A few disconnected thoughts after the NOSAS trip to Tiree June 2017

by John Wombell (NOSAS)

Intertidal track ways on the Caolas peninsular

One of the intertidal track ways at Poll a Chrosan, Caolas

This is the first time that I have been aware of such features anywhere in the highlands or on other Scottish islands.  The Caolas track ways are all about 2m wide where stones have been shifted left and right through the intertidal boulder spreads and outcrops to avoid lengthy routes around the hags over the soft and fragile swards of the saltings on the high water mark.

On the east side of Fadamull islet which is connected to the main island by a tombolo (a gravel bar covered at high tide) we found 7 cleared boat landing places most of which were connected to a naturally clear beach where boats could be pulled right up out of the water by a cleared track way that ran parallel to the shore.    Otherwise the cleared landing places stopped short of the high tide mark – all rather strange as we don’t know what they were for.   There are more than a dozen short lengths of seaweed drying walls on the islet but only one possible burning pit.  Our thinking meantime is that the cleared landings were used to beach heavily laden small boats stacked to the gunwales with seaweed after which they were unloaded into carts or panniers using the intertidal track way off the sterns of the boats.  Smart thinking as taking heavy wet seaweed off the sides of a small boat and staggering up a rocky beach with it would not have been very efficient.  Whether this arrangement was purely associated with burning seaweed to produce kelp (soda ash) or for landing seaweed to be used as manure we don’t know.  A bit of both maybe?  Possibly also associated with the time when the iodine factory was functioning and calling for large supplies of seaweed.

Cleared boat landing places Fadamull islet Caolas

Walls in the intertidal area Lon Fhadamuill, Caoloas

Seaweed use as a manure was very important well into the 20th century for many coastal communities.  Seaweed provides a readily available source of nitrogen and potassium i.e. it isn’t locked up in an insoluble form, but there is next to no phosphorous in seaweed.  Seaweed has no lasting manurial effect and must be applied annually.  Animal dung is the best natural source of phosphorous and either the arable land had to be rested and grazed on rotation or dung spread periodically on the land to maintain levels of phosphorous essential for plant growth. Continued cereal cropping using seaweed as the only manure soon results in falling yields.

At several locations around the island we found plenty of drying wall evidence but few or no burning pits nearby.  Maybe all traces of the pits had been removed during subsequent land improvement or the seaweed was being taken to a central township location for burning?  Other places had pits by the dozen.

Kelp pit or kiln on Ceann a’Mhara, Tiree (Canmore)

Them holes, them holes

Drilled holes at Milton Harbour, Caolas

The discovery of seven higgledy pig holes drilled with much effort in rock now forming the access road to the quayside at Milton harbour on Caolas kept us amused for quite a while.   6 holes appear to be in pairs with one single.  The top of the holes are chamfered and 50mm in diam, whilst the holes themselves are about 40mm diam which is about one and a half inches in imperial.  The 1st and 2nd editions of the OS maps show no harbour construction at Milton and no access track where it is today.  There has also been considerable modern building up next to the holes.   So I am wondering whether the holes at one time held iron posts that acted in the same way as bollards for roping boats to?  Oversized cleats so to speak.  Boats of any size before the quay was built would have sat on the sandy bottom in the natural harbour secured by bow and stern ropes.

Drilled holes at Milton Harbour, Caolas – wider view

Transhumance (seasonal movement of animals and herders to grazing away from the winter towns)

On the mainland we have become familiar with the concept of day shielings, or springtime shielings, no great distance from the winter town, often within waving distance, and summer shielings that could be many miles – 15miles and more are well documented – away in the hills.  Also the concept of summer farms and potato shielings where seasonal cultivation took place within a secure enclosure such as is well illustrated on the Rhue peninsular near Arisaig.   Transhumance on the smaller islands appears to have been very different.  It was still essential to remove all livestock from the arable fields in the spring to allow cultivation, sowing and planting.  So how was this organised on Tiree?   This is neatly dealt with on Eigg where on the east side the broad terrace below the high basalt cliffs was divided into shielings by walls.  On the 3 low hills of Tiree with their multi period landscapes, shielings and summer farms appear to be the final phase of people actually staying on these hills, but it is probably more complicated than that!  Transhumance continued on Lewis until the early 20th century.  I wonder when it ceased on Tiree and summer grazing of the hills without constant herding took over?

