the original Scottish capital
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.