A walk through history in Kilmartin Glen
31st October 2009
Map: Landranger 55
Weather: Slight drizzle turning to late afternoon sun
From Dunchraigaig Guesthouse to the Ballymeanoch stones, down to Great Moss and around to Barloisnoch. Back along tracks and roads to Slockavullin, along to Kilmartin Church and museum, back to Temple Wood and across to the X stones, down to Ri Cruin cairn and finally across the fields to the B&B: 9.9 miles by Satmap Active 10 gps
We drove up to Kilmartin the day before amid torrential rain and foreboding signs of doom on the overhead signs on the motorway– floods, wind, and maybe a little bit of fire. But we made it through Glasgow and along Loch Lomond before turning west for some peace. We stopped at Inverary on the way to get some money – cash is king out west! After more wet driving we arrived at the Dunchraigaig House B&B and settled in before nipping up to the pub in Kilmartin for some nosh. There is a Pine Marten that is fairly domesticated and visits the bird table at around 8pm, for some grapes and a muffin – the food they served at the B&B was so nice I thought about nipping out to the bird table to beat the Marten to it. The forecast wasn’t brilliant for the next day, but on the upside it would be easier to see the rock art when it’s wet. After a lovely breakfast we stepped out into a grey day, overcast with a little drizzle, with no signs of any blue sky anywhere – yet. It was a short walk up the road to the first burial cairn of the day – the dates of these ancient monuments vary from the Neolithic, up through the Bronze Age and later – they were probably used and reused many times.
The cairn at Baluachraig to start the day
One of the cup marked standing stones at Ballymeanoch
Sodden fields, the coast is beyond the hills
Dunadd fort in the distance over the Mhoine Mhor Great Moss
A quick look around the cairn and the burial cists led us out into fields and walking towards the Ballymeanoch standing stones. Before we dropped down to the stones I noticed the massive river terraces – old flood plains, that have risen after the ice ages passed, and the meltwater cut down to lower levels. The standing stones run in parallel lines towards the SE – a common theme amongst the old remains around here. Kilmartin Glen became a focus for ritual and ceremonial gatherings between 6000 and 3500 years ago – a long history. Close to the stones was a henge, although not much can be seen on the ground, and as the field was very wet, we didn’t feel like wandering around looking for it. One of the standing stones was decorated with basic ring and cup marks, common to a lot of the sites we visited today and the next day. We roamed across the driest part of the field edge, looking for an exit to a small road. The sheep ahead of us thought that they were being rounded up and set to bleating loudly – must have been worried about the rams in the next field. We found a field gate and walked out onto a pleasant road, very quiet with the sunshine peeking through – unfortunately that didn’t last too long. The roads here were generally very straight so we could navigate very easily and see our destination a long way off. We made good progress despite the dodgy knee, so it can’t be too bad.
The ruined façade of Poltalloch
Looking over to Loch Crinan – Duntrune Castle on the right
Looking back over the estuary
The first chambered cairn near Kilchoan Lodge
There was lots of birdlife around today, particularly a very elusive Buzzard that we could hear, but it never came close enough to be photographed. As we reached the end of the first stretch we passed by a riding school where some wag had altered the sign to ‘Riding S cool’ – my daughter approved of that one. Directly opposite the end of the road was a lodge house for the old Poltalloch estate, and the ruins could be seen ahead on the higher ground. The facade is still elegant but the interior has many trees growing, peeping out of the windows, as nature reclaims the building. Around the corner we reached the Moine Mhor nature reserve which is Gaelic for Great Moss, and it is one of the largest peat bogs in Europe. The best views over this area are from the Dunadd hill fort site on the other side. We could see how the fort had a good view of its surrounds from our vantage point, and you can see the slightly domed shape of the moss – or it might have been my eyesight – whatever it was it was wet. One thing of note and instantly noticeable around the area was the amount of lichen growing on the trees, and lower plants such as Bryophytes – I think they are a good indicator that the air is clean.
