In Poolewe there is a graveyard and as I am rather fond of graveyards we had to go and take a look. Although it has been there for centuries it is also still in use today, this I like a lot. Inscribing gravestones with a name and date came late to Poolewe – the earliest is dated 1839, before named gravestones became commonplace burial plots were reused the circle of life and death continued for generations, so it is impossible to know how many souls have been laid to rest there. It is a place of serenity and calm, not far from the edge of Loch Ewe itself, with the mountains behind it and a river either side a pretty little setting set back from the modern road, but there is more to this than might at first meet the eye.
Mother Ruth had pointed me in the direction of Phil Rickman’s series of books which follow the exploits of Merrily Watkins, and as those of you who follow me on facebook will already know I was reading them while on holiday. One of the books I read was ‘A Crown of Lights’, the story revolves around the site of a deconsecrated church which had been placed on the site of a pre-Christian ritual site and hence had an unusual circular graveyard. Yes you’ve guessed it, this graveyard too is circular, and like the graveyard in A Crown of Lights it too is surround by a ring of trees and what is more it too I believe has pre-Christian history. But I am jumping ahead slightly – or should that be back slightly – as before I talk about that a quick bio of the more recent past might be in order. The ruins of a church is in the north-east segment of the burial ground and has a number of later enclosures built along one side. This is not the original church which fell out of use during the Reformation, although it might have continued to be used as a private chapel. It was rebuilt in the 17th century and used for Episcopalian worship, but it is hard to know when Christian worship first took place on the site.
I was one of the final people who did what was known as ‘The Scottish Dimension’ – personally I think it is a great shame that it is no longer compulsory for those who come to the SEC from other shores but hey who am I to express such an opinion? – Any way, when I did it back in the 80’s part which I chose to do was to write a paper on Old Govan Parish in particular the change from a pre-Christian to a Christian site. I was reminded forcibly of it when I saw this:
Most people who take the time to wander round that graveyard probably pass this stone whose markings can not be read by, it is not very tall and you might say that there is nothing particularly impressive about it. Well I believe you would be wrong in that assumption for this is the typical shape of a Viking Hogback burial stone (there are some at Govan Old Parish) which rather than standing upright as this on is would be laid on top of a grave (or possibly a stone cut coffin) as the lid with the rounded surface facing outwards. The Vikings were in Wester Ross in quite large numbers using its natural harbours to great effect as a base for their raids further south. You don’t need to look too far in Wester Ross to find Viking place names, so it was no surprise to me to see what I think could very probably also be a sign of their burials. While I am speculating I think that this too might very well be a hog back this time upside down with the characteristic hump buried in the grass.
But there is more than this speculation than the circular nature of the graveyard and a couple of possible hogbacks, there is also the Font Stone that lies north-west of the chapel, partly buried in turf.
Now it might be called a font stone but it is the smallest font I have ever seen and I think local folklore gives us a clue to what it was originally. In the Highlands, and indeed in Argyll and the Isles, hollowed cup stones were associated with sacred water, used for coronations like at Dunadd in Kilmartin Glen, for the blessing of people on the verge of major milestones of their lives, for catching the full moon at the solace, or a sunbeam at mid summer, and the water that was in these cups were often said to have healing powers. Local folklore says that the water in the stone at Poolewe cures warts and locally it is known as the Wart Stone. Well to me it sounds much more likely that this stone has a pre-Christian history as a Pictish cup stone, that in centuries past the water contained in it was as likely to have blessed a young woman so that she might be like some mother earth god and bear strong healthy sons as blessing a new-born in the name of the Trinity. Now before you think I am getting too fanciful then take a look at this:
This is a Pictish stone which would have once stood upright but has later been used as a burial slab. Some of the original carving can still be seen, it is not the usual Pictish symbols that are commonly seen but rather geometrical ones.
There is a weathered crescent and v-rod symbol decorated with a curvilinear design and an arrangement of dots. Pictish stones are traditionally found in northern and eastern parts of Scotland. The stone at Poolewe is one of only two symbol scones discovered on the west coast of mainland Scotland. Taking into account this rare stone being here says to me that this must have been an important site for the Picts.
A place of rest for centuries, a place of circles upon circles and I am left thinking of those who rest there, be they Viking, Pict or Christian, in the words of a Roman gravestone:
May your bones rest quietly
and may the earth lie lightly on you.