John Macculloch.

The Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) online

. (page 22 of 37)
Online LibraryJohn MaccullochThe Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) → online text (page 22 of 37)
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buried in five or ten different places. The minister in
the statistical survey says it was the residence of the
Scottish kings at the end of the third century. So his
nurse told him. But Maule is more particular. He says
it was a strong castle built by Fergus the first, in the
year 330 before Christ. He, at least, is not sparing of
his antiquity. He says, moreover, that it was the usual
dwelling of the ancient Scottish kings : but really when
a man is writing Scottish history from the times before
the flood, he need not trouble himself to be very precise
in the evidence. We cannot wonder that people write
any thing ; but in this sober age, worse than sober, worse
than sceptical, we well may wonder to find that there are
believers in Hector Boethius, and Maule, and such like
things as Berigonium. Unluckily the historians cannot
agree ; for others hold that it was built by Fergus the
second ; and the still better informed, that it was the
Selma of Ossian ; in which case it was built by Fingal.
The people say that this Fergus built seven towers, like
the king of Bohemia ; and some one says that king Josina,
the ninth of the Scottish kings, was buried here. Last
of all, comes the catastrophe ; for Berigonium was des-
troyed by a fire from heaven.

This brings us a little nearer to a solution ; for the
whole affair resembles, if I mistake not much, the history
of the three black crows. The causeway I explained
before ; some rotten and hollow fir tree, found in the peat
moss, has probably been converted into water pipes ; the
seven towers, and the strong castle of Maule, are palpa-
bly a magnification of the vitrified fort on Dun Mac
Sniochain, and the fire from heaven is the same thing.
Here then is a three-headed specimen, of tradition, his-
tory, and antiquities : if I were to say Highland, or Scot-


fish, I should affront all Highlanders and all Scots : and
yet they need not care ; for all the world can produce
parallels ; even GrsBcia mendax and fabulous Rome.
I am very sorry for Berig^oniuni ; and so I am for King
Fergus and his seven castles, and for King Josina, and
the volcano, and the kingdom of the Highlands three
hundred and thirty years before Christ; for there is here
a great destruction of knowledge at one blow. But really
it is so laborious and so puzzling to make out what has
actually existed in history and antiquities, that we may
be excused for not loving to encumber ourselves with
ascertaining the dates and existences of what never be-
longed either to time or space.

The solution however is not complete till we can ex-
plain the name Berigonium, which has a very strange
sound, that might pass for Greek in Appin. I at first
thought it the contrivance of some of those monks who
invented King Constantino Centimachus and such like
gentlemen ; who smell strong of the shop in which they
were compounded. Awkward dogs these ; who had not
wit enough to cover their forgeries with a few well-
soundinar Celtic or Teutonic names. But the blunder
seems of another cast, and is somewhat more amusing:
though whether Maule is the original blunderer, or who
is, we need not much care. The etymologists will, of
course, tell us, as they have done, that Berigonium is a
corruption of Balanree, or Balanree of Berigonium; 'tis
all one. But we need not mind them, as there seems to
be another road to the capital of King Fergus.

Loch Ryan appears to be the Pepjyo'vio? v.oK'nQ(;, of Ptolemy;
and the name Vkfiyovtov, in some of the copies Vtrtyonov,
belongs to a place supposed to be now Bargeny, The
anonymous geographer of Ravenna, who appears to have
borrowed the little knowledge he possessed of Britain,


from the Greek mathematician, and whom, by the bye,
he misquotes, converts the first P into B, retaining the
second p ; and he therefore writes Berigonium. Thus the
real Rerigonium or Berigonium, of antiquity, is a place
in Ayrshire, not in Appin. Moreover, Ptolemy has no
toMu at the mouth of Loch Etive, which he supposed to
be the estuary of a river, and has called "irvoi; itoraiMv
evcjSoXa/; which should have been the case had there been
an ancient capital like the visionary Berigonium here.
And it is quite plain that his Loch Etive and his Plpyo'mv
are distinct places ; as the astronomical situations are
laid down widely asunder: thus, "Itvo?, lat. GO. long. 27 :
Veptyoym, lat. 60. 40. long. 20. 10. ; and the koXito?, lat. 60.
45. long. 20. 30.

