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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 15 - Caledonian Houses; Lake Dwellings


Let us at this stage bestow a rapid glance on the dwellings of the inhabitants of Scotland during the first centuries of our era. The retrospect on which we now enter will bring under the eye a very different state of things from that existing at this day, and will exhibit as great a contrast between the new periods of our country’s history in this particular, as that seen in the details which have just passed under our review.

The Scotland of the nineteenth century is perhaps the most perfect country on the globe. We do not say that it is the grandest: it is the most complete. It combines within its narrow limits every variety of landscape—river, lake, ocean, frith, arable plain, the flourishing wood, the dark hill. It has throned cities, lonely moors where browse the antlered herd, crags where the eagle builds her nest, and summits so lofty that, in certain seasons, the white gleam of the snow is seen upon them all the summer through. Gathered here into narrow space are all the natural beauties which the traveller must elsewhere seek for over vast areas. This is not a judgment springing from a too fond love of country, and an eye unfamiliar with the scenery of other, and what are sometimes called fairer lands. It is a conclusion which has been deliberately come to after a comparison, by personal observation, of Scotland with nearly al the countries of Europe, with, too, the more famous of the lands of Asia, and with some of those of Africa. Without being unjust to these countries, we are entitled to affirm that the landscapes of Scotland have a quiet grace, a picturesque beauty, and a delightful gradation of scenery, from the homely up to the romantic and the grand, not to be met with within the same limits in European or Asiatic countries. But these endowments and attractions are the gift of nature, and the only share man has had in them is that he has helped to develop them by a careful and skillful cultivation of the soil. Not so those other attractions to which we now turn. These a re more purely the production of man, and so form a more definite measure of the advance of the inhabitants.

It is the Scotland of the first century to which we return—that which was startled by the news of Agricola’s invasion. What a difference betwixt the edifices of the land from which Agricola had come and those of the country in which he was now arrived. The former was then in its glory. The echoes of the footsteps of the great Caesar, and the eloquent accents of Cicero yet lingered amid its temples and statues. The golden house of Nero crowned the Palatine. The Pantheon, with its room of burnished bronze, had not yet lost its pristine grandeur. The little temple of Vesta, the matchless grace of which twenty centuries have not been able wholly to efface, rose like a white blossom in marble on the banks of the Tiber. The titanic pile of the Colosseum was slowly rising, storey on storey, to its completion. Many a senatorial villa and classic temple gleamed out along the Apennines; and scattered over the plains at their feet were towns and villages without number. Scarcely was there crag or fountain in all that fair land which the art of Greece, working in the marble of Italy, had not adorned with statue or shrine. Or crowned with other architectural glory. Such was the land which the Roman general had left. How different that into which he had come!

At the period of which we speak there was not a stone edifice in all Scotland. None are known to have then existed, for there are no architectural remains which dates so far back as before the age of Agricola. The first masonry the Caledonians saw most probably was the line of Roman wall which stretched across betwixt the Forth and the Clyde. Whether they took their first lesson in stone-building from it we do not know. There were already, and had been before Caesar’s time, stone structures in their country; but these were reared in connection with their religion, and were of the same rude and simple kind with the memorial pillars and stone altars which the natives of these lands whence they had come, and whose rites they had brought with them, set up for worship; for history shows that the first labours of man in the department of stone-building were in connection with religion. He finds for his own dwelling a tent, or a cave, or a chamber in the earth, but he erects his altar above ground, and performs his rites in the face of the sun. Such rude temples there were already in Scotland, of which we have already spoken. But though the Caledonians, by some marvelous and as yet unexplained contrivance, demanding skill as well as strength , were able to set up immense blocks as altars of sacrifice, their art did not teach them to construct dwellings for themselves.

Of what sort, then, were the habitations of the early Caledonians? They must needs have shelter from the elements, and they must needs have a place of retreat in which to sleep at night. Their abodes, in sooth, were not greatly superior to those of the animals which they pursued on their mountains. They dug holes in the ground, and in times of war, or during the cold of winter, they burrowed in these subterranean dwellings, as did the Germans of the same age. In times of peace, or in the fine weather of summer, they left their cave in the earth, and lived above ground in rude habitations constructed of wattles and mud, and thatched with reeds of straw, of which we have spoken in a former chapter. From these humble beginnings rose the Scottish cities of the present day. While the capitals of Asia and of other lands have been slowly descending from splendour to ruin, and are now little better than mounds of rubbish, the cities of Scotland, in the same interval, have been rising from the wigwam on the moor, with the cold mist creeping round it, to the queenly metropolis that nestles at the foot of its great rock, which rises crowned with its grey castle, "a poem in stone," looking down on the silvery bosom of the Forth, and the rich plains of the Lothians.

