Sunday, February 25, 2007

Seeing Kilmartin

Entry for 23 February 2007:

We love stone circles and Neolithic/bronze age sites. The year we lived in Sheffield we tracked down two nearby stone circles, the most impressive of which was Arbor Low, a circle of supine stones in a farmer’s field, surrounded by very large grazing horses. Not surprisingly, Scotland has a large number of ancient sites of various kinds, so I have been chomping at the bit to begin exploring them.

My mom’s main mission is to Scottish Borders, but she is also interested in sacred sites of all types, so when she found that Kilmartin (in Argyllshire, in Western Scotland) was on the itinerary of the Sacred Sites tour and involved stone circles, we quickly changed plans in order add a trip there to her and my sister Anna’s journey.

And so we set out on Tuesday morning, driving up along the west shore of Loch Lomond on a beautiful, uncharacteristically sunny February morning. I was startled to find that it only took us about an hour to get to Inverary, a charming town on the banks of Loch Fyne, where we ate lunch at the restaurant in a woollens store. Another hour and a bit saw us to Kilmartin, a wide glen chock-filled with bronze-age remnants.

Actually, it takes a while to develop an eye for ancient monuments. The standing stones are the easiest to see; it was only later that we realized that we had failed to see the line of five cairns that run down the valley, or the stone circle off to one side. As the day went on, we got better at ancient monument-sighting and were struck by how much had escaped us at first.

The first group we did see, a set of five standing stones, took our breath away. We parked in the small car park, crossed the burn (small stream), and followed the path to the field where they stood, forming a North-South line, with one large stone in the middle and two at either end, spaced so that when we stood in the 10-foot space between the southernmost pair, the middle stone sat between the northernmost pair. We circled around each lichen-covered stone, in particular standing against the middle one facing south, soaking up the warm sun. Sheep were grazing in the next field.

But where was the Temple Grove Circle, referred to by the road sign and in our literature? We proceeded up the valley, to the town of Kilmartin, only to find the Museum of Ancient Culture, next the Church of St. Martin, after which the town is named, closed until March. We were on our own to sort out the mystery of Kilmartin’s ancient monuments.

After looking at the medieval carved gravestones in the churchyard, glorifying dead local fighters, many killed in battles, we drove down the valley to look for more ancient and inspiring sites. We turned down a small lane, passing a school where parents were picking up their children. There off to the left was an ancient cairn of stones piled on each other, that we had missed before, although it was across a field from the standing stones we had first stopped at. Apparently, we had mistaken it for a random pile of stones, and the carefully laid out path leading to it as random fences. So much for our powers of observation!

The cairn consisted of a large and spread-out pile of smallish stones 4 to 8 inches in diameter, gradually mounting to a centre, 4-5 feet high, the whole thing about 60 ft across. In the centre was the burial chamber, covered with a large slab of stone on the top, an entrance on one side. I was surprised by how rocky the whole thing was, because I had always imagined megalithic sites, including burial cairns, to be made of a small number of large stones, set in the dirt or turf. This is possibly why I missed it the first time.

I had left the car in a passing place on a one-lane road, so I decided I’d better move it around the parking lot where we’d stopped the first time. Leaving Diane, Anna and my mom to finish their exploration and find their way back by way of the first set of 5 large standing stones, I drove on… and immediately encountered the missing Temple Grove Circle, on the opposite side of the road!

After getting the car parked properly, and I went to meet the others, and excitedly and triumphantly dragged them off to see the missing stone circle. It, too, consisted largely of a large pile of small rocks, centring on a burial chamber. However, it was surrounded by a circle of largish stones, 1 to 2 feet tall, two of them decorated with spiral patterns, the whole thing about 60 feet wide. In the centre was a smaller circle of low standing stones, defining a kind of inner sancrum; the inmost part was rectangular, uncovered burial chamber. To the east, two stones were turned outward to form a doorway, which was blocked by another stone. Not only that, but there was a second, older and smaller pile of stones to the immediate north, with the perimeter partly marked by cement pieces indicating where archeological evidence points to the placement of the original stones and wooden support beams.

According to our stone circle book, carbon 14 dating places the older circle at 3100 to 3500 BCE, and the newer, larger circle contained human remains dating as recently1050 BCE. This means that this complex of circles was in use for at least 2000 years, at first as some sort of ritual/observatory site, and later as a burial site. It was rediscovered in the 19th century and excavated and dated in the 20th century in two stages.

This was the high point of our visit to Kilmartin. We did make one more stop, further down the valley at another cairn, quite similar to the first one we saw, but with more standing stones (in a field full or suspicious sheep) and a set of flat ancient carved stones with cup and circle designs, in a field on the opposite side of the cairn. We missed the other 4 cairns, more carved stones and an ancient fort. Kilmartin Glen, as the book says, is a paradise of megalithic structures. It feels like a very holy place, incredibly ancient and powerful. It took us a while to learn how to see it, but in the end through persistent exploration we succeeded, and left feeling exhilarated and powerfully linked to the ancient past.

No comments: