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The Serpent-Shaped Mound of Loch Nell
An Account of Some Recent Excavations in Argyleshire

ARGYLESHIRE again! It seems as if within the last year fresh matters of more or less public interest were continually to call our attention thither.

This time it is no nineteenth-century story of the home-bringing of a Royal Bride, but a low, dreamy whisper from ages long forgotten —a dim and shadowy vision of the funereal and religious rites of our Pagan ancestors, each trace of whose handiwork, so long overlooked, is now being subjected to such searching examination; while even the ashes of the dead are called upon to shed some faint light on the subject—a pale, fitful ray, like the phosphoric gleam which in bygone days was supposed to play around the fingers of the sinful dead.

Certain it is, that whatever records of the past may still lie hidden among these wild hills and glens, buried beneath moss and heather, their hours of darkness are numbered, rnd whatever secrets they may have to disclose, will very soon be brought to the light af day. For the archaeologists have taken possession of the land, each working out some favourite theory of his own. Thus it came to pass, that as we journeyed through this "Land of Glens, and Bens, and Corries,” we found, wherever we halted, that the talk was not of things present, but all turning on fanciful pictures of a remote past. As we came through Lochgilphead, we heard of curious megalithic structures and of incised stones, bearing the “cup and ring” marks, precisely like those so familiar to us on the wild Northumbrian moors.

But the interest of these waned before that df the excavations at the village of Ach-na-Goul, near Inverary, where a huge oviform cairn, about one hundred and twenty feet long by thirty feet broad, had just been opened by Mr. Phend, F.R.G.S., at the request of the Marquis of Lorne. The name of the village, Ach-na-Goul, is said to be a corruption of Gaelic words, meaning the field of the stranger; a name which, as applied to this vast sepulchral tumulus, seems to point to the ancient Oriental custom of setting apart a field to bury strangers in. Or it may have been the family vault of some stranger from a far country, who had settled in this land, and, like Abraham of old, had bought “a field with a cave in it” as the hst resting-place for his loved dead.

The result of the excavations has been the discovery of a series of chambers and passages seventy feet in length, extending in a direct line from north to south; these are formed of blocks of great size and weight, some indeed weighing many tons. All are symmetrically placed, the space between the chambers being filled up with earth and boulders. Throughout the whole length of these chambers and passages there was found a considerable deposit of charcoal, which, as a distinct evidence of cremation, proved beyond a doubt the sepulchral use of the building. Fragments of pottery were also found, the remains of fractured incinerary urns, and traces of some vitrified material Only in the eastern chamber there were found no traces either of cremation or of sepulture, the inference being that this had been set apart for such solemn religious rites as have been observed by all nations at the funerals of chiefs and other mighty men. Possibly even human sacrifices may have here been offered by our Pagan ancestors, to appease the spirits of the departed.

In one of the principal chambers there was discovered a conical stone of white quartz, which undoubtedly had some connection with these mysterious rites, being identical with that discovered by Mr. Phend at Letcombe Castle, Berks, while a third has been found at Maiden Castle, near Weymouth; each in connection with human remains. Precisely similar pillars of white quartz were found in the excavations at Nineveh, and are now to be seen in the British Museum. In the neighbourhood of this great chambered tumulus were found various incised stones, bearing the “cup and ring” mark, precisely like those near Lochgilphead.

Passing onward by dark Loch Awe (overshadowed by the mighty mountain barriers which, closing in on either side, shroud its deep waters in perpetual gloom), we reached the sunny shores of Loch Etive, where only a fringe of wet golden seaweed reveals that the calm blue lake is indeed an arm of the great Atlantic, and capable of sympathy with the wild storms that ofttimes rage so fiercely in that outer world of wafers. But on such calm days as these, the scene is one of peace unspeakable. On every side lie shapely hills in the glory of their autumnal colouring, while in the far distance the blue range of Mull rises from the sea, like some pale spirit, faintly visible through the tremulous evening light. On the near rocks lie basking a whole family of seals—a grey old grandmother, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, these being dark as the dry seaweed on which they lie. They slip shyly into the water at our approach, and no living thing remains, save the white sea-birds that float in air or in water, uttering hungry impatient cries, and watching with keen eyes for the fish that gleam like silvery arrows, as they glide to and fro through their clear, crystal world.

It was on a wide flat moorland, overlooking this scene, that we next found traces of the antiquarians recent work. The place is commonly called Loch Nell Moss; but as the same name is applied to a locality on the other side of Oban (now rendered famous by the discovery of its great serpent temple), we had better describe this as being in the district of Beregonium — a name which here falls strangely on the ear, accustomed rather to the sound of Celtic or of Norse, than to such classic old Latin, and one which reminds us of the days when Roman invaders, having driven out the earlier settlers, seem to have recognised the importance of this position as a key alike to the Hebrides and the western coast. Here, in the massive headland (which, jutting into the sea, commands both plain and ocean), they found a position so strongly fortified by Nature’s ramparts of rugged rock, as to require but small aid from human skill to convert it into an impregnable encampment.

Of the original inhabitants, little is of course known, but this spot is believed to have been one of the principal settlements of the Dalriads, if not the capital of their kingdom. Certain it is that many of the oldest legends of Ossian cluster round this immediate neighbourhood, where Fingal is said to have held his court; a legend which derives fresh interest from the fact, that in the ancient fortress of Dunstaffhage, close by, the mystic Coronation Stone is said to have been originally kept—the stone whereon, from time immemorial, all Scottish kings have of necessity been seated, when assuming the royal crown.

That stone was, in later years, carried from Dunstaffnage to Scone Palace, and thence (as we all know) was transported by Edward I. to Westminster, where to this day it still retains its old king-making prerogative, and continues to support the coronation-chair of every British sovereign.

Thus, while we overlooked the dreary expanse of desolate moorland, stretching between Loch Etive and the broad Atlantic—a tract trodden, by turns, by so many divers races—the thought of this time-honoured symbol of royalty came home to us, as a suggestive link, connecting the stateliest ceremony of modem England (when her fairest, and most noble, throng the aisles of the grand old abbey, to witness the coronation of their new sovereign) with the earliest trace of superstitious homage paid to the rude warrior chiefs of that long-forgotten race, which once possessed the land whereon we stood.

Half-way across the moss we came to a large cairn, surrounded by stunted trees. The cairn had, a few days previously, attracted the attention of Dr. Angus Smith, who proceeded to excavate, and was rewarded for his trouble by discovering in the heart of the tumulus two megalithic chambers, containing human remains and urns. Also divers white quartz stones, such as we are told were frequently buried by various Pagan nations with their dead, apparently as emblems of purity and indestructibility, thus possibly conveying some idea of immortality and of sin forgiven or cancelled; as when the Greeks of old symbolised a release from some obligation by the giving and receiving of a white stone a custom probably alluded to in the book of Revelation, in the promise, “To him that overcometh.... I will give a white stone, and in the stone a new name written.” In the present instance, the white stones were arranged in pairs, on a ledge of rock projecting above the urns, a single stone being placed at each end of this double row; another single white pebble was found inside one of the urns.

A considerable number of similar pebbles of white quartz have recently been discovered in various old British tombs, more especially in those tumuli lately examined by Mr. Phene on the principal Isle of Cumbrae. Others have been found within the Sacred Circle on the Isle of Man; a circle which, from time immemorial, has been held in such reverence, that to this day the Parliament of the island is there convened.

Not far from the lonely cairn of Ach-na-muir, Dr. Angus Smith has discovered, on the shores of Loch Etive, traces of a lake dwelling, or rather a lake village, of considerable size, and in fair preservation.

Here, on removing accumulations of peatmoss which would seem to have been the growth of twenty, or perhaps thirty, centuries, he was rewarded by the discovery of a series of oval pavings, still surrounded with wooden stakes, which doubtless once supported conical thatched roofs, like those dwellings of the old Gauls, described by Strabo as “circular, with lofty tapering roofs of straw."

However suggestive to the initiated are these slight remains of the homes of their ancestors, they offer small attraction to the general public, compared with the hints of the ancestral worship, which await them a few miles further.

The crown of interest centres in Glen Feochan (in the rival district of Loch Nell), where lies the huge serpent-shaped mound, which only a few months ago was revealed to the Antiquarian Society by Mr. Phene, though it had been discovered by him some years previously. He deemed it wiser, however, to keep his secret to himself till he should have pursued his investigations more fully elsewhere, and made more accurate comparisons of such mounds as he had found in various parts of Britain, with those of the Western World.

