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Fieldnotes by ryaner

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Ballyrenan (Portal Tomb)

This place begs a couple of questions, the first of which is well rehearsed: Is it always important to remember that what we see at sites like Ballyrenan are the denuded, skeletal, interior remains of an earthen and stony mound? And does what remains at Ballyrenan cast doubt on that critical assumption in the first question? Because, like at Ballyvennaght in Antrim, there are two tombs here, separate but part of the same monument. At Ballyvennaght the entrance to the still standing western tomb is to the west, outwards from the cairn/mound – the collapsed eastern tomb is said to have a possible backstone at the west of the capstone so it must have opened to the east, again outwards from the cairn/mound.

At Ballyrenan, both chamber openings face east, meaning the western chamber would face into the mound/cairn. There is the possibility that there was come sort of central court in the intervening space between the front of the western tomb and the rear of the eastern. So was this a mongrel combination of a court and portal tomb? The fact that the western tomb has two chambers could lead you down that rabbit hole. But all of these musings are for later – today the sun is shining and this fantastic monument is right beside the country lane.

The large farm buildings to the west of the tomb do detract from the vibe a bit. The farmer’s there working away and gruffly gives us the go-ahead to park in the driveway. And then it’s just dive right in. It’s not massively spectacular in terms of size but this place has something else, something mysterious and deeply affecting. The thought taken to form the construction and the skill to complete it are impressive. And yet doubts remain – was the western tomb messed about with and re-constructed sometime after the supposed denudation of the cairn/mound? Because there’s a couple or three things amiss, or unique, or odd about the western tomb, aside from it facing into the mound, if there ever was one.

One: the skewed ‘lintel’ over the portal stones, propping up the capstone but also tilting it down to the north as it rests neatly on the southern, but precariously on the northern portal. Two: the stone that rests on the north-eastern sidestone of the eastern, front chamber that juts out by at least a metre and serves to counter the tilt caused by the portal ‘lintel’. The capstone of the rear chamber also rests on this stone. Three: The rear, sealed chamber itself. But sure what am I cribbing about? The easy, quiet backwoods atmosphere allowed us to engage with and immerse in the monument for as long as we wished. I couldn’t resist attacking the ivy that is beginning to colonise the northern portal of the western tomb, the physical action bringing the engagement to another level.

The ‘lesser’ eastern tomb has its own charms too. The stone that I thought to be a recessed, half-height doorstone, but actually a septal stone, is split longitudinally by a seam of quartz, discovered after another judicious bit of ivy clearing. The backstone is there, as are the two sidestones and both portals – all that’s missing is the capstone. The excavators discovered a small, cist-like second chamber at the back of the main chamber but we didn’t notice. If that was the case and it’s also double-chambered, then I would be leaning towards two separate monuments and two separate mounds. Either way it would have been an impressive, close to medium-sized dolmen when complete.

Ballyrenan is another must-see Tyrone site. I’d been in the vicinity a couple of times in the last few years and had neglected it for some reason, probably because of the multitude of other fantastic places in the county. Don’t make the same mistake!

Caldragh Churchyard (Carving)

There’s just no getting away from how colossally weird these stones are – you feel that anything that you say about them would not in any way do them justice. It’s a bit like being confronted by Munch’s Scream, a raw shout from the core of us, pointing to our own ultimate annihilation and rendering us silent. They are both ghostly and otherworldly, and weirdly human at the same time, leaving you with your consolatory pondering. I don’t have much else to say, just that you have to see them.

The Lusty More man is obviously the lesser of the two here but, on its own, would have you travelling miles to see it. Faded now, it’s power waning, and placed so close to the ‘Janus’ figure, you get quickly distracted. However, all is not well at Caldragh – to my untrained eye, the Janus figure is beginning to erode badly, almost crumbling in places. I would understand entirely if it was moved indoors. That said, it would be a shame if it happened – the experience of having this place all to yourself, to contemplate the utter strangeness of the carvings, is one of the highlights of megalithic Ireland.

