The kingdom of Dál Riata: Rothesay to Kilmartin

Argyll and Northumbria—walking insights—Bute—landscapes of memorial—Dunagoil fort—wild camping—Dark Age entrepôts—Kingarth and St Blane—St Ninian’s Point—Inchmarnock—rescue by boat—Tarbert—St Columba’s cave—Cladh a Bhile—Kilmory chapel—another rescue—Lochgilphead—Dunadd—Kilmartin Glen




IN THE EARLY MEDIEVAL period the west coast of what is now Scotland, together with its islands from Arran to Skye, formed a Gaelic-speaking kingdom with very strong ties to the ancient lands of Ulster. As a historical entity it comes into focus only in the later sixth century: from then on the fortunes of its four principal kindreds, the Cenél Loairn of central and northern Argyll, the Cenél nGabrain of Kintyre, the Cenél Comgaill of Cowal and the Cenél nŒngusa of Islay are recorded in the annals of the famous monastery on Iona. Scholars cannot agree whether Dál Riata was originally carved out by Irish warbands or emerged from an immigrant community, but its kings laid claim to much of Ulster and its greatest holy man, St Columba (more properly Colmcille), was born in Donegal. Dál Riata came into conflict with its neighbours the Picts, the Britons of Dumbarton and the Northumbrians; but its most celebrated king, Áedán mac Gabrain, had a daughter who married into the Bernician royal family and the monastery on Lindisfarne was an Ionan foundation. Kings and clergy travelled between the two kingdoms regularly through the seventh century.

Much of that traffic must have come by way of the sea and the Stanegate. But other cross-country routes existed. I explored one of these in 2011 when I walked from my home on the north-west edge of County Durham to Glasgow, the city on the Clyde founded by the enigmatic sixth-century saint Kentigern, or Mungo as he is often called. That walk reminded me that a proper journey is more than a day trip; that the trail only makes sense when you live on it; that landscape can best be read at walking pace. In choosing a place to camp, you have to read the countryside with your senses far beyond merely checking for car parks or cafés.

A more profound insight is that when you are teasing a route through a landscape which has changed only superficially over the millennia—that is to say, the hills and rivers have not moved much, and many of the settlements are very ancient—you find yourself confronting and solving problems that would have been familiar to generations of travellers on foot or horseback. Sometimes the names of places give you clues: fords will naturally enough guide you towards crossing points on rivers; welles offer the chance to locate fresh spring water; a tun with the prefix straetsuggests an establishment on a Roman road where goods and repairs might be sought. And some ancient settlements were named after local landmarks with prominent features like flat-topped hills so that you could navigate your way towards them. The landscape is full of signs and waymarks for the informed traveller. The name Peebles means both a place where tents are pitched (handy) and a shieling 5 where animals were pastured in the summer. If I didn’t have a map or the internet, I would head for this place, hopeful of a night’s stay and food. Peebles still has a very excellent campsite (hot showers, soft grassy slopes; a washing machine) and offers plenty of good food. Travellers, like columns of ants, tend eventually to find the best routes through the land, avoiding hazards like bogs and brigands, often keeping to high ground once it has been gained and trending towards the gaps between major river systems, although just because a ford or ferry exists doesn’t mean to say that the traveller wishes either to pay the fare or attract what might prove to be unwanted attention.

These days, bridges have replaced ferries and fords for the most part. Even so, the traveller on foot aims to avoid main routes, by and large. Walking along the verges of a busy A-road is a form of sensory torture and a risk to life and limb. So it was that I found myself making for the gap between the headwaters of the Rivers Clyde and Tweed. This gap, in the glen where Biggar sits, is no more than seven miles across. A Roman road runs through it and in experiencing for myself this age-old reality, I came closer, I thought, to an insight into the ancient mind. The whole journey, ending in Paisley where St Mirren, the Ulster-born contemporary of Colmcille, founded his famous church, took eleven days and spanned a hundred and eighty miles; but it took me back fifteen hundred years and more to the days when saints, pilgrims and warriors trod the same paths.

For my venture into the Land of Giants I wanted to complete the journey between Northumbria and the ancestral seat of the kings of Dál Riata, so I persuaded my partner Sarah (an Ulster Scot) to join me on a small adventure through the hills, lochs and glens of Argyll to Dunadd in Kilmartin Glen, where a footprint carved in rock tells of kingly inaugurations and where excavation has revealed a treasure trove of exotic European luxuries. Even today this is not an entirely straightforward journey. By car it is a much longer route than it would be as the crow flies. Sea-lochs must be crossed where there is no ferry service. But the improvisational spirit in which we set out from Paisley in October 2013 (friends; a warm welcome and send-off) seemed entirely in keeping with the Dark Age task in hand. We knew there would be days when we might see no shop. No campsites existed on our route, so we took big packs, more than I have ever carried before on a long walk.

From Paisley a railway line runs west along the southern shore of the Clyde estuary, designed originally to bring workers into Glasgow and take day trippers to the seaside. From the windows of the train the hulking fist of Dumbarton Rock (Alt Clut in Brythonic: Rock of the Clyde), fortress of the British kings of these parts in Bede’s day, appeared across the water.

I still feel a childlike sense of excitement at a ferry port and in climbing aboard a ship: the prow pointing towards the future and to adventure; the long wake of ruffled water aft a memory-cleansing refugee trail, like Ariadne’s ball of string in the labyrinth of the minotaur. From Wemyss Bay to Rothesay on Bute is less than an hour across the Clyde, but the sun was setting, the light golden against dark clouds, and we had only the pure, uncluttered trail ahead to think of. I say uncluttered: by that I mean that the walker, unlike the driver or the traveller by train and plane, never has to wait; never has to rely on anything but his or her own wits. You start walking when it suits you. You stop for a pee when the need arises, for lunch when you find an agreeable spot or shelter. Your arrival at a day’s destination is perfectly timed to coincide with you finding the right spot. You can’t be late except on your own terms.

