’s taen the Mammy by the hand
An’ set her on the pad,
Got on afore her an’ set aff
As though they baith were mad!
They climb’d the braes—they lap the burns—
An’ through the glush did plash:
They never minded stock nor stane,
Nor ony kind o’ trash!

As they were near their journey’s end
An’ scudden through the glen:
“Oh!” says the Mammy to the ghaist,
“Are we come near the den!
For oh! I’m feared we meet the ghaist!”
“Tush, weesht, ye fool! “quo’ he;
“For waur than ye ha’e i’ your arms,
This nicht ye winna see!”

When they cam to the farmer’s door
He set the Mammy down:—
“I’ve left the house but ae half hour—
I am a clever loon!
But step ye in an’ mind the wife
An’ see that a’ gae richt,
An’ I will tak ye hame again
At twal’ o’ clock at nicht!”

“What maks yer feet sae braid?” quo’ she,
“What maks yer een sae sair?”
Said he, — “I’ve wander’d mony a road
Without a horse or mare!
But gin they speir, wha’ brought ye here,
‘Cause they were scarce o’ men;
Just tell them that ye rade ahint
The ghaist o’ Ferne-den!”

References:

  1. Guthrie, James C., The Vale of Strathmore – Its Scenes and Legends, William Paterson: Edinburgh 1875.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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Cromlix Lodge, Dunblane, Perthshire

Long Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NN 7617 0671

Also Known as:

  1. Bracklin Burn
  2. Canmore ID 73465

Getting Here

Long line of the cairn, looking S

Long line of the cairn, looking S

Take the B8033 north out of Dunblane and, immediately out the other side of Kinbuck, as you cross the river, take the first track on your left to Cromlix.  Keep right along here to Cullings and beyond, till you reach the edge of the forestry plantation.  Go left instead of going into the trees and, instead, follow the edge of the woodland for about 750 yards.  You’ll see the land rise up on the other side of the stream and the huge length of stones thereby.  That’s it!

Archaeology & History

Main axis of the cairn

Main axis of the cairn

Not included in any major archaeology tomes, this giant long prehistoric pile of rocks—probably constructed in neolithic times—sits along the edge of a natural ridge, out of sight of all but the lone wanderer and the birds.  Aligned ESE to WNW, this huge monument measures more than 61 yards (56m) in length and is 12 yards across at its present widest section.  Much of the tomb has been severely robbed for stone in making the local walling: two of which emerge out of the structure itself—one running directly downhill from its larger eastern edge, and a more extensive wide line of walling running west and northwest for quite some distance.  This western section of walling has the hallmarks of being constructed as far back as the Iron Age, which may be when the initial destruction of the chambered cairn first started.  But, until we get an excavation here, we won’t know for sure.

Portion of the central mass of stones

Portion of the central mass of stones

Western wall leads to the cairn

Western wall leads to the cairn

The next closest tomb of any great size is the Judge’s Cairn, 1½ miles (2.4km) to the southwest.  Clusters of smaller single cairns exist about nearly a mile northwest, with prehistoric settlement traces accompanying them—but nothing seems in immediate attendance to this Cromlix giant.  Other sites, obviously, await discovery in this area.

References:

  1. Royal Commission Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Braes of Doune: An Archaeological Survey, Edinburgh 1994.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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Judge’s Cairn, Dunblane, Perthshire

Cairn:  OS Grid Reference – NN 73944 05618

Judges Cairn, surveyed 1862

Judges Cairn, surveyed 1862

Also Known as:

  1. The Big Cairn
  2. Canmore ID 24661
  3. Dalbrack

Getting Here

Judges Cairn, looking west

Judges Cairn, looking west

Along the A820 road between Dunblane and Doune, from the Dunblane-side, take the very first minor road on your right a few hundred yards after you’ve come off (or over) the A9 dual-carriageway.  Go all the way to the very top of this long and winding road for several miles, until you reach the gate which prevents you going any further. Walk up the slope on your left (west) and you’ll see the large grassy mound a coupla hundred yards ahead of you. That’s it!

Archaeology & History

This is a large rounded prehistoric cairn of some considerable size, whose position in the landscape allows for an impressive 360° view—a deliberate ingredient, no doubt, when it came to building this probable tomb.  I say “probable”, as there has never been a dig (not an ‘official’ one anyway) into the heart of this overgrown rocky mound.

Looking SE, at the Ochil Hills

Looking SE, at the Ochil Hills

More than 60 feet in diameter at its greatest and 6 feet high, with a circumference of 67 yards (61m), the top of the mound has been disturbed and, clearly, has been dug into at some time in the past—but archaeohistorical accounts are silent on the matter.  The first description of the Judge’s Cairn seems to have been in Peter Stewart’s (1839) notes on local antiquities of Dunblane, where he described it most simply:

“The Judges Cairn, yet undispersed, a circular heap of rough mountains stones covered with furze, on the farm of Bowie, barony of Kilbride.”

Along with the Ordnance Survey lads who came here in 1862, all subsequent visits gave rise to only short notes about the place.  Odd, considering its size and distinct vantage point.  And yet it remains hidden from view unless you come from the north, from whence that archetype of a fairy mound raises itself above Nature’s fair body into the eyes of any ambling wanderer…. A wonderful place sit and dream for a while…

Folklore

Judges Cairn, looking NE

Judges Cairn, looking NE

We enquired with a local whose family had been resident here since the mid-18th century about the name and folklore of the site, but he said he knew of nothing.  However, in earlier times it was said to be a place where the local sheriff held court and dispensed justice.  Mr Mackay (1984) told that the site “has been connected with the Judge’s Seat at Severie” nearby.  It seems possible that, as “it is just outside the parish boundary” between Doune and Dunblane, this may have been a moot site in ancient times, from whence laws were dispensed.  Old perambulation records may, perhaps, prove fruitful…

References:

  1. Barty, Alexander, The History of Dunblane, Eneas MacKay: Stirling 1944.
  2. Mackay, Moray S., Doune – Historical Notes, Forth Naturalist: Stirling 1984.
  3. Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland, Archaeological Sites and Monuments of Stirling District, Central Region, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1979.
  4. Shearer, John E., “Prehistoric Man and Prehistoric Remains in Britain,” in Transactions of the Stirling Natural History & Archaeological Society, 1907.
  5. Stewart, Peter G., Essay on the Dunblane Mineral Springs, Hewit: Dunblane 1839.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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