Archaeologists believe they have uncovered the first Iron Age burial on the Isle of Skye.
The skeleton from about the 1st millennium BC is thought to be that of a young female. It was found recently in an open stone-lined grave as the archaeologists worked to re-open the blocked entrance to the High Pasture Cave... continues...
I heard some folklore today, unprompted, and I hope the person who told it won't mind me retelling it here. He said that when his father was young (this might be about 60 or more years ago) he lived on Skye for a while, and he'd gone on a long walk over the Cuilleans, accompanying a local man. It took them five hours to get across the mountains and his father then assumed they'd walk the flat way back, along the road. But he was very surprised when his guide said 'well goodbye then' and made to set off the way they'd come. It transpired that the short route home went past a green mound (where, my narrator said, there were, as we would say, fairies, but it was a bronze age burial mound) - and the guide was under no circumstances about to walk past it now that the dusk was falling. He would rather take the five hours back over the mountains in the dark. Which, according to the tale, he did.
The pattern of distribution of monuments near the Red Cuchuillin mountains is very striking, when viewed on the map, for their locations draw a curve around the southern and eastern sides, the monuments roughly equally spaced and delineating the edge of the mountains perfectly. The Red Cuchuillins, then, seem to be of central significant in the positioning of these sites. They are the easternmost part of the Cuchuillin range, the creation of which is described in folklore thus:
"When all the world was new, there was a great heather-clad plain between Loch Bracadale on the west and the Red Hills on the east. It was a dark and lonely place and the Cailleach Bhur (= Hag of the Ridges, i.e. Winter), whose home was on Ben Wyvis, often lived there when she came west to boil up her linen in her washing pot, dangerous Corryvreckan. She was a very powerful and fearsome person who had made Scotland by dropping into the sea a creel of peat and rock which she brought with her from the north. When her clothes had boiled well, she would spread them to bleach on Storr, and while she was in Skye no good weather was to be got at all. Now spring hated her because she held the maiden he loved prisoner (until the girl should wash a brown fleece white) and he fought with her, but she was strong, stronger than anyone else within the four boundaries of the earth, and he could do nothing. He appealed to the Sun to help him and the Sun flung his spear at Cailleach Bhur as she walked on the moor; it was so fiery and hot it scorched the very earth, and where it struck, a blister, six miles long and six miles wide, grew and grew until it burst and flung forth the Cuchuillins as a glowing, molten mass. For many, many months they glowed and smoked, and the Cailleach Bhur fled away and hid beneath the roots of a holly and dared not return. Even now, her snow is useless against the fire hills.
- Otta F. Swire, Skye: The Island and its Legends, 1961, pp. 20-1.
The Cuchuillins are also noted, in mythology, for the "school for heroes" run by Skiach, "goddess or mortal no one knows which, but undoubtedly a great warrior. Some say she took her name from a Gaelic name for Skye, others that Skye took its name from her" (see Swire pp. 21-3). The Irish hero Cuchuillin, for whom these mountains are named, heard of Skiach and her school, and with three strides travelled from Ulster to her school. After defeating every one of her students, Skiach finally allowed him to fight with her daughter, whom he also vanquished, after two days. Furious, Skiach descended from her heights to fight Cuchuillin herself. After two days of fighting "on the mountains and on the moors and in the sea" the combat was exactly equally matched, with neither able to gain the upper hand. At this stage Skiach's daughter offers both her mother and Cuchuillin a meal of deer stuffed with roast hazelnuts. Each thinking that "the hazels of knowledge" would teach them how to overcome their opponent, the two of them sit down to eat. From the hazels they learn that they are exactly matched, and that neither will ever win over the other. They therefore make peace, and swear that each will answer the other's call, "though the sky fall and crush us". Skiach named the mountains where they had fought in Cuchuillin's honour.
Swire (Ibid., p. 23) records one further curious piece of folklore with regard to the Cuchuillins:
"In the Cuchuillins, too, though exactly where must not be said, is a cave of gold. Unlike all other treasure caves, there are no barriers here between men and untold wealth. No magic word is required. No fearful monster guards the entrance. He who finds the cave may take as much gold as he needs and return as often as he desires more, but each time he enters the cave, and each time he uses the gold, he will become a little more evil and a little more evil, until he loses his soul. That is the price."
"Many people believe that it is from her wings* and her Gaelic name, Eilean Sgiathanach (Winged Isle), that the name Skye comes. Ptolemy of Alexandria (A.D. 200) refers to the island as Sketis, while the ancient Celtic name 'Skeitos' has become Sgiath in modern Gaelic. Adamnan knew it as Scia. This 'wing derivation certainly sounds very probable, more probable than the other version which claims that 'Skye' is Scandinavian, derived from a norse word Ski (cloud). This school of thought takes its stand on the fact that cloud or mist is what would first and most forcibly attract the notice of any stranger visiting the isle**, whereas to notice the 'wings' requires a map. Obviously this school has never tried (as the early Scandinavian settlers most certainly did) to sail around the despised wings. Of course, many place-names in Skye undoubtedly are Scandinavian, but they date from a later time than Ptolemy - four or five centuries later. A third suggestion, once seriously put forward by certain Celtic antiquaries, was that in Skye stood the temple, known to Greek fable, of Apollo among the Hyperboreans, and that the Gaelic name of the island refers to the wings of the Greek god! The name may, in fact, belong to some old forgotten pre-Celtic tongue."
- Otta F. Swire, Skye: The Island and its Legends, 1961, pp. 72-3.
* The "wings" are Skye's various promontories, for example Trotternish, Waternish and Duirnish.
** Skye is also known as Eilean a' Cheò, meaning "The Misty Isle".
"Strath appears to have been a great religious centre ever since prehistoric times. The remains of several stone circles are still to be seen there, in close juxtaposition to a number of ancient churches now in ruins. It seems generally agreed that before St. Columba brought Christianity to Skye the pagan religion of the island was that mysterious cult which has come to us only in the form of stone circles (believed to have been places of worship), monoliths (which in Skye seem to have been frequently connected with graves or burial mounds), and sacred wells and woods, the latter usually hazel groves. St. Columba never attempted to destroy the sacred places of paganism nor the firm belief in the virtues of certain harmless practices he found: instead he blessed them and gave them Christian symbolism, as in the story of St. Turog and the wells at Flodigarry. This is very clearly illustrated in Strath, where five old churches or chapels, now in ruins, stand each beside or near a stone circle, and the graveyards all contain some prehistoric stones as well as having tradition that they were first pagan burial-grounds and later Christian."
- Otta F. Swire, Skye: The Island and its Legends, 1961, pp. 217-8.
To visit Dùn Gerashader take the A855 north out of Portree for just over a kilometre and park your vehicle immediately before the turn off to Torvaig. Do not scale the barbed wire fence. Walk up to the junction, turn right over the bridge and, 100 metres on, a gate to the right provides access to gentle grassy slopes that lead to the base of the rise bearing the fort. There is a small stream to cross (stepping stones) followed by a steepish rise to Gerashader.
I contoured left on the ascent and was amazed when I reached the southern defences of the fort: three rows of simply huge blocks, described by Canmore as 'the remains of 3 lines of obstructions', arranged like rows of dentures, each one about a metre wide and 1½ metres or more in height. The mind boggles to understand how, two millennia ago, men could locate such stones and move them uphill into place. Above these is the tumbled southern wall, some four metres broad.
Beyond this rocky rampart is the relatively level grassy interior, dotted with stones that have probably tumbled from the much higher wall on the north rim of the hill, and beyond that, on a rise, the wide northern wall of the fort. Though much tumbled, stretches of the original masonry courses are still evident.