Even so, there’s nothing like a good breakfast and a shower to set one up for the trials ahead; so we indulged in a room overlooking Rothesay harbour. Bute is a self-contained paradise, a short remove from the industry, bustle and energy of Glasgow; and yet, many Glaswegians have never been there. It is a comfortable island, sheltered, well watered and rarely suffering damaging frosts; twenty miles or so long, narrow in the waist and nestling between two long-flooded fjords at the southern end of the Cowal peninsula. Nowhere does the land rise above a thousand feet. It is famous, like Ireland, for its dairy and beef herds. The farms are prosperous; and yet, as we walked along Rothesay’s seafront in an ultimately fruitful search for fish and chips, the town played us a pianola song, in a minor key, of lost Edwardian grandeur. We saw faded advertisements for bespoke headboards. The drab shop windows could have been used as a seventies film set; we struggled to find a postcard; the older buildings set back from the shore were falling into disrepair. In this sense Bute has more in common with Eastbourne or Filey than with Scotland’s vibrant Silicon Glen. It has suffered a sort of genteel neglect; and that is part of its charm. Perhaps post-Roman Britain, far from the desolate, ruinous, plague-ridden chaos of Gildas’s portrait, was a genteel, faded seaside town of a land. Perhaps.

Our first day’s walk took us south towards Dunagoil and Kingarth. In spite of its well-behaved fields and pastoral somnolence, there is something ghostly about Bute’s landscape. Prehistoric chambered cairns and tumuli, stone circles, cup-and-ring-marked rocks and duns—small prehistoric or Early Medieval forts—lie as if scattered by a giant’s hand across field and wood. Labour invested in monuments and field boundaries is evidence of agricultural surplus and of social hierarchy. Bute’s richness must therefore stretch back deep into a prehistory when the heavens were populated with hunters and bears and the rocks, trees and springs of the land by the ancestors. There are so many burial sites distributed across Bute—many, many more must have been lost—that one is tempted to think of it as a sort of island of the dead. The ancestors were everywhere, watching us. Even as we left the last houses of Rothesay behind, we came across a medieval chapel almost overwhelmed by the graveyard of its nineteenth-century replacement and dozens of rows of tombstones, their inscriptions etched sharp in bright early sun. A holly and a yew reminded us of ideas of the eternal; of the blood sacrifice of prophets; that symbols of death transcend religion.

From here to the southern tip of Bute was no more than an eight-mile walk, the first part along the banks of Loch Fad where we watched two fishermen casting from a white-painted rowing boat against the blue-black of the water and a rich late-summer green fringe of woodland behind them, so still that they might have been figures in a painting. An enterprising industrialist once fed this loch with aqueducts to power his cotton mill; but there are no mills on Bute these days. Beyond the loch was a more open land of whins and rough pasture; we realised we were following an old route, a droveway that kept to the modest ridge which is Bute’s spine. Far to the south-west the mountains of Arran brooded beneath impenetrable grey clouds that we kept a sharp eye on all day. Above us the flying V of a flock of geese heading in the same direction told of the coming season. For the present, in early autumn, Bute was good country for the forager. We munched on Sunday-lunchtime water mint and handfuls of blackberries from passing hedgerows. We must have looked a slightly misplaced sight, tramps mingling with the dressed-up folk of Kingarth arriving at their village cemetery to lay flowers on the graves of loved ones. A little further on, following a mark on the map, we poked our heads into a conifer plantation where three giant monoliths, one of them held up by a jerry-rigged iron tie-bar, were all that remained of a once monumental stone circle. Memorial, it seemed, was the theme for the day.

Dunagoil is a whaleback massif of metamorphic rock that rises, not unlike Bamburgh in Northumberland or Dumbarton on the Clyde, almost out of the waves. A prehistoric fort once stood here. Somewhere on its east side are the remains of a small fortlet occupied from the Bronze Age to the Medieval period: our first bona fide Dark Age site. A small excavation in the late 1950s produced longhouse-type buildings and sherds of both Roman Samian pottery and exotic imports from later centuries. These are tell-tale signs of an Early Medieval kingly entrepôt, like Dunadd on a smaller scale. Such a site is irresistible to the archaeologist, so we had planned this as our first stop. Now, looking down from the farm track at the glowing orangey-green hill against the wine-dark sea and Arran’s late afternoon battleship grey, and with grim weather looking like it might arrive from the Atlantic at any time, it seemed as if it might be a bleak place to spend the night. It was a treeless land.

The omens weren’t good: I failed to spot the wires of a powerful electric fence, ‘accidentally’ earthing through the farm gate and I received a punch in the arm that stopped me in my tracks. Slightly disconcerted, we made our way down to the shore in the lee of the giant natural ramparts. Our luck was in: here was shelter. A small brook a couple of hundred yards away offered water for boiling up and we found plenty of flotsam and jetsam to gather for fuel. The rain held off. We pitched in a discreet spot in a little natural bowl of rough grass looking out magnificently onto the Sound of Bute. Neither the sheep nor the oyster-catchers paid us any attention. As we busied ourselves setting up stove and bedding, a curious seal, who was to follow our fortunes for three days, bobbed its grey head out of the water to see what we were about.

I am not one for fancy technology on a walk; too many gadgets can wear out or run out of fuel. So I cook on a Wild Woodgas stove. It is light and simple, cannot fail or break. It is fuelled with sticks that one finds lying about on almost any campsite, leaves no trace behind and cooks beautifully; and I always carry with me a bag of dry birch bark—the perfect waxy kindling, light as paper. There being two of us, we had indulged in the luxury of a storm kettle too, for nearly instant hot water. It’s no more than a small aluminium chimney with a water sleeve around it and a fire tray at the bottom. It will light in just about any weather and for a quick, morale-boosting cuppa laced with whisky it is hard to beat. We ate well, and in the fading orange light I went off to explore the remains of the fort. In truth, humps and bumps in the landscape are not always much more revealing for the archaeologist than for the casual tripper. I had already read the site report, however, so I knew what to look for: rectangular stone foundations and the grassed-over remains of a timber-laced rampart which had enhanced the natural battlements of this rocky fortress.

What counts, on this sort of journey, is the sense of place, the passing of time. There is no better way to insinuate oneself into the Dark Age mind than to camp close to the ramparts of an ancient fort on the edge of the limitless sea and ponder the spiritual and secular worlds of those who built it. To properly understand these people, if that is possible, it helps to have read the literature, and there is more of that than one might think. But the key to Dunagoil was not just in the notes of the excavators, nor even in its striking setting and naturally defensive architecture. The secret lay just beyond the next hill.

The first night on a trail can be strange and disorienting. You are not quite sure where you are when dawn breaks and the only sounds are those of sheep munching the grass next to the tent and the odd bird calling overhead. At Dunagoil the night was so peaceful that even the rhythmic lapping of waves on the shore did not disturb us. One of the many pleasures of walking with Sarah is that, being a Scot, she will make porridge for breakfast come hell or high water. Oats are the best trail-setting food: full of slow-release carbohydrates; light to carry and easily flavoured with honey, hedgerow fruits or hazelnuts.

I was keen to get started: I wanted to see St Blane’s church, which lay hidden behind a bluff immediately to the east of Dunagoil. None of the pictures or plans I had seen gave much idea of its setting. By nine o’clock in the morning we were tramping along the small path that led off a narrow road through a field of dairy cows. Our breath was cloudy but the sun was up and the air perfectly clear. The church was invisible until the last few yards, when the subtlety of its location became apparent. A key component of that location, inevitably, was its proximity to Dunagoil. Encircled by two walls which have created a sort of concentric terraced citadel, the monastery was set in a natural bowl sheltered by hills and trees but with a narrow view out to sea and easy access to the protective fort. There was, and is, open pasture near by, and the year-round fruits of the sea; and early monastic communities were nothing if not handy when it came to farming. The church, built in the sixth century like Iona Abbey, much altered and enlarged in a twelfth-century rebuild and now partly ruined, is nevertheless a jewel in the Early Medieval landscape of Scotland’s west coast. Stone-built cells, a chapel, burial ground, the core functions of an early monastic foundation, were later complemented by guest house, bakery, workshops, a scriptorium, perhaps, and the lodgings of the abbot. The beach at Dunagoil gave access to the water; not just to the coast of Bute but to its Kyles with their fine fishing and to other monasteries and centres of power sited on the hundreds of miles of Argyll’s shores. Ireland, Erin, lay three days’ sailing away.

This is now an obscure landscape; few pilgrims or seekers of ecclesiastic and royal patronage come this way today. In Colmcille’s day, such prestigious spiritual sites were often located close to contemporary seats of secular power. Lindisfarne’s relationship to the ancestral fortress of the Northumbrian kings at Bamburgh is similar. It is that between a sun and its planet. The same goes for many fortress/monastery combinations across the British Isles, and one of the keys to understanding the Dark Ages is interrogating this relationship. The Early Medieval saints’ lives, or hagiographies, tell us about elites, and especially how kings and holy men managed their expectations of each other. Other records, mostly genealogies, survive and tell of the so-called ‘erenachs’ —lay patrons of many of Ireland’s churches, and tribal sponsors of holy men. It is easy to see how a fashion for having such intellectual lodgers might catch on. Monks prayed for their patrons, for their dynastic successors and their souls. They brought learning and kudos and provided convenient careers for those of the Irish elite who were either not disposed towards the alternative (fighting; an early if glorious death; life in the testosterone-fuelled mead hall) or who might otherwise present a threat to the chosen line of succession. They healed the sick and sometimes saw into the future. In return, monasteries benefited from the protection of their lords and were provided with lands which could not, like those held by warriors, be taken back. Monasteries patronised by kings or lay patrons were freehold and each one, because of the stability conferred by its status, acted as a sort of seed corn for agricultural, artistic and artisanal investment. At Nendrum monastery in County Down (see page 321), a corn mill powered by the tides on Strangford Lough was constructed in the seventh century: hard evidence of the benefits of such capital investment, and by no means unique. The monastic movement which brought monks together in cenobitic communities—that is, communal life—beginning early in the sixth century, was a stabilising feature in an unstable world, like tough grass holding a sand dune together.



In key places along Argyll’s coast, the same relationship between aristocratic or kingly duns and important early church foundations is repeated. As it happens, St Blane’s and Dunagoil are exceptional: they are the twin foci of royal power. The Scottish historian of this period, James Fraser, believes that Dunagoil was the princely seat of Conad Cerr, warlord chief of the Cenél Comgaill in Cowal and very briefly king of all Dál Riata in the year 629. The abbots of St Blane’s were his holy men. Dunadd, our destination, was the seat of the Cenél nGabrain, the dominant kin group during Colmcille’s day and up until the mid-seventh century.

From Kingarth at the extreme southern end of Bute, we turned north-west along the coast. All the while Dunagoil was visible behind us, protruding into sea and sky, making as bold a statement as could be imagined of the power and status of its lords. On Loch Quien we saw the low, rush-covered mound of a crannog,6 an artificial island that would have supported a pile-driven circular dwelling. Such places, summer retreats for a transhumant elite, are known to have existed from the Iron Age onwards, right into the high Medieval period. But we did not pause on the trail. Our destination today was another monastic establishment, much more modest than St Blane’s but in an equally evocative setting. St Ninian’s chapel lies on a rocky plinth at the end of a narrow spit of sand dunes halfway up Bute’s west coast. The spit shelters a cove where boats can be drawn up onto the strand; in turn it is sheltered from westerly gales by Inchmarnock. St Marnock’s7 island is a special place, and I would have liked very much to go there; but perhaps seeing it from across the sound was enough. Most of what we know about Inchmarnock comes from a campaign of survey and excavation which revealed that it was once an important monastic school. It has yielded the largest number of inscribed slates from any site in the British Isles. One of these records the founding saint’s name, Ernán; another appears to show a monk kneeling at the feet of a warrior, perhaps imploring a Viking for mercy or being carried off into slavery. Eight gaming boards were also found here: evidently the monks relieved the boredom of long winter evenings on the island by enjoying a game of Nine Men’s Morris, or merels, whose origins can be traced at least as far back as imperial Rome. The relationship between St Blane’s foundation and that on Inchmarnock is intriguing to contemplate: were they competitors for the patronage of the Cenél Comgaill, or twin aspects of a single entity with one a sort of feeder school for the other? We may never know. Archaeology can be very successful at revealing what happened; rarely can it say why.

