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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XIII - The Fort of the Sons of Uisnach commonly called Beregonium


"Do gluaisedar rompa go daingen Mhac n' Uisneach acas go Loch n' Eitche an Albain."
"They went to the fort of the sons of Uisnach, which is at Loch Etive in Alban."

Loudoun.—I think I shall stand on the fort, and give you quite a lecture on the subject. It may be dry, but it will serve for conversation afterwards.

I have ventured to adopt, or at least to hold provisionally, the opinion that the vitrified fort of Dun Mac Uisneachan was inhabited in the early centuries of our era. We need not be desirous to define particularly the date to a century or two. Traditions and the dawnings of history, like the fancies of childhood, are mixtures of the real and the ideal, whilst time and place are not very distinctly bounded.

All fancies about earthquakes, volcanoes, and lightning, go also from the site—fancies which I would not mention had they not been entertained by men whose opinions are to be respected on other subjects.

The hill on which is the Fort is long in proportion to its breadth. The top is pretty well defined, as the sides are almost everywhere either very steep or actually precipitous. The length is from 250 to 300 yards, according to the point of starting; its breadth at the most 5o. The broader part is near the west, and looks on the Bay of Ardnamuic, with a magnificent view around. This part is most fitted for habitation, and has been most inhabited; it is also farther from the side where the rise is more gradual and an attack easier. Here about the highest part were the houses built, or at least the more important, and here were the meals, as sufficient remains show. On the north of this part are natural walls, One may say, as well as on the south, and between these, well defended from the storms, the principal dwellings were built. On the west there is a space of nearly 40 yards before reaching the precipice that formed the boundary on the shore. The central living place, was 30 yards broad by about 45 long.

The debris was not rich, except in bones of common animals; but here were found the iron brooch which I shall show, also the mica and bronze wire. The mound on the land side seemed to be natural, and only an accident led me to doubt this. It was found to be the remains of a strong wall regularly built, and defending the inner part of the fort even after the rest of the enclosure, or top of the hill to the east, might be taken. About 6 feet high of the debris still remains, but it slopes down gradually, and is covered with grass. The inside was not so high as the outside of the wall. There was an inner wall, apparently more carefully built than the outer, and more fitted for a house than a fort. This inner wall followed the slope of the ground, and did not form rectangular apartments. The enclosure, however, is not all dug up. There was an entrance to it from the western court, as we may call it, through a narrow passage.

Vitrified walls are found along the outer edge of the hill in most places, and on the western part an inner wall runs along them, the breadth and space between being about 9 feet. The vitrifaction is never carried inside, where a more refined work was required. The vitrified wall is not built on absolute precipices, but on those parts less difficult to scale. The cross walls, even those defending the central or high enclosure from the camp, are not vitrified.

At a point of the northern wall there was dug up a piece of enamelled bronze, 13 inch in diameter. It seems to have served as a cap or cover, as there is a hollow on one side into which something may have fitted. On the other are concentric circles, the hollows being filled with enamel, and that of a red colour, whilst the centre piece is of a slight yellow. It belongs to the class called champleve.. Ornaments of concentric circles are by no means uncommon in the drawings of Stockholm bronze objects by Professor Montelius of Stockholm, and there are many in Mycenae, but the enamel points rather to Celtic art, without determining the century. I should be glad to have some indication of the origin. Concentric circles are ornaments on many works of art; they are found on the ancient sculptures of this and neighbouring countries, as well as on the remains in Schliemann's Trojan Collection. Schliemann gives figures of them in his volume, p. 137, and on plate xlvii., English edition, where also circles of depressions are seen, although on a small scale, not unlike northern cups and circles as on p. 235. The red oxide of copper gives the colour to the circles on the ornament found here. The yellow central piece is very like that used a good deal by the Japanese, and said to contain silver. This centre piece is so small that I am unwilling to destroy any for examination ; besides, it is entire, whilst the enamel of the circles round it has come out to a large extent.

These points are made out:-

(1.) The weaker parts of the dun were walled, the outer wall, or part of wall, being vitrified.

(2.) The wall of the western part is double; the outer being vitrified, the inner built in layers of flat stone, 9 feet being the distance from surface to surface.

