13/03/2012 - After a coffee in Biggar we set off for Tinto in the hope that the cloudbase had risen by the afternoon. As we got to the car park, north of Tinto (NS 96423741), we could see that it had and the cairn was quite visible. Good path all the way up the north side of hill to top. We were accompanied some of the way by a little white Scottie dog from a nearby house. It seemed quite happy roaming the hill path on it's own. The cairn is big and it's anyone's guess how long it must have taken to build. Tinto is a special hill, a must visit.
I'm not one for planning holidays months in advance... perhaps it's a somewhat childish 'defence' against disappointment if/when things don't go to plan. Ha! Because there is no plan! Or simply a reaction against the sterile, packaged 'experiences' that seem all too prevalent these days? Nevertheless, deciding to try and visit the (apparently magnificent) Tinto cairn only the night before commencing this year's Scottish tour is perhaps taking the policy - such as it is - to extremes. But there you are. Anyway, I arrive at the large car park at Fallburn around mid-day, the pristine blue skies of early morning Essex long since replaced by the far more hostile South Lanarkshire version.
Neither the objective, nor route are in question at the outset, a well-worn track snaking away up the hillside to the approx SW towards the prominent skyline cairn, via Totherin Hill. The optical effects of fore-shortening, not to mention the company of a number of other local Saturday walkers, reduce the impact of what is, after all, going to be an ascent of a 2,320ft mountain in less than ideal conditions. To be fair, it's not the most difficult climb, although, ironically, I make very heavy weather of it due to a combination of lack of sleep and a 'stitch' which just won't go away. The dodgy shoulder again. Then there's the wind.... which suddenly makes itself felt as I leave the lee of the mountain above Maurice's Cleuch. Suffice to say I'm glad I can delve into the rucksack to retrieve full kit and not simply apply a 'hoodie' like others. But then I'm not a tough local, but a soft Sassenach. So, a final struggle, and there it is. From what I understand, Scotland's largest upland cairn.
I don't think I will ever be able to adequately relate why these mountain round cairns - after all no more than large piles of stones - affect me to such an extent. Perhaps it's the recognition of the sheer effort they must have taken to erect? Or possibly they unlock some long suppressed folk memories, remnants of which survive in the infuriating 'need' for some to add to their fabric today? Or are they simply physical representations of that 'on top of the world' feeling of dominance most social animals seem to seek? Or just the connection with the elements, both on the physical (wind, rain... hey, even sun)and metaphysical levels (appreciation of views)? Or is it simply that they were erected by people so long ago, yet still remain to provide a link to them, no matter how tenuous?
Whatever the truth - assuming there is a truth - all of the above applies to the great Tinto cairn to arguably a greater extent than most - possibly all - of the other such monuments I've visited in these Isles. It is simply massive! Gigantic. Truly astonishing. I climb to the summit of the massive stone pile.... alone.... since a sudden, violent squall accompanied by a mantle of mist sends the other summit visitors heading for their cars, soaked from head to foot. Ha! How dare you call me a mere hill..... However the swirling cloud disperses and the vistas are once again exquisite... yeah. I'm convinced it is the outlook which was the primary factor in the siting of these monuments. The cairn marks the spot.... some spot, some cairn. Methinks extreme locations generate extreme emotions.
Unfortunately the cairn has not been well treated. Litter is all too sadly in evidence, not to mention a pathetic attempt at a 'storm shelter', with remnants of some circular, stone pillar to the south. However Tinto cairn is simply so overwhelming in stature that these merely scratch the surface, so to speak. I stay for c4 hours, gobsmacked by the magnitude of this mountain top monument, only to spot what appears to be a multi-vallate hillfort beside the track upon the final descent. It is too much. How I missed the Fallburn enclosure on the way up, I'll never know. Some first day.
The Height Atween Tintock-Tap And Coulter-Fell
Is Just Three Quarters O' An Ell.