You could be forgiven for missing Ninian’s chapel on the spit: it looked more or less like an abandoned drystone hut, now grassed over and with walls only standing a couple of feet high, swaddled in the tough, wiry machair grass that clings to the sand and rocks and defies autumn and winter gales. Excavations in the 1950s revealed that it sat in a small circular cemetery containing inhumations on a north–south orientation, overlain by graves in an east–west, more obviously Christian alignment. At the east end of the chapel stood a stone altar with a box-like cavity for holding the bones of its founder (perhaps Ninian, but much more likely another local worthy whose name has been forgotten and absorbed into the geographical mythology of one of the Atlantic West’s celebrity saints).

Next to the chapel, on the leeward side, stood a small single-storey holiday cottage, once presumably a fisherman’s hut. On our way out there, with the evening drawing in and the sky once again looking menacing, we passed a herd of dairy cows trooping wearily back from a day’s paltry grazing, and a man walking his dog who pointed at a small hollow beyond the cottage, suggesting it would make a good bivouac. Neither tide nor wind would reach us there, he said. Travellers gather intelligence where they may; and he was right. The pitch was soft, close to the water’s edge and just out of the wind, so even if it blew a gale we should be all right. Our only mistake was not to have filled our water bladders (a neat twenty-first-century reinvention of ancient technology, with plastic substituting for sheepskin) at the last spring we’d passed: so it was rice boiled in salt water for supper; and since that night’s protein was provided by a dried, cured chorizo sausage, it was a salty meal all round.

The sky cleared as it darkened. A three-quarter moon rose in the east, its tilted asymmetry perfectly imperfect. The moon is a traveller’s friend: on these bright nights its light is sufficient for navigation—sometimes even to read by. The experienced sky-watcher knows that the full moon lies due south at midnight; that each day it rises forty-eight minutes later than the night before; that broadly speaking it follows the same east–west path as the sun: so here is a night-time compass, clock and calculator in one. Only when I am sailing or on the trail do I come to know instinctively the phases of the moon; and on such a journey as this, accompanied by the sea, the state of the tide also becomes part of a subliminal dialogue with the earth and stars which must have been so much more intimate and wondrous a part of the Early Medieval mind and soul than it is of today’s amateur voyagers.

After a tranquil night of comfort that would have fooled a princess, the golden early light was enough to make one drunk: we gorged on it, and so did my new camera, acquired especially for the trip. We were treated to rich, saturated colours, a pulsating, dynamic range of tones and sharp lines: Arran in the distance, banks of pinky-grey and purple cloud capping it like a frown; Inchmarnock’s low humpback bathed in cadmium yellow; each palette scattering its colours in brilliant shards off the shimmering surface of the sea. And, as if to endorse our choice of pitch, the morning saw our friend the seal bob his shiny head out of the water to see what we were up to. Trail days mean early starts: light penetrates the tent; the world around wakes up and starts its racket—squabbling geese and ducks, lamenting oyster catchers and curlews; the rumble of distant tractors across the bay. Breakfast was eaten on the go while we packed the tent and stowed our gear. That morning a brisk offshore wind blew; for two days the weather had been looking menacing to the west but a spell of easterlies had kept it at bay. Now a line of cloud overhead seemed to presage change; but by midday it had dissipated and once again we got away with a dry day.

North, then, along Bute’s west coast. The map showed that at Ettrick Bay, more or less due west of Rothesay, there was a public loo where we could wash and replenish our water supplies. It looked like a good first stop, and nearby was the promise of standing stones and an early cross to look at. St Ninian must have been on our side that morning, for as we traversed the bay on an ebbing tide the loo morphed into a café. The Dark Age traveller takes comfort where he or she can. We ate their biggest breakfast and washed. I dashed off to the nearby hamlet of St Colmac (an otherwise obscure saint) to have a look at a cross; but could not find it in a huddle of farm buildings, slurry pits and byres. Sated by our unexpected feast, and clean-ish, we resumed the trail along the coast, past chambered cairns and small duns. Sarah noticed how many wooden benches we passed, set up to watch the sea with little plaques commemorating loved ones. Bute, it seems, if not truly an island of the dead, is certainly the island of memorial.

At Kilmichael, on the rugged and little visited north-west coast of Bute, the trail finally ran out. There is a small chapel here, perched on a grassy cliff overlooking the Kyles, with the small villages of Kames and Tighnabruaich (literally ‘the house on the shore’) sitting snugly a mile across the water. The Kyles of Bute is a flooded fjord separating the island from the western branch of the Cowal peninsula: remote, rugged terrain. There is no harbour anywhere on the west coast of Bute, nor fishing pier, nor ferry. The land rises and steepens, and those who venture here need to be lucky, well equipped, and—if they wish to make further progress to the north—have a plan for how to do so. After snacking with our backs to St Michael’s little chapel, soaking in the views of Cowal’s rocky, conifer-cloaked hills, we climbed down to a beach made up entirely of broken oyster and scallop shells (we spied a man in a small boat directing divers to live ones on the sea floor), whelks and clams. We set up the storm kettle for a cup of tea. Sarah stripped off and swam—endurance swimming is her thing; I prefer boats. I’ve no doubt that unencumbered by me or the rucksack she would have made it across easily enough, although I’m not sure what the natives would have thought; and for a moment I wondered how many Dark Age denizens took to the water for a dip. Bede tells of a monk, Dryhthelm, standing up to his waist in the icy River Tweed, close to freezing, so that he could be nearer to God in his transcendental semi-starved coma; but you don’t hear much of swimming monks.8

At three o’clock we gathered our things and walked to a prominent rocky point that sticks out into the Kyle. All was quiet and still. And then, right on cue, the small fishing vessel Morag steamed into sight from behind a bluff to the north and chugged gently towards us until she was no more than a hundred yards offshore. From her waist, Donald Clark, her owner and skipper, dropped into his outboard dinghy and plucked us off the beach as cool as you like. Donald—anyone, indeed, who might give us passage off the west coast of Bute—had been hard to track down. Today, as it happened, was Morag’s last day in the water before she was to be hauled up into dry dock for the winter. We felt very lucky to have run him to earth (via online shenanigans, emails and phone calls over the previous month); but the traveller grasps serendipitous moments like these without dwelling too much on what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. With a quick backward glance, we made our escape. Bede, Adomnán and other Dark Age hagiographers would have made much of such a story; portrayed it as divine providence, a miracle.

