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A History of Rannoch
THE DISTANT PAST


The Distant Past

Hills surround this romantic region, a land whose braes were once noisy with the clash of forays and bitter conflicts, and around whose loch were once the daily sounds of busy villages and thrifty people, which now, but for the storms of nature, is the quietest place under the sun.

Into this quiet valley, thousands of years ago the first men to arrive nosed their canoe down the loch.  They had made their way by stages from the west, venturing further an further each year in search of food.  In Rannoch there were deer and wild boar in plenty roaming the hillsides and thick forests.  There were wolves too.  These hunters armed with spears, arrows and bolas would return to their caves in the West, to return again in the following years. Eventually they extended their journeys further eastwards.  The recent discovery of a dugout canoe by the river bank when the new A9 road was being constructed between Pitlochry and Dunkeld has provided the clue that confirms the theories that ancient man made use of the lochs and rivers as he ventured further and further inland from the West.  The alluvial clay deposited on the top of the canoe has ben ‘carbon dated’ as 6400 BC.

It was many years before such people started to settle in Rannoch.  Recent excavations have revealed that there were early setters here in 4000 BC.  By that time they had acquired the skill to fell trees and clear forests successfully.  The use of efficient tools was necessary for this, and the discovery of the first ancient ‘axe factory’ a few miles away on the slopes of Creag na Caillich shows that the material for such tools was near at hand.

These early settlers were peaceful folk.  They cut down the birch and pine and cleared the dense undergrowth of alder and hazel.  They chose a sunny well-drained place on the hillside above Mullinavadie on the Trinafour road.  Once cleared the land was used for rearing domestic animals and for growing wheat and barley.  Although their settlements were crude; at first they lived in pits roofed over the branches; as time went by they improved their conditions.

Burial Mounds

Later peoples occupying this site deposited their dead inside circular cairns near their homes.  The one here is dated 2400 BC.  There is another burial mound nearby of more recent date.  This is a circular cairn of waterworn stones containing a beaker.  The people who built this grave were a later race called the Beaker People.  They came from the east, from Holland.  They also would make use of the loch and river routes to Rannoch which is part of the largest connecting water system in Scotland.  They came to Scotland around 1800 BC and are so called because it was their custom to put a vessel containing food in with the dead.

Elsewhere, others made their settlements; they lived their lives here and they died.  Most of their burial mounds are at the east end of Loch Rannoch because this is the part that has been occupied more or less continuously since early days.  Three of four of these  can be seen clustered together in the area, called Bunrannoch.  Archaeologists surmise that there were many more but have been destroyed by agricultural work over the years.  Even the ones that remain have been ‘robbed’ but there is still one which gives you an idea of what the originals were like.  It is called Seomar na Stainge, which means Chamber of the Ditch, and it can be seen in the low lying field in front of Innerhadden House.  This is the remains of a bell barrow, a circular mount surrounded by a ditch and an external bank.  The early farmers who built this had their yearly rhythm of harvest, hunting and cattle round up, but with labour to spare at certain times of the year  they dispose and honour the dead.  Sometimes barrows were used over and over again, sometimes they were for single burials.  This particular one seems to have been of greater importance than the others, for its name lingers on, and in later years it was connected with the visit of William Wallace to Rannoch.

Standing Stones

These same people were responsible for erecting the standing stones which probably date back to between 1500 BC to 2000 BC. They are one of the unsolved mysteries of prehistory, and in recent times many theories have been put forward regarding their original purpose.  It used to be a popular belief that the Druids had built them as places to worship.  The local stones that bear names are suggestive of Druidal rites.  The one near Bunrannoch House is called Clach na Boile which means Stone of Fury.  The one at Craiganour is Stone of Sacrifice (Clah na h-Jobairte) and the ‘four poster’ in the forest above Loch Tummel is called Na Clachan Aoraidh which means Stones of Worship.  These names are possibly fanciful.

The Druids probably made use of these stones but they certainly were not responsible for erecting them for the Druids arrived much later in History.  No one is certain why the stones were put where they were.  Many learned men support the idea that they were used by prehistoric astronomers for studying the movements of the sun and moon.  Others maintain that they were built by the ancients to form an invisible network of straight lines that run through Britain linking hundreds of sacred sites.  These have been give the name of Ley lines and the theory behind them is that the ancients had psychic powers which we have lost whereby either they sent waves of mental energy along them or they used them as sort of radar beacons for navigation.

