A land sculptured by time…
Oceans and shallow seas long gone, rocks buried, twisted and torn, lands riven by volcanoes. The wild beauty of Argyll’s landscape owes much to its geological history; a land on the edge of time. Argyll’s fascinating coastline, mountains and glens stretch from the heady heights of its northern realms – its numerous mountains tripping off the tongue in quick succession: Ben More, the Paps of Jura, Ben Cruachan, Beinn Dorain, the Arrochar Alps - to where its toes dip into tempestuous seas at the Mull of Kintyre.
The history of Argyll’s rocks spans a mind boggling 1800 million years, perhaps more, when magmas were ejected to create the gneisses that form the Rhinns of Islay. Over the millennia that followed the land formed part of the shallow seas on the edge of the ancient continent of Laurentia, which saw the laying down of the Dalradian sediments some 542 to 730 million years ago. Slowly drifting northwards, the collision of continents saw the massive folding and burial of the Dalradian sediments - many of which are now exposed on Kintyre and Cowal with fabulous examples near Skipness - and a period of volcanic activity.
Much of Argyll was now above sea level and by 444 million years ago Argyll was nearing the equator; tropical forests, arid zones, volcanoes and flood plains continued to add to the rich congregation of rock types over the next 200 million years from the volcanoes of Lorn to the Old Red Sandstone seen south of Campbeltown and near Oban and Kerrera. As the mountain levels receded and were eroded Argyll once more lay on the edge of shallow seas and dinosaurs roamed. Just 60 million years ago saw further volcanic activity and magma intrusions forming the dykes that can be found running NW to SW and the opening of the Atlantic. The climate now cooled and by 2.6 million years ago the ice age had begun. Now followed periods where all but the highest mountain tops were submerged under ice as the rocks below were scoured by the ice sheet’s monumental force. It was not until relatively recently, some 11,500 years ago, that the series of ice ages ended and saw sea levels first rise then drop and the western seaboard rebound – now freed of the huge weight of ice - leading to the famed raised beaches as seen on Jura and the West Coast of Kintyre.
With its rich tapestry of geology and history it is also little wonder that it is a land shrouded in myth and legend. Like the mists that linger over the forests, mountains and lochs as the rain clears, the golden beams of autumnal light that catch the dewdrops on a spider’s web or the carpets of ferns, lichens and mosses that lie at the feet of ancient oaks, there is magic everywhere. One can easily imagine the Cailleach Bheur (old woman of thunder), a giant female goddess, creating many aspects of Argyll’s rugged landscape as she herded her animals across its reaches. It has been said that she threw down stones that created the mountains and stepping stones she needed to cross over from Mull to the mainland and that the great whirlpools of the Corryvreckan were where she washed her Plaid. And legend has it that, whilst on the slopes of Ben Cruachan, she forgot to cover a well with its giant granite slab after she had watered her animals and fell asleep. As she slept the waters poured down Cruachan’s steep flanks and so Loch Awe was born.
From pondering the mystery of myth and legend one can then step into the magical but once real Kingdom of Dál Riata (Dalriada). At its centre lies the hill fort of Dunadd, purported to be the Kingdom’s capital. Originally it was believed the kingdom came into being under King Fergus Mor with the incoming Gaels from Ireland at the end of the 5th Century. However, archaeological remains show that links between Ireland and Scotland must go back much further than this, seen through the similarity in architecture and structures such as the Crannogs which already existed in Ireland and Scotland’s West Coast long before Fergus’s time. Indeed the Gaels that sortied into Roman Britannia are documented as far back as the 4th Century and were called Scoti (named after their origins in Scotia, now Ireland) by the Romans and it was the term ‘Scoti’ that eventually gave Scotland its name.
Scotland’s lot certainly improved under the rule of King Aedan (Aidan – Fergus’s great grandson) who, as a keen campaigner and warlord, extended the kingdom as far north as the Orkneys and south to the Isle of Man in what was to be a golden era for Dalriada. Its demise was in part through a series of defeats suffered by his grandson Domnall (Donald) Brecc followed by the taking of Dunadd Fort by the Picts in the 8th Century. Viking forays followed and despite the rise of Kenneth MacAlpine as King of Dalriada parts of the ancient kingdom were forsaken to the Norsemen as the ruling Picts suffered defeat. The rise of MacAlpine over Pict and Gael followed the death of the Pictish warlord Wrad and the slaughter of Wrad’s son Drest at Scone in 849AD. It is believed MacAlpine sealed the unity of Pict and Gael through forays as a united front into Northumbria against their common enemy, the Angles. The fading of the Kingdoms of Dalriada and the Picts saw the beginning of the Kingdom of Alba which in turn became the Kingdom of the Scots by the late 11th Century.