Cavantillycormick (Court Tomb)

Like the shattered, semi-devoured carcass of a beached whale, the remains of Cavantillcormick dual court tomb sit on a slight, boggy ridge, scattered stones jutting above the turf and what’s left of the cairn in a barely discernible pattern. I’d approached the monument from the neighbouring field entrance about 250 metres to the south-east, gone down into a ditch and clambered up over a wall and then traversed the marshy ground to be confronted by what is a wreck of a tomb that manages to retain just a small bit of dignity.

Thankfully what does remain doesn’t seem in any danger of being removed, for the moment. Much of the poorer land in Fermanagh, and Tyrone for that matter, seems to be in the constant process of improvement. You would hope that any ideas of that here would take the neolithic court tomb into account, but there’s no guarantee of that. Cavantillycormick (probably Cabhán Tulaigh Cormaic ‘hollow of Cormac’s hill’) and its surrounds has a mix of pasturage and a small amount of tillage and land hunger may return.

You could despair at the destruction here but of the remains of the two tombs, the western is better, with a displaced roofstone over its chamber. The sense of tragedy is increased at the eastern remains, two, maybe three stones left standing. Still, there’s a sense here of something that is yet worthwhile. The ruggedness, the barely contained wildness, the raw beauty of the surroundings, and the wreckage of the ancient memorial, all combine into a small celebration of the determination of those who eked out their existence here all the way back six thousand years ago.

Cornabracken/Deerpark (McCormick) (Chambered Tomb)

The scant remains here lie one and a half kilometres west of the centre of Omagh town. The deep spring green of the fertilised fields is almost off-putting. Ballyrenan is only 12 kilometres northwards so why bother? Nothing much is visible from the road and at first the layout of the SMR map has me confused, almost enough to give up. Then, oriented correctly, I leg it south, uphill and close to the field boundary.

The very box-like/cist-like remains, incorporated into the field bank, get inundated in the summer – now, in mid-April, it’s still difficult to see the southern part of the tomb, vicious, dry brambles from last year still tangling two of the orthostats. They say it’s the possible remains of a court tomb – various scattered stones could be this or that. I didn’t hang about much, Ballyrenan too much of a distraction.

Aghalane (Court Tomb)

The A505 runs between Omagh and Cookstown and is a fast and unforgiving road. It's also littered with megaliths to its north and south. Heading west from An Creagán, we pulled up on the northern verge at the bottom of the field. I didn’t wonder who might have been interred in the tomb we were visiting. It was just another ruin, taken in on our way to better places, but revered nonetheless.

It’s tucked in under, and almost incorporated into, an ancient but later field boundary. It’s aligned east/west, with the front at the west. The map says megalith, the SMR court tomb. Any remains of the shallow court are difficult to discern – some of the stones here seem to be dumped field clearance, though the field is little more than a bog now, poorly drained. Mulderg rises to the north-west, scarred terribly with the gouges of quarrying. South-east is a long expanse of heather covered bog.

Most of the gallery sidestones remain, presuming there was only one chamber. A laterally placed stone on the southern side may be a segmenting jamb. There is no stone opposite it at the north so there’s no telling. Two matched stones further east and no closing stone at the rear leads to the conclusion that the rear of a second chamber may have been robbed. Two stones, one splayed out over the entrance stones and another thrown down in the ‘court’ may be roof stones or lintels.

I doubt this place ever fully dries out. It’s not a showy sort of place and is almost stranded there 200 metres from the road as the traffic flies past. I had no huge expectations and I can’t say I was either under- nor overwhelmed. It’s a small relic in an area with many more ‘important’ sites but might be worth your efforts, just bring some wellies.

Ballybriest (now in An Creagán) (Wedge Tomb)

Anthony Weir, in his Early Ireland: A Field Guide, published in 1980, mentions that this is across the road from the court tomb. He must have seen it in its original environment back then. It's now in An Creagán Visitors Centre in Tyrone, about 12 kilometres to the south-west.