(3.) The interior walls were built without mortar, whether they were cross walls or formed a lining to the outer wall.

(4.) The eastern wall of the inhabited part had been rebuilt in a ruder way, partly at least, by using some of the waste of a vitrified but broken down portion.

(5.) The occupation was continued after the ruin of the chief structure, perhaps by stragglers, or as poorer cottages now linger about ruins.

(6.) The occupants of a vitrified fort were not necessarily the builders. This fort may have been built for the Uisnachs, and as more than one of this kind is connected with their name, this may possibly be a style which they preferred, although they had other dwellings not vitrified.

(7.) Vitrified forts are not common in Ireland, and the improbability of the Uisnachs bringing the plan or custom over is great; indeed, we may say that they certainly did not. It is probable that the forts were built for them by the people of Alba, and that this was the fashionable mode of building at the time for important persons. I am not inclined to see anything mythical in the name when more than one is called after Deirdre. The word myth is not a very definite one as used by antiquarians, and often denotes merely a fact which has lost its original clearness.

(8.) The vitrified fort was introduced by men who quite understood the mode of putting dry stones together in layers. A part, of the vitrified mass in situ was overlying a built portion of a wall.

Here is a plan of the surface, and a drawing from a photograph of the isolated hill itself.

The surface is so unequal that I cannot give a good idea of it without a number of contour lines and such care in survey, that I do not think I can give it that time or attention necessary, even if I were accustomed to that class of work; probably enough will be shown on the Ordnance Survey map, which is not yet published.

Vitrified walls take us far back, but not necessarily beyond the early centuries of the Christian era, since one existing near St. Brieuc, in Brittany, was evidently built after the Romans had shown their skill there. To the earliest possible date we have no clue further than this, that it would appear as if it were when both iron and bronze were used. Of the latest date we have a probable negative indication. Such forts would cease to be built when the country was laid bare of wood, and that certainly would be after the Roman occupation of the east of Scotland; in the west the habit would last longer. It is probable that they would cease in the east of Scotland before the west, because new ideas came there to break up the life of the earlier times; the habits in the west remained longer allied to those of Ireland. The forts themselves were a fashion brought from the east of Scotland to the west. The later influx of people from the west, or Ireland, was accompanied by no such mode of building, although previously the east, perhaps by way of the north, had inoculated the Western Highlands with the habit, and slightly touched the opposite coast of Ireland.

The vitrified forts are the work of a rude people learning to emerge from the ruder state indicated by building loose stone walls, if we may judge from this of the Usnachs [I purposely spell the name a little differently here, so that it may be seen that there are various methods.] When I say the work of a rude people, men without much external civilization are meant. I have continued to disconnect more and more, as already said, the style of the dwelling and the character of the inmate, except in some particulars, and one of these is that there is often not energy enough to improve the dwelling even when there is knowledge. We see also frequently that there is energy enough to make an imposing house, and not character enough to live up to it. However, the builders of vitrified forts have not shown themselves far advanced in architecture. They had no mortar for the flat stones; still the vitrified method was by no means the only one known, since vitrified parts are found over the built portion. We do not know how much of the fort under notice was covered with dwellings, but the eastern part had many loose stones; these were taken down and used for building the houses now standing below. The most important portion of the fort was that on the highest point, BB (see Plate I.) Nature had provided a hollow between rocks to the north and south of this spot and partly to the west, whilst a thick wall of loose stones was made to the east. A good deal of this wall remains, and has been cut through. This had fallen partly down, and was raised up by using the material around, some of it consisting of vitrified masses which had broken down. It shows a second occupation.

Near the middle of this were apartments with loose stone walls about two feet thick. The drawing scarcely tells how broken down they are, and how difficult it is at times to follow them. Four, however, were fully made out, each rectangular; they are not vitrified, but follow the rule in all these cases—a rule I mentioned before—not to vitrify internal walls. The stones chosen are flattish, and no mortar was used. South of these chambers are broken down walls with vitrified pieces lying irregularly as if some walls had early fallen; a less careful class of men had made their habitations there for a time, living roughly, and leaving abundant evidence of their food in the bones of sheep, pigs, and cattle.

