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Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XVIII - The Cairn of Achnacree

Cameron.—I wish to take a walk round the moss, and we may begin at the ferry. There is a little mound here called the yellow mound of Connel; it may be old, and it may contain something interesting.

Loudoun.—Here at least is something certainly old, the deeply cut bed of the river below. It must have taken long to cut through that rock.

Cameron.—Can water do such a thing?

Loudoun.—Water may do it in time, or in the ages that look to us like eternity, but we do not rely on it wholly. It brings down stones from the hills and they grind rapidly. It is rock against rock, and you know sand or small stones are now used as a means of boring and of polishing.

Willie.—At any rate it has left the banks capital for rabbits, and these gipsies live here and probably feed to a great extent upon them.

Cameron.—Yes, these are Ceardan, or, as we should say, tinkers. In Scotland they are not called gipsies often. I suppose that before the gipsies came the tinkers went about much as they do now, doing metal work for the people. They can make, or at least they could make, silver brooches with very simple tools, and we know that in other countries, in Persia, for example, there are similar wanderers, but far more skilful, who make those beautiful and elaborate bronze vessels of open lacework with figures numerous, fantastic, and mythical, some indicating serpent-worship, ideas received probably from neighbouring states or Indian nagas. I mean that either the art, or the idea, or both, came from elsewhere.

Margaet.—Can it be that these men live out of doors with no covering but a slight tent, and some with only a covering for the head? These women, too, seem no more robust than ourselves, and they are poorly clothed. How can they live?

Loudoun.—By ceasing to think, it would appear that a good deal of the vigour goes into the body, and these people are very idle in body and mind.

Margaet.—But I thought that exercise kept us warm, and if these people were idle they would starve.

Loudoun.—Exercise does make us warm, but great exercise needs rest, and we must be strong indeed if we do not cool too far after it. I think it probable that these people, not being of the strongest, would need more shelter if they were very active. They would convert into energy that which they now have in warmth, and lose much heat also in evaporation. They do not usually stand the winter well, they go into towns as a rule; but there are some who keep out, and it is only lately that one died in a tent on the snow near Forres, the rest of the tribe lying around him. He had never since youth lived under a roof.

Margaet.—But surely vigorous men can stand cold best.

Loudoun.—Certainly; but cold brings down even their activity, and if very much exposed they cease to be powerful. I don't like these people ; they are lazy and beggarly whether real gipsies or not.

Cameron.—This is a great moss at our left. And the road seems to be on an embankment around it. Cairns are on the roadside as if the moss were very old. This cairn at LocIianabeich has a large base, indeed only the base remains, as the barns were built out of it. There is nothing in it above the original surface, but no one has gone lower and it may conceal something interesting. Some people say it was only a collection of stones to clear the land, and there is some land cleared here for the farm.

O'Keefe.—Here to the right is another collection of stones; do you think people would put them in such a picturesque place if they were only collected from the road? These look down on the loch and ornament the fine bank.

Cameron.—Yes, it is a fine bank, a bank of whin and gorse, and lively with rabbits black and white. Who would have thought a few years ago that the telegraph poles would have run along the top and the wires crossed the loch, and that a dyer would be building works opposite, and the school board interfering with the lonely shore.

We progress, as you from the South say, but I do not like the people better. I like the old people in these cottages, with their little crofts behind, and I know they enjoy walking out in that wood and round the great curve of the road which opens up the wide part of the loch and shows us Ardchattan, the churches and the priory, as well as the great hills and the openings into their dark recesses.

Down there is a piece of an old ruin near the sea-shore. I do not know what it was, but it is near the houses of decent men whom I know, and I admire the view on which they feed daily when standing at their own doors and looking up to Ardchattan over the broad part of Loch Etive. Those who do not fear running down the hill may run and look, those who prefer to keep to our principal object will walk along. Here we come to the peat moss out of which we got the spear head. We shall follow the road as it leads round the great bend of the loch, widening like a sea, and turn round to the left until we come to the clump of trees and the great cairn.

