Towns / Cities Visited: 120
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 8,633
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,095,718
We awoke to, surprise surprise, another dreary, rain filled day. Still, there was places to go and things to see, thus we gathered our belongings, bid farewell to our hosts, and bundled into the car to continue our adventure. Today would see us travel up the west coast to Fort William, however we would be arriving there in a rather roundabout way. You see, just as you’ve got to get up to get down, in our case we were going down to get up. A couple of hours of driving through pelting rain and gale-force winds, dodging fallen branches and being whipped with twigs and leaves for the majority of the rather hectic journey, we eventually arrived in Kilmartin, located in the region of Argyll. Now what drew us all the way here, you ask? Why, history of course, dear reader. You see, Kilmartin is aptly located in the Kilmartin Glen, an area which is home to a hugely important collection of Neolithic and Bronze Age site, from cairns, standing stones, and carvings, to the remains of one of the countries most noteworthy iron age forts.
Sensibly, we decided to begin our exploration with a touch of education, and after scoffing down our packed lunch we headed into the Kilmartin Museum. It may not be the flashiest, most modern, or largest museum you’ve ever seen, but the series of rooms and displays located in the bottom storey of this mildly hidden place give you a well rounded look into the prehistoric sites and the lives of the people who built them. One of the cairns, which appears to be little more than a pile of rubble to the untrained eye, is even visible from the window of the museum. There are many interesting articles to gander at within its walls, some genuine and some faithful recreations, from tools and instruments; to pottery, wicker fishing traps, and carved burial stones. The written information is equally as fascinating, and we came away with much new knowledge, including the fact that this region was inhabited by Celtic speaking Irishmen in the early 6th century. These, and all Irishmen of the time were known as Scotti, and it is from this word that the country garnered its name.
Our appetite for viewing these sites had been well and truly whet, but as we spoke to the receptionist we were disappointed, but not entirely surprised, to discover that the cairns and standing stones were unreachable at present due to the seemingly torrential downpour of rain in the last few days leaving much of the glen flooded and boggy. Still, she offered us a map with a few other historic options that we had neither heard of, nor had planned to visit, and thus we hopped in the car optimistically and headed on out.
A short drive saw us arriving at the first, and frankly most interesting, of the two sites; Dunadd, from the Gaelic ‘Dùn Ad’ meaning ‘fort on the river’. Now don’t expect some towering old fortification, it is more just a crag of rock with a few ageing remains dotted on it, but that is not what draws so many to its summit, but I’ll get to that in a moment. This hill fort dates from the iron age and early medieval period, and is believed to have been the citadel of the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dál Riata. This kingdom existed in the early centuries AD, after the Romans had abandoned Scotland, and the Gaelic speaking rulers took over. The land that surrounds the hill is mostly reclaimed, but was once bogland, and potentially meant that this hill was, at some point, an island. Archaeologists did extensive excavations in the 80’s and a number of artefacts were found, many of which confirm that this site was home to some of the finest metalworking and pottery in Europe at the time.
Thankfully the rain had eased off a little, and through the light mist we gingerly made our way up the somewhat slippery footing towards the top. On our ascent we managed to catch a glimpse of a few clearly recognisable ruins, like the top of the old well which would have once provided water to those who dwelled here. Before too long we reached the lower landing of the hill, and the home of the pièce de résistance of this place; a rather unassuming shoe print carved into the stone. In and of itself it is not particularly exciting, until you learn that this is believed to have been the site for the coronation of the historic rulers of this kingdom, and placing their foot within this divot was likely part of this ritual. More than a millennia ago, the men who lorded over this land once stood where we were standing, with their admittedly small boot nestled into a rock as they proclaimed their intentions to protect and fight for the realm. There was something undeniably cool about placing our foot in this same spot, and it wasn’t just the biting wind.
On this same rock, if you squint a little and concentrate a lot, you can just make out the faint remains of the boar carved into the rock in the Pictish style, but its meaning and significance has been lost to the ages. The Picts were the people who resided in this land at the time, and most of the historical carving around this area are remnants of their inhabitance. On these rocks is also some text written in ogham script; an early medieval alphabet which was used to write the Irish language and which consists of a series of lines drawn either above or below a central continual horizontal line. I could spend all day telling you about the fascinating history of this site, and the Pictish people, and I encourage you to look into this period of history in Scotland should this be a topic of interest to you, but I digress.
