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Kilmartin: the original Scottish capital

Kilmartin Valley is remote, even by Scottish standards, but may have been a forgotten centre of prehistoric activity. Archaeology is slowly uncovering that this tranquil valley may have been, in the past, one of the most important centres – and the true heart of Scotland.

Philip Coppens


Kilmartin Valley may not be in the same tourist league as Avebury, Stonehenge or the Orkney megalithic monuments, but despite its more humble megaliths, as a site – both historically and archaeologically – many consider it to be a close second. Aubrey Burl said that “the area is a megalithic paradise (pagan)”. And as the stones of the Orkneys are on an island, most have settled to label Kilmartin “the most impressive prehistoric site on the Scottish mainland.”
The Kilmartin Valley is an area of enormous archaeological significance. There are more than 350 ancient monuments within a six mile radius and 150 of those are prehistoric, including standing stones, cairns and chambered tombs, some of the relics dating back 5000 years.

Temple Wood Stone circle

That is not the impression you get when you drive down from Oban or down and up again from Inverary, its two closest tourist destinations in Western Scotland. Nothing in Kilmartin suggests that it is a centre of anything and the only tourist attraction in the area are actually the stones themselves. Kilmartin seems remote – is remote, in the 21st century. But in megalithic times, this was as central as Glasgow or London today. In fact, it was the site of a capital – the true Scottish capital even.
Kilmartin sits at the head of the Mull of Kintyre and lies on a major land route between the inland lochs of western Scotland and the Irish Sea. In those days, the connection between Ireland and Scotland was intense and much more direct – today, it is Stranraer in Dumfries and Galloway, to the south, and not Kilmartin in Argyll that links the two islands. Still, that in itself does not explain why Kilmartin is important. In fact, at first sight, it appears that Kilmartin is an illogical choice for the megalithic seafarers. Even though the route through the valley extends overland for 15 km, it actually avoids sailing around the coastline for an additional 150 km. In short, it was an economically strategic position; a shortcut. So important that old information boards indicated that the people of this valley had contact with traders as far away as Spain. Though these signs have now been taken down and deemed inaccurate, that they traded with Ireland is a certainty. Also, Adomnan’s Life of Columba relates that Gaulish merchants traded at Dunadd; wine was a prime import, but spices, salt and pigments also arrived in continental ships.

The most impressive aspect of Kilmartin Valley are the cairns, themselves individually not overly impressive, until an archaeologist will point out that all of these cairns are aligned, in one straight line, over a distance of approximately two miles, on the floor of the valley. They call it a “Linear Cemetery” and Alistair Moffat has called the valley itself a “Valley of Death” – thus making comparisons to other valleys of death such as near Thebes (in Egypt), or on Crete (near Zakros).
The “Linear Cemetery” begins – or ends – with Glebe Cairn, just below St Martin’s Church that gave its name to the town and valley, and runs to Ri Cruin Cairn. Glebe Cairn dates from around 1700 BC and consists of a pile of jumbled pebbles. It was excavated in the mid-18th century, when two stone cists were discovered along with a fine quality jet necklace. It is the largest of the cairns, measuring 33.5m in diameter and about 4m in height. Next in line is Nether Largie North Cairn. Not just a “pile”, it is actually rebuilt, and thus allows you to enter via a modern hatch to view the cist inside. It contains one of the most intriguing, carved slabs in Western Scotland with at least ten carved axes and some forty cup-markings. Next: Nether Largie Mid Cairn, which is more of the same. Confirmation comes from Nether Largie South Cairn, probably the most interesting cairn within the group, dating from around 3000 BC. It contains a chambered tomb ca. 7m long by 1.75m deep and 1.5m wide. The style of the tomb is of a type found mostly in Argyll and Arran.

Next to this cairn sits the Temple Wood stone circle, though the wood is sometimes also known as Half Moon Wood. Burl has described this stone circle as having “one of the most interesting settings in Scotland.” He refers to the site as “the lunar Kilmartin stones”. It is dated to around 3500 BC, when the first circle was constructed, which is thought to have had some alignment for solar events. This circle was then succeeded by the current circle of stones. The cist in the centre of the circle is a later addition from the Bronze Age. There are other stones nearby: Nether Largie Standing Stones are thought by some to have been part of a lunar observatory. The site consists of a tall central stone – covered with cup and ring markings – with two pairs of outlying stones to the South and West.

The series of aligned cairns ends with the Ri Cruin Cairn, which contained three stone cists. This is a Bronze Age burial cairn, constructed circa 2000 BC. The aligned cairns and linked megalithic stones are the most visible and visited sites, but they are not alone, as we already saw with the Temple Wood circle and nearby standing stones. But the surrounding valleys have several standing stones and it is clear that these point the way to the valley… from surrounding valleys. All megalithic road markers seem to lead to – and from – this valley.
But of specific interest to archaeologists is that this area contains some of the most elaborate carved rock surfaces – petroglyphs, or rock art, which are believed by some to be road signs too. Two of the twenty stones of the Temple Wood circle are decorated, but rock art is normally seen as the practice of decorating, mostly with dots, lines and/or spirals, exposed or sheltered rock surfaces. One person who has studied these petroglyphs intensely is Richard Bradley. He observed that in Kilmartin, the various sites that have rock art (largely to be found along the sides of the valley) are intervisible from one another – though that does not mean the carvings themselves are visible from one another; just the sites themselves. The major petroglyphs focus on two of the entrances to the low-lying area around Kilmartin. Bradley also confirmed his hypothesis that rock art increases in complexity towards the monument complexes, but that it is also found more frequently the closer you get. In the area, Achnabreck is the most famous rock art site, so much so that Historic Scotland have created an impressive car park with picnic area nearby.