Besides the habitations we have described, the underground cave and the structure of wattles with its roof of thatch, there was another class of dwelling which were common in Scotland. They mark, it is probable, a second stage in the humble architecture of early Scotland, seeing their construction displays a little more ingenuity and mechanical art than the rude structures that preceded them. These are known as lacustrine or lake dwellings, being found on the shores of lakes. This peculiar class of habitations is common to Scotland, with other countries of northern Europe, more especially Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. They are the memorials we are disposed to think, of unsettled times. The swampy ground on which they stood, and the cold air of the lake that overhung them, must have made them unhealthy as places of human habitation, and we can hardly see what could tempt the natives to select such sites, unless the presence of danger, which would make the facilities of defence and escape the first consideration in the choice of a place of abode. In the case of sudden attack, the occupants could cut the passage that connected them with the shore, and insulate their dwelling; and if this did not secure their safety, they could plunge into the waters of the lake, or escape in their canoes.

Abundant materials for the construction of these dwellings were ready to hand. Their builders, shouldering their stone hatchet, or their bronze axe, repaired to the nearest wood, and cut down the trees fittest for their purpose. Dragging the trunks to the lake, they drove in rows of piles, partly on the shore, and partly in the water, and laying the timbers crosswise on the top of the piles, they formed a floor a few feet above the surface of the lake. Over this first flooring they laid a second, consisting of a layer of stones, or paving of flags. This permitted a fire—a welcome arrangement in so damp and comfortless a dwelling—to be kindled, and a little necessary cooking to be done. When we dig down through the soil and turf which have accumulated above these abodes of an ancient time and—ancient people, and lay bare their remains, we find the signs of their former human occupancy clearly traceable in the ashes and charred wood which lie in heaps in the middle of their floors. Mixed with these long extinguished embers are the bones of the horse, the ox, the sheep, the deer, and other animals, the flesh of which served the inhabitants for food. Hand querns are also found, which testify to a little cultivation of the soil, and the use of farinaceous food at their meals.

Among other fragments of these banquets of two thousand years ago, are a few culinary utensils. Some of these are of clay, others of stone. Plenty, rather than elegance, doubtless reigned at these entertainments, yet the presence of these simple vessels shows that a little care had begun to be taken in the preparation of the viands, and that the meals eaten at these tables were not confined to one dish only. Nor was the adornment of the person altogether overlooked. We trace, even in these rude abodes, the presence and pride of female beauty in the little trinkets, such as beads of flint and bronze, which turn up at this day in these ancient heaps of debris. Some of these articles are of Roman workmanship, showing that the lake dwellings continued in use down to a comparatively late period. It only remains to be mentioned, that in the floor of these lacustrine abodes, which stood overlapping the margin of the lake, it was not uncommon to cut a small opening, something like a trap door, through which the fish, as they swam underneath, could be speared and caught, and so a not unwelcome addition made to the dainties of the table.

There was yet another class of lake dwellings of a superior order known to the Scotland of those days. These distinctly point to times of danger, and show that the desire of safety was a predominant feeling in the selection of these extraordinary retreats. The lake dwellings of which we are now to speak, stood not on the bank, but in the lake itself, at some considerable distance from shore, having the water round and round, broad and deep serving as a moat for their defence. The inmates had access to the land by a long narrow pathway of planks, resting on stakes. This pathway or bridge could be cut on the approach of danger, much as the drawbridge of a castle is lifted in the face of an enemy. When the Caledonians would construct a lacustrine above of this sort, they selected a low island, or sandbank, covered by the lake to no great depth, and proceeded to set up their structure in the following wise. They first enclosed the site with a row of strong stakes. Outside this paling they constructed a breastwork of timber, consisting of great oak beams, laid horizontally, and having upright stakes mortised into them. Great rounded trunks of trees, piled upon the others, and kept in position by the upright stakes, rose like stone rampart round castle, and completed the fortifications for these lake citadels, which must have been of no contemptible strength.

Within the area enclosed by this wooden rampart was laid first a flooring of logs. Over this were put beams of oak, and given a yet more solid footing to those who lived aboard these places, half castle, half ship, and adapt the floor to their every purpose, there came last of all a pavement of flat stones. On this upper covering was placed the hearth. The walls that rose on these foundations have long since disappeared, but there can be no doubt that they were composed of the same materials, and built up with the same care, which was bestowed on the substructions. The oak forest, as we have said, was the quarry to which the builders of those days had recourse. To fell a tree was an easy matter compared with excavating a block. Had their knowledge of art, or the tools with which they worked enabled them, they would doubtless have reared their lake dwellings of stone. There are such lacustrine fabrics. The same emergency has compelled men to the adoption, in historic times, of the same expedient to which these rude people in far-off ages had recourse. Instead of a Scotch or a Swiss lake, let us take the shallows of the Adriatic. Venice is a superb example of a lacustrine dwelling. The terror of the advancing Goths drove the population of the north of Italy to seek a refuge in the mud flats at the head of the Adriatic Sea. There they built them a city. Its founders, however, chose, not the oak, but the marble with which to construct their lacustrine palaces, and though Venice still keeps its head above the mud of the Adriatic, it is as really a lacustrine creation as any of the buried lake dwellings of Scotland.