And looking back towards the estuary
Beautiful autumnal colours and blue skies
Very peaceful along here and not too boggy
Plenty of cows bellowing at their youngsters
We carried on our leisurely stroll down more straight roads towards Barsloisnoch, where there are some fine farm buildings, stables, sheds etc. It looks a bit dishevelled and would make a great holiday home. The owner came out shortly after we passed, nipped along in her car, did a quick circuit and parked back up satisfied that we weren’t up to any trouble. It was very flat wetland as we got closer to the estuary, and the familiar smell of the sea wafted across reed filled fields. Crinan on one side of the estuary and Duntrune Castle on the other side, with a ferry hove to in the middle of the Loch Crinan. The local squire and his gun party whizzed past in their Range Rovers, and we walked through an estate gate and cut up to the north along a boggy farm track. The local cattle were all carrying young and were installed in and around the ruins of the big house, so a visit there was not advised. As we walked up a quick shower dumped some wet stuff on us and then it was over for the day and the walk continued in the weak sunshine.
Temple Wood stone circle with the burial cist in the centre
Another view of the inner circle
The Northern circle
Nether Largie South cairn
There were some lovely autumn colours still around on the trees, which shows how mild it is up the west coast of Scotland, washed by the gulf stream. We passed a few suckling cows which weren’t bothered by our presence, and soon came upon our first chambered cairn of the day. It was overgrown with nettles, but it looks like they are doing some work to tidy up the site – it would be a shame to lose it through neglect after 5000 years in existence. We reached the end of the farm track at Kilchoan Lodge – another gate house of the old Poltalloch estate and turned left to follow a little used road that led us towards Stockavullin and more ancient monuments. I missed an opportunity here to walk to the old house and the church, but as it was full of pregnant cows (the farmer warned us about it the next day) we thought it best not to go this way and we kept dry feet this way. As we approached Stockavullin we made a right/left turn to get on the road to the next site at Temple Wood, which contains two stone circles. The site itself is neatly enclosed by stone walls and surrounded by trees – a Victorian addition to embellish the site. The northern circle was built around 3000BC but was replaced by the Southern circle. When archaeologists excavated the northern circle they found post holes and later standing stones that post dated the timber structure. They also found a central standing stone aligned on a N/S axis, so it must have been a giant sundial perhaps? It later got covered in stones then peat over the millennia. They only found it when excavating the adjacent circle, which only goes to beg the question of how many other sites are there under our feet dotted around the Glen – more than we will ever know I suspect. The southern circle is more complete with a ring of standing stones, and some burial cists in the centre. On the northernmost stone is an inscribed spiral that is quite difficult to see close up, and you have to stand back and hope the sun casts some shadow to show it up. Many alterations and different uses of the circle took place later, and an information board at the site details its history.
The entrance to the chamber
Inside looking out
An easy stroll past the school, Kilmartin in the distance
The mid cairn – the best place to look at the other cairns in the linear cemetry
A little further on across the road is the first of the Nether Largie Cairns which is one of a group that form a linear cemetery along the valley, stretching from Kilmartin to Ri Cruin. Nobody knows which one came first, but they all lend a special feeling to the Glen. The Nether Largie South Cairn has been much altered over the years, but despite all the rubble that has been piled up around the original cairn, you can still get inside, sit down and let your mind wander. It was a bit damp today but very dark and close to the earth – interesting feeling to me - a non believer. The field adjacent to the cairn held some very healthy looking horny sheep – by horny I mean big curly horns on the head. I don’t know what make the sheep were, but I’ve seen enough over the years to know that they were well fed and ready for the coming winter. Looking further north the valley sides squeeze in a little at Kilmartin and the village sits up above the lower flood plain. The church is easy to spot as are the white washed buildings along the road.
More cairns to the North
Over the Nether Largie North Cairn to Kilmartin
Nether Largie North Cairn – spot the axe head shapes
The slab over the door dated 1027 is a side slab from a grave
The other cairns further up the valley were easy to see as well, and we passed by the local schoolyard, what an idyllic locality to grow up in, remote but oh so healthy. Next up was the middle cairn, and this provided the best viewpoint of the linear cemetery, despite being a bit gloomy. This has quite a wide bank around the centre cairn, but this consists of rubble with a couple of concrete posts poking up above the surface – apparently this marks the position of the underlying chambered tomb. The information boards tell the story that the valley floor was covered with peat and the cairns were only discovered in the 19th Century when they cut turves. Later farmers nicked a lot of the stones for ditches, roads, and sheds – every man needs a shed you know. Next up along the valley was the Nether Largie North Cairn – probably the best because you can climb inside and shut the weather out by a sliding door. The reason for the roof becomes apparent when you enter the chamber and see the carved/worked capstone off the burial cist within. I had to stand and look at the stone for a little while before I could discern the pecked out axe head shapes that postdate the earlier cup marks. In my mind the people who built this must have taken one of the older standing stones, shaped it for the cist and pecked in the axe heads before enclosing the tomb. Again it was a special feeling to gaze at this ancient bit of artwork. The standing stone that was excavated from the cairn is now in the Kilmartin museum next to the church – it’s not much to look at by the way.
