Beistean’s Grave and Leac Alasdair are two enigmatic stone settings hidden away in Langass Wood, a community woodland on the Isle of North Uist. There are footpaths through the wood and the Hebridean Way long distance footpath skirts round the edge of it but it is easy to overlook the path up to the stones. From the middle of the wood a path leads steeply uphill through a tunnel of trees – beware, trees frequently get blown down across the path after gales!
At the top of the path, just before you come out onto the open hilltop, is the unexpected sight of the massive stone slab that is Leac Alasdair and beside it, the large flat stones known as Beistean’s Grave.
Leac is Gaelic for a slab of stone and this one is enormous! It is a glacial erratic, over 3½ m high by 3½m wide and propped up at a 45° angle – quite possibly its natural position. Wedged underneath are two large stones which rest on top of a squat upright stone. It is difficult to tell if this is how the stones were originally deposited or if man had a hand in their arrangement.
Underneath the large slab is a row of upright stones, partly submerged below the present day ground level and this certainly isn’t natural. They form a wall along one side creating a chamber underneath the overhanging slabs, like the edge of a stone cist. I’d like to think this is the remains of a prehistoric burial site, particularly in view of the cupmarked Beistean’s Grave which sits next to it, but it’s impossible to say for sure and it could simply be a shelter that someone had built under the stones at some unknown time in history.
Lying on the ground in front of the stones is this beautifully patterned piece of Lewisian gneiss.
It tapers towards a point at one end and looks as if it has been fashioned into this shape, making me wonder if it once stood upright in front of the other stones. Vegetation is beginning to obscure some of the surface but the swirling bands of pink and grey foliation can still be appreciated.
Next to Leac Alasdair is Beistean’s Grave. Beistean is a local name, a derivation of Archibald, but as far as I know there’s no local legend about who Beistean or Alasdair were.
Beistune’s Grave consists of two large slabs of rock, one on top of the other, with another smaller slab wedged between them at one end, raising the top stone up a little. The top stone has broken in half at some time, with one piece of it lying lower down and partly submerged by earth and vegetation. This slab would have been about 5m long before it was broken in half. Beneath the 2 large slabs there appears to be a hollow, with evidence of small stones along the edge of the hollow supporting the large slabs on top.
The most interesting feature of Beistune’s Grave is the cup marks on the corners of the slabs. There are cup marks on all 3 of the slabs and they are all on the corners (no cup marks are visible on the broken off piece of stone lying on the ground next to it). Some of the cup marks have grooves running off them and this one on the top slab is the most pronounced. There are some less pronounced grooves running off the cupmarks on the lower stone.
The rock art on Uist isn’t very impressive and it’s usually hard to say with certainty whether the few recorded cup marks are prehistoric or just natural features. This is one instance where they are most likely to be prehistoric, particularly in view of the other prehistoric sites nearby.
I’d like to think that these two stone settings could have been prehistoric burial sites. Possibly from the early Bronze Age – a time when building the great chambered cairns had come to an end, their chambers had been sealed and they were moving into a period where important people would be buried in single stone cists. These are unusual in that they appear to have utilised existing stones and modified them to be used as burial sites and it is difficult to classify them as they don’t fall into the usual categories of prehistoric burial monuments. They have never been excavated and we’ll probably never know for sure, but they are still an interesting feature in the prehistoric landscape of this part of North Uist.
Close by is the impressive Barpa Langais chambered cairn and on the southern slope of the hill is Pobull Fhinn stone circle, both being the most intact examples of their kind in Uist. There is also an abundance of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains scattered across the neighbouring hills.
To appreciate their setting in the landscape and the view there would have been from Leac Alasdair and Beistean’s Grave before they were surrounded by trees, you need to go through the gate in the deer fence and walk onto the open hillside towards the summit of Beinn Langais. It’s possible to just make out some other prehistoric sites on distant hills (binoculars are useful here!), such as the standing stones at Unival chambered cairn and Tigh Cloiche cairn on Marrogh. Not only are there extensive views across Uist but you can also see across the Minch to Skye.
Another surprise in Langass Wood is the life-sized sculpture of Hercules the bear. Hercules was a grizzly bear who became famous and made Uist the focus of media attention in 1980 when he went on the run during filming for a Kleenex advert. He was missing for over 3 weeks, despite searches by his owner, many volunteers and the army and navy but was eventually spotted swimming in the sea by a local crofter, 20 miles away from where he’d gone missing.
A very hungry and tired Hercules was rescued and brought back to health by his wrestler owner and he went on to have numerous appearances in TV and film, his most famous role being in the James Bond film Octopussy. After he died he was taken back to Uist and laid to rest in Langass Wood.