Time and tide wait for no man and truth is often stranger than fiction. Both these sayings apply to Scotland, especially Argyll with its islands at ‘the edge of the world’. Here, historic stones – some truly associated with destiny, others more dubiously linked by legend – fascinate and abound.
Coll and Tiree, to the northwest of Mull and Iona, are non-identical ‘twins’. Coll is rugged and rocky; Tiree is low, fertile and flat. However, in common with islands of the Outer Hebrides, both have pure white strands of calcareous sand made chiefly from maerl, backed by sand dunes of flower strewn machair (a low-lying grassy plain found on some of the northwest coastlines of Ireland and Scotland, in particular, the Outer Hebrides). Individually, they have their own strange, legendary stones – glacial erratics that have drawn myth to themselves and one which ‘rings’ its own warning today.
Maerl is formed when Atlantic Ocean currents force upwards dissolved mineral that nourishes the marine organisms of the Hebridean fringe. From this rich cold water, calcium carbonate is extracted, not only by invertebrates to make their shells, but also by the calcareous red algae, Phymatolithon and Lithothamnion coralloides, collectively known as ‘maerl’. Found at depths of between 10 and 18m, living maerl beds produce small granules between 2 and 10mm in size that accumulate in beds and which grow at 1mm a year. Sorted by currents and eventually washed landwards where they are tumbled by Atlantic waves into sand, the resulting white beaches are continuously resupplied with new deposits on the western shores. Westerly winds constantly blow this fine sand inland, forming high dunes, which, when colonised by a specific flora, are destined to become the Hebrides own unique machair.
In Coll today (as in the past), this windblown sand consumes low buildings. Mobile homes, unless constantly dug out, are destined to become buried by the encroachment and many old blackhouses (traditional types of house, which used to be common in Highlands of Scotland, the Hebrides and Ireland) have completely disappeared this way. This sand burial problem was scoffed at by the famous Dr Samuel Johnson who, with Boswell, visited Coll in October 1773 and did not believe a word of it. Johnson was more inclined to believe the legend of ‘the great stones’, one near Ben Feall and the other at Ben Hogh. Legend told of a giant who threw a stone down at his mistress standing near the foot of Ben Feall. He must have missed, for she retaliated by throwing one back – to the top of Ben Hogh. Perhaps Dr Johnson couldn’t bear the thought even of giant female supremacy for, although they both visited the stone the male giant threw down, when it came to climbing Ben Hogh to view the other the corpulent Doctor declined, resting against a rock with his hat pulled firmly over his ears. Of the two, the more noteworthy stone is at Ben Hogh, perched on the flat summit on top of different stones – possibly placed there by Coll’s early inhabitants. From Coll, Boswell and Johnson crossed to Mull and Iona, missing out Tiree. This is a pity, as the great Doctor would have been fascinated by Tiree’s ‘Ringing Stone’ and it might have given him more reason to pull his hat over his ears. And he wouldn’t have believed the legend told either.
The ‘Ringing Stone’ or ‘Clach a Choire’ in Gaelic is situated near Creag na Cradh-gheoidh at OS Grid Reference 028487, northeast of Balephetrish Bay. Another large glacial erratic, it was rafted over on ice from Rum. The boulder is covered with 53 cup-shaped hollows carved by peoples dating from Neolithic times and you can ‘ring’ the stone with any pebble from the shore. The sound will enchant you. The stone is a singularly rare ‘clinkstone’, which emits metallic ringing sounds and can be rung by several people ranged around it. Legend says that should the stone ever be shattered, then low-lying Tiree will sink beneath the waves.
Doctor Johnson would have scoffed at the thought of sea levels ever rising, as he showed great indifference to the sea, preferring to curl up below decks on each of his voyages, emerging only when safely near shore. His stay in Mull led him to the Isle of Iona, where he uttered his immortal words:
“That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”
He had come to ‘Columba’s Isle’, which has its own ringing stone and prophetic warning that one day “at the end of time” Iona will sink beneath the waves. Columba, a prince of Ireland, chose Iona as the place to found a monastery. He had fled Ireland after a great battle and, with companions, crossed the choppy Irish Sea in a leather boat (a coracle) to Dalriata – an ancient name for Argyll (from which geologists have utilised the name Dalradian). He landed on Iona in AD 563 in a cove not far from a narrow outcrop of Lewisian marble, a beautiful pure white rock streaked with lime and darker green serpentinite, which is easy to carve. The lovely rock was to have great significance long after Columba’s death in AD 597, when, during the Middle Ages, an altar carved from a huge block disappeared from the Abbey piecemeal – stolen by people who believed a fragment could protect them from witchcraft and safeguard them from shipwreck. Iona Abbey is totally restored today and a new carved marble altar (which has no magical powers) has replaced the old, together with a solidly magnificent font near the abbey entrance. However, on stepping inside, visitors are immediately enchanted and entranced.