These hills are the most conspicuous objects in a district of Lanarkshire, which is in general rather flat; and the rhyme seems merely to denote that they are nearly of the same height.
p16 in 'The popular rhymes of Scotland' by Robert Chambers (1826).
Can it really only refer to something so mundane? It sounds like an aphorism you would speak sagely in response to a certain situation. You wouldn't say:"There's many a slip twixt cup and lip. This seems merely to denote that some people have messy table manners."
After a slightly more dialecty version of the rhyme below, the 'Scottish Journal of Topography, Antiquities, Traditions, &c' says:
"On the summit," says Chambers, "is an immense accumulation of stones, said to have been brought thither at different times from the vale (distance three Scotch miles), by the country people, upon whom the task was enjoined as a penance, by the priests of St John's Kirk, which was situated in a little glen at the north-east skirt of the mountain, though no vestige of its existence now remains except the burying ground.
The summit of Tintock is often enveloped in mist; and the 'kist' mentioned in the rhyme, was, perhaps, a large stone, remarkable over all the rest of the heap for having a hole in its upper side, which the country people say was formed by the grasp of Sir William Wallace's thumb, on the evening previous to his defeating the English at Boghall, in the neighbourhood.
The hole is generally full of water, on account of the drizzling nature of the atmosphere; but if it is meant by the 'caup' [cup] mentioned, we must suppose that the whole is intended as a mockery of human strength; for it is certainly impossible to lift the stone and drink off the contents of the hollow.
A ballad by the late Sir Alexander Boswell, entitled "The Spirit of Tintoc, or Johnnie Bell and the Kelpie," was published anonymously in 1803. The story is the adventurous undertaking of a drouthy tailor, who resolves to quench his thirst from the magic cup..
Naturally nothing good came of it. The rest is on p149 (v1, 1847) and it's scanned in on Google Books should you wish to investigate.
A vast number of places out of the Highlands still retain their Gaelic names, and it is interesting to understand them; for example, TINTOCK is the highest mountain in Lanarkshire; and the name has a meaning in Gaelic, "The house of the mist" (Tigh n' to-ag); and a local rhyme shews that to be the true meaning of the name, which has no English meaning.
On Tintock tap there is a mist,
And in the mist there is a kist,
And in the kist there is a cup,
And in the cup there is a drap;
Tak up the cup and drink the drap,
And set the cup on Tintock tap.
There was a popular tale about this mountain which I failed to get; but a cup, with some mysterious drink, is common in Celtic traditions.
p351 of Popular Tales of the West Highlands By John Francis Campbell (1862).
Some folklore, etymology, and an early C19th event/kneesup. According to the RCAHMS record, the cairn probably has prehistoric roots even if it has been added to since. At 45m diameter and an impressive 6m in height, it is one of the largest cairns in Scotland.
For miles [the river Clyde] winds along round the base of Tinto or Tintock hill..; on the summit of which is a large cairn, by tradition reported to have been thus erected by those who, as a penance, were compelled by the priests of St. John's kirk, in Lanark, to carry so many stones to the top of the hill.
p266 of 'The Church of England Magazine' vol 17, 1844.
Tinto, it has often been said, signifies the hill of fire; but whether it was so called from the fires which were kindled on it at Beltane, or in the beginning of May, in honour of some tutelary deity, or on whatever other occasion, I do not presume to determine.
New Statistical Account of Scotland, v6 (1845) p518.
Teinne in the Galic means fire; and toich land, ground, territory, or tom a hill.
'The Gentle Shepherd', Allan Ramsey, 1808 v2 p480.
In the shire of Lanark is a remarkable insulated mountain, called Tinto..; upon which the return of peace was lately celebrated by an immense bonfire made of 50 loads of coal, and a large quantity of wood, at which several sheep were roasted whole. The fire was kindled at nine o'clock at night, and had a beautiful effect; as the Cairn of Tinto is seen from 17 counties, and from the Atlantic and German Oceans.
(this must refer to the end of the 1807-1814 Peninsular War?) From The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle. Jan-June, 1814, v84. p693.
All books found online at Google Books.