After three days’ walking and wild camping, we treated ourselves to a night at the Kames Hotel: showers, food, a beer in the bar, the closest we could get to Beowulf’s feasting hall. A reluctant (on my part) taxi ride first thing the next morning got us, with a few minutes to spare, to Portavadie on the west side of the Cowal peninsula. The ferry was one of those small flat-bottomed vehicular drive-on affairs in which the ramp is lowered as the vessel revs up against the sloping concrete shelf of the harbour. A brisk wind blew from the south up Loch Fyne and the ferry bumped around a bit as she carved a bow-legged wake across to the fishing port of Tarbert. I stayed out on deck, smelling the kelpy breeze and watching other sea traffic pass by, like a maritime version of a trainspotter. Our fellow passengers included a woman travelling to her holiday cottage on the island of Gigha and a solicitor on his way to the Sheriff’s court in Campbeltown. The woman who took our money carried small parcels for delivery on the other side.

Tarbert is one of those special place names. Several of them survive in Scotland and Ireland and they generally describe a narrow isthmus across which boats were once pulled or carried between parts of the open sea or great inland lochs. The portage here was about a mile, the narrowest point on the Kintyre peninsula; and if a mile still seems a fair way to drag a boat, think of the nearly one hundred sea miles it saved. In truth, if there was a system of runners or sleds and if one considers that only half the portage can have been uphill (and with a high point of forty feet above the sea not far uphill at that) it’s not quite so daunting a prospect. A tough day, yes; a Fitzcarraldo-style jungle endurance epic? No.

There was no time to explore or to shop. From the ferry ramp at Tarbert we had little choice but to dash for the once-a-day bus that runs along the east coast of Kintyre, until we could find a walking route across to our next destination. It felt like cheating. At Inverneil we were disgorged, the only passengers. Now we set our heads towards the south-west along a tiny B-road with rain in the air and low, cold, wet cloud skimming across the tops of the hills directly into our faces. Up through conifer plantations where over-stocking and wind-throw had left brutal scars, to a gentle col six hundred feet above sea level. After that a more benign and nourishing land of broadleaved woods, of oak, hazel and alder, drew us on and downward. Six miles along this road we reached the hamlet of Achahoish (Gaelic: the ‘field of the hollow’). Oak leaves turned golden brown fell in curtains across the road; a thin sun glinted off mirror-like lochans on the braes around us; rushing burns and limp bracken, stoical livestock and empty roads spoke for themselves of the coming season. We found no shop here in this sheltered hollow; and no prospect of another for a couple of days. The postmistress, who opened her front door to let a yapping spaniel out, was not available for consumer purchases; she only really posted letters for folk, she said.

We had almost walked our own unofficial tarbert here, north-east to south-west across Kintyre. Now we rounded the head of Loch Caolisport, whose waters lead on to the Sound of Jura and beyond that to the open sea, past a small chapel which proclaimed itself the parish church of South Knapdale (current population 2325). We sat for lunch on a damp sward next to a meandering river flooding under the moon’s influence as the high tide backed it up. A mile further on, along the west side of the loch, we stopped again so I could visit St Columba’s cave. My expectations were low: Columba, or Colmcille, is one of those celebrity saints, like Cuthbert and Ninian, whose name has become attached to holy places in Scotland and Ireland for all sorts of reasons, in much the same way that Arthur, Julius Caesar, the Devil or Robin Hood are attached to any mysterious landscape feature in England. Often this naming was an attempt to cement and expand the so-called paruchia, the zone of influence, of a great foundation like Iona; sometimes it reflects a fading memory of the true founding saint or hermit, too obscure to make it onto the A-list. The tiny medieval chapel here, whose walls stand almost to roof height, had been swallowed by trees, shrubs and tall bracken. Out here there is no Ministry of Tidy Monuments to cut grass, mend signs or point stonework. I wished, for a moment, that I had brought a machete. A small track wound up towards the escarpment behind the chapel and here was the real treasure: a tall, deep, dank cave with a mouth like a hungry fish, an odd little wicket gate before it and tentacles of ivy and honeysuckle draped across its dark entrance.

Inside, set on a rocky shelf some five yards from the entrance and built against the wall of the cave, stood a drystone rectangular altar. On its flat top lay the empty aluminium shells of tea lights, a little rustic cross made from withies, some pennies and a cheap plastic necklace. Above the altar, carved into the wall, were the remnants of two simple crosses; on the front of the altar the outline of a fish had been crudely painted in cheap emulsion. For some this is at best mawkish hokum, at worst mere vandalism; for others it is a touching revival of ancient faiths. I put on my anthropological hat and observed, trying to get the best photograph in terrible light. Above me, on the opposite wall, was a line of holes which may once have held beams for a ceiling of some sort or a shelf for a bed. The cave has been excavated, or interfered with, many times. There is evidence of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer occupation and of burials. A metre and more of material built up during long, ancient use of the cave included Roman Samian ware—the finest dinner service to be had in the Western Empire—and a Viking Age merchant’s bronze balance. If this was once home to a hermit, it was also, at times, something more. The very fact that St Columba’s cave is so far off the beaten track that no official pays it a visit more than once in a score of years, makes it special. Much more than at Kingarth, one feels the presence of the Early Medieval spirit, of solitude and retreat; of temporal remoteness and of peregrination: the great pilgrimage into the unknown for Christ.

