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
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.
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
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.
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.
‘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
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.