On the Antiquities of Arran (3) : Sacrifice on Stronach Ridge

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There has been a new development to my time on Arran. But before we step forth upon the evolution, here is one last sonnet from my Sannox explorations, with rather a lovely name I think;


ON LOSING A HAT BELOW THE DEVIL’S PUNCHBOWL

Following the bob of the deers’ head guide

I scamper’d up my first Arran hillside

Not quite a goat, not even younger man

But, damn it, let me do the best I can

For I shall dwell the best part of a year

Upon these stones, where bones of mountaineer

Who died a lonely death, a broken pile,

Lies hidden in some crevice peristyle;

On scene-sunk ridge I gulp’d a morsel thrill

But storming midgies meant no standing still

Until I froze, & found I’d lost my hat

A good one, & my only one at that

Destin’d to join the lost lives Arran’s claim’d,

Ungarnish’d & ungarden’d & unnamed.


As for my personal progression, I have found a patron here, who seems a fan of my poetical intellect & historical instincts. One could say Clio & Calliope have gone to work. The gentleman lives in England, but has a holiday home on Arran & after a most serendipitous meeting he has leant me his house &, better, still, his copious cornucopia of archeology books, including many on Arran itself.

A couple of days after we met he took me on a small expedition to the woodlands behind Brodick School, parking the car near the entrance to Glen Rosa. It was not too deep into the forest that we came across certain slanting rocks on which were carved cup marks & some images that looked like circles & keyholes. 

I also noticed certain channels & after a while I I began to get the notion that because there were two channels per circle – the legs of the keyhole so to speak – there might have been some kind of oracular purpose based upon the blood flow of sacrificed animals, or even humans. I.e. putting a bird or a human heart in the circle & seeing where the blood flowed, either the yes or the no channel.

My new friend said he’d never heard that before & a few days later after he’d left for England I began to analyze his library in search of more information on those markings.

In the very famous 2 volume Book Of Arran by J.A. Balfour (volume 1 – archeology 1910), there is a chapter by Fred T Coles entitled ‘Cup & Ring-Marked Rocks: Stronach Ridge, Brodick,’ which immediately gave me the name of the place I had become curious about – Stronach Ridge. In 1910 Mr Coles had made a special examination & drawings of the site for the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which Balfour reprinted.

Of the images, Coles writes;

These designs, though never hitherto noticed in Scotland in anything like the same number, have their cognates elsewhere. For example, on a rockat Gillroannie, Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, there occurs just such a plain oval ‘boss’ as is found here on Stronach Ridge… & in Yorkshire, on a stone near the Panorama Stone, & on other surfaces in that neighbourhood, near Ilkley.

In a later book of the 20th century, ‘Exploring Arran’s Past’ Horace Fairhurst adss a little more correlative knowledge;

Examples of comparable decorated surfaces occur notably at Kilmichael Glassary & other sites in Mid-Argyll, & again around Gatehouse of Fleet. Boulders with man-made cup markings on them are common in various parts of Scotland, including Kintyre, but they seem to be scarce on Arran.

As a scholar of Pictish history, I also noticed the similarity between the ring marks & one of the Pictish symbols, monicker’d the ‘Disc & Rectangle.

At this point in my study I would like to bring to your attention a certain passage in Hector Boece’s 16th century history of Scotland. In recent centuries Academia has debated & argued its way through the possible meaning of the Pictish symbols, but perhaps Boece knew the answer all along; 

Those who died fighting the Britons should be honored with conspicuous monuments, and obelisks should be erected over their tombs to match the number of men they had killed. A large quantity of these obelisks can still be seen in the Highlands. In later times the custom arose that the tombs of the most famous and distinguished men were held in veneration like shrines, and men would build cairns of stones and erect large ones on which were inscribed the shapes of fish, snakes, and birds (that age used these instead of letters of the alphabet for writing arcane things), to advise passers-by who they were and what fair things they had achieved in life.

A very early Pictish presence on the island could well be connected to the cairns mentioned by Boece & also Thomas Pennant, who tour’d the Scottish highlands in 1772. Of the cairns, Balfour writes;

The Chambered Cairns of Arran are chiefly distributed over the southern half of the island. It is probable that many examples of this class of monument have disappeared owing to the extension of cultivation. Since the date of Pennant’s tour (1772) a number of great cairns which he describes have wholly vanished.

I shall be analyzing the very early Pictish connection to Arran in the next ‘episode,’ which the cairns might be a relique of. My studies are definitely gonna happen now, I’m sure, for I’ve been bless’d with a sense of security & permanence. My bookshop is up & running, as is the ground coffee beans element which I’ve introduced to my ‘revenue stream.’ Indeed, I feel rather safe, blessed even, to continue my investigations into the Antiquities of Arran.

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