As to Ptolemy's geography, or astronomy, I need
scarcely say that he misapprehends the form of Scotland ;
making the western parts the northern, and thus inter-
changing latitude and longitude. However, to give
Berigonium all the chances we can, let us suppose that
the Fergus who built it, was Fergus the second, the true
and real Fergus; and that his reign commenced about
503, instead of being nearly 900 years earlier, as some
Scottish antiquaries choose to say. Then, as Ptolemy
wrote in 140, he might have known nothing of this Beri-
gonium. I shall leave you to consider the value of this
solution ; which I offer to the friends of Berigonium, lest
they should hereafter discover it, and think that they
had knocked down my theory, as I wish to knock down
their capital.

It would have been rather odd if King Fergus had
alighted on this very name for his new city; not less than
that he and his wild Dalriadans should have built a capi-
tal, when Scotland had no capital for many centuries
after, and in such a country, and with water-pipes.



That it is a modern blunder, or invention, or rather a
transference of a name, is almost certain. By what slight
of hand the real Berigonium became thus transferred,
is another question ; but it does not appear a very diffi-
cult feat. Richard of Cirencester, following the Greek,
writes Rerigonium ; but if we may judge of this learned
Theban's geographical acquirements by his works, he
seems to have been about as well acquainted with the
real topography of Scotland, as the gentlemen in Messrs.
Lawrie and Whittle's drawing room are with the moun-
tains and rivers of Africa ; which, with a pair of com-
passes in their hands, they create and allot as is most
conducive to the picturesque beauty of their work. Now
if you will look at the map which belongs to this Monk's
description and itinerary, or to Ptolemy's, to Scotia vete-
ribus nota, in short, where things are placed strangely
enough to puzzle a better man than Maule or Boethius,
you will find that his Lelanonius sinus is Loch Fyne,
and that our Linnhe Loch is his Longus Fluvius ; reach-
ing from Mull, between the Epidii and Cerones, to the
Varar sestuarium, or the Murray firth. But you will be
very much troubled to make out a place for Oban bay or
Appin ; and, what is much worse, if you do not under-
stand the Longus fluvius, you will, perhaps, look for
these places in the Clyde, or even further south. There,
upon Loch Ryan, which looks still more strange than the
restj stands Rerigonium, as a town ; long since vanished,
and without a mark, unless Stranraer is come in its place,
or unless Bargeny was intended to be there. Now it
seems plain that the inventor of the present Berigonium,
mistook Loch Ryan for Oban bay or the mouth of Loch
Etive, in this map ; and it only required the same blun-
der which has been made by the Ravenna geographer,
a blunder resembling that which has irrevocably palmed


the Hebrides on us for the Hebudes, to do the rest. A
city in an ancient map, B for R, a vitrified fort, a rotten
tree, a transposition of place, tradition, or rather inven-
tion, and to sum the whole, the close of all. King Fergus.
Thus rose Berigonium : thus it falls.

If it does not, I will believe in the fire from heaven
which melted these walls, or, with Pennant, in the volcano.
Not that he is the only believer in this matter, here or
elsewhere. In Aberdeenshire, they believe still, in the
neighbourhood of Noath. Pennant was a bad antiquary,
says Walpole ; but he never spoke well of any body,
except General Conway. He was a good naturalist,
thinks the same gentleman. Not in volcanoes at least:
nor in marble either ; for he rides over miles of " white
marble" in Sutherland, striking fire at every step, and
does not find out that it is quartz. Spite of all this, he is
a good traveller : the best that we have had : better than

all his followers. But that is nothing to , I must

not name him, for he is alive and may repent. He too
saw mountains of bare white marble in Sutherland, bare
from the foot to the summit, and white ; and that there
may be no mistake, he compares them to icebergs. This
too is part of a tour in two quarto volumes. Certainly,
travelling is a very difficult art: truth is a very difficult
art; seeing is a very difficult art: but every thing is
difficult in this difficult world. The traveller, however,
might have been allowed to mistake quartz for marble,
because he was not a lime-burner. Still, what are we to
do about the icebergs. But the very lime-burner in Loch
Torridon, holding the ipsissimum fragment in his hand,
told me that he had burnt the quartz into lime, and used
it for mortar. Really these things make us rub our eyes ;
and truly, as Bayle says, it is not very surprising that so
many people « ayent donne dans le Pyrrhonisme," for


other reasons than that it is, " la chose du monde la
plus commode."

