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Looking For Roots


Sweeney History



by George Nelson

There are numerous links between Scotland and Ireland. Some are historical and cultural, others are legendary and a bit more tenuous. The links range from Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway to Saint Columba. Wide ranging, I admit, but what is factual is that the Dalriadic Scots crossed from the Antrim coast in the 6th century AD to Kintyre to give their name and lay the foundations for a nation. I live in Campbeltown, in Kintyre, Argyll, an area rich in history, archaeology and scenic beauty, all of which encouraged me to take a keen interest in my local environment.

After the last glacial period receded, people of Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age culture, crossed the North Channel from Antrim to Kintyre, a distance of only 11 or 12 miles. They established themselves at what is now known as Campbeltown Loch around 6000 BC. They were followed by Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age peoples, all of whom left their traces. There is no quarried flint in Scotland, but in the Kintyre area Antrim flint has been found, which points to trading and migration taking place. One of the most significant finds of Antrim flint in Kintyre was made as recently as 1990 by a 14-year-old schoolboy - a hoard of magnificent axe-heads, which had been buried and never recovered. Although the sea crossing is a relatively short one, the waters are quite turbulent and a degree of seafaring skill would have been required. That such skills existed should come as no surprise to anyone who has tramped the hills or rugged coastline of both Kintyre and Antrim. The sea would have been a rich source of food and an easy mode of travel to a coastal-dwelling people.

Some time before 500 AD, the first Gaelic-speaking Scots began raiding Kintyre. Cairbre Riada is said to have crossed from Ireland about 258 AD. He came from Dal Riada in Antrim, and the new colony in Argyll also became known as Dalriada. He would have seen a land very like the one he left, thickly wooded, the same rolling hills and ragged coast. He may also have encountered a Pictish tribe known to the Romans as the Epidii, or Horse People. Interestingly, the name MacEachran - which is of great antiquity in Kintyre - has the meaning, in Gaelic, 'Son of the Horse Lord.'

Until recently, little was known about the mysterious Pictish tribes which inhabited Scotland. Some theories have been put forward that all human life in Scotland originated from Ireland and that the Picts were the descendants of the Mesolithic people. More recent interpretations, however, suggest a Celtic culture.

Meantime, on the Antrim coast, the Kingdom of Dalriada had long been established by a Celtic tribe called the Scots. Who were the Scots? Several times during research I have come across the rather romantic story that the Scots came from Egypt, migrating across North Africa under the leadership of a Pharaoh's daughter, Princess Scota. More probably they were part of a Celtic migration across Europe that left its traces in duns, brochs and vitrified forts in Spain, France, Scotland and Ireland. Other traces of these migratory Celts can be found in the culture of their last outposts, in Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and the west coast and highlands and islands of Scotland. The language, music and art were all closely linked. What caused them to spread across Europe? Maybe they were just nomadic wanderers or perhaps they were persecuted, always having to move on. Perhaps the Irish Famine of 1845/46 and the Highland Clearances in Scotland were a latterday continuation of that process, pushing the Celts ever further west to Canada and America, and indeed Australia and New Zealand.

Around about 500 AD, the colony in Kintyre had outgrown the original kingdom in Antrim and traditional accounts tell of King Fergus Mór of the Dalriadic Scots arriving in South-West Argyll. The Gaelic-speaking Scots were established.

Even today evidence of this time exists in the place-names of Argyll. The very name Argyll is the anglicised version of the Gaelic Earra Ghaidheal, or Land of the Gael. Names of Fergus's kinsmen and descendants survive around Oman, in Lorne and Connel. I doubt if there is a major town in Argyll without a Lorne Street. House names like Dalriada Court and Dalriada House exist in Campbeltown and elsewhere.

Although the Scots were now established in Argyll, tribal factions caused them to fight among themselves and with the Picts. It was not until Kenneth MacAlpin united the Scots and the Picts around 840 AD and moved the power base away from Dalriada to the Pictlands that Scotland as a nation began to take shape.

Another famous link between Ireland and Scotland is, of course, Saint Columba. He was born in Donegal of royal blood on both his father and mother's side. All believed him to be destined for great things. His father wished him to be a warrior, but his mother wanted him to be a man of God. His mother's wishes prevailed and he arrived at Southend in Kintyre in 563 AD, aged about 42, with 12 associates. Legend tells us that, within sight of the Antrim coast, he placed his feet in 'Columba's Footprints' and declared for God. These footprints, carved into rock, actually exist, and, although one of them is probably a latterday fake, the other is reckoned to be a genuine 'Fealty Foot', where a new chief or king would place his foot to claim the kingdom from his predecessor. Some say that this is where the modem day term to 'step into some one else's shoes' comes from. Churchmen will tell you that Columba was symbolically telling those who had assembled to hear him that Christ was their new leader.

