Mealista v. Ardroil

By long and solid tradition in Uig, the spot where the Uig Chessmen were found in 1831 is held to be the Bealach Ban, a hollow in the dunes in Ardroil. In November of last year, a paper by Dr David Caldwell et al in Mediæval Archaeology proposed that, on the evidence of the Ordnance Survey Place Names book compiled by contractors from local information in the 1850s, the findspot may have been a few miles away at Mealista. Anna Mackinnon, Ardroil, wrote an initial response countering that suggestion and gives more evidence from the Place Names book here. This piece appeared earlier this month in the Uig News; thanks to Anna and the Uig News for the opportunity to republish it.  Meanwhile Dr Caldwell will be speaking in Uig about the Chessmen on Thursday 4 March.  Further detail will follow.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been delving into the book of place names collected by the very first Ordnance Survey of the 1850s to find out for myself what’s actually there and to work out how much import can be given to the entry that states that the Chessmen were found in Mealista, in the ruins of Taigh nan Cailleachan Dubha. The Place Names book is easily accessible, on microfiche in the Stornoway Library.

I have to say that it’s an example of meticulous paperwork, a colossal amount of painstaking effort must have gone into its compilation but to the 21st century eye, it looks fussy and overdone. It’s handwritten and ruled out in column after column: place name; its correct spelling; any other known variation of the spelling; the location; the English “significance” i.e. translation of the name; the names of the person or persons who were the authorities for the information and of the Ordnance Survey Clerks who wrote it all down and, finally, a column for comments.

We used to be advised as students not to use it as a reliable source as the information was only as good as the knowledge of the informant and also, because its accuracy could have been compromised in translation. There’s a long time since I last looked at it and this time round, I found its main impact, apart from its painstaking “clerkery,” was the sheer volume of place names in the parish of Uig. Going through the pages nearer home, I felt as if I was meeting old friends as place names jumped out at me from the screen, names I used to hear in daily conversation, which are now rarely, if ever, aired.

I was also intrigued by the names of the local informants of the 1850s. I would really like to go back to it and list them all down to see how many can be identified with the help of the census returns. I found my great, great grandfather, Murdo Macleod, Gisla, (Murchadh Ghioslaigh) and his neighbour and brother-in-law, John Macdonald, (Iain Laghach) reeling off names. That pinpoints the collecting of place names to before 1853 and the Gisla clearance, after which all the Laghach family but two ended up in Quebec.

From memory, I was sure that the Chessmen were noted in the pages relating to the Ardroil area although the name Ardroil wasn’t in use in its present form as early as the 1850s. The farm was known initially by variations of Eadar Dha Fhadhail, such as Ederol. The entry about Chessmen is there, under the place name “Bealach Ban.”  It reads, “A glen on the south side of Camus Uig, it is composed of sand. A few years back a number of carved Ivory images of horses, sheep and other animals were found in this glen. Signifies white glen or pass.”


no images were found

A stone mould for a crusie, an oil lamp of ancient design once in common use throughout the Hebrides.This mould, of unknown provenance, is in our museum collection but unfortunately we don’t have a crusie itself, much as we would love to.  (This piece is the first in an occasional series on objects in our collection.)  From Highland Folk Ways, Isabel F Grant (1961):

Crusies were mainly used in the islands and the coastwise districts because fish oil was the usual illuminant (although mutton fat might be used). The crusie consisted of two leaf-shaped vessels, the upper one fixed on a ratchet above the lower one, so that the drip should be caught and the crusie could be tilted forward to use every drop of the oil. I have been told that peeling the rushes which were used as wicks was one of the children’s jobs. A thin sliver of the outside was always left to prevent the pith from breaking. Occasionally square crusies were made with four lips and I have been told that these were used by craftsmen.

To make crusies a thin plate of iron was hammered into a mould and some Highland blacksmiths had such a mould in the corner of their anvils, but I had a crusie-mould made of stone that came from the island of Tiree. Crusies vary much in shape, some clumsy, others elegant, and also in the amount of iron used in their making. A few have decorative curley-worleys on the back of the crusie. I have, however, twice come across crusies made out of a natural knot of firewood, one of the many devices for economising the use of iron, and I have seen a prehistoric stone lamp that had evidently been used in later times. Middle-aged people [in 1961] can remember when crusies were still sometimes used to light byres or threshing barns.

One notable difference in the Hebrides was the use of bird oil in the lamps.

A study of the crusie, particularly in its Zetlandic form and Norse origins, was made by Gilbert Goudie for the Scottish Society of Antiquities and published by in the Proceedings of the Society of 23 January 1888:

The Crusie, like many articles indispensable at one time in domestic use, has passed quietly out of view, superseded by more modern appliances. Too common, too trivial for the notice of the historian, it has left in its demise scarcely so much as an epitaph. The name, and a vague impression of what it may have been, is perhaps all that is known of it to the younger grade of the present generation.

