Cairn: OS Grid Reference – NG 848 202
I’m presuming that this burial site is the right one, described in the fine Mr MacGregor’s Peat Fire Flame (1937) as being “by the roadside up near Scallasaig.” There certainly doesn’t appear to be another alternative site close by (though if I’ve got it wrong, someone please lemme know!). This place was, said MacGregor, a site “where the people in olden times used to worship the serpent.”
MacGregor spoke with a local man about the myths here and asked how long it had been associated with serpents.
“Och, about two thousand years,” said Mr John MacRae. “The mound was in the shape of a serpent, and when the chief of the people would die, he would be buried in the head of the serpent..”
He continued, saying, “One from London, that was going about searching things like that, opened the mound, and they found in the mound a big stone coffin with a big stone slab on the top. And there the bowl was found with the ashes of the chief of the people at that time. The bowl was taken to the Manse. That’s about fifty years ago. It was there for a few months; and they took it to Edinburgh, to some museum or something. They were saying that there was a funny noise in the Manse when the bowl was lying there. If there was any treasure in the bowl, or in the grave along with the bowl, it was taken out before. You see, had he any treasure – the chief like – guns and money and the like – I’m sure they wouldn’t be putting much money in the grave. It would be going into the grave with the dead man, so, when he would rise in the next world, he would be ready to start at the same game as he was carrying on here on Earth.”
This sounds a little like the folk-memory of an idea of a heathen afterlife – and of course it’d make sense finding such lore here at a tomb.
I’ve come across references to several other serpent mounds scattering the western side of Scotland, but their exact locations have proven hard to pin down. It makes y’ wonder how many more there once were before the christian paradigm became entangled in the myths of the country people.
MacGregor, Alisdair Alpin, The Peat-Fire Flame: Folk-Tales and Traditions of the Highlands and Islands, Ettrick Press: Edinburgh 1937.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian