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The Lews Antiquities

ALTHOUGH geologically the oldest formation in Europe, the Lews must have been one of the latest settled. We need not look here for evidences of existence during the drift period, or contemporaries of the cave-dwellers of France or Southern England, for at that time the Lews was either bound under an eternal Arctic winter, or, sunk beneath the waves, stranded the floating icebergs, and received the boulder deposits from their melting decks. Along the west coast a continuous series of rounded boulders, evidently of glacial deposit, cover the land, and the forms of the lower hills evidence the action of grim winter, as it loosened its hold of our islands, and retired struggling to the Northern wastes.

We shall not then seek for drift deposits, nor need we look for signs of the long-headed cave-dweller, for they might chase the mammoth or the cave-bear across what is now the Straits of Dover, but could find no rest for the soles of their feet beside the Barvas hills. If this race still survive in the Esquimaux, they must have crept northward by way of Northern Europe, probably at a time when the North of Britain was uninhabitable. At any rate, neither of this race, nor of the more modern people allied to the Lapps—who, according to Nilsson, were the keen-witted race who formed the “fairy bolts,” lived in underground dwellings, and were rooted out by the more powerful Teutons—do we know anything here. Unless they appear in this story from Martin: “The Island of Pigmies, or, as the natives call it, the Island of Little Men, is but of small extent. There have been many small bones dug out of the ground here, resembling those of human kind more than any other. This gave ground to a tradition which the natives have of a very low-statured people living once here, and called ‘Lusbirdan' i.e. pigmies.” Does this point to a remnant of the Lapp race that had taken refuge in these farthest outlying islets of Scotland, the Flan-nan Isles, or Seven Hunters? It is supposed that this latter race were the builders of the beehive dwellings and underground houses found in various parts of the mainland. Does this necessarily prove that the beehive houses and underground dwellings of the Lews, some of which have been recently inhabited, were of their erection? We think not. We do not see the necessity for dragging in Lapps, or even Iberians, to build, although they may have originated, any ancient dwelling on the Long Island.

Let us take the population as it at present exists. No one can doubt for a moment that it is essentially and unmistakably Celtic. Indeed, in Scotland, at any rate, it is only necessary to look at the map, or read the statistics of the country, to tell where a Celtic population is to be found. Is there a good fishing-station, or an energetic centre of any given industry :—you may safely affirm that Scandinavian or Teutonic, never Celtic, energy or enterprise has originated and developed it. The Celtic races, with the important exception of the Cornish men—if it is an exception—never seem to become thorough seamen. They are tillers of the soil, to which in general they are passionately attached. The Lews is no exception to this rule, as the Scandinavian settlement is the only vigorous fishing community. Not that Ness is the only Norse portion of the Long Island, as the occupation of many hundred years has naturally left its stamp on the inhabitants throughout the country. But out of Ness the Celtic blood, which was necessarily that of the women, has absorbed alike Northern energy and Northern instincts.

Granted then that the present population is Celtic, with a Norse admixture, we must reason back from the present if in any way it can explain the scattered and shattered remnants of the past. First, as to their dwellings considered with reference to antiquity. These have unquestionably, up till recently, diminished in constructive skill and stability. This is to be accounted for by the great increase of population during the present century, and the far more subordinate position of the sub-tenants as compared with that they enjoyed under the ancient chiefs. Their shielings on the moor, in which the women spend a great part of the summer, are built exactly as the beehive dwellings, but of more perishable materials. In the vicinity of Shawbost there are still several of these stone-built and roofed beehive houses, occupied in the summer by the cotters; and one, in the immediate vicinity of Garynahine, shows the roof well built of large overlapping stones, so as to form a strong-built dome. Otherwise, however, it is the same as the numberless shielings spread over the island, with two low opposite openings into which to creep, holes in the wall for the milk-dishes— showing a pastoral existence—a rude chimney proving an advancement on the present erections, where no chimneys are found.

Thus we see that unmistakable Celts in modem times erect and dwell in beehive houses; the exigencies of the climate, the country, and poverty having carried these onward into modern life: reminding one of a street Arab standing, - bewildered and out of place, on the threshold of a London ball-room.

Are they a natural product of poverty and necessity, or have they any distinct connection with the modem Esquimaux habitations and those of the ancient Lapp inhabitants of Northern Europe? Were they adopted from an exterminated race in previous possession, or brought north by the Celts themselves, as we find them also in Islay and elsewhere in the west ? We have no data for any conclusions on this point, and without them speculations are valueless. Still, it is worthy of observation that stone implements are rare, and all we are acquainted with can be told off on the fingers. These may also be of very recent manufacture, as a people, so destitute of metal instruments even lately, would unquestionably use stone; and we were informed of stone hammers having been in use in the west within the century. An underground dwelling recently opened at Gress, and containing quantities of bones split to extract the marrow, showed evident signs of having been inhabited long subsequent to the original habitation—say within two hundred years—from the freshness of the bones, which had yet been broken with stones.

Besides the ordinary black-house and beehive dwellings, a better class have prevailed. Take, for instance, the rectangular dwelling of good size, built on an island on a loch above Dalebeg. This must have been placed there for defence, as the island is too small to be of use either for pasture land or agricultural, so that the building must surely be some centuries old.

All these circumstances point to the belief, that in former times, as at present, the unprogressive Celt erected his human stye alongside the comfortable or lordly dwelling of the invading Teuton; that he may have done so for twelve centuries or twenty; and that speculations based on the probable age of such dwellings elsewhere must be received with great caution. Groping, as we are, in the dark at present for fragments of the ruined milestones leading back into the past, it is more important to read one stone clearly than to jump to conclusions respecting twenty. We shall, therefore, leave these perishable erections, and see if we cannot read approximately the more striking, if not more important, “milestones” left standing by the way.

The most prominent of these is the megalithic structure known as “Turusachan,” or the Cal-lernish circle. It is, following the survey, 13 miles due west from Stornoway, consists of 48 stones, and the highest point of the hill on which it is placed is 143 feet above the level of the sea. The circle is 80 feet above the sea, 42 feet in diameter, with the centre stone 17 feet high. All are of unwrought gneiss. Inside the circle, lying east and west, is a cruciform grave, whose position the centre stone may have indicated. In this chamber, according to Dr. Stuart, were found fragments of incinerated human bones, imbedded in an unctuous substance apparently composed of peaty and animal matter.

So far as the name goes the derivations are arranged to suit the advocate who is analyzing it for a particular theory. Thus, the Druid theorist—“call, a circle, church, or temple; aim, of the judge; geis, of sorcery; call-airn-gheisy the circle or church of the Druidical judge. This shows why the circle was so large and so distinguished. And there is little doubt that, in the republics or states of the Hebrides and Orkneys, the population may have been nearly, perhaps fully, as numerous as on the plains of Salisbury and Avebury.”

According to the Surveyor-general, Callernish is bleak or cold headland; Callanish, place of assembly for worship, or calling to prayer; Turusachan is a place of pilgrimage; Tursachany place of sadness, sorrow, or weariness. But the Druid theory, that has held sway so long, threatens to succumb before the hardheaded examination of the modern scientist, and certainly the most probable reading is the first, and that, like Vaternish, Trotternish, or the many other headlands in the west, its name is a legacy of the Norseman. Considering that the Lews nomenclature is mainly Norse, this may be taken as granted.

Before proceeding to discuss the probable age of the temple we shall recapitulate a few of the theories that have been brought forward respecting it.

1st. Like all such megalithic structures, it has been claimed for the Druids, whose temples are not mentioned.    .

2nd. The Baal worshippers have claimed it as their own, from a fancied resemblance to the sun set on a stick, which they suppose to have been the original mode of symbolizing the orb of day, here transferred to a more imperishable material. -

3rd. It has been suggested that it is a relic of Phallic worship, but this is altogether fanciful.

4th. The latest theory is that of Fergusson, who is delighted with the discovery that it is twin-brother to a chamber buried under a tumulus at New Grange in Ireland, from which it has been copied, and is, therefore, simply the tomb of a great chief.

5th. It is claimed for the Norsemen, who held the Isles in subjection for so many years; the neighbouring circles having been used as Things by the Scandinavians, as they have been similarly elsewhere until recent times.

We shall endeavour to bring together a few converging facts, and thereby arrive at some more definite notions of the object and date of its erection.

We shall not here combat the Druidical theory, as that is generally discarded; although any one who is acquainted with the extraordinary tenacity of memory of a comparatively uneducated people, who have no masses of light literature to dilute the homely vigour of their faculties, will be most unwilling to discard as valueless, alike inherited traditions and the deep impressions of a people as imbedded in their language. Still, although “to go to the stones ” is to go to church, and the expression must have been long anterior to any modern notions of Druidism, grafted on the old traditions of their fathers, it may refer to a time when the spirits of the mighty dead were their gods, and their sepulchres the only temples.

If a place of worship, the independent testimony of the peat shows it to have been neglected for six or eight hundred years. Well! this is one slight datum to start from. Then as to the form, it is strange to us, that those who chased a resemblance even into the centre of a tumulus, did not observe that it was a plain, unmistakable imitation of an Iona or Irish cross. This cross is sui generis; peculiar, in Europe, to Ireland and the West Highlands; and is generally believed to be the Christian cross with an encircling halo. Here is a peculiarity pointing to its erection posterior to A.D. 565, when St. Columba settled in Iona, taking with him this peculiar form of cross. We are thus circumscribed in our inquiries, the probability being that its date is between the sixth and twelfth centuries.

If not in imitation of the Iona cross, it was probably merely the cruciform arrangement added rudely to the circle. This seems a natural explanation.

But both Scots and Norsemen were builders of megaliths. Was it erected by the Celtic inhabitants? It does not seem natural to suppose that a race accustomed to the elegant crosses of Iona would raise such a rude example: nor would a native race be likely to raise it to their own people when under Norse domination. Nor would the Celtic population raise such a Pagan memorial after the ruin of the Norse power in A.D. 1265.

What reason have we, on the other hand, to suppose it erected by Norsemen?

The other megalithic remains bear a close resemblance to those of Scandinavia, especially a fosse and circle near Garabost, surrounding the top of an elevation on which is a menhir and kist, closely allied to fig. 107, Fergusson’s “Stone Monuments.” Then Callernish evidently having been a circle with a cross rudely added; or else a direct copy of an Irish cross. Again, a large menhir near Barvas was erected in historic times by the Morrisons of Ness, a Scandinavian race, to commemorate a victory over the Macaulays of Uig: it is larger than the centre stone of Callernish. While we have just been reinforced by a description, by Dr. R. Angus Smith, of a place of the same name in Iceland, whose vicinity has likewise been honoured with the presence of an ancient temple.

The numerous remains of churches and nunneries over the Lews show that the country was early christianized, and completely under the rule of the priesthood. It is not reasonable to suppose that the comparatively refined Celts would exhibit such rude power so lately. A people pass from rude force into gradually weaker art, and when art dies they exhibit rude weakness, never rude power.

Consequently we are inclined to the Norse as the most probable agents in their production.

Basing our inquiries on this conclusion, let us see at what time they were likely to have raised them.

The Norse were nominally christianized in A.D. 1000 ; so that prior to that date a pagan people were not at all likely to raise a monument in imitation of those of their conquered subjects. More than this, the two graves discovered within the Callernish circle were cruciform, so far pointing to a Christian origin. This again narrows the probable date down to that period embraced between iooo anda.d. 1263.

But although from the cruciform arrangement, both of the structure and the contained graves, the erection must be subsequent to the year A.D. 1000, still it cannot have been long after that date, as the Norsemen must then have become too deeply imbued with Christian precepts to erect such pagan memorials. It was during the eleventh century that the influence of this northern race was paramount among the islands of the west as far as Ireland, until King Brian, as the champion of the new faith, broke their power. If they had raised this structure towards the end of their sway, the subject race would scarcely have respected it, or left it standing.

So, in reviewing our position, we arrive at the conclusion that the evidence inclines to prove Callernish Norwegian. The name itself; its recently discovered Icelandic counterpart; the custom continued in the Lews into historic times by the Norse descendants; the evident imitation of a Christian cross by semi-pagan warriors, or its addition to the circle; and, lastly, the evidence of the superincumbent peat, which, although uncertain in itself, strongly corroborates the supposition that the stones were raised, in all probability, not earlier than the tenth century, nor later than the thirteenth.

We are inclined to fix the date as the eleventh century, the only one in which the pagan element would be likely thus to intermingle and combine with the Christian.

In a manuscript history of the Lews, written about the beginning of the century, there is an instance of the Druid theory creeping in. After detailing the received account of the Barvas stone, raised by the Morrisons after a battle with the Macaulays, when both parties were nearly exterminated, the writer subsequently interpolates, “yet some maintain that it was placed there by the Druids.” As the writer (Dr. Macrae) was both a medical man and a clergyman, and so likely to be well informed respecting the received traditions of the people, such an interpolation is strongly corroborative of the belief that the Druid theory is of extraneous birth, and had then no foundation in the traditions of the natives. And yet Martin, a century previously, remarked that the tradition of Callernish among the people is Druidical!

The two or three small circles in the neighbourhood of Callernish may have been used as Things, or marked the occurrence of battles. Fergusson’s argument against these circles being places of meeting, seeing they are wholly unsheltered in a boisterous climate, is of no value, seeing that even in these degenerate times the communions are held in the open air, the clergyman alone having a wooden box, while the congregation sit around on gathered stones.

Loch Roag must have been the snuggest and most convenient harbour in the north for the Norsemen, and its vicinity was thickly populated. All round its shores are numerous remains of dunes or brochs, and great tracts of land, now under peat moss, are said to display signs of former cultivation. A mild climate, secure harbour, immediate vicinity to what was formerly the best fishing - ground in the Hebrides, it was eminently fitted for the sea rovers. As the centre of population, at the head of the loch, and readily accessible by boats, it would be naturally chosen as a place of assembly for the delivery of laws, or otherwise.