Turning to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition, we find the following description of the primitive lamp of this country:-

The simple form which was used down to the end of the eighteenth century, and which as a ‘crusie’ continued in common use in Scotland till the middle of this century, illustrates the most elementary and most imperfect arrangement of a lamp. Here, as in the lamps of antiquity, the oil vessel lies immediately behind the burning point of the wick, with which the oil is about level when the reservoir is full. The wick is a round soft cord or fibrous mass. Such a lamp has no merit but simplicity. The light is thrown only forward and to the sides, the back being entirely in shadow. The wick, being a round solid mass, takes up the oil equally at the centre and circumference; but to the outer edges of the flame only is there any access of air; consequently combustion in the centre is imperfect, resulting in a smoky, unsteady flame, and a discharge into the atmosphere of the acrid products of destructive distillation. Further as the level of oil sinks in the reservoir, the wick has to feed the flame a greater distance by mere capillary force, and, the supply thus diminishing, the light decreases in proportion.

Such is the latest, and probably the fullest and most authentic description of the old Scottish lamp available for general readers; and though imperfect, and with some slight misunderstandings, it is fairly accurate. But no drawing is given, and the precise form and dimensions are open to conjecture.

Blackhouse Model for Green Homes

 An article by Mary Beith, first published in the Scotsman in July 1990.  Thanks to Mary for the opportunity to republish it.

A group of architects and others at Manchester University who had been devoting a great deal of time and thought to devising the environmentally ideal house of the future were understandably well pleased with the outcome of their researches.

That home would be long, narrow and rectangular, easy to span – thus cutting down on timber – highly insulated and with minimal windows; it would be a single volume house, not a series of separate rooms to ceiling level but divided by two-metre high partitions where the air could circulate freely above; and there would be a centralised heating source.

When one of the group contacted Bruce Walker, a lecture in architecture at the Duncan of Jordanston College and Dundee University, now on secondment to Historic Buildings and Monuments, the latter listened with not a little quiet amusement to the list of specifications for the ultimate in green homes.

“What you have just described,” he told his informant, “is a Western Isles black house – without the peat smoke.”

They have tremendous advantages, says Dr Walker: “Especially in that they were so much easier to heat with 100 per cent energy efficiency from the central fire which could generate the equivalent of 7 kilowatts. Later island houses had gable hearths with only 18 to 20 per cent efficiency with the bulk of the heat going out the chimney and even a modern stove is only 65 per cent efficient.”

Careful experiments with plastic models, incense and lightbulbs have proved not only the energy conservation qualities of the blackhouses but also the ingenious methods of their builders. That very peat smoke had its uses and there were ways of avoiding its disadvantages.  The uneven-looking roofs and somewhat ill-fitting doors were not, Dr Walker had found, the results of haphazard and shoddy workmanship but a clever way of setting up convection currents caused by the heat given off by the cattle in the integral byre.

Theories about the Cave of Swords

A mysterious cave full of swords was once discovered on Mealisval, but the could not be found again.  Dave Roberts gave the story of the discovery of the cave in an article for Uig News and here gives a range of possible explanations.

In the Iron Age (2000 years ago) people often deposited weapons made of bronze or iron into water. They also built and used underground passage ways – thought by some to have been routes to the ‘underworld’. In Orkney there are a number of manmade shafts with steps that lead downwards into the ground. Some of these have water in, and could have been wells, but others have no permanent water in the bottom. Could the Mealaisbhal cave with its staircase, be an Iron Age route to the underworld, and were the swords an offering to the gods?

Other people have suggested that the swords are more recent than that. Perhaps they have a connection to a famous and desperate fugitive from justice, who lived in the Uig hills in the mid-nineteenth century. In the stories, Mac an t-Sronaich was supposed to be a very violent man who threatened, accosted and even murdered people. The official records however suggest that this was a gross distortion of the truth. Did he have an arsenal of weapons hidden in a cave? He is reputedly associated with just about every cave in Uig, and many much further afield. Many of the tales about him describe his aggression, but none make any reference to swords.

A much more convincing theory is that the cave was a hiding place in the period immediately after 16th April 1746. In the aftermath of Culloden, and the defeat of the Jacobite army under the command of Charles Edward Stuart – everything ‘Highland’ became forbidden. This included the wearing of the kilt and the bearing of arms. Many of the people hid their now illegal weapons wherever they could. Some secreted claymores in the thatch of their houses. Maybe the Uig upper-enders hid theirs in a cave on Mealaisbhal. Their weapons would have been totally undetectable, but quickly and easily accessible if the need arose.