While we are following these fanciful theories we might as well consider one of the many others….Space travel!  Ufologists believe that the stones were cosmic beacons by which astronauts could direct their spacecraft when they visited earth thousands of years ago and the barrows are crude earthen replicas of spacecraft built by the local people to worship the visitors from outer space.  The close resemblance between the barrow Seomar na Stainge and the various types of UFOs reported over Britain supports this theory.

Seomar na Stainge is quite close to Clach na Boile but the Craignaour Stone (Clach na h-Jabairte) is actually on top of a barrow, although it is thought that burial mound was made later.  It is not surprising that an early writer associated this stone with Druidal rites.  A few yards away are the remains of a hut circle, along the lochside is an oak grove, there is a view of Schichallion, the Mother Mountain, and the stone is called The Stone of Sacrifice.  Plenty of material there for imagination and romance.

The Standing Stone at Loch Rannoch Hotel has no burial mound near it although it is associated with a death.  It has got the name Clach-a-Mharsain which means the ‘Stone of the Packman’, after a wandering pedlar who had been traveling from house to house with his haberdashery, buttons, thread and ribbons in a pack slung over his shoulders.  He sat down by the stone to rest, putting his pack on top of it.  Unfortunately, it slipped down the back of the stone.  The loop at the front caught round his neck and the weight of the pack prevented him from feeing it and it throttled him.  In spite of its modern name it is just as old as the other stones of the district.

Tow of our other local standing stones were adopted by the early Christians.  Near Tombreck, now a lonely isolated farm, in an area which, from earliest times, has been peopled with busy folk, stands a solitary stone.  It is leaning badly but it has had a Christian cross carved on it.  If only it could tell it story, for in its immediate vicinity there is much of Rannoch history to be discovered by the keen observer.  The race of people who erected the stone also marked a nearby rock with the mysterious cup marks that have puzzled archeologists through the centuries. There are two duns (circular forts).  The duns were built by a later group of inhabitants and there are the remains of three settlements and the husbandry connected with them.  In one of these there is a corn drying kiln, another one was a small township with the tackman’s house over-seeing the cottages of this tenants and all dominated by the view of Schichallion.

A few miles from Tombreck is the standing stone of Lasintulloch.  This pagan stone has also in later years been inscribed with a Cross, and in addition a Celtic Church has been built round it.  It was quite common practice for the early Christians to assert their authority over ancient pagan remains and, in the early days, to absorb quite a number of pagan beliefs.

Cup and Ring Marked Stones

A further mystery that the ancient people of Rannoch have presented us with is cup and ring marked rocks.  These boulders and outcrops have small carved cups on their surface, sometimes with rings as well.  Their purpose is still unknown.  Could they be charts that explain the motion of the planets round fixed stars?  Are they a sign of ancient doodling or are they, as many now believe, a sign that gold, cooper or tin are to found in the vicinity?  They certainly conveyed some message to these people, whether they lived in Rannoch or in far off Scandinavia.

The ring symbol is rarer than the cup mark and the only one so far discovered in Rannoch is to be found in the grounds of Tullochcroisk.  Stones with cup marks only can be found at Tombreck (as we have just seen), Braes of Foss and Uamh To a Mhor Fhir (The Giant’s Cave).  The latter one has a greater number of cup marks on it for its size than any other in Britain but I must admit that although I have searched the vicinity thoroughly I have not located it.  Sometimes cups are found carved not only on rough boulders, but also on flat slabs.  One such slab is to be found in the Steading next to East Tempar.

Hill Forts

‘Where Loch Ericht discharges its water there is a rock, upwards of 100 yards of perpendicular height.  On its summit, which is barely accessible are the remains of a fortification 500 feet long, 250 feet in breadth.  The wall upwards of 15 feet in thickness is composed of great stones without mortar’.  So wrote one of the earliest travelers to Rannoch, obviously copying from an earlier document.

On Dun Daimh, the hill referred to, the site has suffered through time and there is little left of the fort but the natural rock.  It is, however, a wonderful position from which to view an enemy approaching Rannoch from the North by Loch Ericht or its shores.  Such a fort was probably built between 1000 BC and 200 AD.

Another such fort was on Dun Allan at the South East corner of Loch Rannoch.  There is nothing on its craggy summit how to tell us that man built his defences here except that it is such an obviously good prominence, easily defended and commanding such a fine view. The outcrops near the top would be easy to fortify.  It is very like the Iron Age Fort at the East end of Loch Earn (called Dundurn) in all respects.  It commands approaches by hill track, loch and river.  In pre-history the river issued from Loch Rannoch 400 yards south of its present position and flowed close to the fort, which could give sanctuary to the peoples of the nearby village of Bunrannoch when danger approached.