Sheena.—I think I must be showwornan here as I took so much interest in this cairn. You perceive that the enclosure is great although the traces of the ditch are small, and of the large stone circle around it there remain only some fragments. The height appeared greater before opening, although there was only a little taken off—the change is more observable in the shape. If you go to the top you see a wide opening. The stones taken out were thrown to the side, and the original appearance is best understood from the drawing. It took two men eight or nine days to make that opening. The plan was to go down from the top, but as the stones were continually rolling in, it was quite necessary to make a broad opening above, and in order not to diminish the height, if possible, we kept a little to the west side. After sinking about eight feet we came to a flat stone which broke readily in pieces—some of the slate of the country. This really had an Aladdin's cave appearance, and we were all anxiety.

We had come to the extreme edge of a number of flat granite stones, which were found afterwards to form a roof. At the side, and under the granite roof, was the opening which had been filled up with slatey material, and it was this opening which served for all the exploration. Fortunately we had struck upon the spot which, of all others, was most suitable for entering without destruction of material, since the avenue forming the true original entrance was found to have collapsed, and had we seen it at first we might have been tempted to remove the stones from their position in order to make way, thus destroying the form to a considerable extent. And now every stone of the building is exactly as we found it.

It was a weird thing entering that cairn that had been so long closed, and it was a cheerful thing to come out and see the people that had gathered, even from this lone district, as soon as they heard that there was really a building and chambers found in the cairn. It was curious, also, to listen to the superstitions that came out. One woman who lived here, and might therefore be considered an authority, said that she used to see lights upon it in the dark nights. That you may explain as you please; distances are not easily judged of in the dark. One man, who also lived near, and who certainly was intelligent, said he would not enter for the whole estate of Lochnell.

We have often inquired the name of the cairn.

The cairn really has had no definite name. Some people have called it Carn Ban or White Cairn, but that is evidently confusing it with the other cairn which we saw over the moss, and which is really whiter. Some people have called it Ossian's Cairn, but that is not an old name, and even if it had been, we know that it is a common thing to attach this name to anything old. We call it Achnacree Cairn, from the name of the farm on which it stands. It was a pleasant day for us and all around to find an interest so human and natural arising out of things deep in the ground in this secluded place, and it makes one wonder whether there be not, in every part of the world, something that might interest us all if we only knew how to look at it. But I shall not describe the structure of this cairn, leaving you rather to read what has already been said on the subject, which is as follows:—


It was desired not to disturb the actual top, so as to diminish the height, but it is to be feared that the care has not been sufficient. After the men had worked for seven days, a granite slab was found sixteen inches thick. After three more days the boulders of the cairn were taken down in quantity sufficient to render the slope safe enough to allow of an entrance. The great danger in these cases comes from the rolling of stones easily moved by a touch, and falling down to the bottom, so that they require to be lifted up at least as high as the side entrance. The intended entrance was then sought for. Two stones that seemed to us to have been portions of a stone circle round the cairn, now showed themselves rather as gateposts, since the chamber seemed to point in that direction. An opening was therefore made between them, and a narrow passage found. This passage was made of brittle slate pieces of about three feet in height, and, in many instances, less than a foot broad, forming the sides, and covering the way. These were not in good order, the weight of the cairn had evidently caused a tendency to collapse. The way was also nearly filled up with stones, put there with intention to make the entrance difficult, as it would seem. When working at this narrow entrance, an old man from the neighbourhood, who had been engaged to assist the others, said that he had found an opening there forty years ago, when removing stones for building. When General Campbell, who was then proprietor, saw this, he prevented further disturbance. There was no entrance made, but the opinion continued that the cairn was hollow. Evidently no one had entered it at that time. There was a story of some bones having been found, but I do not know at what spot; probably in a cist outside the cairn.

