Monday 23 September 2013

Objects in Focus: The Bearnarey Obelisk

Bearnarey Obelisk
Over the course of phase IV of the Carmichael Watson Project we were able to link objects from the Carmichael collections to his written work. The following was published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1870 and presents information pertaining to how Carmichael obtained the stone and associated local lore.  

The stone of which I send a tracing has been taken from the island of Bernarey, in the Sound of Harris. It formed the upper end of an obelisk which stood in a large semicircle facing the east, near the centre of the island, at a place called Killaisem (Cilleaiseam), St Asaph. Speaking of Bearnarey, Martin, in his "Western Islands," says, - "There are two chappels in this isle, to wit, St Asaph and St Columbus's Chappel. There is a stone erected near the former, which is 8 foot high, and 2 foot thick."

About fifty years ago this obelisk was broken. Boys were in the habit of mounting to the top and swaying it to and fro, till ultimately they broke it at the surface of the ground. When it fell it broke in two pieces near the centre. These were taken away by two crofters, and placed as lintels over the entrance to a cattle-fold (cuthaidh) close at hand. After having been there for some years, they were transferred by the same men to serve a similar purpose in their dwelling-houses. I traced this piece to the house of one of these crofters, a MacKillop (MacPhilip), where it was used as a lintel over his kitchen window. MacKillop was very reluctant to allow the slab to be removed for examination, although I twice offered to replace it at my own expense. Ultimately, however, he consented. But before removing it, I thought proper to inform the proprietor, the Earl of Dunmore, of its existence, and to ask his sanction to its removal from the island. His Lordship immediately wrote his factor to secure the slab, and bring it to Rodail. Upon his Lordship's arrival in Harris he wrote me, expressing his interest in the stone, and giving his permission to make what use of it I pleased. I got the slab removed from Rodail to Lochmaddy, where it now lies. 

It is dark bluish-gray gneiss, and measures 3 feet 8 inches long, 19 inches broad, and 3 inches thick. The upper portion of the carving forming the square is sufficiently distinct to be easily traced, but the lower portion is more defaced, and in some places the surface of the stone is entirely broken. How far the carving extended on the other part of the obelisk there is at present no means of ascertaining. The crofter who had it, feeling some remorse, restored it to the place where he found it. He alleged that a carlin of ugly form and features visited him one night, and entreated and commanded him to return the obelisk of Cillaiseam, St Asaph, otherwise he would suffer here and hereafter. The man went early the following morning, apparently much troubled, and entreated MacKillop to restore his part of the stone. MacKillop replied that his part of the slab was of much use to him; that he had no vision; and that he would defer returning it till the ugly carlin honoured him with a visit. The other man returned his part, and shortly thereafter went to America, where he died. Some other person less scrupulous took away this part of the stone, which I have hitherto failed to trace.

The old people of Bernarey have told me that within their memory the base of the obelisk was surrounded with a heap of small, beautifully white, and variegated pebbles, old coins, bone pins, and bronze needles, the offerings of pilgrims at the shrine of St Asaph.

MacKillop, on whose croft the obelisk stood, told me that in delving the place preparatory to sowing corn, he was in the habit of turning up a number of bones. There is no trace now of the "chappel" mentioned by Martin, nor indeed of any building whatever. The place is in the corner of a field, and has been under cultivation for some years. Close by the side of the obelisk there stood one of those old circular duns so common in the Hebrides. I would have inferred that this was the remains of the "chappel," were it not that MacKillop told me that it contained wall passages and galleries common to these duns. All the stones were carried away for building materials.  

The slab is currently housed in storage with the National Museums of Scotland.

Allen, J. R.and Anderson, J. Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1903) pp.113Carmichael, A. 'Notices of Teampull Michael, Keallun, North Uist, and of Sculptured Stones in Bearnarey, Harris, and in Benbecula; an "Abrach" Quern and Quarry for Querns, Heisgeir, North Uist, &c', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, VIII, (Edinburgh, 1870) p.281.

Copyright National Museums of Scotland  

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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). [©]