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Kilmartin Glen - the land of mist and cuckoos

May 20th – 27th 2017: we stayed in a comfortable small house by the Crinan Canal village of Cairnbaan which, as it turned out, was within walking distance of two amazing rock art sites. The archaeology of Kilmartin spans the period from Neolithic to early Christian, although it is thought that people have lived in the area since the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. It includes cairns and cists (the earliest being Neolithic), standing stones, one henge, a small stone circle, an ancient hillfort, mysterious rock engraving sites. And, more recently, ancient remote chapels where engraved tombstones can be seen (also to be seen in Kilmartin churchyard). To mention briefly in passing, we visited two of these, namely the Keills Chapel beyond the small sailing village of Tayvallich and the equally remote Kilvaree Chapel beyond Ardfern.

Firstly I will talk about the rock art/engraving and this was my primary reason for going to Argyll and definitely on my ‘bucket-list’. I am not exaggerating if I say they blew me away; there they were in front me, engraved stones I had only seen photos of before. Our first site visit was Achnabreck quite close to where we were staying. It was pouring with rain so we drove up a stony track in the forest to a car park. There were interpretation/information boards at every site which was extremely helpful. Achnabreck 1 and Achnabreck 2 consist of numerous cup and ring marks, both are protected by a fenced enclosure. Both astonishing! (we understood there is a third one but we did not find it on that occasion in the rain). By evening the weather had cleared and, having earlier seen a sign for cup & ring marked stones by the Cairnbaan Hotel we set off again on foot. This was a wonderful surprise. The footpath starts on the corner by the hotel and rises steeply into pine wood (bluebells still out along the way). Two separate sites close together both inside protective railings but a metal stool provided to enable closer inspection, amazing views over the Crinan Canal. Other sites visited later in the week include Kilmichael Glassary – wonderful rock carving just behind the local primary school. Access easy. Ormaig – quite the most satisfying visit which included a longish walk from Carnassarie Castle. Standing stones and hill top cairns along the way. These panels would have been quite hidden until relatively recently as were situated on a forested hill-side. The forest has now been felled (commercial forestry is an important industry in Argyll) making the panels much easier to find; they include the quite rare rosette motifs. We also saw the cup and ring engravings on the Baluachraig panel which is very close to the Dunchraigaig cist and the Ballymeanoch standing stones.
Standing stones and cairns. Visited Ballymeanoch and Dunchraigaig also on our first day, still sort of raining. The field containing the Ballymeanoch standing stones consists of one fallen holed stone (moved from its original site), a kerbed cairn, a 4 stone row, a 2 stone row (which once included the holed stone) and amazingly a henge – the only surviving henge in Scotland. Then onto the Nether Largie standing stones or Great X and the Templewood stone circle. We visited Nether Largie South chambered tomb separately to the other linear cairns so the full significance of this amazing site didn’t sink in until later in the week. Neolithic and chambered it is the oldest cairn in the linear cemetery. As well as the Great X Stones nearby there is also a solitary standing stone a dozen or so metres away in the next field. Later in the week, on a warm and sunny day we visited Kintraw standing stone and Clach an t-Sagairt Cairn on a hillside overlooking Ardfern and loch Criagnish. Stunning site and views – Kintraw standing stone is one of the tallest I’ve ever seen and must be related to the cairn. Lots of other standing stones - the two on the hillside near Carnassie Castle pleased me immensely, visually they seem to be aligned with the hilltop cairns of Carnassie and Cairn Baan.

And then there was Dunadd sacred hill fort with its ceremonial ‘footstep’ stone and wild boar carving at almost the top. I did manage to get to the top though came down somewhat tentatively as the boulders slippery in the drizzly misty conditions. Would loved to have gone back up there on one of the two hot days we had later in the week but a week just wasn’t long enough.
I mustn’t forget to mention the wonderful Kilmartin Museum with its great café. Or the superb information boards at every site. The week was also about nature walks through the ancient oak wood Taynish National Nature Reserve (I can still hear the cuckoos). Exploring coastal areas and small villages such as Tayvallich and Ardfern. Looking for water falls on the hillsides and visiting the beaver trials loch near to where we were staying (here I unknowingly picked up a tick but Friend spotted it later that evening and operated with a tweezers).

An amazing week, Saturday morning on our return journey we called in at the Crarae Garden described as Britain’s Himalayan Glen. Very peaceful at 10am in the morning and containing the remains of a Neolithic burial cairn. Also broke the journey back to the crowded south by visiting a good friend from Wiltshire currently based in Carlisle – a different sort of history around there as she lives in Brough by Sands in a 16 century longhouse built on Hadrian’s Wall.
I must thank my good friend and companion M for facilitating all of this by doing the driving and map reading.
Thanks too to all the people who responded to my forum post – it is so difficult to imagine Kilmartin Glen until you visit. It lived up to and surpassed all expectations.
And finally I must mention the lovely, very helpful book “In The Footsteps Of Kings” by Sharon Webb (with acknowledgements to many others). Contains 25 walks in the area, all with details of archaeology and maps.

tjj Posted by tjj
29th May 2017ce
Edited 12th August 2017ce

Comments (7)

Lovely blog tjj..& field notes & photos. Am still reeling ( get it..groan) myself from latest ventures into Scotland. Isn't it beautiful? Am very keen to explore more & I know & now realise even more how brilliant Kilmartin is. Inspiring stuff. Posted by carol27
31st May 2017ce
Thanks for reading my ramblings Carol, unfortunately I don't know how to link the sites mentioned to any field notes I may write up. Never mind! I do recommend the Kilmartin area, hard to imagine until you are there. No mobile phone signal or internet connection, I had to walk down to a nearby hotel to use their payphone. We did have a tv though which remained off mainly but did hear the terrible news about the Manchester attack on Tuesday morning. I won't pretend it didn't overshadow things for a couple of days.
All the best
tjj Posted by tjj
31st May 2017ce
The Manchester attack is something I still haven't processed properly. I don't know what you do about jackets with bombs strapped underneath. My daughter in law had discussed going to Ariana Grande concert. I've been often.
What I do know is that I've been offered, & have grown to realise that being in nature & embracing our history is some sort of solace. Tiompan talked about " troubled souls" & he's right:)
Posted by carol27
1st June 2017ce
I must get the book, in footsteps of kings, despite walking up and down, driving all around, one was left feeling 'there is even more here' enjoyed your enthusiasm, Kilmartin inspires it and deserves it. Posted by costaexpress
1st June 2017ce
I must get the book, in footsteps of kings, despite walking up and down, driving all around, one was left feeling 'there is even more here' enjoyed your enthusiasm, Kilmartin inspires it and deserves it. Posted by costaexpress
1st June 2017ce
Costa - thanks it is an amazing area in many different ways. Sorry if I've gone on a bit.

Carol - re the Manchester atrocity, I understand what you mean about still processing it. It goes far beyond troubled souls and (to me anyway) seemed to be about the deep rooted misogyny in fundamentalist religion - not only Islam.
tjj Posted by tjj
1st June 2017ce
Lovely notes and you didn't go on :-) drewbhoy Posted by drewbhoy
2nd June 2017ce
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