Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page

Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XIX - Connel Moss - Lake Dwelling


Ian.—This time I think it would be better to walk over the moss and learn to jump over the wet places: it is a weary thing to wander along a straight smooth road, but on a moss we leap from tuft to tuft, and it keeps up our spirits and gives us a springy step.

Margaet.—And wet feet. I must dance like a young girl to get along; you are much older, but you Highlanders keep up your vitality.

Ian.—Of course; by walking over mosses. Well, I will show you something wonderful. I will lift that grass and dig black peat from below, and near the peat I will show a wooden foundation. We shall see ashes and bones, with proof enough that these wild looking places were not wildernesses in all times.

That hollow is a watercourse for a small stream: it once held a greater supply, but the water was sent down the other way, namely by Achnacree, about a hundred and twenty years ago. You see that where the water flows most rapidly there is green grass ; where it is most stagnant there is moss, and where there is little or no water there is heather.

Margaet.—But that is quite flat. Surely it never contained a stream.

Ian.—The broad flat part was a little lake from which the stream flowed, and the name was and is Loch-an-Tawail by sound, which may be Loch-an-t'Samhuil or Loch-an-t'Shomhairle, the Loch of Samuel or the Loch of Somerled. It is sometimes flooded now, and was more so when I was a boy, and I used to wade into that green place in the middle, which now is difficult to distinguish from the rest.

Sheena.—Yes, yes; it is all nothing. Willie and I walked over it and there are only a few holes and a few stones. Like so many things we come to see, they are all gone before we come. I expect the hills soon to disappear; indeed I should not be surprised if they are gone when we waken to-morrow, these antiquities produce so many illusions.

Cameron.-If a mist comes over the hills or over your eyes you will not see much, and a thick mist of peat covers that which you will see here. The best part is not on the surface. In this hole, into which you looked carelessly, are seen beams or rather young birch trunks lying horizontally heaped over each other like pig-iron. This extends to the bottom. I am not sure of the deepest, but some are about five layers deep, perhaps usually four, and others may be more. There is a nearly oval figure formed by a slight raising of the turf, and in the middle is a still higher part. This oval is about 50 feet long and 28 broad; it evidently marks the dwelling, but the tree foundation goes beyond this to the breadth of 6o feet. And now I will leave you to ask questions, or to read a description which I have taken out of a book. The book itself is new, as the discovery was made but lately.

No piles were seen. There were many leaves, half rotten, and a few branches. The young trees had been felled with sharp axes ; there was none of the clumsiness of the stone age. The encircling mounds were but a few inches high, but they showed organic matter decaying and turned into peat. It seemed as if a double wall of wattles had existed, it might have been peat or grassy turf. I saw no proof of clay to fill up the chinks: the Highlanders do not object to chinks even now.

The wood was birch. It is near the "Lake of the birches."

There are few trees that can give it that name now, but we can imagine a time when there were many birches. Many scores of the same class must have been laid under this spot. At the cast end of the oval was an elongation not surrounded by the turf mound. I believe the foundation extends along it, and I suppose this to have been a platform before the door, a place for the inhabitants to sun themselves, and a landing and disembarking spot. (This platform was afterwards found to extend all round.)

In the middle nearly, but a little to the westerly end, of the oval house was the fire-place. It is higher than the rest of the space. It is here that the bones were found, with shells and nuts. Under a few inches of a white powder is the hearth. It consists of four flattish stones; under the stones is also to be found more peat ash and some few remnants, but very few, of the substances connected with food. There were no implements, but we did not look into the most promising spot. They, if at all, will be found farther from the fire. Under the ashes is a floor of clay about six inches thick. This is laid as flat as our wooden floors are.

At the east end, at an opening or door apparently, to judge from the failure of the encircling mound, was another smaller and ruder fire-place. The stones supporting it were found, with abundance of peat ash, bones and nuts. But the finest fire-place was at the west. The end was that of an oval, and a large fire-place was at the extremity, with bushels of ashes. The fire-place was rudely made by a bank of flattish stones raised above the floor. On each side was a raised seat, made also of flattish stones, and quite broad enough to serve for two or even three persons. These seats were the chimney corners of the chief inhabitants, and fine fires they seem to have had. The seats might have been covered, and in any case I do not doubt that they were comfortable. There were then three fire-places in the length of fifty feet, increasing in importance until the west was reached.

On the outside of the enclosure, a large amount of nutshells was found as if thrown over into the "yard" in a slovenly way.

There is a full account of lake dwellings in Switzerland by Professor Keller; this comes nearest to that at WauwyI. There are no piles.

There were found several wooden pegs, and a piece of a knife not larger than a large pocket one, a hook such as might have been used to hang a pot, several pieces of skin soles, and a slipper of thin skin rather neatly made, not in the Icelandic fashion. There was also the side of a wooden basin well turned. The wooden articles dried up, shrivelled, and completely changed their shape in the open air; but a comb was preserved by being kept in a box filled with peat, which was allowed to dry slowly for two years. It was made of wood, one side having smaller teeth than the other.

This dwelling was larger than single rooms in the Highlands now are. It may, like Deirdre's, have contained three apartments. The people need not have been lower in civilization than some we see now, if houses are to be the criterion. The bones found were split up in the recognised prehistoric

method. This is supposed to indicate a scarcity of food : it may also indicate an idle way of spending time and lounging over the meals, as well as a liking for marrow, in which we succeed them. When thinking whether it was possible to judge from this as to the age of the remains, I asked some friends who had been brought up in the Highlands, whether any peculiar attention was ever given to the marrow of bones generally, independent of the admired "marrow bones."