A little further south-west along the shore we came to Ellary. A grandiose, rhododendron-infested Victorian estate, it did not welcome. Keep Out signs warned and gates were closed across what was left of the road, a barely metalled track. But Ellary boasted one of the most important Early Medieval cemeteries in the country, and we were not for turning back. It was late, though, and our feeling that the long-anticipated break in the weather was about to befall us suggested that the first priority was shelter, food and a good pitch: somewhere away from the eyes of any gillies who might be out on the hills patrolling for poachers. One feels the need to be discreet when camping wild; but we were dog-tired and footsore from so much tarmac-walking. Again we were lucky. Above Ellary, after a stiff climb we insinuated ourselves into the ramparts of Dun a’ Bhealaich (the ‘fort at the red pass’), another of those perched Dark Age fortresses, apparently never investigated, which watches over its saints. It occupies a rocky promontory looking across the loch and commands the route—surely an ancient droveway—across the peninsula. Its ramparts now seem feeble, colonised by birch trees and hidden beneath suitably reddish-brown bracken. But the site says something about prestige, privacy and privilege, which are the currency of elites. At any rate, when it comes to accommodation, location is everything: here was a pitch out of sight of the track, with sticks for the fire and the fresh, if peaty, water of a lochan just twenty yards or so below us; here too was a misty autumn evening closing in like a suffocating veil of net curtain. We pitched the tent in deepening murk, fired the stove and ate quickly—just in time. For the next fourteen hours the rain was unceasing. There was nothing for it but to retreat to the tent on our atmospheric ancient campsite.

A half-hearted dawn, tea and porridge and the stealthy drip of rainwater down the back of the neck; cold hands, frosted breath on the air and a horizon cropped on all sides to a measly hundred yards or so. I packed all my gear but the cameras and, leaving Sarah in possession of the castle for an hour, trudged off to find Cladh a Bhile, the ‘earthwork of the sacred tree’. Back down the trail to Ellary; a plunge into a boggy field and through a long tunnel of rhododendrons and yew trees, mud and running water up to the ankles; a fruitless search for a signpost or a path; then tell-tale signs, I hoped: a half-hidden Victorian iron railing and a little clearing. No sign here of any earthwork, but above me the precipitous massif of the dun where we had camped. I’d walked a long way to see this place. Neglect had beaten me to it. This age-old cemetery, with its unique collection of grave slabs, was almost impenetrably obscure on a day which was, truly, as dark as night. I spied a couple of Victorian stone crosses, one of them broken into fragments. And then, as my eye began to discriminate between scrub, bracken and stone, I saw a slab, upright, a metre and a half or so tall, encrusted with lichen and green with moss. The other side was carved, magnificently, with a Maltese cross below a marigold, or flabellum. These are very special carvings: the flabellum was a ceremonial fan, Egyptian in origin and used in the most intimate early Christian liturgies to ward insects (and evil spirits, perhaps) away from the priest celebrating mass. As the iconography travelled west and north, it found new life as a motif separated from any physical utilitarian object, and became more a sort of stylised cross. I have seen an example at Fahan in Donegal and they are occasionally to be found gracing the manuscripts of the illuminated Gospels. Stylistically they belong to the seventh or eighth centuries.

The Ellary stone was first brought to the notice of a wider academic community by two remarkable women, Marion Campbell and Mary Sandeman, who double-handedly surveyed and then published the archaeological monuments of Argyll in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when nobody seemed to know or care what an extraordinary rich heritage they represented. Campbell was a fervent nationalist, a novelist and author of more than eighty books, including many on Argyll, into whose monuments she was an indefatigable researcher. The historian and archaeologist Neal Ascherson, a friend of Campbell’s, described her as a ‘patriot antiquary’, but also as a formidable intellect, kind but tough, an inveterate smoker with a sharp sense of humour which she applied equally to herself and others. She lived in Kilberry Castle as a farmer all her life, much of it with her friend Mary Sandeman, and died in 2000.

The current state of Cladh a Bhile would sadden Marion Campbell. Many of the thirty or so stones in this important place were impossible to locate; others just about poked their heads through the dingy vegetation. I managed to photograph half a dozen, but in that light I could do them no justice. I felt a grim sense of anti-climax, sploshing and splodging my way back up the hill.

Grim, to be sure; but as Sarah and I went on our way again I experienced a growing feeling, barely describable, of the exultation that only the nomad knows; that in packing my entire current existence into a bag and leaving nothing behind, looking forward only to the day ahead, I was complete—as complete, perhaps, as a human being can hope to be. Saturated colours of bracken and rough grass, and bare rocks and silky water on reed-ringed lochans formed a serene aesthetic backdrop to the steady pace of our early morning trudging.

Even so, by eleven o’clock, now as wet inside as out, we were cursing the drenching squalls that came barging in off Loch Sween, one after the other. The view, if one could have seen anything of it, should have taken in St Cormac’s chapel on Eilean Mòr—a tiny medieval church used as an inn in later centuries and which still boasts part of a turf roof. Beyond that Jura, if only the cloud would lift.

At the tiny hamlet of Kilmory—a cluster of low drystone cottages wedged in against the wind-battered hillside, a telephone box and not much else—a sign pointed to a roofless chapel supposed to house some fine early carvings. Professional enthusiasm wavered. Sarah was all for going on despite the lashing rain, just to keep moving. We were footsore and stiff and after more than four days on the trail the heavy packs were taking their toll. But my conscience won. The chapel, of vivid orange drystone schist like the cottages, was set in a neat little churchyard with a view out onto the tousled waves of the loch. A small notice on the door invited the visitor to pluck the heavy iron key off its peg and enter (and to lock and replace it afterwards). Hardly worth the effort, surely. But there is something satisfying about opening an old church door with a great heavy key, and you never know what surprises might lie beyond. At Kilmory the saints (and the secular powers) smiled on us. Some enterprising bod from Historic Scotland had found the money to construct a glass ceiling to shelter the treasures within: here was dry land, a refuge, a sanctuary. Here, too, was an astonishing collection of stone memorial sculpture. I unburdened myself of dripping pack and waterproof, leaned out of the door and with a look, I dare say, of smug complacency, beckoned my drenched partner to share in the miracle.

Kilmory was more a museum than a chapel. Thirty-five crosses and grave slabs were arranged around and against the walls or standing upright on the gravelled floor. This was a homage to a grand cultural school of stone carving, the so-called West Highland tradition. It probably began on Iona in Colmcille’s day towards the end of the sixth century, and continued into later medieval centuries under, some believe, the patronage of the Lords of the Isles. The earliest and simplest, stunning in their unaffected piety, were grouped in a corner. These were either way-markers for pilgrims or memorial stones to early holy men and women whose own peregrinations led them here. My favourite was a lozenge with a round head; carved on it in relief was a splayed cross with hatches between its arms, as if it had been copied from a more elaborate original. The texture of the grey sandstone from which it had been cut was irresistible; I had to touch it, to read from its surface not just the skill and faith of the mason but the passage of the years as its neatly incised lines weathered and shed their detail. These lozenge-shaped grave markers are known as ‘leacht’ crosses. The shape allowed for the insertion of the slim cross base into the top of a leacht, an altar like the drystone affair at St Columba’s cave or St Ninian’s chapel. Beneath some of these the bones of holy men and women have been found: the crosses are symbols of their faith in life and their protective presence, their virtu, in death. Several of the simpler plain crosses here might date to the sixth or seventh century, although the church belongs to the eleventh or twelfth century.

Outside, the heavy squalls that dogged us all morning had blown away on the wind; now the day offered a panorama of blue sky and the vast, thrilling disc of the western sea spread out to our left as we walked northwards along the peninsula. Jura, now blasted by a great white squall, now shining orange and grey in the distance; Eilean Mòr, closer at hand, wind-torn but like a gem against the deep blue; jagged ridges of hard ancient rocks scattering towards the south-west, showing the line of the great geological fault that thrusts the Highlands against northern Britain; and opposite us the half-connected tidal Isle of Danna at the southern end of the Tayvallich peninsula. The tide races here are fearsome and spume trails betraying conflicting currents stretched away across the open sea. From our elevated path it was easy to see how interconnected the maritime archipelago of the Western Isles once was; how hermit, saint, warlord and farmer brought their own culture and traditions together and created a matrix of complex relations borne on the sea between them.

It was a long hike up the eastern side of Loch Sween; wear and tear were slowing us down. We stopped by the shore to look at the tree-graced slopes across Loch Sween. We snacked on dried fruit and cheese, nuts and oatcakes; and an otter charmed us with her exuberant fishing antics no more than thirty yards away. At Castle Sween, a lumping great medieval fortress, we passed an incongruous caravan and holiday park (no campers). On again, sustained by chocolate and the odd swig from a flask of the water of life, we passed an unassuming stone cross in a field, divorced from the ruin or landscape that would have framed its story.

It was not easy to see where we might stay that night; there are no campsites at all in Knapdale and the comparative urbanity of Lochgilphead and Crinan were beyond our capabilities for that day. Everywhere was soaking wet. Sarah was feeling rough. More than once I consulted the map, hoping to identify the sort of spot where we might pitch early, not attract too much attention and get a good night’s sleep. Kilmichael, no more than a group of houses, offered nothing. More miles. The track became a narrow road, busy with trippers’ cars. The odd house passed by; fences and walls everywhere: this is an owned, proprietorial landscape. At Achnamara, according to the map, there was a school. Might there also be a bus? There might; but this being Scotland’s half-term, it was not running. Only Tayvallich, tantalising across the bay, offered civil society and transport. Sarah saw a chance, in a woman bringing shopping in from her car, to gather intelligence. The thought crossed my mind, ridiculously, that in the Early Medieval period each woman would have immediately assessed the other by her hair, her clothes and above all by the design and quality of her brooch—a penannular iron or bronze ring with a pin which slots through the gap and which, with a twist, anchors brooch to cloak. A brief conversation ensued. Sarah walked over to where I was sitting by the packs, a resigned look on her face. No buses; no taxi will come out here.

A minute or so later the husband appeared with his car keys; would we like a lift up to Barnluasgan, where the four o’clock bus would take us all the way to Lochgilphead? We would. We did not get around to learning his name (too busy thanking him, Sarah’s natural chutzpah and nameless saints). We were left at the bus stop, or at least outside the house where the bus was said to stop, and in a state of modest complacency ate the last of our chocolate, congratulating ourselves provisionally on another huge slice of luck. The bus came. In fifteen minutes it brought us out onto the Crinan road. Here we had our first view of the extraordinary lowland bog landscape that is Mòine Mhòr and beyond it the encircling hills of Kilmartin Glen, sensuously bathed in warm but vibrant yellow evening light. Crossing the bog was a joy to be savoured for the next day. The bus, meanwhile, crept along the line of the Crinan Canal with its neatly numbered locks and equally neatly numbered lock-keepers’ cottages. The canal was the late eighteenth-century product of the minds and energies of John Rennie, Thomas Telford and hundreds of Irish and Scots navvies, designed, like the former portage across Kintyre at Tarbert, to speed passage from the Atlantic and the Western Isles up the Clyde, avoiding a hazardous passage around the Mull of Kintyre. The line of the canal bypasses Lochgilphead, which ought to have been a strategic port but which sits wearily at the head of a muddy bay, thirty years behind the rest of the country. Here we were deposited by the bus in the hope of finding a bed for the night. Cut off from Scotland’s infrastructure, it ought to be the gateway to Kintyre; but there’s no money on the peninsula either. The damaged sign on the wall of the drab S-ag Hotel just about said it all. It is hard to get here from anywhere and we wondered, walking through its down-at-heel streets, if it might not be better to put Lochgilphead out of its misery. That is a little unfair; it does have a certain faded charm.

What Kintyre needs is a revival of the Dark Age superhighway that made it a centre of maritime and cultural activity. In these days when the sea is no longer the arterial hub that it once was, this place wants a railway. The roads are narrow and slow, clogged with heavy vehicles, caravans or tractors. It’s an economic backwater and no amount of central government subsidy will drag it up by its bootstraps. Fishing is dead and so is any business from across the Atlantic. Only fresh-laid iron tracks and a visionary giant like Telford might pull it off; but who will pay? Just look at Argyll and Kintyre on a map: topography and history are against them: suppression, exploitation, clearances, clan rivalries, political and economic remoteness; mountains, lochs and rivers; and very little infrastructure for the traveller wanting to discover it. Kintyre seems to be having its own Dark Age. We are still only forty miles from Glasgow as the seaplane flies; we might as well be a thousand away. The irony of all this is that for several thousand years Kilmartin Glen was one of the busiest places on the island: it has the greatest density of surviving (and buried) archaeological monuments in Britain.