The first rumour of the discovery of this strangely novel antique reached us on our arrival at Oban, when we lost no time in setting forth in search of the monster. A three miles drive in a south-easterly direction brought us to the shores of Loch Nell, beyond which, Ben Cruachan proudly rears her triple crest, standing in dark relief against the delicate white vapours which cling to her so lovingly, sometimes veiling, sometimes crowning, this stately queen, as they float around her with ceaseless motion. The carriage-road winds along the shore, and through broken “hummocky” ground, sometimes clothed with grass, sometimes with heather or bracken; and, but for the presence of one of the few initiated, who had fortunately accompanied us, we should assuredly have passed close below the heathery mound which forms the serpent’s tail (in fact, the road has been cut right across the tip of it) without ever suspecting that it differed from the surrounding moorland. In short, we should have been no wiser than our forefathers, who for centuries have passed and repassed along the same beaten track, whence only an occasional sportsman or shepherd has had occasion to diverge. It does seem strange, however, that not one of these, looking down from the higher ground to westward, should ever have called attention to so remarkable a form, and one, moreover, which rises so conspicuously from the flat grassy plain, which stretches for some distance on either side with scarcely an undulation, save two artificial circular mounds, in one of which lie two sets of large stones, placed as in a kistvaen. These circles are situated a short distance to the south (to the right of the serpent) but too far to be introduced in our illustration.

Finding ourselves thus unconsciously in the very presence of the Great Dragon, we hastened to improve our acquaintance, and in a couple of minutes had scrambled on to the ridge which forms his backbone, and thence perceived that we were standing on an artificial mound three hundred feet in length, forming a double curve like a huge letter S, and wonderfully perfect in anatomical outline. This we perceived the more perfectly on reaching the head, which lies at the western end, whence diverge small ridges, which may have represented the paws of the reptile. The head forms a circular cairn, on which, at the time of Mr. Phene’s first visit, there still remained some trace of an altar, which has since wholly disappeared, thanks to cattle and herd-boys.

This cairn was excavated on the 12 th October, 1871, and within it were found three large stones, forming a megalithic chamber, which contained burnt bones, charcoal, and charred hazel-nuts. (Surely our Pagan ancestors must rejoice to see how faithfully we, their descendants, continue to burn our nuts on Hallowe’en, their old autumnal Fire-Festival, though our modern divination is practised only with reference to such trivial matters as the faith of sweet-hearts! A flint instrument was also found, beautifully and minutely serrated at the edge, On opening the cairn, Mr. Phend was at once, convinced, from the position of the stones, that the place had already been ransacked (probably by treasure-seekers, as there is no tradition of any excavation for scientific purposes having ever been made here. On the removal of the peat-moss and heather from the ridge of the serpent’s back, it was found that the whole length of the spine was , carefully constructed with regularly and symmetrically-placed stones, at such an angle as to throw off rain, an adjustment to which we doubtless owe the preservation, or, at least, the perfection of this most remarkable relic.

To those who know how slow is the growth of peat-moss, even in damp and undrained places, the depth to which it has here attained (though in a dry and thoroughly exposed situation, and raised from seventeen to twenty feet above the level of the surrounding moss), tells of many a long century of silent undisturbed growth, since the days when the serpent’s spine was the well-worn path daily trodden by reverent feet. The spine is, in fact, a long narrow causeway, made of large stones, set like the vertebrae of some huge animal. They form a ridge sloping off in an angle at each side, which is continued downwards with an arrangement of smaller stones suggestive of ribs.

The mound has been formed in such a position that the worshipper standing at the altar would naturally look eastward, directly along the. whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake, to the triple peaks of Ben Cruachan. This position must have been carefully selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible.

The reverence for some triune object, whether a triple-pointed hill, the junction of three rivers, or the neighbourhood of three lakes, seems to have been a marked characteristic of almost every ancient faith. It was some such dim conception of the worship due to an adorable Trinity in Unity which led the Persians of old to- reverence the threefold leaves of the shamrock, as symbolic of a Divine Triad, to whom this plant was consecrated by the sons of Iran for many long centuries ere St. Patrick made use of the same green leaf to exemplify the same mystery to the sons of Erin. (We may notice, by the way, that the name of the shamrock, like the idea it symbolises, claims to have reached us from the East, the word being identical in the Arabic.)

In like manner, the Druids (those Ghebres of the West), who venerated the sacred mistletoe by reason of its mystic triple clusters of white fierries, were not likely to overlook so mighty an embodiment of the same symbol as a great mountain, with its threefold summit towering heavenward, as if to draw thither the eyes and hearts of a race who were careful to consecrate all such types in their worship of nature’s God.