This immense concentration of megalithic remains is sufficient evidence to underline its importance in megalithic times. The valley had an important economic position. But there could be a political-religious element here too. The valley is fringed by banks, which create a wide, natural amphitheatre largely along the length of the Linear Cemetery. Some have therefore speculated that it was indeed an amphitheatre, in which religious ceremonies if not processions occurred.

The part of the Kilmartin Valley near Kilmartin may be “the valley of death”, we should not that alignments – straight lines – are not only linked with death and the flight of the soul, but also with royalty. And where the valley opens up, we find an ancient royal site: Dunadd.

Dunadd is an isolated hill between Achnabreck and Kilmartin. It dominates the surrounding landscape and remains an important landmark for the entire valley. Though it was not a major focus for the creation of petroglyphs, it was the centre of a capital – in fact, the true capital of Scotland. In 500 AD, the Dalriada dynasty transferred its seat from Ireland to Dunadd, regularising the existence of Scottish Dalriada, with Fergus becomingthe first king of Dalriada. Though they were Irish, they actually called themselves Scots, and they can thus be seen as the true Scots.
The site is an Iron Age fort and is one of Scotland’s most important Celtic sites, occupying a distinctive 176ft high rocky knoll that was once surrounded by the sea, though now the only watery presence is that of the nearby River Add.
Though lacking petroglyphs, there is a stone carving between the twin summits, containing Ogam letters and showing a boar, hollowed-out footprint and a small basin. The boar and the inscription are probably the work of the Picts, as the fort was occupied before Fergus arrived. The footprint and basin have been interpreted as part of royal coronation rituals for the kings of Dalriada. It is even speculated that the infamous Stone of Destiny was used at Dunadd before going to Scone – and then onwards to Westminster Abbey and more recently Edinburgh Castle. In fact, Dunadd and the rock on which sits Edinburgh Castle all have something in common – something that is also shared by Dumbarton Rock Castle. All are geological anomalies: solitary hills rising from an otherwise relative plane. All were sites of kingship. All sites sit close to the sea and in the case of Dumbarton Rock, it has remained most in touch with its island origins, sitting on a peninsula, with the River Clyde on one side and the River Leven on two more. Dunadd is twin peaked and so is Dumbarton Rock; many have pointed out that this hill resembles a woman’s breast.
Like Dunadd, Dumbarton stretches back in the past. The presence of a settlement is first recorded in a letter St Patrick to King Ceretic, the King of Strathclyde at Alcluith (or Clyde Rock, i.e. Dumbarton Rock) in about 450 AD. In it he complained about a raid the Britons had made on his Irish converts. In the following centuries, the Rock remained the seat of kingship: the capital of Strathclyde. It underlines that in Scotland, kingship was installed on solitary hills that possessed powerful symbolism – and Dunadd fits perfectly in this framework.

Dumbarton Rock & Dunadd

There is another ingredient that would have underlined the sacred nature of this area, though this time, it is not found on land, but on the sea. This is Corryvreckan, the famous whirlpool, which you can still explore on boat-trips from nearby Crinnan.
The whirlpool or Corryvreckan is part of Scottish legends – and many abound. The most interesting one is that of the Cailleach, the hooded or veiled one, also known as the Hag of Winter, the deity that spread her blanket of snow over the region. It is said that the Cailleach washed her plaid (i.e. her tartan, i.e. her blanket) in the Corryvreckan whirlpool. The name is believed to come from Coire Bhreacain = the Cauldron of the Plaid. In ancient belief she was particularly known for spreading the harsh weather of winter and for living on mountain tops. Ben Nevis is associated with her and some argue that on a clear day, Ben Nevis, the highest point on the British Isles, is visible from this area.

In short, the whirlpool is a great event: these spinning cauldrons are formed where tides crash or sea water is forced into narrow vortices. The Corryvreckan is one of only seven major whirlpools in the world and the biggest and most dangerous in Europe. The Gulf of Corryvreckan is over 300 feet deep, but when the whirlpool is at full power, the depth of the water is less than a hundred feet. The particular cause of this awesome power is a subterranean spike, called An Cailleach, which causes the great Atlantic waves to form into a giant vortex and create the whirlpool.
Even on calm days the swell of the Corryvreckan can be several feet. When the whirlpool is at its wildest (at the beginning of winter) the sounds can be heard twenty miles away and more. It must have brought about images of “the thunder of the gods”… or “the Cailleach washing her plaid”.

Richard Bradley has made a convincing argument that rock art should be studied as landscape archaeology. Kilmartin Valley is indeed an area that can only be understood through its landscape: the whirlpool and the solitary hill of Dunadd are natural features that were understood by our ancient ancestors as religious significant. The hill was used as a seat for kingship, conform to similar applications elsewhere in Scotland (and indeed beyond). But kingship and the Afterworld go hand in hand, and it is here that the Valley has maintained an impressive record, of which the Linear Cemetery is its most visible remnant.
It is fortunate that Kilmartin Valley remained off the beaten track. It means that we have a preserved area that can speak to us from several thousands of years in the past – and leaves us able to understand what it tries to impart to us: its meaning. But it is equally clear that its story has not yet been told completely, and that archaeologists – in fact, all of us – need to continue to research and try to understand what the land is trying to tell us. It is, in fact, listening to the sound of the Cailleach when she is washing her plaid, and understanding what is saying about this corner of the land that was once its centre.