The apparent dimensions of the cairn were 15 feet in diameter, and 15 feet high. It is now somewhat lower. If the pillar stones at the entrance made a continuous circle at the same distance from the centre, the diameter would be less; at present the boulders of the cairn pass even that limit. Possibly an outer circle was meant to support the sides of the cairn, but I incline to think not. Many of the stones have been removed on the side, so that one might doubt the shape of the original; but I think, from the remaining part, that the whole was one great circle. On the side farthest from the road is a ditch, forming part of an outer ring of 135 feet in diameter. On the edge of that, again, there are some stones which appeared, when I first saw them, to be the remains of a stone cist rudely built, but so much displaced by the growth of trees, and other still later accidents which have entirely broken a part within a year, that it is not now easy to distinguish the form. We must consider, then, an enclosure about 400 feet in circumference, and within it, probably a dozen feet from it, a circle of standing stones. Of this I can find only one stone remaining ; but it is so like a standing stone for the purpose, that it seems to have no other duty. I received this idea from those circles round the cairns at Clava, for example. An embankment is not uncommon ; one is seen on a gigantic scale at the Giant's Ring, near Belfast, where several acres are enclosed by a high earth wall; in the centre of the circle is a cromlech, with two covering stones, like one of those described at Ach-na-Cree-beag; one has fallen down on one side. Some of the supporting stones have been removed.

We must suppose the cairn itself to have been at first much smoother and more regular than now, even if not supported all round by a wall of standing stones, like those now forming the entrance.

Before entering the cairn, I had the pleasure of a visit from the Rev. R. J. Mapleton of Duntroon, who kindly came with his great experience. This relieved me, as I was then inexperienced and was unwilling to venture on touching ancient monuments, and I began with the full hope of finding help. Mr. Mapleton has aided me in the description.

Fig. I, Plate showing the sections, gives the size and height according to the measurement of Mr. Ritchie Rogers, who kindly undertook to survey the whole, both within and without. From him the originals of the drawings of this cairn have been obtained on a scale, and they are now enlarged to be shown.

The inner circle shown on the diagram is that of the cairn itself. The dotted line is the original passage, now a good deal obstructed with loose stones, and not passable. The outer circle is that of the fosse. A supposed third circle would be between these two.

A (Fig. 2) is the entrance, as seen from the chamber B, C chamber not marked. The point A is to the S.S.E., and may be called the southern point. In reality, however, we entered at, L, where a few of the loose stones at the top of the wall were removed. It was needful to go feet foremost, and to allow ourselves to drop gently to the floor.

In the diagram shown at the Society's meeting, there was also a view of the side walls of the chamber and passages on the east and west.

Fig. 2 gives plan and elevation of passages. Going from L we first meet passage I next to H, then E and D, with the stones of the wall over them always becoming smaller. We then come to A, where the proper entrance is; the plans of the openings are placed in the plate opposite to their positions.

In a corner of chamber B is a large boulder, probably put there from its having been ready at hand; at present it forms a part of the wall, although by jutting out it becomes an irregularity.

