Ardnamurchan Adventure: Volcanoes, Cairns and Standing Stones by Jo Woolf

Posted by True Highlands in Kit and Caboodle | 2 comments

Ardnamurchan Volcano
When you drive along the wild and lonely road from Kilchoan to Sanna on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, you find yourself passing through a low-lying, almost moon-like terrain that is fringed on all sides by lumpy black hills.

There are no trees or landmarks to break up the flatness, and even the burn which cuts a shallow groove through the landscape seems to be unsure about its sense of direction.

You are, in fact, travelling through the magma chamber of an extinct volcano – or what remains of it.

About 60 million years ago, during the Palaeogene period, “things were far from quiet across the landscape that had just emerged from the bottom of the Cretaceous sea.” The Atlantic was being stretched as America and Europe drifted further apart, and a line of volcanoes emerged along the western seaboard of Scotland, reaching right up to Iceland and Greenland.

Today, the mountains of Skye, Rum, Mull and Arran all stand as silent witnesses to the formidable power of volcanoes. But what we are looking at in Ardnamurchan is slightly different, because during the ice ages the top part of this volcano was effectively scoured away by the ice. It’s barely recognisable from the ground, but from the air, the picture is much clearer.

A short distance away, at Sanna, outflows of dark basalt punctuate the white sands, while throughout the peninsula, exposed rocky outcrops glitter with silvery mica. For geology students, Ardnamurchan is like a textbook on a colossal scale, offering features such as ring dykes, cone sheets, ash flows, and even examples of ‘air-fall’ rocks which were formed from lava that was spat out of the heart of the volcano.

True Highlands note: When on Ardnamurchan a drive to Sanna is a must and if you’re an active sort, you can in fact walk right around the ring dyke of the volcano. Now there’s something to write on your postcard!

Cairns and Stones
Just a few miles west of Glenborrodale you can walk down to a beautiful little bay called Camas nan Geall, or ‘the Bay of the Strangers’.

There’s a layby overlooking the bay, and a farm track leads to the field below. The path runs parallel to the coast and then turns at right angles, heading straight for a fascinating group of archaeological sites: a Neolithic chambered cairn, a standing stone and a small burial ground.

The setting is nothing short of idyllic. But it seems that it’s easier to read the geology of the nearby mountains – which is in itself fascinating – than it is to interpret with any accuracy the significance of the stones that were placed here, perhaps as much as 5,000 years ago.

The Chambered Cairn
The fact that the RCAHMS considers the burial chamber to be ‘largely destroyed’ pretty much speaks for itself. A handful of upright stones lean against each other like drunken revellers, trying to support a capstone that has now collapsed; and a huge flat slab, one of two which are believed to have stood at the entrance to the chamber, lies on the ground just a few yards away.

The second entrance stone has fared better, and appears to be still in place. Wide at the bottom, it tapers upwards to a rounded point and bears some very interesting markings on its lichen-mottled surface. To me it appeared almost like a benevolent guardian, although what it once stood to protect has been prised open to the heavens and scattered beyond all recognition.

Small stones litter the ground around the cairn, but it’s impossible to make any sense of them. Close by are the low ruins of a structure which the RCAHMS describes as a ‘township building’ of a later date, possibly a sheep fank or a byre; it’s very likely that rubble from the cairn was used in the construction of this.

The burial chamber stands at the end of a row of sycamore trees, which may at one time have marked a field boundary. They offer a shady processional route, but a modern one because they must be less than 100 years old. I noticed that the last tree was bending its branches over the site, as if to shield it from public view. One of the lower branches was curiously twisted, having changed direction to grow towards something unseen. With hindsight, I am tempted to wonder if the cairn is sited over a blind spring.

The Standing Stone
About 50 yards further down, even closer to the shore, is another enigma: a standing stone, inscribed with a cross. According to several historical sources it seems that the stone itself may have been put there in the Bronze Age, and carved with a cross in the 6th century, or maybe slightly later. There are, in fact two crosses on its seaward-facing surface – a much smaller one has been squashed in above a carving of an animal. One site suggests that the animal is a dog, although the combined effects of lichen and weathering have made it pretty indistinct. If there were ever any carvings on the landward side, they have not survived.

Local tradition says that this stone marks the resting place of an early Irish saint known as St Ciaran (also spelled Ciarain or Kieran), who died in 549 AD – hence its name in Gaelic, Cladh Chiarain, or Ciaran’s grave. A couple of sources identify him as Ciaran mac an t-Saeir, (‘Ciaran, son of the carpenter’), who was an abbot of Clonmacnoise in County Offaly.

But I was dismayed to learn there were no fewer than 22 saints by the name of Ciaran, and after a little bit of reading I found that St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise instructed his followers to leave his bones on a hillside after his death, rather than preserving them as relics. So, presumably there was no burial for him. Nor was he, as far as I can tell, ever linked with Ardnamurchan in his lifetime, although these early saints were known for their wanderings; there seem to be quite a few churches dedicated to a St Ciaran dotted around Scotland.

The Burial Ground
The cross-carved stone stands in front of a small rectangular building – or what remains of it. The RCAHMS says that this is “the burial ground of the Campbells of Ardslignish, 18th century, with lime-mortared rubble masonry enclosing, among other fragments, two fine ogee-pedimented headstones carved with cherubs’ heads. One stone depicts the Crucifixion… the other, dated 1737, a Campbell coat of arms flanked by reeded pilasters.”

The bay is overlooked by Beinn Hiant, which at 1,700 feet is the highest peak in Ardnamurchan; its name translates as ‘holy mountain’, but the word ‘hiant’, derived from ‘shiant’, can also mean ‘magic’ or ‘enchanted’. This may well have been the reason why this secluded place was first chosen as a burial site. And Camas nan Geall, the ‘Bay of Strangers’… who were they?

The little bay faces south-west across the mouth of Loch Sunart, towards the north-east coast of Mull which has its own standing stones and an early chapel just outside Tobermory. Maybe we shouldn’t view this site in isolation; our ancestors were seafarers, and for all we know this could have been a familiar stopping point on a well-travelled and much-loved coastline.

Such tantalising fragments – but it’s like picking up a couple of twigs and trying to make a tree. You just can’t do it, at least on a purely logical level. Yet there’s still something about this place. Flanked on three sides by hills, the green fields of Camas nan Geall feel protected, as if cradled in a cupped hand. How many tides have come and gone since the first people were buried here? Maybe that has something to do with it, too. Ever-present but ever-changing, the water’s edge echoes the line between the known and the unknown, between this world and the next.

Huge thanks to Jo Woolf of www.the-hazel-tree.com for the use of text and photos. A wonderful site full of great information – do check it out further!

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Comments (2)
  1. ANNE KERIN says:


  2. Moira Jenkins says:

    Beautifully written!

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