It was acknowledge of this circumstance that first led Mr. Phene to examine minutely all the leasttrodden glens in the neighbourhood of any such natural features. In the present instance, his search was rewarded by the discovery of the strange old reptile, which, for so many centuries, has here lain undisturbed as if guarding the valley. He has likewise examined the neighbourhood of the Eildon hills, and Arran; where, amid many other so-called Druidic remains, he has found just such mounds of reptile form as he was in quest of; none, however, so perfect as this, which exactly corresponds with one discovered in America by Messrs. Squier and Lapham, which is seven hundred feet long, and points towards three rivers, doubtless once held sacred. In this American mound, the position of the altar exactly corresponds with that of its Scotch cousin, both being at the head of the snake, which head lies towards the west.

Whether the serpentine (or rather saurian) form of this mound is to be accepted as any direct proof of serpent-worship in this land, or whether it was simply reverenced as the representative of some tribe (a Totem, in short, of some extinct British race answering to the Nagas or Snake tribes of the East), will doubtless prove a fertile subject for discussion for many years to come. We know that many varieties of animal forms, of quadrupeds as well as of reptiles, have been found in connection with the sepulchral and sacrificial remains on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are few, if any, of the curious designs discovered in Ohio and Wisconsin, which have not their counterpart somewhere in these British Isles; sometimes in the shape of artificial mounds, as in the present instance; as in South Uist, or as in Arran; at Mounteviot, or at the quaint Dragon Hill near Uffington Castle. Sometimes also in the form of huge carvings, as in the well-known White Horse in Berkshire, or the Cow and Calf at Ilkley.

On the other hand, the worship of’ the serpent and of the serpent’s egg by the Druids, is a matter of history, and we are told how they were wont to place live serpents as symbols at the foot of the altar during the time of sacrifice. We know, too, how often in the ages before the true Sun of righteousness had arisen to bruise the head of the serpent, the worship of the latter had been associated with that of the heavenly bodies, more especially of the sun, as in the case of the Sun-serpent of Peru, and many other instances; therefore it may very well be, that these priests of an Oriental faith may have united this worship with that of the great Day-Star, and that day by day they ministered at this strange altar while watching for the first streak of dawn in- the eastern sky—the first glowing ray which, gilding Ben Cruachan’s triple peak, told them that the great Sun-god had once more arisen to gladden the earth. (Perhaps we ought rather to say Sun-goddess, inasmuch as sun and mountains are alike feminine in the Gaelic tongue.)

It is a strange vision that rises before us, as our fancy pictures this gloomy valley beside the dark waters, not silent and solitary as now, but thronged with worshippers congregating from every remote comer of the hills to witness the awful sacrifices which white-robed priests, with shaven crown, offer upon the mystic altar, in presence of the mountain and the dragon.

Whatever may have been the true origin of this snake-reverence, certain it is, that in countless old Gaelic legends of the West Coast and of the Hebrides, the serpent holds a place of such importance as we can hardly imagine to have been acquired by such puny representatives of the race as are to be found on our British moors, though we are bound to confess that Ben Cruachan does give shelter to an unwonted multitude of small adders. And although Hugh Miller tells of the existence of fossil Saurians in the Isle of Eigg, we can hardly give our ancestors credit either for pushing their geological researches so far, or for tracing their tradition from such pre Adamite sources. What is still more remarkable is, that almost all these legends are also to be found in the folk-lore of India and Persia.

Thus the story of how Fraoch, for the sake of his golden-haired love, fought with, and killed, and was killed by, a terrible waterserpent, which infested Loch-Awe, has its counterpart in the history of Krishna, the Indian Sun-god, who for love of (the pretty milk-maids fought a terrible battle‘d outrance with the black water-snake,which poisoned the blue waters of the sacred Jumna, coming up thence to devour the herds which pastured between Muttra and Bindrabund. More fortunate than Fraoch, Krishna slew his foe without receiving any dire injury himself. When the dragon was dead, his carcase dried up and became a mountain, whereon children played in peace, a happy termination to the story, and one which possibly alluded to some serpent or dragon-shaped mound, which may have existed on the shores of the Jumna, just as this does here, on the brink of Loch Nell.

The story appears again in the battle of Perseus with the sea-monster of Hercules with the Hydra; Apollo with the Python; and many another dragon-myth, with our own St. George of course at the head of the list; always the same story of a mighty, holy power which does battle with evil, and finally destroys the destroyer.

On the other hand, we find various Gaelic legends in which a white snake figures in medicinal lore, as when a nest of seven serpents is discovered, containing six brown adders and one pure white, the latter being caught and boiled, confers the gift of omnicience on the first man who tastes of this serpent bree (broth), and who thereafter becomes the wisest of doctors. Whether this strange story is traceable to the worship of Esculapius, or the Brazen Serpent, or to some tradition older still, it is remarkable that we should find it here at all. This identical story occurs also in the German folk-lore.