Possible sheiling hut, Ceann a’Mhara, Tiree

Them geese, them geese.

A pink footed goose (RSPB)

I spoke to the farmer at Balephetrish where we spent 3 days on the most delightful croft camping site before the full team arrived.   I was curious as to what he and other farmers had recently sown in newly cultivated fields around the island he told me that at Balephetrish they used to grow cereals and combine them, but they have not been able to do this for some time as just as crops were ripe and ready to combine that is when huge flocks of geese arrive and flatten everything.  So the cultivated fields have been re-seeded with new grass.  It will establish this year and be cut for silage next year.   Our team spotted several pairs of Pink Footed Geese waddling around with goslings behind them.   By the very nature of evolution ever increasing numbers of geese are becoming lazy and choosing to stay on the islands and breed instead of going to Iceland or wherever they should be.

One has to wonder what happened in the past before a certain conservation body bought up large tracts of Coll and established self appointed control over what birds breed and when.    What is more important, people and their livelihoods or wild geese?  On the subject of geese and wild birds of eatable size generally, one wonders how important a part of the diet they were in the days when anything that moved was caught and killed for food by any means possible.

Oh no – not rock art!

Alan photographing the Ringing Stone

The abstract rock art of Western Atlantic Europe begs nothing but questions and Tiree is no exception.  You think you might have found an answer to one question only to raise two new ones.  Every square metre of cultivable land on Tiree appears to have been turned over and improved by stone clearance at some period in history, so most traces earlier settlers have been destroyed and erased from view.  Then much of the land has been affected by sand blown in from the coast.  Coastal remains lie under many meters of sand in places.

The local gneiss rock is exceptionally hard to work as Stevenson discovered when he built the Skerryvore lighthouse.  Only the bottom 4 courses of the lighthouse are Tiree gneiss.  After that he imported granite.

So as we understand it for most building work on the island stone gathered as land clearance was used.  There is very little or nothing visible of Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age occupation on this island.  The evidence of these periods comes from exposed scatters of lithics, pottery and fire cracked stones where wind erosion or other disturbance such as ditching has occurred.  There are apparently no certain chambered cairns but there are a few standing stones and stone circles.  Standing stones are always dodgy to date as folk continue to erect them to this day.  Despite the unusually high proportion of cultivable land on Tiree as Hebridean islands go, there are thousands of rock outcrops dotted about almost everywhere on the island.  The carving of cups and other abstract motifs on rock in Britain is firmly rooted in the Neolithic period from about 3,750 BC onwards.

Tiree rock art is famous for the Ringing Stone, a large 6 sided granite erratic carried from Rhum by ice that sits today perched on the storm line at the seaward side of a small shallow tidal  bay  on the west side of the island about half way between Vaul and Balephetrish.  The boulder rings when struck with a small cobble and it is carved with about 50 cups of very variable size and shape on five of its six sides including the north facing side which is singularly unusual.   Some cups on the sides of the rock are what I have described in the past as being like ‘recessed shelves’ in other words they are asymmetric and it would be possible to perch something small in the cup.   There is nothing else quite like it in Britain.  The small interpretation board near the site is very suggestive and quite funny if it wasn’t sad in stating that the cups are imprints of breasts!   We visited the Ringing Stone as a group the day that Roland guided us around the prime sites in the Vaul area.

View of Photogrammetry 3D model of the Ringing Stone (James McComas)

Otherwise before our trip there were 14 more recorded rock art panels on Tiree.  The earliest records began with Beveridge around 1900, then a Mr Mann in 1922 added the rest.  Since then various researchers including William Morris in the 1970’s and Van Hoek a decade or so later, plus surveyors from RCHAMS and the OS have tried to locate and verify Mann’s sites mostly without success.  Due to lack of time and us having so much fun doing other things we only gave one full day over to checking and prospecting rock art.

However Richard, Jonie, Tri and myself went over to Tiree a few days before the rest of the team arrived, to chill out and to reccy for the week ahead.  A chance encounter in the island Co Op with a relative of Tri resulted in an invitation to their rented cottage, a renovated black house, for morning coffee.   This cottage sits atop a prominent rocky knoll in the district of Kilmoluaig and it enjoys panoramic views of most of the southern part of the island.   Before we left I went over the fence to take some photos of the black house with its outbuildings and decided on a whim to check the highest of the many smooth outcrops on the knoll no more than 40m from the house.  To my pleasure and surprise I discovered no less than 31 cups in 3 separate groups.  Morning coffee quickly became lunch and we stayed on and undertook a preliminary recording.  When we went back the following week to take photos for photogrammetry Anne found a cup on another outcrop some 50m away that looked out over farmland towards Ben Hough and then we found two more groups of small cups on that same outcrop.  So out of the blue and by pure chance we have put the next most substantial rock art site after the Ringing Stone on the Tiree map.

After visiting the standing stone and stone circles in the lee of Ben Hough on our last day we split into 4 groups to check out the remaining creditable sites that we so far hadn’t visited and to go prospecting.   On the day of first discovering the site at Kilmoluaig we realised that it commands 360 degree views of most of the island and we could see numerous other rocky knolls scattered around the island just begging for prospection.  So one team went to check the last two known and creditable rock art sites and to look at possible cups with John Holliday at a site he discovered about 10 years ago.  Another team manfully set off to check as much of Ben Hough out as possible and the other two teams went prospecting.  The result was several more new panels either discovered or confirmed and expanded.

John Holliday’s new site was on a knoll famed for being the site of a celebration bonfire when men returned at the end of WW1.   The rock still bears the remains of tarry spreads and some fire cracking as it was mostly old Tiree felted house roofs that were burnt.  Luckily no damage to any of the cups.  We discovered a second new single cup on a separate outcrop close to that site and realised that the two panels there lined up with a standing stone some distance away and another prominent rocky knoll and a croft house that John Holliday said was the home of Tiree Glass and that we should take a run over there where we would be made welcome – and so we did.

At Tiree Glass we discovered yet 2 more small groups of cups on two separate knolls and one of them had been the site of another very big tarry fire.  I prised a plug of tar out of the main cup.  That rock had suffered very considerable fire cracking but again fortunately no damage to the cups. One couldn’t invent all this if one tried and there is more for another time!  Two of the other teams discovered substantial new groups of cups both being on prominent rocky knolls.   Only the Ben Hough team drew a blank but that in itself was a positive outcome as it proved a hunch to be wrong.

One conclusion that we came to is that the other 9 ‘Mr Mann 1922’ sites previously not found again or dismissed as natural by previous researchers and surveyors need to be re-visited  in the light of our experiences.  Cup marks on Tiree gneiss are very difficult to spot due to the weathering characteristics of the gneiss.   Old grid references and descriptions are also very vague.

Cup mark at Caolas on a panel to the south of Dun Mor A’ Chaolais broch. This is typical of the style throughout the island – one principal cup with a small number of much smaller satellites.

What the size of the Neolithic population on Tiree was I don’t think is known and we can know little of the natural resources available during that period.   Was the environment stable?  One blow out site in a vast area of otherwise stable dunes that John Holliday told us about yielded a lot more flint debitage and the odd tool plus coarse pottery and fire cracked stones.  The old ground surface in that bow out was quite flat and level as compared to later short lived ground surfaces higher up in the blown sand  suggesting an extended period of stability.   That old ground surface was about 200mm thick and below it the natural sand was stained red from the leaching out of iron from the vegetation and occupation activities on that surface.

We don’t know whether the Neolithic occupation on Tiree was transitory or seasonal even, but they did have the time and purpose to mark their landscape with cups carved on rock.

We managed to update more than half of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey sites for SCAPE on other days.  We did not visit many of the chapel sites on this trip and we didn’t do much in the interior other than visiting rock art sites.

In summary we all had a memorable time on the island thanks in no small part to John Holliday giving us so much of his time and local knowledge.  Thanks also to Roland for co leading the trip, and for arranging the most enjoyable meal on our last night – and much more.

Many of the NOSAS team with John Holliday at a newly recorded site.

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