Now we naturally didn’t come all of this way to not make it to the top, and thus we very carefully clambered over the crest. Believe me when I say, with no exaggeration, the wind was so strong here that we had to double over and brace ourselves so as to not be swept over the edge to our certain death, or at the very least a good few shattered bones and a concussion. The eye-watering barrage of air pummelling my face could only be likened to the sensation I felt when I went skydiving, and the adrenaline it brought about with it was eerily similar. I wasn’t expecting such a rush at such a scantily adorned site, and yet here we were. Blinking through the tears, I managed to catch a glimpse of the sweeping lands these newly crowned kings would have looked down over. It was from here that it became clear why so much of the glen was off limits to visitors; the river had burst its banks at more than one point, and suddenly meadows were marshes once more.
Our tolerance for nature’s assault had waned after a short while, and we climbed back down to the comparative calm of the carpark, and carried on to our other destination; Achnabreck. This somewhat out of the way place is home to something far older than the footprint we had just come from, it is the location of carved rock art believed to be around 5000 years old. Parking the car, we headed off on foot along the marked trail, and before too long were were stranding at the cordon before a large sheet of exposed rock covered in a series of cup and ring carvings. These circles appear almost like the ripples from a pebble dropped in still waters, and their meaning as almost as mystical as their appearance. Of course there are plenty of theories but, much like the similar swirling patterns at the Newgrange passage tomb we’d visited in Ireland, it is unlikely we will ever discover their true significance.
Just down a little further, sits another similar collection, but from here, the remainder of the path is simply an enchanting woodland walk. We took the time to meander down the winding trail, between forest so thick with pines that their interior was almost pitch back, and we were soon in the midst of passionate discussion about how perfect of a backdrop these eerie woods would be for a horror movie. Tucked among the mossy carpet and bracken beneath the trees clung more than a handful of different fungi, and I couldn’t help myself but to take a few snaps of their perfectly moist and miniature forms.
The trail ended, and we were back in the car before we knew it. We had quite the drive ahead of us, and we needed to get a move on if we hoped to reach our accommodation before nightfall. A couple more hours on the road and we were eventually stepping inside another warm and welcoming Airbnb just as the sun dipped below the mountains. This one unfortunately did not offer use of the kitchen, as it runs more as a functioning BnB, and thus, after dropping off our bags, we nipped back into town and found a cozy pub to source our dinner from. Happily we were met with a few surprisingly juice burgers and, because it was still cold and miserable outside, we finished off our pints of cider over a drool inducing sticky toffee pudding, which sung of my childhood.
Sleep came to us eagerly, but before it took hold my mind fantasised, as it often did, of the past. Not my past, of course, but the past in Kilmartin. As my thoughts flitted through the annals of time, it paused once more at Dunadd. In my mind’s eye the fort was rebuilt anew; the warmth of the potter’s kilns helping ease the constant chill in the air; the sounds of metalworkers carrying on the wind as they skilfully manipulated iron into the weapons which would protect the people of Dál Riata, and the brooches which would clasp the cloaks of those who lorded over them. Within its strong stone walls stood a king, and as he stepped forth, his foot slipping into the divot in that stone, so too was he stepping into his rule, his responsibility, and his destiny. As he looked down over the lands below though, it was not just his people he promised to protect, but the land as far as he could see and all that it contained, from those already ancient carvings of Achnabreck to the south, to the equally as ancient cairns to the north. To him, they are just as archaic and mystical as they are to us today. He has his own theory about the meanings of those circles, and it is, of course, possible that they are deep and spiritual, but then again, perhaps they are just the bored doodlings of people with little to distract them in their quiet moments millennia before. Maybe what remains of our ancestors isn’t always their most important and noteworthy achievements; maybe not every stone that endured was set aside for gods and kings; maybe the masses left just as many marks as the monarchs and the mystics.