Behind the centre is a small duck pond and a kids' playground. To the right of the pond a set of steps rises on the right and brings you on a number of looped walks through the bogland. To the left of the steps, almost tucked into the bank, is the reconstructed tomb.

An extensive excavation was undertaken before dismantling the tomb and if you compare it to the old photograph (link below) you can see that they remained faithful to the original. It's actually a quite impressive little monument, with all its sidestones, a backstone and two roofstones, with a ruined antechamber, but is, I would imagine, now used as a climbing frame for the energetic sprogs that populate the locale.

Beragh (Standing Stone / Menhir)

West of the village of the same name, down a country lane and up on a drumlin ridge, is this small relic. It's like the opening of a day, an invitation to explore further and deeper, little over a metre tall, its fallen neighbour invisible to the south. North from the prominence, above the Creggan boglands, the Sperrins float invitingly. The climb has taken the breath out of me on this, my first venture out of the car since Batterstown. I didn't touch it, satisfied enough to view, and to anticipate what lay ahead.

Drumnarullagh (Standing Stone / Menhir)

Right up in the north-east corner of Lower Lough Erne is the town of Kesh. It’s a pretty nondescript place, somewhere I wouldn’t be keen on passing too much time in… except that it has this mighty and mighty fine standing stone to its east in Drumnarullagh townland. It’s visible from the road about 120 metres into the field, well over 2 metres tall and 1.8 metres wide and is quite majestic, all alone there, with not much else around except the remains of a riverside rath about another 100 metres to the north.

Dromore Big (Court Tomb)

This is a sorry sight these days. We drove along the farm track – I knew there were farm buildings close by – and we were ready to ask for permission. We met a farm worker, not the owner, and he said go ahead. The photo on the NISMR shows the lintel and jambstones in a clearing and I had hopes that we were in for a bit of a treat. Alas no – were we here any later in the year it seems that we wouldn’t get to see anything.

The beautiful altar-like entrance, with one metre tall entrance jambstones both flanked by other supporting orthostats, all covered by a lintel, is all that’s visible and identifiable. The whole area is trashy, unkempt and unloved. On the plan at the NISMR, three stones form the southern gallery walls, with a laterally placed stone forming a sill and separating it into two chambers and then a backstone sealing the rear. All this was hard to check out with all the growth and detritus about the place.

It was one of those places that I didn’t feel like hanging around in, frustrated that the landowners so transparently don’t seem to care about the monument on their land, but not wishing to have a confrontation about the neglect.

Scraghy (Stone Circle)

In a field beside a road with fast moving traffic, I don’t have a lot to say about this as I only viewed it from the roadside. It’s the lesser one of two in the townland, the better one being about a kilometre west of north of here. There do seem to be few socketed stones but any circular form is difficult to ascertain from the bank at the edge of the field. Another of the many stone circles in the Tyrone/Fermanagh/Derry region.

Scraghy (Portal Tomb)

This was a cinch after the mystery tour over at Tawnydorragh 3 kms to the west – you can drive right up to it. The tarmac runs out after about 700 metres from the main road but the track is relatively well maintained and we’re in a 4-by-4 anyway. East of here is the large expanse of Lough Bradan forest, about 20 square kilometres of relatively high ground. The track becomes undriveable at the tomb and continues up into the forest. Judging from the map you could continue along this way and bend around to the south and find Ally court tomb, about 4 kilometres to the south-east as the crow flies.

Scraghy is badly ruined. The collapse of the huge capstone, 2.4 metres by 3.5 metres, has caused most of the chamber stones to shatter and I didn’t even attempt to try and work out which is what, but judging from some of the remains I estimate that the tomb once stood over 2 metres tall. So a serious piece of neolithic construction.

Then there’s the over two metre tall standing stone 7 metres to the ‘rear’ of the chamber. What with there being little evidence of a cairn footprint, this is a peculiarity. It is, on its own, a fairly serious megalith, something that you would go out of your way to visit. Plonked here where it is, it’s quite possible to imagine that it was part of a singular monument, possibly a revetting stone at the back of the cairn.