There is a long passage from the western side of this enclosure shown at a a, and various confused evidences of other buildings are also found. The passage is very narrow, and leads out to a fine open space at A looking out to the sea, well protected by precipitous sides and by vitrified walls in most parts, probably at all parts originally.

We may imagine the central rooms to have been the apartments of the chief. Near the surface were found querns very rude, and on the north wall at b, the bronze ornament which I have already described. At the north-west was found part of an iron sword, at c.

A sloping road exists up the so-called Queen's entrance (Bealach-na-Bhan-Righ). I suppose the whole to have been surrounded with a vitrified wall, or one extending along the edge of the less precipitous part. The outer walls have to a large extent fallen down the hill.

G is a large vitrified mass, not connected apparently with any building, and I have supposed it therefore to have been a tower. It is midway between the two elevations into which the summit is divided by a natural depression, although it does not itself stand in the most depressed part; in reality it stands on a prominent part, by no means the highest, although the most central.

C is a varied green slope, on the edge of which near the precipice is a well, concerning which romantic stories have been told, which stories I was unfortunately compelled to prove to be founded on fancies.

D is varied, and gives a variety also of small knoll and dale with rock. At E there are indications of enclosures less formal than at B, BB. At one spot there seems to have been a stone circle. F is a steep green slope before the precipitous part begins.

It will be seen that the digging was not continued all round, but in places sufficiently numerous, I believe.

Here are a few photographs, taken from different points, in order to show the style of building. The view is put by the side of the plan to show the relation of the parts, but is not so exact as the photograph from the same point.

After all, the best general observations regarding these forts are found in the small volume by the discoverer of the first, John Williams, Esq., Edinburgh, 1777, and in the letter of the celebrated chemist, Dr. Joseph Black, then Professor in Edinburgh University. The difficulty of cementation by heat I have never seen, and I believe it need not be much considered. Where basalt is abundant, and where so many mixtures of silica with bases are readily found and made, abundance of fuel will do the rest.

So far my task has been to illustrate one fort only. I believe this is the first time that a regular dwelling has been found in a vitrified fort, or vitrified walls over "dry stone" ones. Of course we can always distort every kind of evidence and speak of previous occupation as being wonderfully far back, and no man can give a reply; but I certainly find no evidence of anything existing in this fort to prove that it belongs to very remote antiquity. Every trifle that has been found points to times that need not have preceded European history, so far as the skill is concerned, and it is unscientific to imagine an age that is not demanded by the evidence. It would be equally unwise to feel certain that the objects and the walls are of the same date, but, taking the whole evidence together, I rather think that a similarity of date is most probable; and when I read of Mr. Anderson's searchings in the Picts' towers, and of the introduction of strong thick walls of stone built without mortar, I naturally think of them as made by people accustomed to thick walls, and, either by imported advice or skill, beginning a new system, seeing that wood was failing, and the old reckless use of it for vitrifying purposes was impossible. That, of course, is a conjecture, and as such it must be left for the present. It is a reason for the Pictish towers following closely on the vitrified.

Since I examined these remains I have looked at those in Rome, and it has surprised me much to find how much that great city in imperial times was built of rubble. Great buildings that astonish us, baths of Caracalla, palaces of the emperors, great arches high and wide, were of concrete and broken masses, and the half spans still hang with the mixture hardened into one stone, almost like natural conglomerate; remains of former houses broken up, with remains of statues, and pieces of bricks, stones, marble, or otherwise, are all smashed together, and the older Rome forms the material for the newer. The buildings, to the very centre of the walls, are a type of the empire itself, where nations were crushed, annihilated, or converted into Romans, to all external appearance, until the outer form broke down, and the real material showed itself. We may thus make these walls a good lesson for the ethnologist.