But to return to Dun Mac Sniochain, which, thoug^h it
is not a volcano, displays a very good specimen of a vi-
trified fort ; because it is very accessible, because the
plan is distinct, and because it is instructive. If more
ruined than Craig Phadric, Noath, and many others, it is
still not difficult to trace the design ; while, in respect to
the condition of the materials, it presents a greater variety
of substances than any among the whole that I have
examined. Those who, like Pennant and the people of
the country, had not the requisite knowledge to guide
their opinions, may really be excused their error ; as there
is often a very striking resemblance between its fused
and scorified stones, and the produce of volcanoes. Many
kinds of rude glass occur among them, and some of the
scoria are so light as to swim on water ; while, in other
cases, some of the slaty rocks are inflated, bent, or con-
torted, in a manner very instructive to geologists.

It is situated on a small rocky hill which forms a kind
of island in the plain, of a narrow prolonged shape, and
scarped all round, except at one extremity, which afl^ords
access to the summit and the fort. The height of this
hill, or rock, above the plain, seems to be about forty or
fifty feet; and it is, even in the modern military sense, a
strong position. It is important to remark, that the rock
consists of limestone and slate intermixed; the plain it-
self being chiefly alluvial, and the nearest hill and rocks
being of trap, and of that pudding stone, so well known
to all travellers, which also abounds in the vicinity of
Oban. That stone is itself formed of fragments of various
trap rocks, and is remarkable for its ready fusibility, while
the rock on which the fort stands is of an infusible nature.
The fort itself is so contrived as to occupy nearly the


whole summif, which is about 250 yards long-, and con-
sists of three distinct parallelogramic enclosures. The
dimensions of these are as follows, as nearly as that
could be measured by pacing : The outer is about thirty
yards long and about twenty-four broad ; the next is
about thirty-seven, with a similar breadth ; and that at the
further extremity is about fifty-six yards in length ; but,
being imperfect, it may formerly have been longer. Be-
sides this, between the first and second works, there is a
transverse wall which reaches from the one precipitous
face to the other, so as, when entire, to have cut off the
communication from without to the two inner works. The
circumferences of the two inner enclosures make, col-
lectively, a line of about 260 yards ; which, according to
the modern military computation for a redoubt, would
contain more than 500 men. The external work would
dispose of about a hundred more. Hence it is plain that
this must have been a military work of some consequence,
as capable of holding a large garrison.

Now this disposition is so well calculated for defence,
that, bating the necessary differences between modern
and ancient modes of warfare, a modern engineer could
not have occupied Dun Mac Sniochain in a better manner.
It might be a redoubt to command and defend a pass
now, or it might have been a garrison and a citadel then.
Of whatever age, it bespeaks considerable ingenuity, and
much practical knowledge of the art of defence. Of the
height of the walls, it is impossible to judge from this
specimen ; so much is it ruined. Except where the
ground has been broken from curiosity, it is chiefly co-
vered by turf, so as to present only the appearances of
an earthen bank : and the quantity of soil that has accu-
mulated, here and in other specimens in Scotland, assists
in indicating the high antiquity of all the works of this


class. It is only, therefore, by the comparison of many
different specimens in different parts of the country, and
by estimating from such parts as remain entire and from
the quantity of fallen materials, that we can conjecture
what the height of the walls was in this instance. Every
thing leads us to conclude that they did not exceed five
or six feet, or that they m ere perhaps little more than
breastworks : and, in this respect, they seem to have re-
sembled the circular works in loose stone, dispersed all
over the country, and popularly, though wrongly, attri-
buted exclusively to the Danes. From their ruined state,
it is also somewhat difiicult to be certain about their
original thickness, as the fallen parts are heaped up or
dispersed about them ; but, from various measurements
and comparisons, that of the walls in this place may be
taken, with sufficient accuracy for any useful purpose, at
twelve feet.