Having then entered feet foremost at L, the first thing that struck the eye was a row of quartz pebbles, larger than a walnut; these were arranged on the ledge of the lower granite block of the east side, with two on the west. When we looked into the dark chamber from the outside they shone as if illuminated, showing how clean they had remained. They are rounded and not broken. The total length of the chambers is nearly 20 feet, not including the long passage, and it may be said to be tripartite, although the centre part might be held to be merely a passage. The southern part, B, was intended to be entered first, and is the largest, 6 feet long and 4 wide, the height 7 feet, but diminished by an accumulation of 8 or 10 inches of soil. The entrance at A was capped by a large and roundish block of granite resting on two slabs, and leaving the doorway to be only 2 feet 2 inches high and the same wide. On the stones forming the passage no markings could be expected; they were rough and brittle and slatey; no markings could be seen even on the granite, although there were places convenient enough for the purpose. The walls were formed of two blocks or rather slabs of stone, supplemented only by a rough walling, as seen in fig. 4. The slabs are placed on edge and lying end to end. On both sides where two large stones met was a kind of triangular space filled in with loose open walling, so that the hand could be inserted between the stones. On thrusting the hand in, the place around seemed to be so open that Mr. Mapleton was inclined to think that a recess might be behind. The roof was very interesting; the stones of the rough walling rose from the rocks below, and gradually approached each other, until the space was only 3 feet 4 inches by r foot io inches. This was covered over by one stone, as depicted. The chamber was therefore roughly domed, in this respect resembling many buildings of later times. The soil was loose to the depth of io inches, chiefly fine gravel, with some larger pebbles. When Mr. Mapleton lifted it up with a small trowel it was passed through the fingers; after bringing it to the light, many dark specks were found, appearing at first to be charcoal, but on examination they were found very soft, and might have been from decaying vegetable matter. It rained whilst we were in the cairn, and heavy drops came down into the domed room where the centre slab did not cover.

There was nothing found indicating a burial except the urns ; in the large chamber was one, or rather part of one. There was no instrument of stone or of metal. We dug down to the natural surface, or some inches lower. However, the urn was not below the natural surface, but on it, and under the looser soil, lying on its side close to the mid part of the eastern wall. The position seems to have been its original one, the parts missing have probably decayed from being less completely burnt. The loose parts came out as if from their proper places, although detached. Another explanation is possible. The form is seen at Fig. I, small neatly raised portions forming incipient handles. The urn is round below, and consequently could not stand by itself. Earth and stones were the only contents. A pebble of the same size and quality as the white ones mentioned was inside, and had become brown like the earth around.
The markings on the urn have a neat appearance, although done by simply drawing a point down the side. See Plate as before, Fig. I.

The exit from this chamber leading to the middle compartment has two large slabs, supporting the roof or cover on the cast side, resting on a wall of small stones, and on the west are the more solid blocks. The walling ran half way across the passage, which became narrowed to about 2 feet. This doorway E was filled up with stones built firmly in after the chamber had been completed, and not supporting the structure. They had no appearance of having been placed there recently, although they were lighter in colour than those forming the upper part of the wall. Those in the passage had the same light colour, and were still of the original building. I understand that the apparently premeditated filling up of a passage is not uncommon.

The middle part H, which may be only a passage itself, is 6 feet 6 inches long, and 2 feet 4 inches wide at the south end, and 2 feet 1 inch at the north. It is 5 feet 4 inches high. Both sides were very similar, each formed of two blocks, and above them 3 feet of firm dry walling. A stone was found lying across the compartment nearly hidden in the loose soil. This gave the idea of sub-compartments, such as had been found by Mr. Mapleton at Kilmartin, but on examination it was seen to have been placed there only for strength, being large and irregular, and occupying a great part of the floor, although well fitted for keeping the sides from approaching.

The floor of the whole was strewed disorderly with boulder stones, but this I understand is common ; to me it suggested entrance and robbing, whilst some careful hand closed all up. This, however, must have itself been early. The cover of this middle compartment was a large slab, the edges of which could not be seen.

The doorway, I, into the north division, is 2 feet 9 inches. A long stone lay across, perhaps to tie the two sides, perhaps to support the ends of the covering slabs, or both. We suppose there were two slabs to this and the middle division, but we could not see the junction. This north compartment is 4 feet 6 inches long, 3 feet wide, and 4 feet 8 inches high, if we do not remove the loose soil, otherwise 5 feet 5 inches. This north end is formed by a slab, supplemented as elsewhere by rough walling. The east side was formed of two long slabs set on edge, the upper one resting on the lower. The space above has rough walling 1 foot 6 inches high. The west side was similar, except that the upper slab rather bent down and left a wider ledge. The lower slab was 1 foot 4 inches thick, and 1 foot 9 inches high.