In the morning, only a little less sore but drier and cleaner, we recce’d the bus times on the town promenade (for want of a better word). They were all a year out of date. The driver of the bus that took us over the canal and onto the Oban road was no wiser than the timetable. When was the last bus to Oban (train station; civilisation)? No one knew. So we began our trek across Mòine Mhòr in informational, if not spiritual, darkness. But there was no mistaking the rocky rump of Dunadd, one of the most famous Dark Age fortresses and seat of the legendary kings of Dál Riata. I had seen so many pictures of this place and been to so many lectures about it, read of it in so many articles and books, that I feared the reality would disappoint. It did not. Mòine Mhòr was a great flat expanse of bog, now very much drained and tamed, but in the days of Colmcille a marshy, oft-flooded plain with an amphitheatre of rocky hills surrounding it. Out of this lowland morass rises the clenched fist of Dunadd like an underwater leviathan bursting to the surface through infinitely deep waters.

It is approached by a tarmac road which must once have been no more than a wooden causeway across the peat. From a distance the shelving plane of the rocks give the impression of a sort of spiral, rather like the castle rock on Lindisfarne, curling up and around (I was hungry: a Walnut Whip came to mind). A small cluster of cottages nestles at its base. They would not get planning permission now, one imagines. There is a car park. Up the twisting narrow path through its ramparts and the deliberately awe-inspiring rock-cut barbican, once topped by a stone curtain wall that leads to the first terrace: much larger than I had imagined, and evidently the principal defended enclosure. It is large enough to contain a significant domestic set-up. Now grassed over, the site was excavated in the early part of the twentieth century and then briefly in 1980 by Leslie Alcock, the great Early Medieval scholar. From this first terrace, artificially flattened and containing a rock-cut well, another steep, narrow spiral path leads around the twin-domed fastness that makes its outline unforgettable. Up here, visible for miles in any direction, once stood the great hall, the feasting barn conversion that was the hallmark of the Early Medieval fortress.

Three things make Dunadd unique. Its setting, evident from the highest point (a hundred and fifty feet above the plain) even on a wind-blasted grey day, is sublime: flatness on all sides as far as the sea, with which it may have been directly connected in its heyday; south to the canal and to Kintyre; east to the wooded hills of Argyll and north to Kilmartin Glen. The lazy meander of the River Add encircles and defends it.

The second remarkable feature of the fort is its famous footprint, supposedly carved into the bare rock to act as part of a ceremony of royal investiture. Colmcille was said to have been the first holy man in the west to perform anything recognisable as a Christian royal inauguration or anointing, although historians have their doubts and in any case Colmcille had the kings of Dál Riata come to him on Iona, not the other way around. But here was the footprint. Or rather, under here: what we saw was merely a facsimile, the original being too important for humans to touch and in recent years buried a foot deep beneath us. But there is more than just a footprint: laser scanning of the original stone before its interment showed faint traces of a carved bull, decidedly Pictish in style, and a line of ogham script. (More of ogham later—see page 266.) For the archaeologist, what is so striking about Dunadd is the amazing wealth of material culture which excavation has yielded (if not always using scientific techniques).

From Dunadd9 the kings of Dál Riata were able, in the sixth and seventh centuries, to lay hands on objets d’art from across the lands of the former Roman Empire. They commissioned gold- and silversmiths to create jewellery and weapons of exquisite finery and technical brilliance. They knew how to acquire a super-valuable purple dye which could only be obtained from the mucus of the Atlantic dog whelk Nucella lapillus. They drank from glass vessels imported from a thousand miles away on the Continent.10 And they ate from (or perhaps just coveted) the best tableware that Africa or Francia could produce. They were able to call Colmcille, the greatest of early saintly potentates, their royal priest, ambassador and chief legitimiser. Through his monastic successors on Iona and through their own canny dynastic fostering of princely exiles, these kings amassed sufficient political capital to send protégé athelings11—of whom the most celebrated and influential was Oswald Iding (see pages 179 and 231)—back to Northumbria to expand their influence over the islands of Britain. In turn, Áedán mac Gabrain (c.574–609) and his successors as kings protected Colmcille’s earthly interests and fostered the expansion of his spiritual empire, the Ionan paruchia. In theory, at least, the kings of Dál Riata were able to summon fifteen hundred men in two hundred curraghs to go raiding among the islands of the Hebrides and to Ireland where they claimed lordship over the kings of Ulster. They were a formidable force; and more, because they had the vision to see in the rational, stabilising and everlasting model of kingship constructed by their saint a new sort of political reality that would survive the person of the king. These were the kings, borrowing from their priest’s invocation of the Old Testament, from whom the medieval idea of divine right springs.

Descending from this rocky citadel, this one-time Tower of Babel, Sarah and I set out along the dead straight causeway roads of the bog towards Kilmartin Glen. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, before Mòine Mhòr became wet and peaty under the influence of the warm Atlantic Drift, the glen was a potent focus of ancestral memorial and power. A miles-long processional route led from the glen out onto the fertile plain at the sea’s edge. Great standing stones, their broken-shoulder profiles a figurative nod to the giants of their own past, litter the now-drying tamed peat lands. Hundreds of cairns and tombs have been uncovered and excavated here.

But whatever ritual landscape came into being in this place, it was eventually consumed by peat accumulating over a thousand wet summers. Back home, pondering Dunadd’s place in this vale of ancestral tears, I asked a colleague, the distinguished palynologist Richard Tipping, if the kings of Dál Riata would still have been able to see these monuments poking ghostly out of the peat; to sense or in some way tap into their potency for their own psychological ends. Yes, he told me, the monuments would still have been visible. And in that realisation of a self-doubting society tapping into a source of power at once visceral, mythical and untouchable, I suddenly thought of the stranded, emasculated Napoleon staring at the pyramids in Egypt in 1799, and the words of a sonnet came to me:

I met a traveller from an antique land

Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,

The lone and level sands stretch far away.12

At the time, after a couple of hours’ stiff walking along unforgiving back roads and wishing only that we could reach our destination at Kilmartin (a café, and the bus to Oban beckoned), Shelley was not in my thoughts. We had left art, mystery and pathos some miles back and only irony remained. We passed a road sign, pointing along another dead straight, featureless road towards some unpromising destination. It said ‘Long walk’. No shit, I thought.



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