Old grave slabs at Kilmartin church
Some of the old Poltalloch estate carved slabs
The white museum next to the church, and the café next to that
After a suitable time we left the chamber and along the easy path the village of Kilmartin invited us towards it. Thoughts of the cafe at the museum quickened our step as we strode ever closer. We passed a footbridge that we could have used to cross the fields to the village, and carried on for a little further along to eventually emerge on the north side of the village. There are a couple of B&B’s along the roadside, handy for the pub at night, a short stagger away. Just before we reached the church is the Kilmartin museum and cafe. We couldn’t eat here last night due to Halloween celebrations – pah humbug, and the food is meant to be excellent – bring your own booze I think. But we found a nice table in the conservatory type conservatory that looks down over the valley and ordered up some lovely warming soup, and a sarnie. What a lovely interlude, peaceful, resting and we still had the promise of more to look at. A quick look around the museum – which is more of an information centre on the history of the Glen – fun for the kiddies, and a good shelter on a winter’s day.
A healthy fat ram chewing the cud
The standing stones nearby the Nether Largie South Cairn
Giving me the bird!
This shows the wide floodplain and the stones
Next door to the museum is Kilmartin church, itself an unremarkable building, but within the graveyard there are some remarkable grave slabs. These date from the 13th / 14th Century and include some from the Poltalloch estate. There are many of these dotted around the Western Highlands and Argyll, all showing a similar design from the same stonemasons. There is some later modern day graffiti carved into them as well, in a sort of ‘Banksy was here’ way. By now the late afternoon sun was shining down on the valley, with marvellous autumn colours lit up on the hillside. We dropped back down to the valley bottom and walked past the linear graveyard, beyond the school and then turned across the fields at Temple Wood to visit the X standing stones beyond the Nether Largie South Cairn. The stones are laid out like an early football pitch – two sets of stones at each end, with a centre circle complete with standing stone. I’m some of the locals have used it as a training pitch in the past – it’s a natural target to punt a ball from between one set of posts, over the middle stone to land it between the posts at the far end. Some of the stones have the usual cup marks pecked into them and I’m sure they line up with the stones further down the valley. Maybe long ago there was a long avenue of standing stones at regular intervals?
Contrasting colours at Ri Cruin cairn
Spot the axe shapes again
The Baluachraig rock carvings
And the view to the coast from the same place
By now time was ticking on and one of the stones at the far end gave me the finger, so I took that as a sign to move on. Not much more to go now, just the southernmost cairn at Ri Cruin to look at and then across the fields to the B&B. Nearly all the roads we were on today were very quiet, but as we strode alongside the Kilmartin Burn, the local Ned roared along in his Subaru, desperately trying to impress his girlfriend. She looked horrified, but to be fair it did sound pretty good to me. Peace returned shortly afterwards, birds flitting along the hedgerows as we diverted to a small wooded copse at Ri Cruin. The cairn here has largely been robbed out over a long period, and the only thing left of note is in the southernmost cist where one of the grave slabs has about 8 axe head shapes pecked into the rock – I had to get my eye in again to see these. As time was ticking along we looked forward to our nosh at the B&B tonight. From the road we were on I decided to cut across the field to lead us back towards the B&B. We crossed through a gate and made our way up the field, trying to avoid the worse of the wet, and to my delight a small enclosed area loomed ahead in the field.
The end of a grand day out
Yum yum – grapes and Muffins
As I couldn’t see any particular lumps or bumps I knew it would be one of the rock art panels that the area is famous for. Better still that when we got to the small enclosure the sun was dropping low in the sky and the cup and ring marks could clearly be seen. The Baluachraig rock carvings are about 5000years old, and it struck me how similar they are to the Northumberland rock art I had seen earlier in the year. It was certainly a perfect platform for looking down onto the coast, river and the setting sun over the distant hills. What a great end to a fantastic walk through history, and we walked backed to the B&B in the knowledge that no matter how much it rained the next day, we had had some sunshine and it was worth the journey.
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