Other defensive monuments in Rannoch are not in such lofty positions.  They have been known by various names, such as Ring Forts, Duns and Defended Homesteads.  The latter name describes the Rannoch ones best.  The first ones were built by the early Celts and they have been used and replaced century after century, even up to the eighteenth century.  Built to defend people and possessions against local and foreign enemies they were in constant use.  From early times there has been continual raiding and fighting in Rannoch and it was necessary to ensure the safety of the small family groups on which the society was based.  It was essential to have somewhere to go in time of danger.  So they built circular enclosures with walls, in some cases 14 feet thick and a height of 10 feet or more.  They varied in size, the bigger ones having a diameter of 90 feet and the smaller ones about 45 feet.  Through the narrow opening of the doorway people and animals could retire until the danger has passed.  Inside, the area was roofed over with thatch, enabling the inhabitants to stay under cover.  These Defended Homesteads were built near the settlements themselves and could accommodate all the people and animals of that place.

In Tummel Forest, above Queen’s View, the Forestry Commission have preserved one in quite good condition.  Elsewhere at Rannoch these enclosures, because of the ravages of time and because of the needs of agriculture, are mere outlines on the ground.  The ones still easily visible are at Braes of Foss, Tombreck, Craiganour, Tullocroisk and Drumnakyle.  Druimchastle and Meall Druidhe are unable to be observed because of thick woods, Dun-Alastair, said to be near the burial area is not now visible, and the two at Bunrannoch are said to be seen when viewed from the hillside above although I have not been able to distinguish them from the many other outlines on the ground that  can be seen.  The two circular outlines visible on the hillside above Loch an Daimh were unlikely to be for defence but more likely just circular walled enclosures.

Crannogs

Rannoch in olden times had two islands: Eilean Beal na Gaoire at the West end of the loch where the Rive Gaur has emptied its water, and An-t-Eilean Ferna at the mouth of the River Ericht.  It also had two artificial islands, called crannogs.  One of these is Eilean nam Faoileag, the Isle of the Gulls or more commonly called the Tower Island.  The other one was a smaller cannog just off Finnart.  All these islands were used at one time or another as Lake Dwellings where the inhabitants could take refuge from wolves and raiders.  The two artificial islands were made by the same people who built the forts.  They floated rafts of wood out and sank them by piling stones on them until they rose above the surface of the water.  Then by means of piles driven into this structure a platform was built on the stones.  On this, earth was trampled flat and the dwellings were built.  It is interesting to contemplate the manner of men that were able to build these structures, to convey huge tree trunks from the hillside to the loch and to drive piles vertically to form these platforms.  Canoes were used to carry men and supplies out for the construction.  And canoes of course were used when they were finished by the families going back and forth to the shore.  One of these types of canoes was discovered at Loch Treig by Mr Duncan Robertson of Rannoch when he was a boy.  It was when the crannog there was being examined.  Such crannogs in the troubled countryside of Rannoch would serve as places of refuge sheltering its occupants from sudden attacks from warlike tribes of Picts or Scots and later on from marauding clansmen.

An interesting aspect of the Tower Island is that although it is only 30 metres from the North shore there is a causeway built to it from the South shore, a distance of half a mile.  a study of Bathymetrical Survey Map shows that this is the only feasible route for there is a sudden dip in the loch bed of 30 feet on the north of the island.  The causeway was constructed so that it was just under the surface and its route was irregular as a guard against unwanted intruders. Not only was this causeway unusually long but the crannog was undoubtedly the largest artificial island in Scotland.  For many years it housed hundreds of fugitive MacGregors who terrorized the country for miles around.  After their raids they retired to their island stronghold and they were quite safe from pursuit.  Fearsome men were the MacGregors who inhabited the island.  Dark and violent were the deeds that they were accustomed to performing over the countryside armies destroyed the island and wreaked terrible vengeance on them, once by James IV and once by a murderous army of Campbells during Queen Mary’s reign.  The fornications were soon rebuilt, but there came  a day when the MacGregors departed for ever.  Now what is left of the island is haunged by ghosts in the form of gulls and sometimes when the wind is right you can hear the sounds of revelry of the old MacGregor outlaws.  The castle on it was built only a hundred years ago but in contains strong feelings of the past for I spoke to a person who had spent a night in the tower for a dare. It was not a happy experience for him.


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