The ancient hilltop fort of Dunadd itself dates at least as far back as the Iron Age – it may then have been surrounded by shallow seas before they receded to create the Moine Mhor , the ‘Great Moss’, a rare habitat of raised bog. That it became the seat of the Dalriada Kings is perhaps not surprising as it offers an excellent vantage point and is fairly central to the Kingdom both by land and sea. But that it suffered defeat when invaded by many Viking ships is perhaps not surprising either. The fort has fascinating carvings, including carved footprints believed to have been used ceremoniously in the coronation of its Kings.
Not only is Argyll’s history steeped with that of the Kings of Dalriada but it also plays host to an incredibly important part in the development of Christianity brought to its shores – and that of the West Coast of Scotland - by St Columba (b. 521 d. 597) and his disciples. For many Iona’s Abbey is an iconic testimony to this and that so much was written of the man shows what an influential figure he was. Originally of royal descent from Donegal it is believed that it was through his connections with those ruling the Kingdom of Dalriada, which included lands in Northern Ireland, that he gained Iona for the purpose of building a monastery with the help of King Conall mac Comgaill. Indeed the close relationship between the Monastery, Christianity and Kingdom of Dalriada meant that Iona became the main burial site for Dalriadan Kings. Like the rest of the West Coast Iona suffered terrifying Viking raids in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, which saw many killed and many artefacts plundered and destroyed. Yet latterly Viking Kings that converted to Christianity were also buried there.
A large part of what is known about St Columba is through the book ‘Vita Columbae’ – The Life of Columba – written by the ninth Abbot of Iona Abbey, Adomnan some 100 years after St Columba’s death. Adomnan, who was related to St Columba, became a Saint himself following his death in 704. In addition to the famed Iona Abbey there are many sites throughout Argyll and the Isles that are associated with St Columba and the spread of Christianity. Each has a fascinating place in history and includes Inch Kenneth Chapel off Mull, St Columba’s Well on Colonsay, Oronsay Priory and St Columba’s Cave at Ellary in Knapdale.
Of course one cannot ignore the history that came well before the Kingdoms of Dalriada and Alba if one is to visit Kilmartin Glen. Here one can visit fascinating burial cairns, standing stones and cup and ring marks that date back to pre-historic times. The stone circle at Temple Wood is a fine example that is believed to have been in use for some 2000 years from 3000 BC, in all likelihood for funerary rituals. Nearby the burial cairns and cists (stone-built coffins) found within them have proffered a number of artefacts and remains during archaeological digs including the remains of up to 10 people in one cist. And if one steps yet further back in time the ancient cup and ring marks date to some 5000 years ago - many examples of which can be seen throughout the area - with beautifully preserved carvings at Achnabreck and nearby Ormaig. Kilmartin Glen is perhaps the Scottish mainland’s most important area for its rich diversity in pre-historic remains and has some incredibly well-preserved examples with excellent sources of information to be found at Kilmartin Museum.
The bloody history of clans and Kings continued within Argyll throughout the centuries that followed with the building of many important castles dating back as far as the 12th century. Robert the Bruce in particular, King of the Scots from 1306, played a large part in the area’s history famed for the battles and guerrilla warfare tactics that led to Scotland’s independence. He is known to have fortified Tarbert Castle against the Lord of the Isles and is said to have taken refuge at Dunaverty Castle at the tip of Kintyre during the Scottish Wars of Independence. And the Battle of the Pass of Brander on the flanks of Ben Cruachan itself showed that his tactics could indeed be wily. There the MacDougalls had set up an ambush overlooking the narrow pass but not to be outdone Bruce ensured that his own men, with archers led by his loyal commander the ‘Black Douglas,’ trapped MacDougall’s men in a pincer movement from below and behind. Bruce won; an important step in bringing Scotland a step closer to independence.
Meanwhile the battles between clans continued as royal allegiances were formed and powers over lands were lost and gained; from Isle to mainland, from north to south. Such allegiances led to a number of tragedies including the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. But these are no longer ancient tragedies but those of medieval bloodshed.
A vast amount of history lies between each tale and only the briefest of insights into ‘Argyll: the ancient and the beautiful’ has been given here. It is a land to treasure, explore and admire for its many facets, incredible scenery and indelible history.