In all old Gaelic legends great reverence was always due to the White Snake, which vas described as the king of snakes. It is believed by some of the old Highlanders still to exist in the land, a faith which is occasionally confirmed by the appearance of silvery grey specimen. In Ceylon a silvery white snake is sometimes found, which the natives likewise recognise as the king of the Cobras. The Arabs of Mount Ararat have also a story of a great White Snake, and of a royal race of serpents to which all others do homage.

And so, in some form or another, there is scarcely a comer of the earth where we do not find this slimy, slippery race appear, either as a |)ower of subtle evil, or as the incarnation of a spirit of wisdom.

Perhaps the most curious of all these links to Eastern tradition, are those which seem most directly connected with the Serpent-worship of Egypt. Mr. Phend quotes from “The Abbot” the curious legend of how the serpent or dragon pursued Saboea, daughter of the king of Egypt, a story which Sir Walter Scott describes as a favourite subject for mummers, thus forming one of the oldest pastimes in Scotland. This Egyptian lady is said to re-appear again and again in our folk-lore, and Mr. Mapleton of Duntroon tells of several legends in which the daughter of the king of Egypt lands on Scottish shores, and converts the people. Mr. Phend connects these stories with the curious fact that ships on these seas were actually called serpents, and were frequently decorated with a dragon at the prow. Hence he infers the introduction of serpent-worship via the sea.

One such tradition after another rose to our minds, as we looked down on the grim old guardian of Glen Feochan, revealing himself alternately as a thing of darkness or of light, in every changing aspect of the long autumn day. Now and then a sharp, sudden shower swept over the hills, casting deep darkness on cloud and land and loch. Then the sun would once more burst forth, shedding a golden glory over the purples and browns and golds of the many sided moorland. But the dragon cared neither for sun nor shower. He lay still in his place, couching by the waters and keeping ceaseless vigil, just as he has already done for centuries untold, and as doubtless he will continue to do, till some mighty convulsion shall shake the strong foundations of the earth, and bury him beneath the tumbled fragments of the hills.


We are indebted to Professor Stuart Blackie for the following impromptu lines, inspired by the presence of the Great Dragon:—

Why lies this mighty serpent here.
Let him who knoweth tell—
With its head to the land and its huge tail near
The shore of the fair Loch Nell?

Why lies it here?—not here alone.
But far to East and West
The wonder-working snake is known,
A mighty god confessed.

Where Ganga scoops his sacred bed,
And rolls his blissful flood,
Above Trimurti’s threefold head
The serpent swells his hood.

And where the procreant might of Nile,
Impregned the seedful rood,
Enshrined with cat and crocodile
The holy serpent stood.

And when o’er Tiber’s yellow foam
The hot sirocco blew,
And smote the languid sons of Rome
With fever’s yellow hue,

Then forth from AEsculapius’ shrine
The Pontiff’s arm revealed,
In folded coils, the snake divine,
And all the sick were healed.

And wisest Greece the virtue knew
Of the bright and scaly twine,
When winged snakes the chariot drew
From Dame Demeter’s shrine.

And Maenad maids, with festive sound,
Did keep the night awake,
When with free feet they beat the ground,
And hymned the Bacchic snake.

And west, far west, beyond the seas,
Beyond Texcuco’s lake,
In lands where gold grows thick as peas,
Was known this holy snake.

And this the devil understood,
That by the great Creator
Was stamped on all the serpent brood
A very potent nature.

And used it well, with purpose fell,
Then when he shaped his plan
To wean from heaven and win to hell
God’s noblest creature—man.
And did in serpent’s guise appear
Within the grove of Adam,
And whispered lies into the ear
Of Eve, primeval madam.

And she, who deemed the snake a snake
Indeed, and not the devil,
Did then commit the grand mistake
That flooded earth with evil.

A mighty name the serpent then
Became, and far did travel,
And motley worship found from men,
Confused of god and devil.

And here the mighty god was known
In Europe’s early morn,
In view ot Cruachan’s triple cone,
Before John Bull was born.

And worship knew on Celtic ground,
With trumpets, drums, and bugles,
Before a trace in Lorn was found
Of Campbells or Macdougalls.

And here the serpent lies in pride
His hoary tale to tell,
And rears his mighty head beside
The shore of fair Loch Nell.

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