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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XIV - Keills - Connel and its Cairns, etc.


Loudoun.—Let us go again to Kcills. I think I shall keep to the old and familiar word. The post-office has taken the name of Ledaig—the name of the hill and the farm to the south. I prefer to call it Keills—the name of the little church, of which scarcely a score of stones remain, and of the churchyard.

Cameron.—You still refuse to yield to the name of Selma; although there is both Selma and New Selma. Is that not rather unfeeling?

Loudoun.—We have argued that point before, and I must keep to my principles. Keills is an old and respected word, Selma is the embodiment of a fanciful theory.

Cameron.—Why do you try to remove the romance from this spot? Look only at that heath we are passing. I cannot see it without covering it with the spirits of the heroes that lived here. I have already referred to the "traveller unseen, the bender of the thistle of Lora." Excuse me returning to this topic which is so dear to me.

O'Keefe.—That translation, if it is one, is not quite clear enough. Dr. Clerk renders it so:-

"Thou genial breeze, for evermore unseen,
Swaying thistles round Lora of storms,
Wandering through narrow glen of the wind,
Why so suddenly forsake my ear?"

I confess, however, the word "narrow glen" does not suit this broad heath of Connel or Ledaig.

Loudoun —That is one of the passages that seem to me more beautiful and natural in the Gaelic, if I can judge; there may be thousands of the same of which I cannot judge. That is the first sentence in Macpherson's Ossian. It is a fine poetic impersonation. I shall try to translate it simply:-

"Thou pleasant but ever unseen breeze, bending the thistle of Lora of storms; thou that art wandering up the narrow glen of the wind, why so suddenly hast thou left mine ear?"

That is my picture: it personifies the breeze travelling along, a lonely visitor, never seen but by its effects, and it comes at once like a weird spirit that we can never escape. I seldom now see a thistle bending without a mysterious presence seeming to make itself partially known.

Cameron.—I should like you to prove that Lora is a name associated with the falls and the moss and the hill.

Loudoun.—I would gladly prove it, if I could, but first I see no narrow glen, and next I see no reason for calling the peaceful plain "Lora of storms." The scene suggests some place in the mountains. Glencoe or upper Glen Etive would suit better; many other places would suit also.

Cameron.—But is there not an Ossian's cairn over there among the trees, and can you not prove that he was buried there?

Loudoun.—I fear we cannot. There are many claimants, and this has only of late come into notice. I fear it is a name given for want of a name, as one might say, "Giant's grave," and very much as people give names to their houses in Glasgow or in London, the names that are dear to them, however remote in romance or in reality. The mere name is not a proof without the examination of circumstances. Lora seems to me as hard to find as Loda's Hall on Cruachan Ben. This does not destroy the fine feeling of the lines or the deep significance which these vague forms have, as shown in nature here, and in the soul of man, who must so often bend in awe in contemplation of its effects, as well as before its occasional violence. You see therefore that I have sympathy with the feeling, whoever the author may be.

Margaet.—I scarcely like to think of the time you spoke of when glaciers filled the valleys; it would be dreary, and the loch would be impassable. Surely no one could have lived here; it would be a cold desert.

Loudoun.—That is not a fair conclusion. We like to go to Chamouni, which is most pleasant in summer if not very pleasant to most men in winter.

Cameron.—I think people must have lived here even then, because they say that the Dun was an island, and that may be a tradition.

Loudoun.-People say so without reason. It would appear that man did not live here in the glacial period of this island, and certainly not advanced man, but after all we do not know if that age was very long ago. The Dun of Uisnach was not an island when the oldest remains were set up in the plain. The standing stone in the field is very old and weatherworn, apparently older than the Dun. It was not put up when the Dun was an island; it might have happened that the sea came in on the north side and extended pretty far, but not a quarter of a mile; we have another standing stone barring its progress, if we may so speak, and pointing to the fact that people do not put up standing stones in the sea.

Cameron.—Well! look at Ledaig Hill, on the south-west there seem to be cliffs caused by the sea.

Loudoun.—Yes, that may be, and quite in accordance with what has been said.

Cameron.—Besides that there is a place at Ledaig, very little south from the hexagonal school-house, called Tir nan biorlinn, the place of boats, as if it were usual to put boats up there. Biorlinn is a very ancient word, meaning a boat made of one log of wood.

Loudoun.—That suggests a difficulty, but I may give at once a reason why even in very early times the sea can be shown not to have come so far in all probability. South of the clachan of Ledaig, and not far south of the point where the roads from Connel Ferry and Achnacree meet, a few yards from the road on the west side and in a gravel mound, there was found a little stone coffin, one of the smallest, roughest things that could be imagined, as if for a small infant. For rudeness and simplicity nothing could surpass it. It was only about two feet long, made with the boulder stones abundant there. The interior resembled the section of an egg lengthways, and to cover it were two pieces of the clay slate of the district, of the length of the exterior. No remains were found, and no charcoal. It was out of the usual confines of Christian burial, and we can imagine that at a time when only the chief people were buried in cairns or stone structures, some mother had determined that her little one should also have a similar honour, and put up this small one to its memory. It could be . built in half an hour. Unfortunately when it was once opened, people, who had left it all their lives unheeded, disturbed it too much to allow a drawing to be made, even a few days afterwards. Besides this, there was the cairn at the school-house, where many urns were found.

