Wednesday 24 October 2012

It's not a chapel. It's a rock.

Sometimes we get things wrong. The rectangle pictured here, from fo.15 of notebook CW111 and referring to a site in the Isle of Barra, looked like any number of archaeological sketches Alexander Carmichael was compiling at the time. The accompanying words should have given us a clue:

Clach Mhor nan Gleann

4 Mar[ch] [18]74. Wednesday ev[en]ing.
Averag[e] height 22 ft – or thereby.
Projects at north end 8 ft fr[om] ground. [CW111/63]

The drawing is surely none other than a sketch of Clach Mhór nan Gleann (or Clach Mhór nan Gleannan) itself, a monstrous glacial erratic with a nice big overhang, five hundred yards up the north-east slopes of Beinn Eireabhal, just above the road at the south end of the Tràigh Mhór.

How did the Big Rock of the Glens come to be there in the first place? Carmichael explains it all in another notebook:

Clach mhor nan Glean[n]an was thrown by a L[och]lan[n]ach [Viking] fr[om] Fuidey on his at his sweetheart who was aft[er] a buidein sheep. The stone struck her & drove her into the ground. Boulder stuck in the earth. Large. He didn’t wish to kill her but just threw this as a spitheag [pebble] at her. [CW90/105]

This piece of information was recorded on 24 September 1872 at a céilidh in Ceann Tangabhal, Barra, with two of Carmichael’s favourite informants there, John Pearson (1814–85), Iain Peusan, and his sister Catrìona (c. 1807–80). As described in an earlier blog, in island tradition the island of Fuideigh is particularly connected with the Vikings, and is supposed to have been their last redoubt from the MacNeils. We don’t know yet what a ‘buidein sheep’ might be – any ideas from Barraich gratefully received!

At another céilidh a couple of nights later Carmichael records another rather gnomic reference:

The mark fr[om] which stone [del: at] Clach mhor nan Gleannan. [CW90/150]

The remains of the Vikings killed by the MacNeils in Fuideigh ‘are turned up now & again’ [CW90/107], including:

One skull as large as a pot of 2 gal[lons] bones as large in pro[portion]. At first you would think it was a human skull. This was found in Fuidey. Others ordinary size. [CW90/154]

Today Clach Mhór nan Gleannan has not been forgotten: we see that it’s been noted as a good site for Barra bouldering! We recommend comparing Carmichael's rough sketch with the excellent pictures in Adi Gill's flickr stream. Did Carmichael himself climb it to make his measurements for the field notebook sketch?

As for the chapel site we originally thought Carmichael was describing in his sketch, Caibeal Chrois É – well, we’ll leave that for another blog.

CW90/105, /154; CW111/63

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Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]