ARGYLESHIRE again! It
seems as if within the last year fresh matters of more or less public
interest were continually to call our attention thither.
This time it is no nineteenth-century story of the home-bringing of a
Royal Bride, but a low, dreamy whisper from ages long forgotten —a dim
and shadowy vision of the funereal and religious rites of our Pagan
ancestors, each trace of whose handiwork, so long overlooked, is now
being subjected to such searching examination; while even the ashes of
the dead are called upon to shed some faint light on the subject—a pale,
fitful ray, like the phosphoric gleam which in bygone days was supposed
to play around the fingers of the sinful dead.
Certain it is, that whatever records of the past may still lie hidden
among these wild hills and glens, buried beneath moss and heather, their
hours of darkness are numbered, rnd whatever secrets they may have to
disclose, will very soon be brought to the light af day. For the
archaeologists have taken possession of the land, each working out some
favourite theory of his own. Thus it came to pass, that as we journeyed
through this "Land of Glens, and Bens, and Corries,” we found, wherever
we halted, that the talk was not of things present, but all turning on
fanciful pictures of a remote past. As we came through Lochgilphead, we
heard of curious megalithic structures and of incised stones, bearing
the “cup and ring” marks, precisely like those so familiar to us on the
wild Northumbrian moors.
But the interest of these waned before that df the excavations at the
village of Ach-na-Goul, near Inverary, where a huge oviform cairn, about
one hundred and twenty feet long by thirty feet broad, had just been
opened by Mr. Phend, F.R.G.S., at the request of the Marquis of Lorne.
The name of the village, Ach-na-Goul, is said to be a corruption of
Gaelic words, meaning the field of the stranger; a name which, as
applied to this vast sepulchral tumulus, seems to point to the ancient
Oriental custom of setting apart a field to bury strangers in. Or it may
have been the family vault of some stranger from a far country, who had
settled in this land, and, like Abraham of old, had bought “a field with
a cave in it” as the hst resting-place for his loved dead.
The result of the excavations has been the discovery of a series of
chambers and passages seventy feet in length, extending in a direct line
from north to south; these are formed of blocks of great size and
weight, some indeed weighing many tons. All are symmetrically placed,
the space between the chambers being filled up with earth and boulders.
Throughout the whole length of these chambers and passages there was
found a considerable deposit of charcoal, which, as a distinct evidence
of cremation, proved beyond a doubt the sepulchral use of the building.
Fragments of pottery were also found, the remains of fractured
incinerary urns, and traces of some vitrified material Only in the
eastern chamber there were found no traces either of cremation or of
sepulture, the inference being that this had been set apart for such
solemn religious rites as have been observed by all nations at the
funerals of chiefs and other mighty men. Possibly even human sacrifices
may have here been offered by our Pagan ancestors, to appease the
spirits of the departed.
In one of the principal
chambers there was discovered a conical stone of white quartz, which
undoubtedly had some connection with these mysterious rites, being
identical with that discovered by Mr. Phend at Letcombe Castle, Berks,
while a third has been found at Maiden Castle, near Weymouth; each in
connection with human remains. Precisely similar pillars of white quartz
were found in the excavations at Nineveh, and are now to be seen in the
British Museum. In the neighbourhood of this great chambered tumulus
were found various incised stones, bearing the “cup and ring” mark,
precisely like those near Lochgilphead.
Passing onward by dark Loch Awe (overshadowed by the mighty mountain
barriers which, closing in on either side, shroud its deep waters in
perpetual gloom), we reached the sunny shores of Loch Etive, where only
a fringe of wet golden seaweed reveals that the calm blue lake is indeed
an arm of the great Atlantic, and capable of sympathy with the wild
storms that ofttimes rage so fiercely in that outer world of wafers. But
on such calm days as these, the scene is one of peace unspeakable. On
every side lie shapely hills in the glory of their autumnal colouring,
while in the far distance the blue range of Mull rises from the sea,
like some pale spirit, faintly visible through the tremulous evening
light. On the near rocks lie basking a whole family of seals—a grey old
grandmother, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, these being
dark as the dry seaweed on which they lie. They slip shyly into the
water at our approach, and no living thing remains, save the white
sea-birds that float in air or in water, uttering hungry impatient
cries, and watching with keen eyes for the fish that gleam like silvery
arrows, as they glide to and fro through their clear, crystal world.