The Menhir and Kist, near Garabost, surrounded by a fosse and stone circle, are evidently of purely pagan origin. The stones have been originally very large, and the centre kist has been opened in search of treasure. On the low hill opposite is a large menhir known as the “Clach Stein,” the Gaelic having been prefixed to the original Norse.

Leaving the megaliths, we now come to the dunes or brochs, so numerous along the western coast. The MS. history previously quoted mentions the belief that these were dismantled by the Norsemen, having previously formed places of defence for the Celtic aborigines. Let us examine this belief.

In the first place they are never built with mortar,-but formed of well-fitting stones, and yet one or two of them are in tolerable preservation. The old churches scattered through the island have, on the other hand, almost entirely disappeared, although cemented with the most tenacious lime. If these so-called Pictish towers were so ancient as is generally received, would they thus have outlasted the more securely built and more revered sacred dwellings?

In many cases the people have used them as quarries, from which to build their huts, and in no case show any reverence for them whatever. The tales connected with these among the natives have reference to giants, and these are furnished with Norse names.

Again, where are the remains of the Norse strongholds? We know they held the Hebrides for centuries, and this would necessitate places of defence from the conquered subjects. There are one or two castles of comparatively modern date, but where else are we to look for the residence of the Norse rovers, if not to these strong towers?    .

The first conclusion we come to is, that they are not more ancient than the mortared ecclesiastical buildings already fallen to decay ; say those of presumably Culdee origin. We have no reason to suppose they could have outlasted them. Then by whom were they built? Why such towers should be Pictish it would be difficult to explain, except that any inexplicable erection is at once made prehistoric. Are any such towers found in the Pictish or Dalriadic kingdoms? What possible connection is there between these brochs and the known Pictish towers, such as that at Abernethy, the capital of the Pictish kingdom? Such an appellation seems a mere begging of the question.

Then, if not Pictish, are they of Scottish origin? If built by Celts, it must either have been previous, or posterior, to the Norwegian domination. If after the Lews chief had sworn fealty to the Maid of Norway, we should surely have had some knowledge of them, as we are then in comparatively historic times; nor do we know of any necessity on the part of the natives for such strongholds.

Again, to what use could the inhabitants put them? The only suggestion we have seen made was, that they were places of shelter for the adjoining villages in case of Norse invasion. But they are too small to hold the inhabitants of a village; and if villagers were thus to leave their huts unprotected, their most natural as well as most successful manoeuvre would be to betake themselves to the moors, where they would gather strength by junction with their neighbours, in place of cooping themselves up in these little towers.

Now these towers are mostly in the vicinity of the sea, and generally upon a small freshwater loch or river; and around Loch Roag, which we have seen was probably a haunt of the rovers, they are more than usually numerous. Also there is scarcely a loch on the way to Ness without its ruined dune.

We thus find that the district principally infested by the sea-rovers is that thickly studded with dunes. The same holds good on the mainland in the north-western parts of Inverness, Sutherland, and Ross-shire, as well as in Orkney. They are seldom far from the sea, as if leaning for support upon their galleys, and are just such towers as invaders unskilled in masonry might erect, among a hostile population. Too small to shelter a village population, they are sufficiently large to accommodate a handful of resolute men; and scattered along the seaboard would yield each other support while overawing the people.

If they had been built by the natives to prevent the landing of rovers, they would have been built still nearer the sea, and in very different situations; nor would they have required the immediate vicinity of freshwater lochs if secure of the sympathy of the population. Nor can any one who has examined them suppose them to be of the nature of guard or watch towers, as one can rarely be seen from the other, and a people afraid of incursions from the sea would surely have built their towers on eminences, whence the coming danger could be seen and telegraphed.

Indeed these considerations, together with the fact that the north and west coasts and the Isles are the districts where these towers most do congregate, as the Norsemen did formerly, and the traditions of giants inhabiting them with Scandinavian names, as the giant Glum in Uig, all point to a Norse origin. The only towers at all resembling them, of which we have knowledge, are those built by the early Norse settlers in Greenland, at Ericsfiord, settled by the Norsemen in the eleventh century, as mentioned by Hayes. We do not acknowledge their similarity to the Sardinian.

It is natural enough that a race of rude circle builders, whose possible Things are in the midst of the dune district, should have erected round towers of large unmortared stones, in which each petty chief might exercise as uncontrolled authority as in his war-galley.

It may be interesting to add the following note from Gardiner’s “Indians of Chili”—“Near the Andes several rest-houses at regular intervals were erected. They are built entirely of burnt brick, laid on lime, with a coped roof of some material supported by an arch which forms the ceiling. May not those remarkable towers, called dunes in Scotland, have been erected for purposes somewhat similar?” To this a friend replies, that as several are occasionally found close together the similarity is imaginary.

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