Vatersay is a beautiful little island at the southern end of the Outer Hebrides.
It is only 3 miles long, with just over 90 people living there and since 1991 it has been connected to the Isle of Barra by a causeway.
There are a number of archaeological sites, including a broch, a dun, some Bronze Age cairns and a standing stone.. At most sites there are very little remains, if any, of the original structures but they are all worth visiting for their views and to be able to appreciate their setting in the landscape.
Perched on top of a steep outcrop above the West Beach is the site of Dun Vatersay, an Iron Age fort. Virtually nothing remains of the stone fort but the site is impressive for its views and obvious strategic position.
Bronze Age Kerbed Cairn
There are two Bronze Age cairns on the hill below the dun and the most obvious one is a round kerbed cairn situated on some level ground below the the dun. It was excavated by Sheffield University in the 1990’s and the remains of a cremated body were found. The other one is about 200m away but is not so easy to make out.
The ruined Tacksmans House, between the dun and the small village of Vatersay. Built in the time when the whole of Vatersay was one farm, leased by the tacksman (tenant farmer).
In a gap between the small hills at the south end of the island is a standing stone. No one knows if it is prehistoric or if it had just been a very large gatepost at some time in history! It’s still a very fine stone and as you approach it from the north, the view you suddenly get of the sea and the islands beyond is breathtaking.
Heading south, past the standing stone, the magnificent view looking down to the tail end of the Hebrides – the remote, uninhabited islands of Pabbay, Mingulay and Berneray
and Prehistoric Rock Art, a “Coo Palace” and a very unusual church!
These are all found a short distance from each other, between Knockbrex and Kirkandrews, on the eastern side of Wigtown Bay (nearest towns – Kirkcudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet).
Castle Haven Dun
Entering Castle Haven Dun is like discovering a long lost secret garden, the walls all clad in ivy and the interior a mass of unruly brambles and vegetation. From the shore, the walls emerge up from the rock that it’s built upon, so that it’s hard to see where the rock finishes and the stonework starts. It merges into the landscape in a way that makes it difficult to spot from the road or the coast and there are no signs or even a path to it (style-like steps in the wall beside the road indicate where to go).
Yet, this is an exceptional dun, both because of its state of preservation and its unusual design for this part of Scotland. Built on a small promontory, the dun is D-shaped, with the main entrance from the field on the north side. In the south wall of the dun, a narrow passageway leads to a flight of steps down onto the rocky shore below.
A Galleried Dun
This dun has a feature similar to the Iron Age brochs of northern Scotland, ie. the main structure consists of two concentric walls with a gallery between them. From the central courtyard there are doors leading into the gallery between the walls. The gallery was roofed with stone lintels, some of which are still in situ.
However, unlike the brochs, which had stairs winding up within the walls, Castle Haven has the unusual feature of stone, style-like steps jutting out from the inner wall of the courtyard, to take you up to the next level.
I’d be intrigued to know how high the dun was originally and if there were galleries on more than one level. Due to its shape and fairly large size, it’s unlikely that the walls towered up high like traditional brochs.
Galleried duns are also found in the north of Scotland. For example, Dun Ardtreck on the Isle of Skye, which is also D-shaped and on a promontory, and it is possible that the design of brochs developed from these galleried duns.
The Coo Palace (a posh cow shed!)
Castle Haven Dun owes its state of preservation to considerable restoration work that was carried out in 1905 by James Brown, the laird of Knockbrex. He had a keen interest in architecture and as well as his work on the dun, he also built Corseyard Dairy with its very posh cow shed, known locally as “The Coo Palace”!
Another of James Browns architectural creations was a tiny church in the nearby hamlet of Kirkandrews and I think this is one of the most unusual churches I’ve ever seen. Its design is inspired by a fusion of Arts and Crafts and Celtic design and a fondness for miniature castles! The small panelled room with a fireplace at one end reminded me more of a miniature banqueting hall than a church. It looks very cosy and there are some beautiful photos of when they have had candlelit services there.
The church was locked and I was only able to see through a window but there are more photos on the church website. https://kirkandrewskirk.wordpress.com/
Parking at the church is very limited! The best way to appreciate this stretch of coastline around Castle Haven Bay is by walking or cycling along the narrow country road. It’s only 2 miles from the Coo Palace to the church and along the way you pass the dun and the rock art and get some lovely views of the bay.
Tongue Croft Rock Art
Rocks bearing cup and ring marks are plentiful in the Galloway countryside but are often difficult to find (or find access to). This rock art is just a few metres from the road, on the road between the Coo Palace and Kirkandrews. It can be found just over a wall on the right hand side of the road if travelling eastwards.
Some dolmens of Co. Down, from the much photographed Legananny (below) to some in rather surprising places!
Built in an elevated position on the slopes of Slieve Croob and looking towards the Mountains of Mourne, Legananny is one of Northern Irelands best known dolmens.
This extremely tall portal tomb is made of granite and has a large capstone slab finely balanced on the points of three tapering pillars.
Many dolmens are associated with figures from ancient legends and Legananny, is a translation from the Gaelic, Liagan Aine, meaning pillar stone of Aine.
Around the winter solstice the morning sun shines through the two portal stones, illuminating the underside of the capstone.
The Crawtree Stone, Kilkeel
A lovely little dolmen that has been incorporated into a stone wall. Not what you’d expect to see if you’re walking up the lane behind the Asda carpark in Kilkeel!
In the village of Burren, near Warren Point, this dolmen is in a front garden and has become the main feature of a rockery.
The 35 ton capstone of Kilfeaghan dolmen visible above the field wall. Looking south over Carlingford Lough and the Cooley Mountains.
Situated about 5 miles south of Rathfriland and featured in a previous post – Goward Portal Tomb, this is well worth a visit.
An Iron-Age hillfort on the outskirts of Inverness
Craig Phadraig is a large oval-shaped fort which covers the top of a steeply wooded hill above the Beauly Firth and the city of Inverness. Today, part of the view is obscured by trees but it was built in a strategic position with commanding views of all the surrounding countryside, the River Ness and the Beauly and Moray Firths.
Today the hill is part of Craig Phadrig Forest and from the Forestry Commission car park a number of footpaths meander around the wooded hillside. It would be quite easy to come here and not even realise that there’s such an impressive Iron Age fort right on top of the hill because you don’t see it until you come out of the trees and find yourself standing on the ramparts. As you emerge from one of the steep paths up to the summit you suddenly see the large oval-shaped hollow (75m long), surrounded by the mounds of two concentric ramparts.
The fort was built around 300BC but soon afterwards it was destroyed by fire and abandoned. The site was used again at later dates, notably as a stronglhold in Pictish times when it is reputed to have been the seat of the Pictish king Brude (Bridei mac Maelchu), who ruled around AD555-584. St Columba travelled here to meet with him and afterwards, King Brude and his followers converted to Christianity.
Excavations have revealed artifacts from around this time.
A Vitrified Fort
The ramparts were originally very high walls constructed from timber-laced stonework and at some point after construction they were subjected to such intense heat that the stones were melted and fused together. Both the inner and outer walls are heavily vitrified, although this isn’t visible today as they are covered by grass.
Vitrified forts are quite common in the highlands of Scotland. I think there are around 60 of them and another example is Dun Dearduil in Glen Nevis. There are also one or two in Ireland.
In the past, archaeologists had speculated that that the forts had been deliberately vitrified to increase the strength of the walls but this would actually have made the stone weaker and more prone to fracturing. It is now generally accepted that vitrification was the result of a deliberate burning of the fort when it came to the end of its use or when it was captured.