When it is said that the walls, here or elsewhere, are
vitrified, it must not be supposed that they form a solid
mass of glass or slag. That condition is very various in
different specimens throughout Scotland ; and if it is
here more perfect than in many, it is less so than in some
others. To speak more accurately, many of the stones
which form the walls are more or less perfectly slagged
or scorified ; so that while some have been thus changed
throughout, the surfaces only of others are affected ;
while others again, consisting of less fusible materials,
are only burnt. A certain proportion has escaped the
fire altogether, or has never been exposed to it : and if
we may judge from the ruins, this has taken place chiefly
towards the upper part of the wall. The general result,
however, is, that, in some parts, the wall forms a solid
mass, but of an irregular composition ; consisting of
scoria, slag, burnt stones, and stones scarcely altered,


united together, but with vacant intervals; while, in
other places, it is separable into lumps of various sizes
and into single stones.

I need not be more particular in describing this spe-
cimen; as although many conclusions of some value may
be drawn from it, with regard to the nature and origin of
these works in general, the subject at large could scarcely
be made as intelligible as it ought, without a reference
to other examples. At the same time, it deserves much
more consideration than attaches to this sino^le instance.
The very obscurity of the subject would demand this,
even if it had not been made a question of controversy,
and had not unnecessary difficulties been accumulated on
it, by persons who have not studied these works with the
attention which they deserve. The high antiquity of
these fortresses renders them further interesting; but
their highest interest arises from their being hitherto con-
fined, with scarcely an exception, to Scotland ; while they
abound in various parts of this counti'y. They form, in
fact, by far the most curious branch of our local antiqui-
ties; nor is it easy, even to conjecture the age and people
to which they have belonged. At any rate, whatever is
to be conjectured respecting their age, their uses, or the
means by which they were produced, that can only be
done, to any purpose, by the examination and comparison
of different specimens ; and I shall therefore make no
apology for deferring that subject to another letter.



That very friend, who, like other friends, loves the
sound of his own advice, even when he knows it is too
late, looks over my shoulder again, and complains now
that there is too much vinegar, as there was, before, too
much sugar. As the drummer said, strike where I will,
it is impossible to please you. If such things as Beri-
gonium and cockneys and ferries and Tyanuilt breakfasts
will come in the way on one day, and Loch Cateran or
Castle Campbell on another, what can we do, except,
as the faculty says, follow the indications. If you care
not, my dear Sir Walter, I shall answer him from an old
countryman of yours: " They say— what say they— let
them say." So, now, let us attack the vitrified forts.

I am far from thinking that I am acquainted with the
whole of these singular buildings that have been dis-
covered in Scotland, nor do I think that all those which
it contains are as yet known. Many, years have not
passed since they first attracted attention, and they often
exist in situations not much frequented ; particularly
now, that so much of the population has been transferred
from the interior. Besides this, from their state of ruin,
and from the soil and grass which have accumulated above
them, they are often so thoroughly obscured, that nothing
but an accidental fracture of the surface can detect them.
I am convinced of this, in particular, from examining that
district in Aberdeenshire which extends from Noath to the
North Sea. Fragments of vitrified matter abound all
over this tract, and are carried by the rivers along their


beds, even to their estuaries. Yet, with the exception
of Noath, the sources of these have not yet been dis-
covered ; although I have found large blocks and even
quarries of such scoria and slag, which must have formed
parts of these forts, and are possibly their very seats,
though their forms can no longer be traced. I shall
however give you a list of such as I have myself seen, or
have found mentioned by others ; making the proper
apology for its imperfection ; ignorance.

Dun Mac Sniochain : Argyll.

Knock Farril : Ross.

Craig Phadric : near Inverness.

Dun Evan,

Castle Findlay : both near Calder.

Tor Dun : near Fort Augustus.

Dunjardel : in Glen Nevis.

One near Balbegno, in Mearns.

Finhaven : near Brechin.

Creich : in Sutherland.

Dun Jardel : near Fyers.

One near Troup.

One near Cullen.

One near Stirling.

One near Forden : Mearns.

One near Invergarry.

One in Bute : parish of Kingarth,

One in Canty re : bay of Carradale.

Barryhill : parish of Meigle.

Laws Hill : near Drumsturdy, Forfar.

Dun Fhionn : on the Beauley.

One in Loch Sunart.

One in Loch Teachus : Morven.

Amwoth : Galloway.

The Moat of the Mark : ditto.


Castle Gower : Galloway.
Dunscaich, in Sky : doubtful.
One in Isla : Thurot's Bay.
Dunadeer : Aberdeenshire.