About the middle of the ledge, on the cast side, were placed six white pebbles of quartz—four in one part and two a little separate. On the west side were two white pebbles ; others of the same kind, but discoloured, were found in the soil. Three pebbles were found in the urn on the east side, and one in the others, so far as the broken state allowed us to judge. One urn nearly entire was found on the west side, and above the ground on the east side were fragments of two which appeared to have crumbled to decay, although the appearance could be explained by their having been broken and parts removed. We may ask, why should people have removed portions? The most complete was found exactly below the greatest number of quartz stones.

Fig. 2 shows the best preserved urn; it accompanied the fragments of two others. All of them had been quite round below, and they had no feet; this is true of two of those in the north certainly, and of the one in the south. Those in the north had no handles, not even incipient.

There was no injury done to any part of the structure, unless we except a crack in the tie-stone between the north chamber and the passage. This crack was old, and seems to have been the result of weight only.

The quartz pebbles have been often noticed. Mr. Mapleton has found them often in urns and cists in this county, and in one case near Lochnell and far from quartz rock. He thinks they are generally associated with cows' teeth. He found three angular pieces of quartz firmly imbedded in a deep cup made in the rock, and surrounded by rings or circle markings, in the Kilmartin district lately. These markings were covered over with about 15 inches of soil, in which no quartz occurred. Dr. Wilson mentions twenty-five urns having been found on the Cathkin hills, each with its face downwards, and a quartz stone under it. Mr. Mapleton inclines to dwell on the idea that the quartz pebbles were symbols of acquittal, according to the custom of the Greeks of using white stones, shells, or beans, and refers to the second chapter and 17th verse of "Revelation." There certainly we have the word used, psephos, a pebble, from which psephizomai, I vote, is taken; votes were put into urns, or in Rome into kists. In Egypt stone tablets were put with the dead, but these were written on. We know that the Egyptians measured out the good deeds of the person who died. These ideas are interesting to keep in mind, but do not bring absolute proof. We might, indeed, say that quartz pebbles, from their remarkable whiteness, were selected as ornaments out of the brown material generally forming the rocks or soil. Children are very fond of collecting them, and most families at the sea-shore have some. They are even seen in rows on window sills, and along garden walks and at rockeries. The same idea of beauty might take hold of the national mind of an early age; this would explain to us why the peebles are found in so many positions, whether in Asia or with us. They are known to form smaller circles within the large stone circles and elsewhere. Still this does not contradict the idea of their being symbols, it may even assist it.

It is not easy to tell the age of this cairn—some will say the Neolithic, but we have found no instruments or manufactured articles besides the urns to prove it, and their forms are not conclusive. The lack of metal leads us to think of iron which is readily rusted. Still we found the spear-head at the bottom of the peat over there, and it was good bronze, and you may imagine the warrior who used it to be buried in this great memorial, for it was great, and its surrounding ditch and rings made it ornamental. Bronze was used at a very late age in Celtland of the north, and old habits would keep with it. Burial also in chambers allowing of a sitting posture was used up to the twelfth century among the Scandinavians. However, I know no such cairns of that age in this country. We read in "Burnt Njal" of one, a chambered tomb having, for honour, been given to the fine hero Gunnar; but had this been of his age, arms would certainly have been found here.

Sheena.—But there were urns. The people must have been burnt.

Loudoun.—No. The vessels may have been drinking vessels; no body was found, and it is fair to argue that high and chambered tombs could not have been intended merely for urns, and it is probable that they were meant for bodies in the sitting posture originally, although used afterwards for the lying posture. The proper, and probably original receptacle of the urn of burnt ashes is a stone kist later it descended to be a niche only. [See "Notes on the Survival of Pagan Customs," by Joseph Anderson, Esq., Proc. Soc. of Antiq. of Scotland, vol. XI., part ii., p. 363. 1876.]

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