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.

These two statements appear to contradict each other. Is the supposed grave of St Martin covered by a recumbent stone on which the cross is seen, or surmounted by a high headstone carved with the cross?

I have struggled and failed to find any published writing by this Major Hutchison. No mention in National Library of Scotland or British Library. I was beginning to think this information came to Mrs Mitford via a private correspondence, but the writing style seems too florid for that.

6. 1965. The Ordnance Survey took its information on links to St Martin from a ‘Mrs Easson, Isle Martin’. At this date the island was uninhabited and the Eassons owned the Royal Hotel in Ullapool, so may not have had any actual local knowledge. One wonders if they told a story they knew their guests would want to hear.

7. In the 1970s, when the island was owned by Monica Goldsmith, a caretaker looked after the island and livestock for her. A French man, Claude Siroy, was there in 1978-79. When he returned for a visit about ten years ago he took an Ullapool friend over to Isle Martin and lifted a turf to show her ‘the other carved stone’ When we heard about this we contacted Claude, who replied:

Regarding Isle Martin’s graveyard, l do remember that one of the engraved tomb was near the one we searched all together for a short time.

Now, l am also aware that the graveyard was wider than what it was when we were there. The vegetation has reclaimed some of it. Therefore the point is to excavate more widely and to lift up the stones that lay flat now, not those that cover the bodies…

l am sure that there are more interesting graves to be found, but Ms Goldsmith, the owner of the island then, forbid me to search in the graveyard. The carved stone that l discovered was an elaborate carving without apparent writing on it. Keep into account that my memory might fail me, forty years having elapsed since.

Above is the annotated plan that Claude sent back to us, saying:

If the cross shows the well-known standing carved stone, the area number 1 shows were about l found the other carved stone. It was laying flat, the carved part facing the ground.

The area number 2 is where l readily suspected more carved stones could be, but as you know, l was not allowed to investigate.

8. 1991. Bob Gourlay, then Highland Council archaeologist, visited Isle Martin and took photos:

Bob Gourlay’s photo of 1991 shows the bracken right up to the cross slab.

9. 1994. Marilyn Brown “Two Eclesiastical Sites in the Summer Isles, Wester Ross”, in John Baldwin ed. Peoples and Settlement in North –West Ross gave the following detailed description of the cross slab:

The cross slab, which is broken at the top and leans at a slight angle, stands about 1.3m high by 0.5m wide and 0.3m thick. It has been suggested that it may have been re-set, upside down. The slab has been roughly dressed with, on its east face, in low relief, an upright crossed by three horizontal bars creating a triple Latin cross. The shaft and the arms of the crosses are outlined by bead moulding and there is raised moulding around the edge of the slab…the cross slab belongs to the early Christian period. It is difficult to assign it to a precise date or to produce a very close parallel. Several stones from Iona bear more than one cross on the same face, but they are not linked together as at Isle martin. Reference may also be made to the grave slabs on Isle Maree where on one stone, they are linked together.

Baldwin’s photo, 1988, with excavation of base exposing lowest carving, left, and published drawing, right, ‘upside down’

In Baldwin ed.2000 The Province of Strathnaver, Baldwin suggests parallels between the Isle Martin cross slab and an engraved grave marker at Grumbeg in Strathnaver:

Grumbeg grave marker, now possibly in Strathnaver Museum, drawing and photo

10. 1999. Stuart Farrell was commissioned by Ullapool Museum to carry out a graveyard survey. This survey noted the cross slab, ‘possibly of an 8th century date’, the incised stone and seventeen grave markers, one of which bearing the initials DI and all probably of an 18th-19th century date. Farrell also noted part of the enclosing turf bank, possibly the remains of a vallum relating to an early Christian foundation

11. 2010. The burial ground was evaluated by the Highland Buildings Preservation Trust for the Highland Kirkyards project. They visited in the middle of August, when the bracken was so high that the existence of the boundary bank  and  the possible early chapel site could not be confirmed.  Mention is only made of the small upright gravestones with their tops poking out of the ground, and ‘a larger carved cross slab, probably early Christian, with a carved cross with double arms’

HBPT photo, 2010, showing maximum bracken cover

That pretty much brings us up to the compilation of snippets to form the HER and CANMORE entries:

NH09NE 1 096 989.

The ruins of St Martin’s Chapel are on W corner of Isle Martin. There is also an old burying ground containing some ancient sculptured stones, among which is grave of St Martin, surmounted by a high headstone on which is carved a cross with double arms.

The stone, about 4′ high, stands near burying ground at SE corner of Isle Martin (J D Cairns 1913).
“Clach Fear Eilean-Mhairtein” – meaning “Stone of the Man of Isle Martin” (Name Book 1886) may refer to the foregoing accounts. (The Gaelic “feart” means a “grave”. If original surveyor missed the terminal ‘t’, the name would mean “Grave Stone of Isle Martin”.)

Refs: A C M Mitford 1936; MacDonald, Polson and Brown 1931

In May 2017 the Isle Martin Heritage Project began, with local volunteers trained and led by me. We didn’t actually do any work in the burial ground, concentrating on the herring station, but our guided walks and interpretation leaflet both found plenty to say about the burial ground and started to raise questions.

Present State of the Burial Ground

Over recent years Bob Gourlay  (1991) and Kirsty Cameron have both visited Isle Martin and taken photographs, which are useful in showing the ebb and flow of bracken cover. These images  show how difficult it would have been to locate grave markers, even the ones that are recorded.

Until the late 1970s grazing animals kept the bracken at bay, and when the last cows were removed, the bracken was scythed. The bracken management strategy of choice after the island came into community ownership has been strimming,  very petrol and person-time consuming. Recent pony grazing has been a lot more effective, trampling new routes through the bracken. Scything by volunteers has targeted other areas of the island and would probably be inadvisable among the grave markers, so it remains to be seen how reduced grazing this year leaves the burial ground.

