Scottish history comes in many forms. There are our mountains, which tell our geological history, our monuments to those fallen in battle and our great buildings. But some of the most curious and forgotten tales of Scottish history emanate from beneath the ground.
South Rona, off the coast of Skye is not the easiest place to visit, as there is no scheduled ferry service. It is worthwhile negotiating with a local fisherman for a ride so you can take the opportunity to walk round this deserted island and investigate the atmospheric church cave, apparently the only consecrated cave in the country. The cave is down a steep and rocky climb on the east side of the island, which had a pre clearance population of close to 200, and is also known by its Gaelic name of “Uamh na gaisgeach”, translated as the “cave of the famous warrior.” It was used for Sunday services right up until 1912, when a new church was built on the island and then sporadically up until the 1970s. The original stone pews are still intact (comfort not being a priority back in the day) as is the alter, and the natural font that is perpetually replenished from water dripping through the rocky roof above. If you are feeling adventurous, then you can still get married here. It is a sad reminder of the death of rural communities and the importance of religion to them, but somehow the fact that the cave is still intact when churches have long since fallen into ruin, mean that it still remains like a weirdly intact postcard from a bygone era.
For the poorest sections of society, living in caves was a necessary hardship. Right into the 20th century, society’s underclass had little choice when it came to securing shelter. Cave dwelling was officially prohibited in 1915 by an act of parliament, with the intention of keeping the coastline free from fires during the war, but a 1917 government census shows 55 people as still listed as officially living in caves. One of the most famous of these, the tinkers cave on the south side of Wick Bay, can still be visited today. The name originates from the itinerant tinsmiths who would reside there for brief spells during the summer, but laterally people were living there all year round. Dr Arthur Mitchell, an eminent 19th century physician described a visit where he encountered no less than 24 people crammed into the single chamber, his photographs of a family posing at the cave mouth are strangely endearing. Inner city slums at the time were squalid places to live but no comparison to the hardships of having to winter in a cave, a visit is a way to remember just how short a time ago it was that this desperate poverty was commonplace.
The shelterstone is technically more of a howff or bivvy shelter than a cave, but I have included it here as it has such an important place in the affections of Scottish hillwalkers and mountaineers over the years. Located in the heart of the Cairngorms this is actually a massive boulder which has fallen from the nearby crags, come to rest on other boulders in such a way as to leave a space for half a dozen people to escape the elements. For centuries this has housed shepherds, travellers, hikers and mountaineers. Its remote location, in a sometimes hostile environment, has been the saviour of many a waylaid party.
The Spar cave on the Isle of Skye was only ever inhabited by a mermaid. Sir Walter Scott visited in 1814 and subsequently described her bathing there in his poem The Lord of the Isles. You are unlikely to come across her today, but it is nonetheless a stunning place to visit. This cave was a massive attraction in the Victorian era, in fact Sir Walter Scott had to climb over a wall built by the proprietor to enable him to charge entrance fees. The wall was later destroyed by a passing gunboat so visiting today is a lot easier, just as long as you are aware of the tides. Inside, the cave is an astonishing, cathedral-like structure, with a marble-like flowstone staircase and huge columns formed from the centuries of water dripping through the limestone. The fossilised waterfall at the back of this 50m long cavern is particularly impressive as it sparkles in the torchlight. The original Gaelic name is Slochd Altrimen, or Nursing Cave. In the ninth century, the son of the chief of Colonsay was shipwrecked on the coast nearby and subsequently fell in love with a local princess. As their families were sworn enemies their child was concealed in the cave to ensure its survival until peace between them could be brokered.
The series of caves along the shoreline at Wemyss in Fife have been used for ritual purposes for thousands of years. Use of the caves stretches back to Pictish times and they contain several important carvings from between the fifth and ninth centuries before they were occupied by Christian hermits in the 11th century. In fact, it is thought there are more ancient drawings there than anywhere else in Scotland. More than 150 years ago, as part of the Samhain festivities, the young of Wemyss would form a torch lit procession on the first Monday of the year. Known as the Hansel Walk, this ended in one of the caves known as the Well Cove. It was this night that the fairy piper came to collect the dues owed by those who had neglected to make a sacrifice to the Gods of the Dead. The Piper was a messenger from Tir-nan-Og, who with his pibroch, bewitched his followers and would lead the unwary into the land of eternal youth, never to return. The participants of these torch lit processions are immortalised in their initials carved into the walls of the inner chamber of the Well cove. The pure water of the well reputedly had curative powers believed to protect the procession from ill health in the coming year.
The other cave of note here is known as the Court Cave. In the Middle Ages the landowner responsible for the upkeep of law and order presided over his court here. Attendees were summoned by ringing a bell, which hung from the entrance. Before the front of the Cave collapsed in 1970, the marks made by the bell-rope could still be seen. This cave is also the location of the legend of James IV of Scotland and his encounter with a band of gypsies. As he travelled the country incognito he found himself merrymaking in their headquarters. After the consumption of food and wine he was approached by two members of the gang with a plate on which sat two daggers, a signal that he was to be put to death. He instantly snatched a weapon in each hand, laid both aggressors at his feet and managed to flee with his life, returning the next day with sufficient force to avenge himself.
The Massacre Cave on the Island of Eigg is the location of one of the most infamous incidents in the history of the Hebrides. In the 16th century a clan feud between the MacLeods and the MacDonalds culminated in the murder of the islands entire population, nearly 400 people. A party of MacLeods hell-bent on revenge for a previous slight had been spotted approaching the island. The local population, wary of confrontation sought refuge in the secret Cave of Frances which had a tiny overgrown entrance concealed by a waterfall. After 5 days of fruitless searching the Macleods spotted a careless lookout and located the remaining members of the Macdonald clan. A fire was lit at the entrance, asphyxiating everyone inside. For centuries human remains were clearly visible to visitors here and were documented by historians such as James Boswell and Hugh Miller. The bones have since been interred but the aura of malevolence and death remains.
Caves will never cease to fascinate and you may well have heard of the Inchnadamph Bones Caves, Smoo Cave and Bonnie Prince Charlies Cave. Once you start visiting, you’ll not want to stop. In fact, we think it should get a specialist name. As Munro Bagging is to walkers – so Cave Bagging is to explorers!Tags: archaeology, caves in scotland, church cave, court cave, dr arthur mitchell, exploring caves, geology, highland caves, history of caves, massacre cave eigg, scottish history, shelterstone, south rona, spar cave skye, tinkers cave wick, wemyss caves