Cameron.—All these on the level of the moss and hank at the Dun, I suppose? Still there might have been an inlet of the sea reaching to the spot for the boats.

Loudoun.—That is true enough, but at the same spot may be seen a pretty deep peat bog, and this, in all probability, covers an old lake, on which people rowed or kept boats in rough weather. It may have been part of the same in which the lake dwelling was found. That is a little farther south, not far from the junction of the roads, and a little east. But we shall spend a day there.

O'Keefe.—We may as well walk on to the ferry. That little stream has made a deep bed which is pleasantly green.

Loudoun.—Yes; and it shows you what the whole land here is made of—rounded boulders, of a small size, with earth intermixed. I dare say the sea is heaping up a little more in certain parts where the tide rolls in most violently. I referred you once to a curious circular spot here when, at Lochanabeich, we had a conversation about a supposed Thingwald, a place for a court according to Norwegian fashion. It is a little south of Ledaig farm-house. I may be wrong. and others might prefer to call it a rath, but it seems too small for any defence. It is more like a place for a baron's court, if such were ever held here, but that might be doubted.

Cameron.—The idea of a baron's court rose from the name given to the similar but much larger circle over at Loch-a-nan-Ragh, which we saw only for a few minutes. Instead of going straight to the ferry, let us cross the moor to Lochanabeich, and see the deep basin, and then pass over to Loch-a-nan-Ragh. I shall read here an account I brought with me, and we may take this occasion to pay a second visit as we intended at the time. It is well to see how another man views it, and I should like to examine it more carefully" When the Baron's Cairn was visited by us, a place near it was noticed called Cuairt a' Bharan, the court of the baron. The court consists of the greater part of a circle, which has been made by throwing up the soil, at present about three feet high, thus making a ditch outside, now filling up with peat moss. In the middle of the circle nearly is an artificial and elongated mound. The circle is not complete to the north-west, and opposite this opening is a large mound nearly as large as the circle itself, and higher than its banks or walls. The wall forming the circle has no peat upon it, but only a little grass on the rough gravel. The mound inside the circle is entirely of peat 3 to 4 feet deep, or much more than the moss around. The inner mound has evidently been raised, that is, in contradistinction to being cut out, and the same may be said of the outer mound; peat could not, so far as I know, grow to such a height above the level of the neighbourhood. I imagined this to be the home of the baron whose cairn was near, and I therefore cut trenches in several directions in order to find traces of the homestead. But within the circle the level part is only grass on a thin soil, the peat having been removed to make the mound, with a little gravel sufficient to indicate this. There were really no remains of a house ; and it appeared much rather as if a Thing or Scandinavian court had been there. And this I do not doubt. The name and the appearance alike point to it. The courts were not held close to towns. The elongated mound in the centre was in all probability a platform of security, as well as of dignity, for the court. The outer mound opposite the open part of the circle would suit well as a place for spectators. Indeed, some such place was absolutely necessary, where outside the wall there was only a ditch. This would account for all that we see. Extremely ancient, therefore, we cannot consider it ; we must look to the Scandinavian times first probably, and to the introduction after that of the more southern institutions, and the court of the baron.

"When examining this court, I was told of the other mentioned as about midway between Connel and Ledaig. This was also examined by trenching, but nothing was found. Towards the sea, on the north-west, there is, as at this court, a raised part. It would hold few people certainly, but the circle was small also. I suppose it was a very general thing, if not a rule, for these courts to be in secluded places. Protection was required for the officers. In the story of Burnt Njal, we see why that protection was required. A difference of opinion on an important point in the trial ended in a battle, and the death of about thirty people. Let us imagine a similar dispute to have taken place at the simple peat court on the shore of the small and shallow Loch-a-nan-Ragh on Ledaig Moss, and we can easily finish the quarrel by the death of the baron, and have him buried under the cairn now called the Baron's Cairn, standing near the Baron's Court. This is, of course, a mere conjecture, but it is one in accordance with a very probable event, as well as the facts of the case as they now stand connected with traditionary names."

However, I judge this cairn to be not from prehistoric times, but, in all probability, from a comparatively modern time. Of course, one may say that the name of the court may have been transferred to the cairn, and if a very great deal depended on the matter, greater care would be required before con-eluding; but there is at present nothing hanging on the result, and I shall leave it with the belief that the traditionary name is correct until some positive reason, however small, shall be found to throw suspicion upon it. Tradition, we see, has much to boast of in this district, as the retention of ancient names shows.

It has been asked, why the courts were made round? We may also say, why were circles made, instead of squares, &c.? Is it not a mark of early work? Children always build round at first: it is for want of a definite idea; they hasten to make the lines meet. Dr. Livingstone could not prevent his Africans from making round walls. A straight line and an angle are exact ideas of later growth.

