The 'Linear Cemetery'
There is a most unusual pattern of pre-historic monuments running down the length of Kilmartin Glen. It is often referred to as a 'linear cemetery, for it is a series of monuments, many of which have been used at some point for burial of human remains, which form a line running roughly south-west to north-east. In close association with these monuments are a number of standing stones, cairns, cists, henges, various kinds of rock-carvings, and more.
The glen of Kilmartin,
Several individual sites are orientated along this axis, too: burial cairns with their entrances facing roughly to the north-east, for example. This kind of orientation occurs not only here but in other parts of western Scotland.
Is this perhaps a profoundly significant fact about the whole linear feature, and about the individual sites along it? It is, after all, more or less the direction of sunrise on the morning of mid-summer's day, the day of maximum sunshine all the year long. Is this orientation the echo of an ancient sun-worshipping culture, where they celebrated the rising of the midsummer sun as a sign of life, even in the face of the death of those buried here?
This turning to the rising mid-summer sun is also apparent in different kinds of monuments. A pile of quartz pebbles, 33 of them, was left at a pre-historic site at Brainport Bay, on Loch Fyne in mid-Argyll. The artificial platform there is directed to the North-East, midsummer sunrise, and the excavator suggested that the platform may have been used for solar observation. Perhaps the stones were used as counters of some sort as an aid in recording the passage of time.
There are other, more mundane explanations for this North-Eastern orientation in Kilmartin, however. One is that these monuments simply follow the line of the river on the floor of the glen. After all this is a natural routeway, in some respects. Perhaps the monuments on either side of the river were built simply to be on or near some path that followed the river down towards the sea at Dunadd.
Another possibility is that these things were never really built in a straight line in the first place. Gillies, writing in 1909, suggested that the monuments surviving today represent only a handful of perhaps dozens that once filled the valley, and that the original ones were probably loosely scattered:
"The valley is studded with cairns, megaliths, inscribed stones, forts and other monuments of antiquity. The number of these is but a tithe of what existed two centuries ago: old men alive at the beginning of the last century spoke of more than a score of cairns and many standing stones being removed to make room for the plough or to build dikes and form steadings."
The present 'line-up' of monuments may therefore reflect not a design of the original builders, but simply the survival of a few which were not torn down and ploughed out by modern farmers. It's less interesting in some ways, to be sure, but still a plausible explanation.
Continuity and change on the valley floor
Not all the monuments are likely to have been built for human burials. The burials in some of them took place long after their first construction. The stone circles at Temple Wood, for example, probably had quite different original purposes - gathering places, ritual sites, perhaps? - as did Ballymeanoch henge. But many centuries after they were built, people inserted burial cists in both of them.
Temple Wood has produced charcoal remains which have been dated to before 3,000 BC. Here stood a circle of timber posts which was later replaced by a stone circle. Later another circle just to the south-west was built around 3,000 BC. Many centuries later burials were added to the site, in cists. Finally both circles were 'smothered' in stone cobbles, cairn material. What was the purpose of that? To attract attention to the two circles, to make them more grand and imposing? Or perhaps to cover them up and to suffocate their power?
Temple Wood circle,
The permanent impact
One can see, then, how the impressive monumental landscape has attracted continuing attention, reverence and awe - perhaps fear too - over a long period of time. In the ninth century AD, someone seems to have regarded the Temple Wood as a suitable place - perhaps protected by the sacred power which it represented - to hide a hoard of coins, maybe thinking that the spirit of the place would protect them.
The individual monuments are impressive enough, but as a whole the 'linear cemetery' and the associated monuments, no matter what the intentions of their builders were, is a vast unifying feature of the landscape. The kings of Dál Riata were inaugurated on the heights of Dunadd as rulers over this sacred landscape. As he stood with his foot in the carved rock foot-print, overlooking this Glen, the king cannot have been unimpressed by the sheer sense of presence which this monument creates.
- Butter, Rachel (1999)
- RCAHMS, Argyll 6, passim
Check out the following sections of this website for related information
Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll
This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.