It was on a wide flat moorland, overlooking this scene, that we next
found traces of the antiquarians recent work. The place is commonly
called Loch Nell Moss; but as the same name is applied to a locality on
the other side of Oban (now rendered famous by the discovery of its
great serpent temple), we had better describe this as being in the
district of Beregonium — a name which here falls strangely on the ear,
accustomed rather to the sound of Celtic or of Norse, than to such
classic old Latin, and one which reminds us of the days when Roman
invaders, having driven out the earlier settlers, seem to have
recognised the importance of this position as a key alike to the
Hebrides and the western coast. Here, in the massive headland (which,
jutting into the sea, commands both plain and ocean), they found a
position so strongly fortified by Nature’s ramparts of rugged rock, as
to require but small aid from human skill to convert it into an
Of the original inhabitants, little is of course known, but this spot is
believed to have been one of the principal settlements of the Dalriads,
if not the capital of their kingdom. Certain it is that many of the
oldest legends of Ossian cluster round this immediate neighbourhood,
where Fingal is said to have held his court; a legend which derives
fresh interest from the fact, that in the ancient fortress of
Dunstaffhage, close by, the mystic Coronation Stone is said to have been
originally kept—the stone whereon, from time immemorial, all Scottish
kings have of necessity been seated, when assuming the royal crown.
That stone was, in later years, carried from Dunstaffnage to Scone
Palace, and thence (as we all know) was transported by Edward I. to
Westminster, where to this day it still retains its old king-making
prerogative, and continues to support the coronation-chair of every
Thus, while we overlooked the dreary expanse of desolate moorland,
stretching between Loch Etive and the broad Atlantic—a tract trodden, by
turns, by so many divers races—the thought of this time-honoured symbol
of royalty came home to us, as a suggestive link, connecting the
stateliest ceremony of modem England (when her fairest, and most noble,
throng the aisles of the grand old abbey, to witness the coronation of
their new sovereign) with the earliest trace of superstitious homage
paid to the rude warrior chiefs of that long-forgotten race, which once
possessed the land whereon we stood.
Half-way across the moss we came to a large cairn, surrounded by stunted
trees. The cairn had, a few days previously, attracted the attention of
Dr. Angus Smith, who proceeded to excavate, and was rewarded for his
trouble by discovering in the heart of the tumulus two megalithic
chambers, containing human remains and urns. Also divers white quartz
stones, such as we are told were frequently buried by various Pagan
nations with their dead, apparently as emblems of purity and
indestructibility, thus possibly conveying some idea of immortality and
of sin forgiven or cancelled; as when the Greeks of old symbolised a
release from some obligation by the giving and receiving of a white
stone a custom probably alluded to in the book of Revelation, in the
promise, “To him that overcometh.... I will give a white stone, and in
the stone a new name written.” In the present instance, the white stones
were arranged in pairs, on a ledge of rock projecting above the urns, a
single stone being placed at each end of this double row; another single
white pebble was found inside one of the urns.
A considerable number of similar pebbles of white quartz have recently
been discovered in various old British tombs, more especially in those
tumuli lately examined by Mr. Phene on the principal Isle of Cumbrae.
Others have been found within the Sacred Circle on the Isle of Man; a
circle which, from time immemorial, has been held in such reverence,
that to this day the Parliament of the island is there convened.
Not far from the lonely cairn of Ach-na-muir, Dr. Angus Smith has
discovered, on the shores of Loch Etive, traces of a lake dwelling, or
rather a lake village, of considerable size, and in fair preservation.
