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Loch Finlaggan, Islay

Archaeologists confirm John Michell's research

Bob Trubshaw

Surely one of the best tests for any hypothesis is that it predicts or anticipates the outcome of practical research. John Michell, in his recently-published At the centre of the world (Thames and Hudson 1994) suggests why a pair of small islets near the edge of Loch Finlaggan is a crucial medieval ritual centre on Islay. Perhaps unwittingly, the first programme in the new series of Channel Four's Time team series has revealed more supporting evidence than John might have hoped for - of entirely unexpected prehistoric ritual activity.

For those not familiar with Time team, this involves a select bunch of generally hairy and characterful archaeologists descending for a weekend on a 'site' and undertaking evaluation surveys and excavations. The most dramatic part of the programmes has generally been some outstanding use of computer animation to produce artistic recreations from the archaeological evidence.

Islay map (5k)

Loch Finlaggan is in the middle of of Islay, one of the Western Isles. These were settled by Norwegians in the ninth century. Later on the Norse-descended nobility intermarried with local Scottish families. One of these genealogies produced the Macdonald dynasty. Probably all present-day bearers of this name (including the fast-food chain owner) are common descendents of this Islay line. In the late fourteenth century the then Macdonald of Islay proclaimed himself Lord of the Isles, a title which more-or-less survived until 1748.

The Lord of the Isles held an annual Council of Island Chiefs. Tradition places this meeting place on a small island on the edge of Loch Finlaggan. This islet, no more than thirty yards across, is known as Eilean na Comhairle or Council Island. A causeway connected it to a larger islet, Eilean Mor, and another causeway once existed to the main part of Islay. On Eilean Mor are the surviving walls of the official residence of the Macdonalds, their family burial ground and the remains of their castle.

John Michell gives details of the ceremony which took place on the Council Island when appointing a Lord of the Isles. This involved a large rock with a depression shaped like a human foot, into which the elected chief placed his foot,'denoting that he should walk in the footsteps and uprightness of his predecessors'. He wore a white robe, perhaps a carry-over from druidic practices.

Michell also notes that the Council Island falls on the longest axis which can be drawn through the island. In this, it closely imitates the sites of the meeting places used by the Norse settlers on the other Western Islands, and in Shetland and the Faroes. The Time team noted that Loch Finlaggan is in the most sheltered of the valleys on the Western Islands and surrounded by comparatively easily-farmed land. These were undoubtedly good practical reasons for the Lord of the Isles to make this location into his power base.

For several years staff from Edinburgh University have been excavating the two islets, there are the remains of a number of special Classical4 season was expected to be the last and the Time team came to take on the challenge of rapidly evaluating the archaeological potential of the adjacent loch side and to undertake some underwater archaeology along the now-flooded causeways.

The divers soon found the site of a midden (rubbish dump) at the side of the Council Island. This produced numerous pieces of bone, with evidence of butchery marks, from a deposit with remarkably good stratification. The insights which might be gained from a thorough investigation of this midden could add enormously to the knowledge of the medieval activities. From a few fragments of upmarket pottery it seems probable that the Lord of Isles was importing fine wines from France.

But the most surprising finds were on dry land at the loch side. A large mound overlooks the causeway to the islets and is near to a known burial ground. On arrival, the archaeologists were unanimous that this mound was a 'ritual' site, without being any more specific. Standing on this mound, a solitary standing stone (about five feet high) can be seen, beyond which (in clear weather) can be seen the famous rounded hills known as the Paps of Jura. As one of the Time team remarked, the stone in fact stands in the 'cleavage' of the Paps. In what might be a first for national TV, the assembled archaeologists all concurred that 'Yes, there is an alignment here'. Is this the breakthrough for 'ley hunting'? Academic acceptance broadcast to all the nation? Mr Watkins, what was a mere seventy years of waiting?

The Time team performed a resistivity survey on the mound, which showed various subsoil anomalies that were almost certainly not natural. The first turfs to be peeled away soon revealed mesolithic microflints - something quite unprecedented for this location. Further work led to the tops of two rows of substantial stones poking through the soil, rather like an oversize mouth of teeth. Was this a souterrain, the team debated? Before the trial excavation was concluded the remains of what was probably an ox leg had been laid bare and the consensus was that this may be a neolithic long barrow.

This in itself caused excitement as previously all known neolithic activity on Islay was around the coast. Meantime, the resistivity squad had been at work around the standing stone. At least three deep pits showed up and other ambiguous abnormalities. The culminating computer graphics showed us that these pits could make up a stone circle or, more probably, a stone avenue - with the Paps of Jura and the 'long barrow' mound in line with the axis of the avenue.

The long-running excavations on the islets had produced relatively little evidence of prehistoric activity, although the foundations of round houses had been detected below the medieval occupation of Eilean Mor. Dating evidence for these round houses was inconclusive, but it seems distinctly possible that they represent the settlement for the neolithic people who used and created the mound and stone 'avenue'.

The Time team successfully battled against what, at times, was seriously Scottish weather to produce hitherto-unsuspected evidence of prehistoric activity at an important medieval 'ritual site'. Clearly, much more work needs to be undertaken before full details are revealed and one hopes that further funding will be forthcoming.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.23 May 1995.


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