The Wester Ross antiquarian

I did say that my recent holiday was going to be non-academic. But very shortly before going I discovered that there had once been a Pictish symbol stone found at a burial site where I was headed, among others nearby, and therefore apparently-Pictish burials. Also, the town website speaks of a vitrified fort, just as recently described. Well, these things merited investigation. Apart from anything else, this is almost as far west as Pictish culture is deemed to have spread, and without the word of Adomnán some people might doubt that you could really have been looking at Picts this close to Skye, because we’re also an easy boat ride from Iona and Kintyre. As it is, he tells (I.27) of the conversion of an aged noble on Skye to whom Columba could only speak through an interpreter.1 So this is fringe Pictish stuff potentially of great importance. Of course, since material culture is portable and language partly a chosen thing, there’s a debate to be had about what it takes to actually qualify as Pictish in such a context, but close confrontation with the material remains never hurts all the same. The fact that they were on a simply gorgeous beach in warm high summer, well, this is just the kind of cross the determined antiquarian has to bear…

A certain historian, er, \'field-walking\'

A certain historian, er, 'field-walking'

But it’s not so easy once you start looking. The town museum, which holds the symbol stone, was closed when we got to it, which also meant that we dithered around not being sure where the fort was supposed to be either. I mean, while standing in it, this looked a lot like a fort’s ramparts:

But almost any outcrop along this coast could look like that. We eventually spoke to a locally-based archaeologist, and he gave us to understand that it was certainly somewhere around there, and that it certainly wasn’t vitrified, but might perhaps have been an Irish-style dún, where the builders had added to already natural ramparts so as to guard the harbour and rivermouth. But, on the other hand, it was such an obvious place for a fort. Does that mean it’s more likely that there was one? or that it’s more likely we’ve imagined one? It’s never been dug, so there’s no way of knowing. And the burials were found in clearing ground for building, which means that they’re now of course built over; so we’re probably looking at them here. Of course we had to spend some time on the beach getting our bearings… If I understand my informants right, then, the tiny headland protruding to the left in this picture is where the fort is supposed to be. You may well go “hmmm” at this assertion, I’m still not sure of it myself.

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Strath Bay and the town of Gairloch

Even the Pictish stone, sad to say, is not very impressive. As said I couldn’t get at it for real, but the following picture gives you the lowdown. A salmon and an eagle, and what they mean is anyone’s guess, an argument for which you can read better things than I could write here. Still, there they are; Picts at Gairloch. Of course the place-name is Gaelic; but St Columba needed an interpreter for the man he converted in Skye, so I imagine it was Pictish spoken here too, when the stone was laid down over whomever it covered. The stone was associated with burials but they weren’t recorded; the article I borrowed this image from was however published after another grave was found, of a middle-aged woman apparently in good fitness and medium height. Rest easy in Pictish madam, beneath the houses where even Gaelic is now a rarity.

More certain archaeology does however exist in the area. Out at a place called Sand, on the way to where I was actually staying, there is a marked-out archaeology trail. What is not so clear about this is whether anyone who actually qualifies as an archaeologist of the relevant period has so qualified it. There has been some digging here, but it’s not clear that it was actually on this site, and anyway what it produced was Neolithic remains. There are, down the river valley it’s set round, a variety of ancient ruins and turf and stone walls used to divide the hillsides up into ‘rigs’, which are a Scottish sort of strip farming with some resemblance to terracing except without the laborious levelling of the ground and the concomitant effects on soil fertility and moisture. How old that is, is anyone’s guess. There is some hint offered by the form of the buildings. Some were clearly roundhouses. I think we also found another one that wasn’t on the map, as a two-metre thick stone wall is hard to miss, though with the bracken as thick as it was on parts of the trail, it was actually possible to miss not only well-preserved ruins but also, very nearly, the route back to the road.

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

Sand Archaeological Trail Waypoint 5, with a roundhouse lost in the bracken at left

No shoes were however lost in the occasional marshy patches and I still got back in time for a beer before the departing bus. All the same: this trail needed some clearing, and it would benefit from someone who knows what they’re talking about giving it a once-over and maybe some proper signage. There were rectilinear buildings too; one overwrote a roundhouse, making it fairly clear which we could expect to be earlier, but as some of the rectilinear buildings were in use in the eighteenth century, seeing in this a replacement of old-style Scottish/Pictish buildings with new tenth-century ones such as we certainly are seeing at Pitcarmick (now there’s a Pictish place-name) is a bit of a leap. The roundhouses, though, they probably were medieval and quite possibly early medieval and I have little qualm about saying that, even if it’s not identifiable, I was walking amid medieval ruins in places here.

One last piece of praise. Out in this part of the world, if you have no car, you must rely on those who do. Public transport, in the form of a minibus, just about reaches Gairloch. Beyond that, you’re hitching. Sometimes, of course, this does not work out; but sometimes, it really does. We did this trail on my last day there, on the way into town to meet the bus. After walking for a quarter of an hour we were kindly picked up by two travellers. My companion, who speaks good Spanish, tried it immediately after noticing that a book on the back seat was in Spanish, and it transpired that we had in the car her, interested in her area and Spanish-speaking; me, historian of medieval Catalonia, poor grasp of Castilian and little better in Catalan, some knowledge of early historic Scotland and its material remains; and, two tourists from Barcelona who told us they’d been hoping to see some of the archaeology but hadn’t found any. This could not have worked out better. They kindly not only lifted us up to the trail, but stomped round it with us with my companion interpreting my guidebook-based guesswork, enthusing, not minding when we got lost, and then dropping us in Gairloch for that beer, all in kindest of spirits and friendliest of miens, with, furthermore, Elvis on the stereo. So this entry is for José Manuel and Teresa; you are stars, and I hope your holiday continued perfectly. Mine was pretty much perfect, after all, so it seems only fair.

view down the valley

Sand Archaeological Trail: view down the valley

Edit: minor details emended and better images used in places.

1. Note, however, that he doesn’t actually say that the man was a Pict; this is just implied by his unintelligibility. I also think that the text implies that while Columba can’t speak directly to the old man, the young men who greet his arrival are apparently intelligible. So I think this is actually evidence for Gaelic acculturation in progress. I gather there is detailed work on this, though I haven’t yet read it, in David N. Dumville, “Primarius Cohortis in Adomnán’s Life of Columba” in Scottish Gaelic Studies Vol. 13 (Glasgow 1978), pp. 130-131.

2 responses to “The Wester Ross antiquarian

  1. Jonathon

    The site of the reputed vitrified fort referred to on is indeed close where you pictured it in your blog, or rather, on the end of it. Your photo taken from standing not in it however, but further inland is on the sizable peninsular of An Ard, but the fortified site is the small outcrop on the end of An Ard.

    A little clue is in your own writing – “but might perhaps have been an Irish-style dún” – the promentory is call An Dùn as on Canmore
    or on the OS map.


  2. Alex, thankyou for the input; I take it the source of funding for your website doesn’t also control signposts for visitors :-) I had fun clambering over headlands anyway. I think I had already updated this post, with feedback from my companion on the holiday, when you commented, perhaps on a cached version; if it still seems off to you, do please comment again.

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