Noath: ditto: with many indications in the same
Vitrified substances had been observed in more than
one of these places, long; ago ; and they had, by some,
been attributed to volcanoes, by others to the accidental
demolition of buildings by fire, and, by a third party,
to the effect of beacon lights. Mr. Williams, well known
as an able miner, must have the merited honour, not
only of pointing out their real nature, as being forts, but
of explaining the mode in which they were constructed.
As is usual in all similar cases, no sooner had he rendered
the subject clear, than every one recollected that be had
understood it before ; while a few, ambitious of the merit
of discoverers, as is also an invariable rule, propounded
other explanations. The history of all discoveries has
been similar. Every thing that has ever been found is
as obvious as America: when it has been found. Every
one can explain what has already been explained: while
those who have not judgment enough to appreciate the
real explanation, nor candour enough to yield the honour
to whom it is due, hope for some poor fame by assigning
a new or a bad hypothesis. But Mr. Williams's memory
must bear this, as it best may. Many have endured it
before him, and many shall endure it hereafter. On the
question of their construction, at least, there is little left
for me to do, but to state his views; but I may add some
facts, unknown to him, and some reasonings which did not
occur to him, to confirm what appears as perfectly de-
monstrated as any thing of which we have not witnessed
the rise and progress can be.



In constriicting- these singular buildings, it was sug-
gested by Mr. Williams, that, by raising a mound of earth
on each side of the intended wall, and filling it with fire-
wood and stones, a sufficient heat was produced to ope-
rate the intended effects. Of course, this acute observer
presumed that the design of the artists was to produce a
cemented or solid wall ; while it was a natural conclusion,
that structures of the forms which these present, were of
a military nature. These works having thus been taken out
of the rank of volcanoes, and the matter being now ob-
vious to all, another philosopher set himself forth to prove
that Mr. Williams was wrong, and that he himself was
right; that the walls had been originally constructed of
wood and stone intermixed, and that they had been vitri-
fied by the assailants, who had destroyed and taken these
works by means of fire. A third party, determined also
to intrude for some portion of fame in this question, as-
sured the world that both his predecessors were wrong,
and that he was the real (Edipus : that these works were
merely beacons, and that they had been vitrified by the
lighting- of the beacon fires. Thus our unlucky world is
fated to be pulled and pushed about, in deeper matters
than vitrified forts, by every man who cares not what be-
comes of it, provided he can find an opportunity of dis-
playing himself on the arena.

It is beyond my intention to describe all the specimens
in the preceding list which I have examined. To do this,
would not convey instruction or amusement commensu-
rate to the tediousness of detail it would require ; and
my object is rather to investigate the general question.
It is a highly interesting subject; as well from the sin-
gularity and ingenuity of this mode of architecture, as
from its being limited, nearly, perhaps entirely, as far as
is yet known, to Scotland, and from its obscurity, and ap-


parently remote antiquity. A sketch of the two remark-
able forts of Noath and Diinadeer, added to the preced-
ing account of Dun Mac Sniochain, will however be ne-
cessary, for the purposes of the general illustrations in

The hill of Dunadeer, having an elevation of about
600 feet from the irregular plain on which it stands, with
a steep acclivity all round, has a flat oval summit, which
is entirely occupied by the enclosure, so as to form a
strong military position. Though much ruined, and con-
sequently obscured, having apparently been used as a
quarry for building a more modern castle in the same
spot, it is not ditficult to trace, either the dimensions or
the disposition of the original work. The form is a paral-
lelogram, of which one extremity is curved so as to be
nearly semicircular : and its longest side is about 58 yards,
the shortest being about 24. The thickness of the wall
seems originally to have been 18 or 20 feet ; although,
from the state and nature of the ruin, it is impossible to be
very accurate in this particular. The highest remaining
portion is about six feet above the present surface;
and if one foot be added for the increase of soil, and
two for the loss which it has sustained at the summit,
to be computed from the ruined part at its foot on each
side, we shall have eight feet as the probable original

The materials of the hill are chiefly grey granite, an
infusible rock ; but there are scattered in the surrounding

Online LibraryJohn MaccullochThe Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland, containing descriptions of their scenery and antiquities, with an account of the political history ... present condition of the people, &c. ... founded on a series of annual journeys between the years 1811 and 1821 ... in letters to Sir Walter Scott, bart (Volume 1) → online text (page 22 of 37)