Thirty metres south-west of the large standing stone is another small megalith, this time a small cist with just two small sidestones still extant. It’s in a very boggy, clumpy area and I did a fairly serious tumble back there. Even with there being very little growth at this time of the year, conditions were not ideal but it was good to find the little guy, huddled away back there almost lost to the world.

Scraghy was well worth a visit. I’m guessing that, in its ruinous condition, it’s not high on many peoples’ priority list. But the area, though very accessible, retains a wild and inhospitable atmosphere, a barely tamed corner of West Tyrone with plenty to keep the megalithic explorer interested.

Drumskinney (Stone Circle)

Second time at Drumskinney, slightly less underwhelmed this time. The polar opposite to Montiaghroe stone circle back down the road, its post-excavation restoration leaves you cold – well you can’t have it both ways, so put up or shut up I guess. But you could have a middle way, which seems to be occurring naturally as mother nature begins to weather the enclosure and moss starts to encroach onto the gravel and the stones begin to look less scrubbed.

Montiaghroe - Stone Circle

It’s always worth remembering on a visit to the Beaghmore complex of circles, rows and cairns, the good fortune that allows us to see and appreciate so much. Once discovered and uncovered it made archaeological and commercial sense to open it up to the public. One can’t help but be reminded of that good fortune on a visit here. Drumskinney, 1.5 kms up the road, seems to have gotten all the attention in this area, leaving the circle here to be lost to the bog.

It’s said that there are “24 limestone boulders protruding above the bog surface to heights varying from 0.05-0.75m”. I made out maybe 8 of these at best today and maybe 3 of the 11 stones said to make up two tangential rows on the eastern arc of the ring. I had hoped for more – yet still the place retains something (is it only because of foreknowledge?), the flattened interior of the circle evident, the vibe of all that wild, boggy, early spring growth creating an energetic, almost electric, buzz. Worth a butchers if you’re visiting the row nearby, but in winter or early spring only.

Montiaghroe - Stone Row West (Stone Row / Alignment)

The most satisfying of the 3 monuments in Montiaghroe that we saw today, this roadside, three-stone stone row is hard to miss if you’re in the vicinity, maybe heading for Drumskinney stone circle up the road. The ground around the stones is boggy and is thought to contain more traces of other arrangements. The stones rise in height from SSE to NNW, the tallest over head height and almost huggable. The views are spacious to the east and south, Rotten mountain a prominent rise of the ground to the north-east.

Montiaghroe (Stone Circle)

You could easily give this one a miss and not regret anything. Worryingly, there seems to be even less stones here now than when Nucleus visited 10 years ago. What does remain are 2 stones, one .5 of a metre tall and another, choked and surrounded by a holly tree, 1.4 metres tall. The plans at the NISMR show 4 embedded stones with reports of there having been 6 in the 1940s.

Killadeas

Killadeas modern church and ancient graveyard is a strange little site on the eastern shores of Lower Lough Erne, about 8 kms north of Enniskillen. There are three peculiarities that may be of interest here, and one that’s definitely not for here, but deserves a mention. This latter is the Bishop’s stone, an eerie, four-sided carved, hunched figure, in relief of one side with a face to the north. It’s the best thing here but alas it’s a no-no.

The other three stones are: a relatively innocuous standing stone; a grave slab with dubious cupmarks on its back side and; probably the only true prehistoric relic, a holed stone, with half the hole embedded in the turf. The main A47 Enniskillen to Kesh road is right over the hedge and this is a fast road but there is space to park a car and access seems to be welcomed with signage and a small pedestrian gate.

Tawnydorragh (Court Tomb)

The Movarran Road in Fermanagh heads north-west out of Drumskinney hamlet at the junction of Montiaghroe Road, about 700 metres south-west of the famous stone circle. It bends north in a pine plantation and heads towards the Donegal border. There is the illusion today that nothing much seems to happen in this part of North Fermanagh – a definite backwater of poor and poorly drained land, sheep farming being the mainstay, some better pasture dotted amongst the ever rising sphagnum moss.