The NoSAS Visits

The first time some NoSAS members came to visit was back in August 2018. Some gentle probing and lifting of a few turves later, we agreed that something a bit more systematic needed to be done and there was a lot of enthusiasm for returning in 2019 before the bracken started to grow.

The second NoSAS visit was May 2019.  Over 20 people, many of them staying over for two nights on the island, seemed likely to give us plenty of time and person power to clear vegetation, expose and record stones and plot the whole burial ground. The weather was perfect. Some excellent organisation had gone into planning sleeping arrangements and communal meals.

Vegetation was hacked back over a large area west of the known grave markers and, maybe the main discovery of the weekend, several new upright grave markers were revealed, the first time that this group have been noted since modern  interest has been taken in the burial ground.

Finding recumbent grave markers didn’t prove so easy. Probing across the main area of burials seemed to indicate stones just about everywhere and just lifting a small turf to see if they were grave markers didn’t clarify anything, so we decided  to open some larger areas to see if there was any pattern to the stones.

The above trench is fairly typical. On removal of turf, a seemingly random surface of roughly placed stones with no obvious grave markers, no alignment E-W, no attempt to create a horizontal paved surface. Might some pattern emerge if we deturfed a larger area? Might there be burials under this?

This second smaller trench (above) looks even more random. But these stones have all been brought to this location presumably for some purpose. Could it be as simple as raising the general ground level to allow deeper burials? Some probing and investigation revealed that over most of the area enclosed within the turf bank the bedrock layer is, as it is over the rest of the island, less than 300mm below the surface so any grave cut would either have to hack into the bedrock or leave a substantial raised mound. There are no obvious individual mounds, but the area of concentrated grave markers is raised slightly above the general seaward slope of the land and there is some evidence for walling forming a revetment along the seaward side of the burial area.

The only trench showing any sort of defined grave was the area between the two cross engraved stones. These consisted of a roughly rectangular stone setting running east from the large cross slab to a smaller upright slab and a leaf-shaped setting running west from the small cross slab.  The interior of the rectangular setting contained four flat slabs laid as a cover and  possible small but deliberate flat slabs are laid within the leaf-shaped setting.

The stones remind me of a masonry cist burial, such as the one below, excavated in Dunbar and dated to the Roman Iron Age. Other examples, such as the ‘Alloa warrior’ date to the mid-Iron Age

Empire, Dunbar High Street: cist burial of two adult males with weapons, Roman Iron Age

‘Alloa warrior’

But that begs the question: what should a Christian burial of early date look like? I had been expecting something like this:

Excavations at Auldhame, East Lothian, Anglian monastic settlement and mediaeval parish church

But, local conditions and local traditions…

One interesting find in one of the deturfed areas was two fragments of quern stone, lying quite close to each other and quite possibly from the same stone. One had a socket hole worn completely through. Is their presence in the burial ground ritually significant or are they just old bits of stone added to the pile?

In addition to vegetation clearance and grave hunting a complete plane table survey was carried out, taking in the turf bank which may be the early Christian enclosure, the possible chapel site, revetting along the seaward edge. This is a work in progress, so the version below just gives an idea:

What Next?

I had high hopes that such an experienced and enthusiastic team as NoSAS would locate the carved stone(s) in no time. Little did we think that the whole of the burial ground area would be effectively paved.  Other than gradually working our way across the burial ground removing turf and recording, it’s hard to think what else we can do to differentiate between grave markers and ‘paving’

And Finally…

A huge thanks to all NoSAS members who came for the weekend and worked so hard. I hope you all enjoyed it and want to come back for more!

4 thoughts on “Isle Martin Burial Ground: An Investigation

  1. Gilbert Markus

    Just a note on the name, Isle Martin. I cannot see any reason to doubt that the personal name Martin is the origin. The ‘pine marten’ explanation doesn’t work. That animal is called ‘taghan, sgionn or madra-croinn’ in Gaelic. I have never come across ‘martach’ with that meaning and it is not in the dictionaries.

    There is a word ‘martach’ which means ‘having many cows, or pertaining to cows’. But the early forms of the name give no reason for supposing that ‘martach’ was ever used of this island in any case. It is Yl Martin (1654, Blaeu), and Isle Martin (1794, Old Statistical Account), for example. Are there any actual records that suggest a name containing ‘martach’ vel sim?

    There is no reason to doubt that the island is named after someone called Martin. Whether that is Saint Martin, or a local farmer called Martin who owned it or some other Martin, it now seems impossible to say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nosas Post author

      Cathy says:
      Donald Monro pub 1582 based on a journey commonly thought to have been
      1549 lists ‘Ellan Mertack’ Translated into Latin as ‘Mertaika’ Notes
      (Birlinn edition 1999) give: The word martric, mertrick or mertrik
      figures in dictionaries such as DOST and SND and Monro’s references to
      slaughter of ‘otteris and martrikis’ in Harris is cited. Martin Martin
      1695 refers to the mertrick on Harris. The smaller pine marten was
      widely recorded in Lochbroom parish


      1. Gilbert Markus

        Thanks for this, Cathy. But DOST and SND are Scots dictionaries, not Gaelic. Martric, mertrick etc. are Scots words, not Gaelic. The word order of Donald Monro’s form of the name, together with its first word, ‘Ellan’, shows that it is a Gaelic name, not Scots (like almost all the other names in this section of his work).

        Martin Martin’s mertrick on Harris is clearly a pine martin, but he is writing in Scots/English, nolt Gaelic so that is perfectly straightforward – and not relevant to the interpretation of Isle Martin.


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