A stone, which causes many to stand back in surprise (and mild horror), is a cushion-shaped lump of solid sandstone, known as Columba’s Pillow. On it is incised a simple Celtic cross – known as ‘The Pillow Cross’. Columba is reputed to have slept with his head on a stone pillow and that the stone eventually marked his grave. During the 1870s crofter, Dugald MacArthur, felt a rock bump his wheel every time he carted seaweed from the shore to manure his fields, so finally he dug it up from the machair at Cladh an Diseirt an ancient site on Iona. Excitement was high that this was Columba’s pillow and that his burial place might have been found. A stone of destiny though? If it was the great man’s head-rest, then Columba no doubt spent many hours awake on it trying to sleep, beset by God-given ideas – such as his difficult mission to restore Christianity to Scotland or how to create a strategy of melding pagan beliefs with Christian to reach a rapprochement with Pictish tribes. This was part of his destiny and he couldn’t have achieved any of it with a pillow made of memory foam.
Columba was also the first religious Christian ‘King Maker’, because he is credited with anointing the first ‘King’ of Dalriata. This he did at Dunadd, on the Argyll mainland, a few miles north of Lochgilphead. On a rocky outcrop, 175 feet high, still lies the remains of a fortress which, between AD 500 and 900 was one of the most important places in Scotland. Dunadd was the capital of Dalriata and where, following the tradition initiated by Columba, its kings were anointed. It has a remarkable stone at its summit with a ‘footprint’ carved into the rock. It is thought that, following Irish tradition, kings of Dalriata were inaugurated by placing one foot into the rocky imprint. Kenneth MacAlpine placed his foot in the ‘footprint’ in AD 841, becoming King of Dalriata and it was here that the Scottish nation of Alba was born, because Kenneth went on to conquer the Picts, becoming the first King of Scotland. By AD 850, pressures from Viking raids brought about the end of Dunadd’s glorious days and the Kingdom of Alba moved its centre to Scone near Perth – where another stone, the actual ‘Stone of Destiny’ was to play its role in the making of kings.
A learned man, the equal in his own right to pompous Dr Samuel Johnson, was Scotland’s late and great historical novelist, Nigel Tranter. Nigel was a modest man, who died aged 90 (in 2000), having written over 120 books covering every Scottish King and person of note from Columba onwards. In his novels, old kings, previously seen through the dry dust of history, came alive as three dimensional figures and many of his books depicted scenes where these recreated ‘flesh and blood’ kings were inaugurated on the famous ‘Stone of Scone’. Mystery surrounds the block of Old Red Sandstone that was the ‘seat’ that kings and queens sat upon as they took their oath and which came to be known as ‘The Stone of Destiny’. This vital stone (or its cunning replacement) was eventually stolen and transported to London by Edward 1 – ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – to put pay to any future Scottish kings. Of course, his theft didn’t stop this, but it remained as a Scottish trophy in Westminster Abbey locked in a compartment of the Coronation Chair for English Kings and Queens to be crowned upon, until it was ‘stolen’ back again in 1950.
In the early hours of Christmas Day, Ian Hamilton (a good friend of Nigel Tranter but then a 25-year-old law student), together with three companions ‘liberated’ the stone and whisked it back to Scotland. However, their good luck in getting away with such an audacious ‘theft’ turned to bad luck, because while freeing it from its bondage, the ‘Stone of Destiny’ broke in two. The four then became almost the ‘most wanted’ robbers in Britain and they decided to return the stone to the authorities by leaving it on the altar at Arbroath Abbey – significant for the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, which was a declaration of independence from England. Scottish nationalism ran deep and public support for the four was so great that they weren’t prosecuted, but ‘The Stone of Destiny’ was, to public indignation, ‘returned’ to England.
By cracking the stone in two and during its subsequent bumpy journey by car to Scotland, several chips had broken off and these were not returned. Instead, a few select miniature coronation chairs were crafted in silver with a drawer underneath the seat exactly where the ‘Stone of Destiny’ was positioned. Inside this drawer was placed a small chip of the liberated stone and Ian Hamilton gave one such chair to friend and fellow patriot, Tranter. Guests of Nigel were shown the miniature coronation chair together with its fragment of ‘The Stone of Destiny’, until one summer’s day an accident happened. A young relative was given the silver chair and its precious content, and told to take it to show to a guest outside in the garden. Excited at her mission, the young girl ran outside and tripped. She held on tight to the silver chair, but the drawer flew open and the chip of rock soared free – to land among seemingly identical pieces of stone on the gravelled drive. No amount of searching could identify it. So it is that a fragment Scotland’s stolen ‘Stone of Destiny’, a descendant of other ‘stones of destiny’ from Argyll and its Isles, and significant for having many a Regal English posterior sat upon it, now lies incognito at Quarry House, Aberlady, near Edinburgh.
The ‘Stone of Scone’ or ‘Stone of Destiny’ was eventually, and with much publicity and hype, returned to Scotland in 1996 after seven centuries. It was a dismally transparent public relations exercise, but was it the true ‘Stone of Destiny’? Many people believe that the canny Scots at Scone when the ‘Stone’ was demanded, bravely switched the true stone (thought to have been black, comfortably ‘bottom-shaped’ and definitely igneous in origin) for the angular rough block of red sandstone. Long shanks Edward 1, being a warmonger and not a geologist, simply didn’t know the difference.
So, perhaps the true ‘Stone of Destiny’ lies buried somewhere in Scotland and has yet to be found. Hopefully, it isn’t hidden too close to sea level or under increasing depths of drifting white sand. However, there are some alive who say they know where it is – perhaps it’s just as well that not one of them will tell.