We had made our decision to head directly north for Tawnydorragh and to work our way back down south, slightly distracted by the monuments first at Montiaghroe and then at Drumskinney, before making our way to the fringes of the forest that contained our real target. The townland itself is bordered to the north-west by Lettercran townland, Co. Donegal, not 200 metres from the rear of the tomb. However, there’s a kilometre-and-a-half to traverse before reaching there. The Scraghy road in Donegal looks like it could provide closer access, but the Termon river, which is the border, didn’t seem fordable, so we chose the forest entrance on the Movarran road.

The relief to be out again starts to ease into our spirits as we move deeper into the forest. The track heads up north-east for a short while, then north at a t-junction, twisting a bit and bending back north-west again and we spy a fox not 20 feet away in the scraggy grass. He ain’t impressed by us and skulks up towards the treeline for better cover. The track ends and we’re on dodgier ground as we head north again after another t-junction, but we know what we’re after and we pretty much know where it is, thanks to the tech gods, so our pace stays steady and even quickens the closer we get. And yet the trees are now denser, the old photo from the 70s or 80s that I saw at the NISMR that promised views all around useless.

We end up in a gully between two ridges and it’s obvious that the tomb is on one or the other. Wanting it to be on the northern one, where the sun seems to penetrate the pines, proves to be pointless – it’s on the more southerly. We burst through into the clearing from the east to be confronted by what appears to be a pile of hugely moss-covered stones, with the facade of the tomb to its right. This pile turns out to be sawn logs from the three trees were allowed to grow behind the entrance jambs in the first chamber of the gallery. At this time of the year the sun never gets high enough to penetrate the trees surrounding the clearing, but the benefit of being here now is that the growth has died back enough for us to be able to examine the remains. This is an isolated spot and we got the feeling that nobody had been here for a very long time.

The stones of the monument are satisfyingly blocky and imposing. The court was probably of the shallow variety, though only two of its stones now remain. The lintel that covered the two entrance jambs has fallen backwards into the chamber, partially held up by the southern sidestone and the tree stumps. The jambs are nearly a metres and a half tall, leading into a six metre long, two-chambered gallery. All of the southern rear chamber wall is missing – the second stone of the front chamber is weirdly eroded with runnels and wrinkles. The encrustation of the stones with mosses, grass and lichens at first had me confused – what were the stones holding up the lintel doing in the position of blocking the gallery entrance? And then it became clear with a touch – they’re rotting tree stumps, left there to stop the lintel from collapsing fully.

The rear stone of the gallery is gabled, speculated on as pointing to a corbelled roof – I guess I can go along with that – it’s pleasing either way. The atmosphere here is still and quiet, the glade inviting exploration and contemplation, but I can’t help wishing that the trees weren’t there, opening up the views – the old photo, maybe from the eighties, shows how the tomb was built on the prominence/escarpment, with some cairn kerbing visible at the rear, both to the north and south. I mooched in under the pine trees and saw some of this. My mate Thomas went further back there, down to the Termon river, reporting back that the river was in spate – just as well we didn’t try to get here from that invitingly short way. Tawnydorragh is one of those places that demands a certain level of commitment, rewarding the adventurous with a satisfaction that isn’t replicated by the easier, more accessible sites.

Carnfadrig (Court Tomb)

Another Patrick (Patrician) site and another long cairn, scooped out on its longer axis like at the cairn of the cats 2 kilometres to the south-east, only this time a portal tomb, with the main chamber at the east and then two subsidiary, cist-like chambers at the west.

Nestled in a clearing of a pine forest, a monument in state care with a small car park to its south, you get the sense that it’s never going to be high on most peoples’ itineraries, a lonely haven of quiet escape. The northbound track up through the forest is waterlogged and there is a small, forded stream to traverse before the tomb is revealed through the trees.

