Cairn Circle (destroyed): OS Grid Reference – NM 2721 2371
Also Known as:
- Angel Hill
- Cnoc nar-aimgeal
- Sithean More
Archaeology & History
There have long been rumours of stone circles on the druid’s isle of Iona, but many are dismissed as little more than errors on behalf of antiquarians, or false descriptions of hut circles and settlement remains. The stone circle of Sithean Mor however, does seem to have existed until only a century or two ago. It was first mentioned by the great traveller, Thomas Pennant (1776), who visited Iona more than once. He told us:
“On my return I saw, on the right hand, on a small hill, a small circle of stones, and a little cairn in the middle, evidently druidical, but called the hill of the angels, Cnoc nar-aimgeal; from a tradition that the holy man had there a conference with those celestial beings soon after his arrival. Bishop Pocock informed me that the natives were accustomed to bring their horses to this circle at the feast of St. Michael, and to course round it. I conjecture that this usage originated from the custom of blessing the horses in the days of superstition, when the priest and the holy-water pot were called in: but in latter times the horses are still assembled, but the reason forgotten.”
The day of the “feast of St. Michael” that Pennant mentioned was our indigenous heathen New Year, or Halloween, now usurped and misrepresented by countless plastic pagans and christians alike. It would appear from Pennant’s description that the circle in question was more likely a cairn circle. The fact that the heathen islanders celebrated annual rites here at Samhain, strongly implies there was once a hero-myth and a creation myth in evidence, but I am unaware of any remaining tales that may help confirm this. The coming of St. Columba may be responsible for this lack of oral tradition.
More than a century after Pennant’s visit here, the ring of stones had been destroyed. We know this from the description given by Archie MacMillan (1898) in his fine text on the antiquities of Iona, where he said,
“Angel Hill, called in the vernacular Sithean More. There was, not so very long ago, a circle of standing stones on the top of this hillock. They have been used for other purposes.”
The most commonly recited tale of this grassy rise is that when St. Columba brought christianity to the island, he communed here with the angels. This is a simple displacement tale: of a new faith replacing an older one. The old name of the hill, Sithean Mor, tells that the littlepeople or fairy folk once held influence here.
- Cumming, C.F.G., In the Hebrides, Chatto & Windus: London 1883.
- MacMillan, Archibald, Iona: Its History and Antiquities, Houlston & Sons: London 1898.
- Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland, 1772 – Part 1, Benjamin White: London 1776.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian