Monthly Archives: July 2019

Isle Martin Burial Ground: An Investigation

By Cathy Dagg

Back on a lovely sunny weekend in May, which many of you will remember, NoSAS came over to Isle Martin to do some fossicking and recording in the burial ground, of which more later.

For those of you who didn’t get to visit, Isle Martin is a small island in community ownership just north of Ullapool, with a rich history associated with curing of herring in the 18th century. The island’s name suggests a dedication to St Martin, but it is more likely to be an anglicisation of the Gaelic Eilean Martaich: ‘island of the pine marten’. Locals refer to ‘the Isle of Martin’ but never to ‘St Martin’s Isle’. But there is a small burial ground, with a couple of early cross-carved stones, a burial aisle on or near the probable remains of a chapel.

When I started writing this blog about what we discovered, I thought I’d start by chasing up all the previous references to the burial ground and the carved stones. Casual mentions in old guide books of stones covered in hieroglyphics, memories of being shown ‘the other carved stone’….. obviously there was a lot more to the burial ground than what was now visible.

The story so far

1. 1775. The earliest reference to the burial round on Isle Martin is in the instrument of sasine granting the ten scots acres to John Woodhouse of Liverpool and ensuring ‘liberty to those having right of burying within the spot of ground marked B on said plan (drawn by William Morrison surveyor of land, in National Archive but not yet seen)

2. 1886. Ordnance Survey Name Book gives: Clach Fear Eillean Mhartain – Applies to a stone situated on Isle Martin about quarter of a mile westward of Rhuda Beag about quarter of a mile east of Camus a’ Bhuaibidh. The name means “Stone of the Man of Isle Martin” on account of an owner or inhabitant of the Island at a remote period having been buried under it.

3.1875 and 1902 1st and 2nd edition OS map show:

4. 1913. James Caird, architect: Note of an incised cross stone near the burying ground, Isle Martin, one of the Summer Isles, Wester Ross-shire PSAS 1913:

The burying ground is quite near the shore of a little bay at the south east corner of the island. The ancient stone, standing about four feet in height, with the cross carved on it, adjoins the burying ground.

Note that Caird mentions “near the burying ground and “adjoins the burying ground rather than within.

5. Early 20th century. Mrs Mitford, writing about the island in 1936 quotes one Major RS Hutchison:

At the dawn of the Christian era St Martin came on a pilgrimage to the Highlands to propagate the Gospel. He erected chapels in every place he travelled. It was on the Summer Isles that he breathed his last and over his dust lies a large stone on which the Cross is seen, covered with hieroglyphics. […]

The ruins of St Martin’s chapel are on the west corner of the isle, close by the grave of his followers and among them his own grave, surmounted by a high headstone carved with the cross and an unusual cross with double arms.

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Initiating CAERoS: Coastal Archaeology and Erosion in Wester Ross

by Stephanie Piper, Newcastle University (stephanie.piper@newcastle.ac.uk)

In April 2019 myself, two Master’s students from Newcastle University – Callum Hardman and Holly Holmes, and Paco Martínez-Sevilla, a colleague from Durham University, based ourselves in Poolewe to begin a week-long walk-over survey of the coastline around Loch Ewe. The aims of the survey were to:

  1. Establish the potential of eroding coastlines to yield early prehistoric sites in the north-west Highlands.
  2. Contribute to active monitoring of archaeological sites at risk of erosion.

Why were we drawn to this remote part of the Scottish Highlands? Precisely because it is remote! The evidence for early prehistoric occupation is sparse across much of the Highland region. For example, there is no evidence for Mesolithic occupation along the coast between Redpoint, in Gairloch parish, and Smoo Cave, Durness parish (although this has not been fully confirmed). By contrast, the coasts around the Inner Sound of Skye and Applecross were intensively surveyed by the Scotland’s First Settlers project from 1998. The project identified over 130 new archaeological sites, including the Mesolithic rockshelter site at Sand, Applecross. We felt sure that the absence of sites to the north was due to a lack of research, primarily because of the remoteness of the region and lack of ‘visible’ archaeology, rather than an absence of people in the past. CAERoS was therefore initiated to investigate the next stretch of coastline, north of where Scotland’s First Settlers had finished and with the hope of finding further evidence for Mesolithic coastal occupation.

As this was just the start, our methodology was simple: walk, and look. I spent several years during my postgraduate degrees working on a project in the Western Isles with Durham University. During the field seasons, we identified a number of Mesolithic sites exposed by coastal erosion (two on Harris, and three around the Bhaltos peninsula in Lewis). Because early prehistoric sites are often deeply buried under peat or machair, they are invisible to traditional means of initial identification such as a field-walking, and are so ephemeral they rarely respond to geophysics. The destruction caused by erosive processes therefore provides opportunities to investigate hidden archaeology, including early buried landscapes. This then, was to be our ‘window’ to the past, and we struck out across the headlands to observe and record any archaeology within c.50m of the coastline using the ShoreUpdate App, developed by the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk project (SCHARP).

Fig.1 Exploring the circular stone structures and raised beach deposits at An Sean Inbhir

On the first day, we walked west, covering the stretch from Cove Battery to Camas Mor. We noted several sites along the way, including circular stone structures and modern fisherman’s bothies at An Sean Inbhir (Fig.1), a turf-covered wall at NG763921, which is probably associated with the abandoned township and head dyke at Camustrolvaig, and a sheepfold built against a rocky outcrop at NG805925. The building recorded at Camas A’Chall wasn’t identified, nor does it appear on the current OS map. By far the most interesting aspect of this stretch was the World War II memorial and three abandoned lifeboats (centred on the memorial at NG796926, Fig. 2). The memorial is in commemoration of those who lost their lives after the American Liberty Ship USS William H. Welch ran aground at Foura Island, on 26th February 1944. The plaque is also dedicated to local community members who were involved in the rescue efforts. The plaque does not appear in the HER and the abandoned lifeboats are at serious risk, situated in the intertidal zone. These have been logged with SCHARP who are very interested in incorporating them into a future project. If anyone happens to be in the area and visit them, it would be worthwhile continuing to take photographs of their condition.

Fig.2 The memorial at Cove, and barely-surviving lifeboats (midground, left)

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