The most perfect specimen of a lake dwelling, or crannog, which as yet has come to light in our country, is that of Lochlea, near Tarbolton, Ayshire. It was excavated in 1879. About forty years before this time the surface of the loch having been lowered by drainage, the site of the crannog became visible in summer time as a small island about seventy-five yards from the southern shore. On a second drainage taking place, the piles of which the crannog was constructed show their heads in a circle of about twenty-five yards in diameter. Running round them there was found, on excavating, a breastwork of stakes and oak beams, in the manner we have already described, as usual in such structures. Within was a flooring of rough planks resting on transverse beams of oak. These were covered atop, near the centre, with a pavement of flat stones, which had been used as a hearth. The goodly dimensions of the fire-place is suggestive of abundance of good cheer, and of numerous retainers or guests. The castle was no hermitage. If such luxuries as grew beyond seas were not to be seen in it, it was amply stored, doubtless, with such fare as was supplied from the lake in which it stood, and the pastures and woods that lined the shore.

This central apartment—the kitchen and the dining-room in one, for the meal was probably eaten in the same chamber in which it was cooked—was farther enclosed by a forming a strong breastwork all round the central pavement. Mixed with the ashes on the hearth were found the bones of the usual animals, together with instruments of deer-horn, querns, wooden dishes, spindle whorls, and numerous iron implements and weapons, such as spear-heads, knives, dirks, a wood-cutter’s saw, a mortise-chisel, and similar articles. A long row of stakes, running landwards, showed that a gangway existed by which the inmates could hold communication with the shore. This gangway could be cut with scarce more labour, and in nearly as brief a space, as it takes to life a drawbridge, and when thus severed, the castle was completely insulated. We have been contemplating the remains of structures older, probably, than the foundations of Rome.

Most touching it is to read these simple records of a world which has so utterly passed away—not a world that existed in some far-off region, but one that flourished on the very soil on which we are daily treading, and under the same sky beneath which our modern life is carried on. Our country is a book written all over with antique tales, of loves and hates, of banquets and battles, which were acted and ended before those of which Homer sang were begun. Not a league can we journey, not an acre can we turn up, but we light on another and yet another fragment of this hoary, weather-worn, yet veritable chronicle of the olden land and the olden men.

Beneath the dark surface of Lochar moss lie embedded the skiffs in which the aborigines were wont to traverse its waters—oak-trunks scooped out into canoes by means of fire and a stone hatchet.1 On the banks of the Clyde the tiny ships of these "ancient mariners" have been dug up in great numbers. A stranded canoe was found beneath old St. Enoch’s, Glasgow. Another was dug up at the cross. Others have been exhumed in other quarters of the city, still farther from the present bed of the river. This ancient craft—how different from the iron-clads to be seen at this day on the Clyde!--are of various sizes, from six feet in length by two in width to eighteen feet by six. In those days the waters of the Clyde, instead of flowing between the stone quays, which now confine them, spread out into a noble estuary, from five to ten feet in depth, covering the site of the city, and when the west winds prevailed, lashing with their waves the base of the hill on which now stands the cathedral. It looks a wild dream, and yet it is an indubitably attested fact that fleets of canoes once careered where the streets and churches and business marts of Glasgow are now spread forth, and no inconsiderable part of the commerce of the empire is transacted in our day.

The same magical changes have been wrought along the banks of our other estuaries and rivers. The ocean overflowed the carse lands of Stirling and Falkirk, in an age long past, and the whale gambolled where now the ploughman is seen tracing his furrow in the rich soil. In the same district the yellow corn waves every autumn over buried canoes and the skeletons of sea monsters with harpoons of deerhorn beside them. In the face of the cliff that bounds the carse on the north, at an elevation to which the tide never rises in our day, is still visible the iron ring to which the fisherman made fast his boat at eve. A broad ocean-frith, bounded by straight lines, struck far up into the country where now the Forth picturesquely winds through hamlets and orchards and corn-fields. The valley of the Tay has undergone similar changes, the result of the upheaval of the land, and the consequent lowering of the sea-level around our shores, and of the retreat of the ocean from our estuaries. Hills that once rose steeply from the waters of our friths, have now a belt of delightful plain at their feet, with homesteads and church steeples rising above their woods. The domain of the finny tribes, still sufficiently ample, has been somewhat curtailed thereby, but the acquisition is a valuable one to the inhabitants of the land. The portions thus gifted to Scotland by old ocean are among the best corn-producing and fruit-bearing soils which she possesses. It is farther to be noted that the gift was a late one. The early Caledonian, if we may judge from the signs we have indicated, did not possess these lands. They came after his day, a little while before the advent of civilised man, for he only could profitably use them. It follows that we have a larger and also a richer Scotland than our ancestors knew. For in addition to the moors and mountains, which, though comparatively barren, the Caledonian, nevertheless, dearly loved and battled for a stout heart and a stalwart arm, as the patriotic struggle we are now to relate will clearly show, we at this day possess many thousands of acres of carse lands, which not only contribute largely to fill our barns, but delight the eye, seeing they form our softest and sweetest landscapes


FOOTNOTE

1. Wilson, Prehistoric Scotland, pp. 30-40. Edin. 1851.


 

 


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