Ten Argyll archaeological sites
Argyll and the Isles is rich in Highland history. There are few other places in Scotland, if not Europe, that have such a rich tapestry of historical and archaeological sites. Traces of Neolithic, Iron Age, Celtic, early Christian, Middle Age, Viking and Medieval buildings and activity dot the landscape. Thousands of structures and carved stone artefacts bear witness to the peoples who, since Neolithic times, have lived here. Take this journey that connects ten archaeological sites in Argyll and the Isles. And if you want to delve deeper, grab a map and locate the chambered cairns, standing stones and cup-and-ring marked rocks yourself and let Argyll’s fascinating history reveal itself.
Start your archaeological journey on the island of Bute. Bute has many well preserved archaeological sites and you can find out more about these in the excellent Bute Museum just next to Rothesay Castle. Standing stones are located in beautiful locations across the island, including the Ettrick Bay Stone Circle and Kingarth Stone Circle. Seek out the 12th-century St Blane’s Church near Kingarth. It’s remarkably well preserved, and the remains include the nave and part of the chancel. Look out for the enclosure wall. It's over 1,400 years old and marks the boundary between the secular and the spiritual world. The churchyard contains a number of fascinating weathered grave slabs, the most significant of which is the hogback gravestone. These grave markers typically appear as a low, elongated rectangle of stone, with curved sides rising to a ridge that runs the length of the tomb, hence hog-back. Wrongly thought by some to be the grave of St Blane himself, this one it is more likely to be the grave marker of a Viking settler from the 10th century.
Now it’s time to make your way to the Cowal peninsula. Head to the smaller ferry terminal at Rhubodach on the north-east of the island. From here it’s a short hop across to Colintraive.
From Colintraive drive to Clachan of Glendaruel where you’ll find the Kilmodan Stones, a fascinating collection of historic west Highland carved grave slabs exhibited in a burial aisle within Kilmodan churchyard. It’s a beautiful spot and the surrounding woodlands offer wonderful walking. When you’ve finished exploring, drive to Portavadie via Tighnabruaich and catch the CalMac ferry across Loch Fyne to Tarbert on the Kintyre peninsula.
Head down the east coast of Kintyre along the B842 past Carradale until you reach Saddle. Saddell has a small abbey with a fascinating exhibition of old carved stones. From here, there’s a lovely walk to Saddle Bay, the stunning sweep of sand and rocks that was used in the video for Mull Of Kintyre, the song by Paul McCartney and Wings.
Continue south to Campbeltown and then pick up the A83 north to head up the west coast of Kintyre until you reach Ballochroy. Ballachroy Standing Stones is considered the most spectacular set of megalithic monuments that cluster around south Argyll. It consists of three vertical stones, side by side, aligned with various land features. Alexander Thom, known for his work on Stonehenge, maintained that the great length between the stones and the features of distant landscape lent precision to pinpointing the midsummer and winter solstices for ancient observers. The flat face of the central stone indicates the mountain of Cora Bheinn, on the island of Jura, which is 19 miles away. The shortest stone also faces across the alignment, and points to Beinn a' Chaolais, the southernmost of the three Paps of Jura.
Continue north until you reach Kennacraig where you catch the CalMac ferry to the inner Hebridean island of Islay.
One of the most remarkable objects from Scotland’s past that’s, literally, still standing is the Kildalton Cross on Islay. This masterpiece of 8th-century religious art is closely related to three major crosses in Iona – St John’s, St Martin’s and St Oran’s. Perhaps the most surprising feature of the cross is that it still stands where it was erected over 1,200 years ago, making the only early Christian cross still standing in its original position. Excavation in 1882 showed that there was an even earlier Christian cross-slab on the site, as well as burials. The cross stands 2.65m high, and the span of the arms is 1.32m. It is carved from grey-green chlorite schist, a hard and durable local stone that has preserved the carving.
A trip to Finlaggan in the north-east corner of Islay is a must. This island settlement in Loch Finlaggan played a hugely important role during the 14th and 15th centuries. It formed the administrative centre of the Lordship of the Isles, which ruled the islands and part of the west coast of Scotland, from Kintyre to Lewis, virtually independent of royal control. There are two islands, the larger, Eilean Mòr, is accessible by a walkway or boat. About 50 metres from the south tip of Eilean Mòr, is the smaller Eilean na Comhairle (Council Island). It was here that the Lords of the Isles built their council house. The site is well maintained by the Finlaggan Trust, with timber walkways and good information panels. There’s also an Information Centre.
Now catch the ferry back to Kennacraig and continue north along the A83. Just before Tarbert, take the B8024. This road loops around the Kilberry peninsula and rejoins the A83 further north.
The Kilberry Sculptured Stones is a fine collection of late-medieval sculptured stones gathered from the Kilberry estate. The collection comprises three early Christian grave-slabs, all incised with crosses, eight late-medieval West Highland grave-slabs, eight late-medieval cross fragments (including the Kilberry Cross, and another depicting a kneeling female with a rosary), and seven simpler grave-slabs dating from the 1500s and 1600s. The stones are near the fabulous Kilberry Inn, so you could combine your visit with lunch.
Rejoin the A83 to Lochgilphead and then take the A816 north to Kilmartin.
Kilmartin Glen is one of Scotland’s richest and most important prehistoric landscapes. Within six miles of Kilmartin village there are over 350 ancient monuments, including cairns, standing stones and stone circles. One of the highlights of Kilmartin is the famous linear cemetery of burial cairns that run down the floor of the Kilmartin Glen and is linked to standing stones, stone circles and rock art. The two stone circles at Temple Wood and the five Nether Largie standing stones are hugely impressive too. Ballymeanoch, meanwhile, includes an awe-inspiring group of six stones. Kilmartin Glen has some of the most impressive cup and ring decorated rock surfaces in Scotland. Don’t miss the rocky outcrop of Dunadd, the capital of the Ancient Kingdom of Dalriada. Legend has it that the first Kings of Scotland were crowned here. Kilmartin Museum is an excellent place to find out more about the archaeological treasures of the area. There’s also an excellent café.
Continue north along the A816 to reach Oban, where you can take a boat trip to Iona.
Iona Abbey, on the beautiful island of Iona just off Mull, is one of Scotland’s most historic and sacred sites. The abbey was founded by St Columba and his Irish followers in AD 563 and became the heart of the early Scottish church. Little remains of the original buildings. A restored 13th-century medieval abbey, founded by Benedictine monks, now stands on the site of Columba’s church. Beside it there are tall, intricately carved crosses, dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Visitors follow a route to the abbey taken by pilgrims of old – Sràid nam Marbh, ‘the street of the dead’. Look out for Reilig Odhráin – the little cemetery beside Sràid nam Marbh where many ancient Scottish kings were laid to rest.
Head back to Oban and catch the ferry to Coll and Tiree.
Tiree and Coll
Tiree is home to Dun Mor Vaul, an extremely well preserved example of a broch. At one time it was thought to have been around 8 metres high and used primarily as a defensive stronghold only in times of attack by outsiders. Archaeologists believe that later its use changed and it was adapted for use by a family who didn’t require the high walls and partially knocked them down to reuse the stone for a roundhouse within the original walls.
Neighbouring Coll is dotted with archaeological sites, including cairns, Iron Age forts and crannogs. Perhaps the most fascinating is the two Na Sgeulachan (Teller of Tales) standing stones found in the west at Totronald. They may have been used for astronomical purposes or they could have belonged to a temple.