I heard of nothing like splitting bones among the inhabitants, but it is known in Iceland even now. A lady from near Loch Broom said that her father had a peculiar knack by which he could break a bone, and he occasionally performed it as a feat before his sons and guests, using a leg of a sheep. The lady did not know if it was done by strength or by skill, but thinks it required both. Her brothers, who were strong men, often tried, but could not accomplish it. This is an evident relic of early times. As many of the prehistoric are also contemporaneous habits, it would be interesting to trace out that of bone splitting more fully.

And now as to the age of this dwelling. The peaty turf over it was soft and full of fibre. I see no reason for arguing great age from this. Even allowing a very long term for its growth—a foot in a century—we have only three hundred years, and, as until 1740 there was a greater supply of water to it, the growth may have been more rapid. On the other hand, the stream, in former times, went through here, and it may have washed off the surface of the moss or prevented the increase. The trees, however, are quite rotten, and although in every respect looking fresh, even preserving the perfect appearance of the bark, the spade goes through them with ease. Birch does not keep well under water; still, although easily crumbled by the fingers or cut by the spade when wet, it became actually hard and strong when dried. It seems as if the water united with the woody fibre, and made a soft compound or hydrate. This compound was easily decomposed by driving off the water. It is analogous to the soft gelatinous hydrate of alumina or iron which becomes hard by drying.

The circumstances are a little contradictory. The size and independent position of the house might point to a person of some local village importance: do the split bones and the poor hearth take us far back, if so how far ? We do not require to go out of this century in Scotland to find men having only two apartments and still giving judgment as magistrates or so-called bailies to the neighbourhood for miles, and keeping the peace better than more learned lawyers have been able to do. In the Highlands I have myself seen men living in hovels, dark and inexpressibly low in material civilization, whilst the inmates had really as much good feeling and general wisdom in their speech as many men who gave much better dwellings to their cows, and incomparably better to their horses.

The dwelling does not show the civilization of the occupant correctly, neither does the food. In the dwellings mentioned, the food seems to have been far inferior in variety and elegance to that used in the lake dwellings of Switzerland among men who are said to have worshipped the water and the moon.

If the dwelling does not show the condition in civilization of the individual, neither does it of the race. We have dwellings from London to Caithness and Kerry in abundance, as uncomfortable as those of many savages, but out of some of the worst some of our best minds have emerged.

According to Scott, many of the Highlanders of the last century were savage, but a sudden peace brought an almost instant civilization. The talent for rising was there; where was it prepared? Such a change is not made among negroes except in rare individuals. The theory of development forbids us to believe this sudden step to be taken by any nation never previously affected by civilization. This, I believe, is a very important point. Such a step proves the organization to have been previously developed. The organization of a nation cannot be supposed to develop at once, not even that of an individual. I do not therefore expect to find savage traits among such people, except so far as the necessity for struggling produced savage habits, just as we see that it produces them in war in our own times.

In order to see if a wild race has a developed organization, it would be needful to bring up some of the infants to civilized ways. If they showed an incapacity, we might presume, if the numbers were sufficient for a good experiment, that they were really savage. If they showed a capacity, we could not imagine them to be properly savage. The power may lie dormant, but cannot far precede, we may suppose, its first exercise. This is said without objecting to the supernatural.

As there is no reason to suppose that, however inferior as architects, the men were savage, let us now look for the inhabitants. Who were the people that cracked nuts at that hearthstone? Did the "mighty Somerled" live in this lake dwelling?—or perhaps some of the relatives? We are told that he had possessions both on the mainland and the Western islands. His power went to the second son, whose descendants are Macdougalls of Lorn, and live within six miles of this place.

Did not Somerled, who died in the twelfth century, live in a stone castle? It is most probable. One of the family may have done otherwise. It is only certain that he was closely connected with this neighbourhood. We do not depend wholly on traditions concerning him, as the family and this Ioch have kept the family name.

A piece of wood with a cross burnt on it caused a good deal of interest. This kind of cross is not uncommon in the old Irish remains. It is a Greek cross with crosslets, and has been imagined to indicate a time before the Latin Church entered. It is, however, an old form also in Iceland, which greatly weakens all this speculation, already shown by Dr. Stuart to be incorrect. Indeed, we may see almost exactly the same forms in his great work, "The Sculptured Stones of Scotland."

As the present Icelandic forms are identical with the cross found, so may the purpose be; but we know that religious forms sometimes degenerate into such things as witchcraft and charms. Mr. HjaItalin tells me that they make in Iceland exactly the same cross, but without the circle, on a piece of paper, as a charm when going to wrestle. It is put in the shoe with these words:

"Ginfaxi under the toe,
Gependi under the heel,
Help me the Devil,
For I am in a strait."

These words at the beginning may be very old, the meaning not being clear I am told. Mr. Hjaltalin also refers to "Travels, by Umbra," for several varieties of crosses like these. [A cross with different lines upon it is given by Jon Arnason in his "Islenskar bjodsogur og Aefintyri," vol. I., p. 446, and Ginjaxi under it. The charm is given a little different on p. 452.]

It may be repeated that I do not consider the lake-dwelling to be very old.


Return to Book Index Page

 


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus

Quantcast