Here, on removing
accumulations of peatmoss which would seem to have been the growth of
twenty, or perhaps thirty, centuries, he was rewarded by the discovery
of a series of oval pavings, still surrounded with wooden stakes, which
doubtless once supported conical thatched roofs, like those dwellings of
the old Gauls, described by Strabo as “circular, with lofty tapering
roofs of straw."
However suggestive to the initiated are these slight remains of the
homes of their ancestors, they offer small attraction to the general
public, compared with the hints of the ancestral worship, which await
them a few miles further.
The crown of interest centres in Glen Feochan (in the rival district of
Loch Nell), where lies the huge serpent-shaped mound, which only a few
months ago was revealed to the Antiquarian Society by Mr. Phene, though
it had been discovered by him some years previously. He deemed it wiser,
however, to keep his secret to himself till he should have pursued his
investigations more fully elsewhere, and made more accurate comparisons
of such mounds as he had found in various parts of Britain, with those
of the Western World.
The first rumour of the discovery of this strangely novel antique
reached us on our arrival at Oban, when we lost no time in setting forth
in search of the monster. A three miles drive in a south-easterly
direction brought us to the shores of Loch Nell, beyond which, Ben
Cruachan proudly rears her triple crest, standing in dark relief against
the delicate white vapours which cling to her so lovingly, sometimes
veiling, sometimes crowning, this stately queen, as they float around
her with ceaseless motion. The carriage-road winds along the shore, and
through broken “hummocky” ground, sometimes clothed with grass,
sometimes with heather or bracken; and, but for the presence of one of
the few initiated, who had fortunately accompanied us, we should
assuredly have passed close below the heathery mound which forms the
serpent’s tail (in fact, the road has been cut right across the tip of
it) without ever suspecting that it differed from the surrounding
moorland. In short, we should have been no wiser than our forefathers,
who for centuries have passed and repassed along the same beaten track,
whence only an occasional sportsman or shepherd has had occasion to
diverge. It does seem strange, however, that not one of these, looking
down from the higher ground to westward, should ever have called
attention to so remarkable a form, and one, moreover, which rises so
conspicuously from the flat grassy plain, which stretches for some
distance on either side with scarcely an undulation, save two artificial
circular mounds, in one of which lie two sets of large stones, placed as
in a kistvaen. These circles are situated a short distance to the south
(to the right of the serpent) but too far to be introduced in our
Finding ourselves thus unconsciously in the very presence of the Great
Dragon, we hastened to improve our acquaintance, and in a couple of
minutes had scrambled on to the ridge which forms his backbone, and
thence perceived that we were standing on an artificial mound three
hundred feet in length, forming a double curve like a huge letter S, and
wonderfully perfect in anatomical outline. This we perceived the more
perfectly on reaching the head, which lies at the western end, whence
diverge small ridges, which may have represented the paws of the
reptile. The head forms a circular cairn, on which, at the time of Mr.
Phene’s first visit, there still remained some trace of an altar, which
has since wholly disappeared, thanks to cattle and herd-boys.
This cairn was excavated on the 12 th October, 1871, and within it were
found three large stones, forming a megalithic chamber, which contained
burnt bones, charcoal, and charred hazel-nuts. (Surely our Pagan
ancestors must rejoice to see how faithfully we, their descendants,
continue to burn our nuts on Hallowe’en, their old autumnal
Fire-Festival, though our modern divination is practised only with
reference to such trivial matters as the faith of sweet-hearts! A flint
instrument was also found, beautifully and minutely serrated at the
edge, On opening the cairn, Mr. Phend was at once, convinced, from the
position of the stones, that the place had already been ransacked
(probably by treasure-seekers, as there is no tradition of any
excavation for scientific purposes having ever been made here. On the
removal of the peat-moss and heather from the ridge of the serpent’s
back, it was found that the whole length of the spine was , carefully
constructed with regularly and symmetrically-placed stones, at such an
angle as to throw off rain, an adjustment to which we doubtless owe the
preservation, or, at least, the perfection of this most remarkable
To those who know how slow is the growth of peat-moss, even in damp and
undrained places, the depth to which it has here attained (though in a
dry and thoroughly exposed situation, and raised from seventeen to
twenty feet above the level of the surrounding moss), tells of many a
long century of silent undisturbed growth, since the days when the
serpent’s spine was the well-worn path daily trodden by reverent feet.
The spine is, in fact, a long narrow causeway, made of large stones, set
like the vertebrae of some huge animal. They form a ridge sloping off in
an angle at each side, which is continued downwards with an arrangement
of smaller stones suggestive of ribs.
The mound has been formed in such a position that the worshipper
standing at the altar would naturally look eastward, directly along the.
whole length of the great reptile, and across the dark lake, to the
triple peaks of Ben Cruachan. This position must have been carefully
selected, as from no other point are the three peaks visible.
The reverence for some triune object, whether a triple-pointed hill, the
junction of three rivers, or the neighbourhood of three lakes, seems to
have been a marked characteristic of almost every ancient faith. It was
some such dim conception of the worship due to an adorable Trinity in
Unity which led the Persians of old to- reverence the threefold leaves
of the shamrock, as symbolic of a Divine Triad, to whom this plant was
consecrated by the sons of Iran for many long centuries ere St. Patrick
made use of the same green leaf to exemplify the same mystery to the
sons of Erin. (We may notice, by the way, that the name of the shamrock,
like the idea it symbolises, claims to have reached us from the East,
the word being identical in the Arabic.)
In like manner, the Druids (those Ghebres of the West), who venerated
the sacred mistletoe by reason of its mystic triple clusters of white
fierries, were not likely to overlook so mighty an embodiment of the
same symbol as a great mountain, with its threefold summit towering
heavenward, as if to draw thither the eyes and hearts of a race who were
careful to consecrate all such types in their worship of nature’s God.
It was acknowledge of this circumstance that first led Mr. Phene to
examine minutely all the leasttrodden glens in the neighbourhood of any
such natural features. In the present instance, his search was rewarded
by the discovery of the strange old reptile, which, for so many
centuries, has here lain undisturbed as if guarding the valley. He has
likewise examined the neighbourhood of the Eildon hills, and Arran;
where, amid many other so-called Druidic remains, he has found just such
mounds of reptile form as he was in quest of; none, however, so perfect
as this, which exactly corresponds with one discovered in America by
Messrs. Squier and Lapham, which is seven hundred feet long, and points
towards three rivers, doubtless once held sacred. In this American
mound, the position of the altar exactly corresponds with that of its
Scotch cousin, both being at the head of the snake, which head lies
towards the west.
Whether the serpentine (or rather saurian) form of this mound is to be
accepted as any direct proof of serpent-worship in this land, or whether
it was simply reverenced as the representative of some tribe (a Totem,
in short, of some extinct British race answering to the Nagas or Snake
tribes of the East), will doubtless prove a fertile subject for
discussion for many years to come. We know that many varieties of animal
forms, of quadrupeds as well as of reptiles, have been found in
connection with the sepulchral and sacrificial remains on both sides of
the Atlantic, and there are few, if any, of the curious designs
discovered in Ohio and Wisconsin, which have not their counterpart
somewhere in these British Isles; sometimes in the shape of artificial
mounds, as in the present instance; as in South Uist, or as in Arran; at
Mounteviot, or at the quaint Dragon Hill near Uffington Castle.
Sometimes also in the form of huge carvings, as in the well-known White
Horse in Berkshire, or the Cow and Calf at Ilkley.
On the other hand, the worship of’ the serpent and of the serpent’s egg
by the Druids, is a matter of history, and we are told how they were
wont to place live serpents as symbols at the foot of the altar during
the time of sacrifice. We know, too, how often in the ages before the
true Sun of righteousness had arisen to bruise the head of the serpent,
the worship of the latter had been associated with that of the heavenly
bodies, more especially of the sun, as in the case of the Sun-serpent of
Peru, and many other instances; therefore it may very well be, that
these priests of an Oriental faith may have united this worship with
that of the great Day-Star, and that day by day they ministered at this
strange altar while watching for the first streak of dawn in- the
eastern sky—the first glowing ray which, gilding Ben Cruachan’s triple
peak, told them that the great Sun-god had once more arisen to gladden
the earth. (Perhaps we ought rather to say Sun-goddess, inasmuch as sun
and mountains are alike feminine in the Gaelic tongue.)
It is a strange vision that rises before us, as our fancy pictures this
gloomy valley beside the dark waters, not silent and solitary as now,
but thronged with worshippers congregating from every remote comer of
the hills to witness the awful sacrifices which white-robed priests,
with shaven crown, offer upon the mystic altar, in presence of the
mountain and the dragon.
Whatever may have been the true origin of this snake-reverence, certain
it is, that in countless old Gaelic legends of the West Coast and of the
Hebrides, the serpent holds a place of such importance as we can hardly
imagine to have been acquired by such puny representatives of the race
as are to be found on our British moors, though we are bound to confess
that Ben Cruachan does give shelter to an unwonted multitude of small
adders. And although Hugh Miller tells of the existence of fossil
Saurians in the Isle of Eigg, we can hardly give our ancestors credit
either for pushing their geological researches so far, or for tracing
their tradition from such pre Adamite sources. What is still more
remarkable is, that almost all these legends are also to be found in the
folk-lore of India and Persia.
Thus the story of how Fraoch, for the sake of his golden-haired love,
fought with, and killed, and was killed by, a terrible waterserpent,
which infested Loch-Awe, has its counterpart in the history of Krishna,
the Indian Sun-god, who for love of (the pretty milk-maids fought a
terrible battle‘d outrance with the black water-snake,which poisoned the
blue waters of the sacred Jumna, coming up thence to devour the herds
which pastured between Muttra and Bindrabund. More fortunate than Fraoch,
Krishna slew his foe without receiving any dire injury himself. When the
dragon was dead, his carcase dried up and became a mountain, whereon
children played in peace, a happy termination to the story, and one
which possibly alluded to some serpent or dragon-shaped mound, which may
have existed on the shores of the Jumna, just as this does here, on the
brink of Loch Nell.
The story appears again in the battle of Perseus with the sea-monster of
Hercules with the Hydra; Apollo with the Python; and many another
dragon-myth, with our own St. George of course at the head of the list;
always the same story of a mighty, holy power which does battle with
evil, and finally destroys the destroyer.
On the other hand, we find various Gaelic legends in which a white snake
figures in medicinal lore, as when a nest of seven serpents is
discovered, containing six brown adders and one pure white, the latter
being caught and boiled, confers the gift of omnicience on the first man
who tastes of this serpent bree (broth), and who thereafter becomes the
wisest of doctors. Whether this strange story is traceable to the
worship of Esculapius, or the Brazen Serpent, or to some tradition older
still, it is remarkable that we should find it here at all. This
identical story occurs also in the German folk-lore.
In all old Gaelic legends great reverence was always due to the White
Snake, which vas described as the king of snakes. It is believed by some
of the old Highlanders still to exist in the land, a faith which is
occasionally confirmed by the appearance of silvery grey specimen. In
Ceylon a silvery white snake is sometimes found, which the natives
likewise recognise as the king of the Cobras. The Arabs of Mount Ararat
have also a story of a great White Snake, and of a royal race of
serpents to which all others do homage.
And so, in some form or another, there is scarcely a comer of the earth
where we do not find this slimy, slippery race appear, either as a |)ower
of subtle evil, or as the incarnation of a spirit of wisdom.
Perhaps the most curious of all these links to Eastern tradition, are
those which seem most directly connected with the Serpent-worship of
Egypt. Mr. Phend quotes from “The Abbot” the curious legend of how the
serpent or dragon pursued Saboea, daughter of the king of Egypt, a story
which Sir Walter Scott describes as a favourite subject for mummers,
thus forming one of the oldest pastimes in Scotland. This Egyptian lady
is said to re-appear again and again in our folk-lore, and Mr. Mapleton
of Duntroon tells of several legends in which the daughter of the king
of Egypt lands on Scottish shores, and converts the people. Mr. Phend
connects these stories with the curious fact that ships on these seas
were actually called serpents, and were frequently decorated with a
dragon at the prow. Hence he infers the introduction of serpent-worship
via the sea.
One such tradition after another rose to our minds, as we looked down on
the grim old guardian of Glen Feochan, revealing himself alternately as
a thing of darkness or of light, in every changing aspect of the long
autumn day. Now and then a sharp, sudden shower swept over the hills,
casting deep darkness on cloud and land and loch. Then the sun would
once more burst forth, shedding a golden glory over the purples and
browns and golds of the many sided moorland. But the dragon cared
neither for sun nor shower. He lay still in his place, couching by the
waters and keeping ceaseless vigil, just as he has already done for
centuries untold, and as doubtless he will continue to do, till some
mighty convulsion shall shake the strong foundations of the earth, and
bury him beneath the tumbled fragments of the hills.
C. F. GORDON CUMMING.
We are indebted to Professor Stuart Blackie for the following impromptu
lines, inspired by the presence of the Great Dragon:—
Why lies this
mighty serpent here.
Let him who knoweth tell—
With its head to the land and its huge tail near
The shore of the fair Loch Nell?
Why lies it here?—not here alone.
But far to East and West
The wonder-working snake is known,
A mighty god confessed.
Where Ganga scoops his sacred bed,
And rolls his blissful flood,
Above Trimurti’s threefold head
The serpent swells his hood.
And where the procreant might of Nile,
Impregned the seedful rood,
Enshrined with cat and crocodile
The holy serpent stood.
And when o’er Tiber’s yellow foam
The hot sirocco blew,
And smote the languid sons of Rome
With fever’s yellow hue,
Then forth from AEsculapius’ shrine
The Pontiff’s arm revealed,
In folded coils, the snake divine,
And all the sick were healed.
And wisest Greece the virtue knew
Of the bright and scaly twine,
When winged snakes the chariot drew
From Dame Demeter’s shrine.
And Maenad maids, with festive sound,
Did keep the night awake,
When with free feet they beat the ground,
And hymned the Bacchic snake.
And west, far west, beyond the seas,
Beyond Texcuco’s lake,
In lands where gold grows thick as peas,
Was known this holy snake.
And this the devil understood,
That by the great Creator
Was stamped on all the serpent brood
A very potent nature.
And used it well, with purpose fell,
Then when he shaped his plan
To wean from heaven and win to hell
God’s noblest creature—man.
And did in serpent’s guise appear
Within the grove of Adam,
And whispered lies into the ear
Of Eve, primeval madam.
And she, who deemed the snake a snake
Indeed, and not the devil,
Did then commit the grand mistake
That flooded earth with evil.
A mighty name the serpent then
Became, and far did travel,
And motley worship found from men,
Confused of god and devil.
And here the mighty god was known
In Europe’s early morn,
In view ot Cruachan’s triple cone,
Before John Bull was born.
And worship knew on Celtic ground,
With trumpets, drums, and bugles,
Before a trace in Lorn was found
Of Campbells or Macdougalls.
And here the serpent lies in pride
His hoary tale to tell,
And rears his mighty head beside
The shore of fair Loch Nell.