The cairn heads away eastwards up a slight incline, the two subsidiary chambers at its rear, western end prominent with huge blocky stones. They are both very box-like with no discernible entrance so maybe two cists inserted into the cairn at a later date than the initial construction. It was excavated in 1899 but I’m not sure if the finds were ever carbon-dated in more modern times. Strikingly, the cored remains of the cairn mirror the remains down the road at Carnagat.

25 metres up along the gash in the cairn is a small portal dolmen/chamber. Both portals remain, recessed by about 2 metres from the front facade of the cairn in court tomb fashion. They’re not the most robust portals I’ve ever seen. The northern stone has fallen southwards and rests on the southern stone. Behind them is a large box-like chamber. Presumably there was a capstone over the portals once upon a time, balanced on the sidestones of the very cist-like chamber.

Knockennis (Court Tomb)

One that got away the last time we were here, back in July last year. We’d managed to get to Glengesh portal tomb about 800 metres ENE. It’s all rolling reclaimed pasture and fairly marginal land hereabouts, with maybe some tillage. 1.2 kilometres west of here at Kilknock is a small hill with a small cairn, said now to be a wedge tomb, which we’ll have to come back to – our attempts today were blocked by some pretty steep and, in places, marshy ground.

Knockennis court tomb is ruined. It’s 4 fields in from the road, along a farm track with two gates. I guess I was expecting something better, an idea planted erroneously a while back. Anyhow, I’m glad I came, the remains still recognisable as the chamber/s of a megalithic tomb aligned classically north-east/south-west with the possible remains of a court at the north-east end. The drystone field boundary wall that passes through it north to south is unhelpful, but does add a certain ambience. Maybe one for the completists only.

St Patrick's Chair and Well (Bullaun Stone)

There are some places that are just humbling, that evaporate the musty, strangling cobwebs of cynicism and arrogance in a barely noticeable instant, unregistered until you’re back home and reflective, all the while they’re working their silent magic, lending you something you only barely realise you needed. This is one of those places.

It seems that the accepted, received wisdom is that this place was once a ‘temple of the druids’ (whatever that means), visited by that most famous Welshman on his full-on conversion therapy trip/tour of our small island, powering through a major enough set for the local denizens to be convinced to re-name the place in his honour.

Nobody ever completely bought it though, temporary temporality so to speak – but that’s to say that those who came before the saint might have known more, or different, which I don’t believe they did. And not because I feel the need to justify the site or not – no, the place is the place before I say anything about it, fine with or without me and my beliefs, or anyone else’s for that matter.

There’s a car-park east of the site at Altdaven Road with a couple of ‘explanatory’ boards. The map is crude but handy. You descend into Altdaven Woods to the west and then down deeper to the north. There’s no rush but anticipation quickens the step. Straight ahead at the bottom and up along the stairs and path through the trees and along the thin south/north ridge. Good fortune had it that the sun was out, penetrating the tree cover in places, the dappled light adding to the sense of mystery. It’s always a bonus when you have a place to yourself, imagination unleashed.

Not quite at the summit is the chair, it’s back to you behind a pair of trees, standing proud and tall and spooky amongst many other outcrops and boulders. It’s not very deep into the woods and the road is visible from the perch, but we could have been on another planet as far as we noticed. Swiftly we were lost in the wonder of the place, clambering here and there and down to the well. It’s quite steep and vertiginous but no matter, the rag tree adds to the magic.

The flat stone of the ‘well’ has more that just the bullaun in its south-west corner – there’s another large cup-mark towards its centre. There are offerings everywhere – little fern covered niches in the side of the ridge with photos of loved ones and mass cards, the rag tree (ignore the covid face-coverings), coins beside the bullaun and the ubiquitous tea-lights. But none of it matters – the place is a delight, an almost semi-tropical, dripping green wonderland. Spellbound we marvelled, for a while anyway before we let ‘reality’ intrude. We could have stayed all day and not met anybody, but we decided not to.
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Taxi-driving, graphic artist with a penchant for high hills and low boulders. Currently residing in Tallaght where I can escape to the wildernesses of Wicklow within 10 minutes.

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