The vitrified walls, like the Roman walls spoken of, are a kind of rubble work, and this way of building has a dignity which seems not to have been considered sufficiently. Now, in modern times, it is coming again into use, and we seem to be learning, as the Romans learned, that it is extremely expensive to build with quarry stone, or even with burnt clay or bricks, and some of our largest engineering, works are being done with rubble and cement, or concrete. Some may think the use of rubble to have arisen from the primeval habit of making a mound of earth as a protection, a habit common among the Zingari of Hungary at the present day, and seen abundantly in the raths of Ireland. These form walls of enclosure, as common, probably, as the walls to our farmsteads and gardens, and, as a culminating point, ending in the earthworks or walls of the latest fortifications. We can see here the natural growth of ideas, and it needs no communication among nations to cause ideas to grow when the materials and the wants, as well as the machinery, are the same in each to an obvious extent. To determine to what extent they are the same is not easy, but we cannot doubt that the use of earthworks would occur readily to many. The use of cement, however, implies invention; the early Romans did not use it; it became common only when the greatest amount of building was required ; we have not used it until lately, when the demands upon us for building material had put us in a position similar to that into which the Romans were driven when building increased so rapidly under the emperors.

If people were accustomed to build with loose stones, it would be a very natural wish to make them keep together; and if ever a beacon fire raged unusually and burned a part of the wall into one mass by melting, the discovery would be made. Still it requires invention, or at least good observation, to see the value of such an accident; and who can say if some wise stranger did not first find it out and show the example,—some wise man coming from the East, and who had lingered with his tribe in Bohemia, where also a vitrified fort has been found? or shall we account for that Bohemian fort by imagining some soldiers from Caledonia sent by the Romans over the Rhine, and driven farther than was agreeable to them, making use there of their old habits learned at home?

I throw together a number of ideas, but cannot give yet a full examination. I am more inclined to attribute the influx from time to time of the new ideas to the immigration of strangers, whether wanderers or conquerors, than to invention. Marauding has always been a favourite pursuit, and it comes before merchandising. Some one probably came and showed that the Caterthun system of building with loose stones was a bad one, and showed how to build firmly, as on the Tap-o-Noth, and the invention seems to have spread from near that part. Had these new men come as great conquerors, they would have brought many people, and we should probably have had some indication of them; but if they came as wanderers, either marauding or selling, there might be few. I am more disposed to think of a few dropping in at a time when there would be little to steal; besides, at a later time, we have new ideas coming into the east of Scotland, and resulting in the peculiar Scottish sculptures. It is too much to suppose all to have originated on the spot. It was most natural for people from Continental Europe to .come to the cast of Britain first, because of the distance of the western coast, and even from the Mediterranean, it was more natural for navigators who kept near to the land to find Kent than Cornwall. It was probably not until after a long familiarity with the seas that the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula found out that it was really shorter to go to Ireland than to the north of Britain, and probably, almost certainly, this would apply to Cornwall and \Vales. Ireland, in the time of Tacitus, was apparently pretty well known, although that historian has not taken much trouble to describe it.

It is to be remarked that the decided advances in the north of Scotland came after the time of Pytheas, who leaves us an idea of great desolation and poverty; whereas in Tacitus we have iron chariots, which indicate many great strides in civilisation. It is quite possible to believe an immigration to have taken place abundantly in those very early times without our historic knowledge being affected, but it could in that case be of only two races, Celtic or Scandinavian, if language is to he our only guide. Small numbers would account for new ideas and habits without change of tongue.

I did at one time imagine that considerable numbers might have come and brought the face so peculiarly Scottish, which is seen in considerable perfection in the north-cast, or rather from Aberdeenshire to Ayrshire; but now I am more inclined to look at the great extent to which that face is spread in Scotland, and especially to see it prominently in the Pictish districts. It may be an ancient Caledonian peculiarity; where obtained is another question.

There is, of course, a certain amount of fancy in these discussions ; but there are a few more reasons which I hope to be able to make clearer for some of the opinions. New ideas and habits seem to have come in along with the peculiar physiognomy which characterizes so much of Scotland that it may be called the Scottish. If the features referred to are Caledonian, they separate that tribe from the Irish Scot and the Kymry very distinctly. I hope I may be excused for giving this in such hurried sentences; it is a subject that deserves much more minute treatment, but one must only feel the way.

Numerous photographs are very much wanted to illustrate Scottish ethnography. Many varieties of face are seen in our country villages, but there is one which a photograph only can explain, more frequently found in Scotland than elsewhere, and perhaps nowhere else distinctly.


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