Loudoun.—No one has been able to explain the meaning of Loch nan Ragh, because they spelt it wrong. Let it be Radh, which is the same in sound and is Gaelic (whereas the other is not Gaelic, so far as I know), and we have at once the Loch of the Speeches or Decisions. See the use of a Thingvalla in that wonderful book, Burnt Njal. It quite agrees with all the rest, and is a beautiful piece of old history.

O'Keefe.—Why not Rath, the Loch of the Rath, and this court might have been a Rath as well as a court?

Loudoun.—True, it is possible, but Radii refers more to speaking, although more fanciful than Rath. We have also the Norse and German word Rath, counsel, for a derivation. It would not seem that this form for a court could be called Celtic, in which case it does not take us to very early times, and I must leave the exact relation to be found. But the baron seems to have been buried near to this, and I shall read an account of the place. We had our luncheon here once, and it is well to come again to renew our acquaintance. It certainly suggests difficulties. "The Baron's cairn" (see Plate) is not so large as some others, and nothing remarkable is seen about it—a dreary heap of stones in a moss. It is not chambered. An opening was made at the top in order to see, and without disturbing the sides in the slightest. Indeed it is too low to be chambered. It has been mentioned by several who have written of this district, and been sometimes spoken of alone as if it were important, but its only importance seems to consist in its having a name that speaks of times less distant than in other cases. No one can tell who was the baron.

Cameron.—As to the enclosure called the "Baron's Court," do you not think that it may have been the homestead as well as the court of the baron? This old garden, as I suppose it to have been, may have enclosed a house. One cannot mistake the changes that take place on turf near inhabited places. The site was chosen probably to be a little off the moss, and near the small lake. It is not mentioned in Sir John Sinclair's Notes, or in the Statistical Account. The choice of place may have arisen from the accessibility. The way from Loch Etive is less mossy if one keeps on the road near to the first little lake, and skirting it for a while, goes on to the second. It may, however, be that the frequent passage of feet has rendered this more solid. It may also be that the solid grass plots around houses near a moss are obtained in a great measure by the occasional tread of feet pressing and draining, as well as by the waste products nourishing a richer vegetation. At present it is interesting to connect a cairn with the old dwelling-place of its occupant. The "Baron's cairn" stands on the soil below the moss, and there is a depression round it as if the moss had been cut down to make abundant room for the cairn. It is not at all probable that a burial, which evidently took a good deal of trouble, would take place in the wet moss. I think this the proper explanation of the resting place of such a cairn, although the weight of stones might cause a depression; and water passing, along with air, continually through the cairn, would remove peat.

Loudoun.—By the side of the loch from Connel Ferry westward, we come to several cairns. One is very large, and the farm takes its name from it, Achnacarn. I will not at present pretend to characterize every one. All those along the road have been diminished in size, and some are scarcely distinguishable. That they should be found along the roads speaks in favour of their being raised when the moss was difficult to traverse. It is true that these roads are new (forty years old); but consider that the line along which they go would even in remote times be passable; that towards the lake manifestly so, as the moss ends there, and that towards the hill would no doubt have been made passable from its convenience for those going from the extreme points of l3endcrloch. The latter must have been frequently traversed, even if the place were thinly inhabited, exactly as it is daily now passed by many persons as well as the postman. At any rate the cairns are near the roads, as a rule, and I think this shows the moss to be older than they. There are one or two towards the cottages of Loch-a-nan-Ragh, and three near Lochanabeich. These were not less than fifty feet in diameter; only the bases remain. Dr. Wilson is quite correct in saying that they stand in the soil below, but we need not consider them older than the moss, nor does he say that they are, although one might infer it. One at the house of Lochanabeich cost a great deal of trouble in digging, but nothing was found. It was large, and the houses and byres were built out of it. Who knows if it was not a mere collection of stones to clear the land, as we see so often in Deeside.

But we may now return to Oban, crossing the ferry again.

Cameron.—Let us watch: at about a mile from the ferry on the road to Oban, we find the house of Sir Donald Campbell of Dunstaffnage, somewhat retreating from the sea. Not far east of the entrance is a small plantation, it marks the spot of a stone circle which was destroyed long ago. Now Sir Donald preserves reverently the very site. One wonders at the usual destruction, as the people spend more strength upon it than would serve to put their garden walls in order, and to sow vegetables, or clean the cow-houses. A little nearer Oban, in the same valley and on the same level as the above, is the farm of Salmore. Inland from the house was a mound partly natural; an opening was made to obtain sand, I believe, in 1874, when a large stone kist was found. The men were below the level of it, and the whole fell down. The stones were built into the wall along the highroad next the house, and when I arrived a few days afterwards, no trace was left on the original spot except a hole in the earth. As this happened only three years ago, we see how memorials of the past leave us.

We shall soon now be in Oban, and as we look at that Castle of Dunstaffnage, we see that, if the situation is not so good for defence as Dun Uisnach, it is at least more convenient for men who sometimes wish to go farther inland.


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