No one knows how long Columba stayed in the South Kintyre area, but he eventually moved north to Dunadd, where the power base of the Dalriadic Scots had become established. His royal blood made him a kinsman of the Scots kings, and by ordaining King Aidan, who was successor to King Conall of Dalriada, he at once became client and protector of the Kings of Dalriada and apostle of the Dalriadic Scots.

Columba is generally accepted as being the bringer of Christianity to Scotland. However, he is predated by other apostles, notably Saint Ninian, Saint Ciaran and Saint Brendan. On their departure, however, although pockets of Christianity may have remained, most of the people had fallen back to their old Pagan and Druid ways. The many mysterious standing stones of Argyll and Arran testify to these times. Columba, of course, went on to found his Abbey on Iona as well as other places of worship the length of Scotland.

Entering the bounds of legend once more, he is said to have been the first person on record to encounter the Loch Ness Monster. He is also reputed to have brought the secret of whisky making with him from Ireland. If these legends are to be believed, then Scotland not only has Christianity to thank him for, but also whisky and tourism!

On a more documentary note, there is another Irish monk who holds an important place in the history of Kintyre. St Ciaran was a humble man, of a lower bloodline than Columba, who made his first journey to Kintyre in 536 AD, fully 27 years before his more illustrious contemporary.

He made his home in a cave on the shore at Auchenhoan, about a mile or so along the coast from the mouth of Campbeltown Loch. He began his missionary work in the Campbeltown area, founding the first Christian church on the site of what is now Kilkerran Cemetery. Kilkerran means Ciaran's Church or place, and for many centuries, up to the seventeenth century, in fact, Campbeltown was known as Kinloch Kilkerran or 'The Head of the Loch of the Church of Ciaran'. He stayed for about 10 years and then returned to Ireland to found the Abbey of Clonmacnoise on the banks of the River Shannon. It was there that he died on 9th September 548.

Another link that Ireland and Scotland shared, or perhaps suffered, was the ravages of the Norsemen. These raiders pillaged the coasts of Ireland and Scotland from the 8th century onwards. Isolated communities were easy pickings and abbeys and churches rich prizes. Iona was sacked several times and one attack around 806 saw 68 monks killed. These raiders became so powerful and fearless that they began to colonize islands and coastlines around Scotland and Ireland and indeed England.

For four centuries the Norse controlled the west coast of Scotland but never overwhelmed the Gaelic culture, maybe a minor miracle. A famous story recounts how the Vikings bargained with Scotland that they should own all the land off the west coast that they could sail their longships around. Believing that they meant all the islands, the King of Scotland, from a weakened position, reluctantly agreed. The Norsemen, however, showed some guile and quite a lot of style when they manhandled and dragged a longship over the narrow neck of land from East Loch Tarbert to West Loch Tarbert, thereby laying claim to the whole of Kintyre.

The name Tarbert is part Norse, part Gaelic, 'tow boat', and there are many other Tarberts, Tarbets or Tarbats dotted around Scotland and Ireland. The name is nearly always associated with a narrow strip of land separating two stretches of water, or an isthmus.

Most place-names of any antiquity in Kintyre are either of Gaelic or Norse, with Tarbert being an example of a hybrid. Both the island of Gigha (God's Island) and the island of Jura (Deer Island), close to Kintyre, are of Norse origin, though there are relatively few Norse names in Kintyre, compared with the earlier Gaelic names. Indeed, there is only one settlement name in Kintyre which is pure Norse, and that is Smerby, 'Butter Farm'. Halfway up the east coast of Kintyre lies the village of Saddell (Norse: Sandy Bay). Beside this tiny village lie the ruins of Saddell Abbey, built in the 12th century by Somerled, a mighty warrior of Celtic and Norse blood. Carradale, a nearby larger fishing village, also has the Scandinavian element of -dal (valley).

Taking a giant leap forward of 800 years to the present day, we find that most Kintyre people who are indigenous to the area have some Irish blood. Even before the great famine of 1845, Irish immigrants had been crossing the North Channel. It is less than a hundred years since a decent road link has been established between the remote Kintyre peninsula and the rest of Scotland. This remoteness played a large part in maintaining Kintyre's links by sea with Ireland.

In my own case, my maternal great-great grandparents, Henry and Victoria Stewart, are recorded as arriving at Southend from County Antrim around 1863, and I have found their gravestone in Campbeltown's Kilkerran Cemetery. That they should have taken the same route as their ancestors, the first Scots, 1500 years before them, and then be laid to rest in a cemetery where an apostle from their land founded the first Christian church in the area, is perhaps a poignant note to finish on.

Angus Martin, author, poet, historian.
The Book of Blaan, by Rev Angus MacVicar.
Scotland: A New History, by Michael Lynch.

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