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The Kilmartin Valley (Argyll, Scotland)

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There are more than 350 ancient monuments within a six-mile radius of the village of Kilmartin, Argyll: 150 of them are prehistoric. This extraordinary concentration and diversity of monuments distinguishes the Kilmartin valley as an area of outstanding archaeological importance. Kilmartin House is a world-class centre for archaeology and landscape interpretation which combines a Museum of Ancient Culture and a unique and vibrant visitor centre including intense audio-visual experience "The Valley of Ghosts".

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      14.03.2006 23:21
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      This is a great day for all the family, with much to discover.

      You have to see this place to believe it. What if I was to tell you that within a six miles radius of the village of Kilmartin, there are 350 monuments, 150 of them prehistoric? You might wonder why you have never heard of it (unless of course you have heard of it!). To me, this should be a UNESCO World Heritage site. Instead, it is a little known spot, and the excellent Kilmartin House Museum (see below), nearly closed last year due to lack of funds.


      ~Where is it?~
      **************

      Kilmartin valley is in mid-Argyll, about 100 miles northwest of Glasgow and can only be accessed by road. If you don’t have a car or don’t wish to drive, you can get a bus from Glasgow to Lochgilphead, and then you can get a taxi or catch the Oban bus, getting off at Kilmartin. Alternatively, you can get a train to Oban (a little more touristy than Lochgilphead and offering ferry routes to a lot of the islands) and from there get the Lochgilphead bus. Perhaps I have just stumbled upon one of the reasons why this place is not better known… The shocking lack of public transport in this area!


      ~What’s so special about it?~
      **************************

      The sheer number of monuments, spanning millennia, is absolutely amazing. You cannot turn around without tripping over something of archaeological interest! There are standing stones, stone circles, cairns, rock carvings, henges, barrows, duns, crannogs, forts, castles, carved grave stones, and more, all testifying to a long and sustained human occupation. This gives the place a very unique atmosphere and the visitor cannot help but reflect upon his/her place within the human race. All this is brought together and interpreted brilliantly in the museum, where you can see some of the finds (or replicas of these) and then look out of the window to see where they came from.


      ~ Kilmartin House museum ~
      ***********************

      My advice if you visit Kilmartin Glen is to start with a visit to Kilmartin House museum. You can do the visit whichever way you want, but if you arrive as one of the slide shows is about to begin, this makes an excellent starting point. This strikingly atmospheric audio-visual presentation really sets the scene. It is not a history lesson, but is designed to make you discover the beauty and get a feel for the timeless, unearthly character of the valley. Evocatively titled “the Valley of Ghosts”, it makes good use of 12 projectors to show 600 slides in a brief 16 minutes.

      You could then move on to the museum of ancient culture where you will be able to discover how the hunters, farmers and warriors lived in the valley, in a very hands-on manner. The first room contains a large relief map of the Glen which helps to visualise the valley as a whole. A time scale helps to understand the history of the valley against the history of the rest of the world. The landscape itself in Kilmartin is almost as interesting as the archaeology that litters it. I have always had a distant interest in geology, but I don’t actually know much about it. All I can tell you is the valley was first formed by glaciers. When standing in the valley itself, one is struck by the profile of the landscape: a very flat bottom, where the glaciers once were, fringed by flat terraces of gravel and till deposited by melt water. The village of Kilmartin sits on such a terrace, dominating the valley below. As time passed, the landscape evolved in Kilmartin Glen. The floor of the valley became covered by an ever growing bog, concealing the ancient monuments from sight for centuries. It is only 200 years ago that the land was drained to make room for agriculture, and parts of the bog were cut to be used as fuel. Some of it remains to this day though, still rising by a millimetre every year. This part of the valley is called the ‘moine mhor’, Gaelic for ‘Great Moss’. I have not yet visited this part of the valley, but I believe this national nature reserve is home to some wonderful wildlife. It was this changing environment that saw the establishment of Dunadd fort, believed to be of central importance in the 6th to 8th centuries AD.


      Continuing the visit, you will discover the varied diet the inhabitants of the valley indulged in 7,000 years ago. You will see the tools they used (and try your hand at some of them), and hear the sounds of their strange music.

      Part of the museum is devoted to the spiritual side of the life of these ancient people. With many of the monuments being linked to burials, you cannot escape this aspect, which still retains its mysteries for the modern visitor. More questions asked than questions answered here, but to me that is part of the appeal of these types of places.

      This visit is suitable for all ages, and there is plenty for children to do: they can make flour using stones, try some ancient instruments, feel the fur of different animals that would have been hunted by the ancient inhabitants of the valley (adults can do all this too, of course). The price for visiting is a very reasonable £4.50 for adults, £1.50 for children and a family will need to pay only £10.00.

      Before you leave Kilmartin house, take a look round the small but very well supplied book/gift shop. There are many excellent books about Kilmartin and other places of interest in Scotland, about Scottish history and prehistory, and some lovely gifts. No tourist tat here, thank you very much.

      Time to go and see the monuments themselves now! But wait a minute, it’s nearly lunchtime… No point setting off on an empty stomach now, is there? Luckily, there is an excellent café attached to the museum. You sit in a beautiful green oak conservatory, overlooking one of the cairns you will be checking out later. Very few places in this part of the world (Argyll) make food that is worth a mention, and they usually can’t make coffee either. It’s a very different story here. This place makes full use of the beautiful produce Scotland has to offer to prepare fresh, wholesome food, from snacks to more substantial lunches. It’s excellent value too. And the coffee is great.

      I have to mention the toilets while I am at it (a kind of logical progression). If you go there in spring/summer, watch yourself… Sparrows are in the habit of making their nest in there (usually 2), and they fly in and out constantly, with little regard to the consideration normally afforded to tourists and visitors. You will see 5 or 6 little sparrows in each nest, waiting for their returning parents with open beak, a lovely sight.

      Right, let’s go and see the monuments. If you plan to visit, check out the website, as you might be lucky enough to go on a day when an organised walk is taking place. Joining one of these means you will see a lot more than you would left to your own devices, and you will hear an interesting commentary too. Whether with a guide or on your own, dress appropriately for the weather (and remember, it can be very changeable in Scotland) and if it is wet, wear wellies or decent footwear. This is not a difficult walk, but you might find you walk further than you had planned, because you will want to see as much as you can. The best walk I had around there was on a day when my husband dropped my son and I off on his way to a meeting and picked us up again at the other end of the valley, which meant we only had to walk one way. It still took us about 2 hours.


      ~Kilmartin Glen~
      ****************

      When you leave Kilmartin house (on foot), turn left and follow the road down to a garage. Then enter the field on your left and walk towards the northernmost cairn. Two cists (stone-lined graves) were found during excavations, containing two food vessels and a jet necklace. Both food vessels can be seen in the museum. This cairn is the first of what has been called the linear cemetery, 5 cairns perfectly aligned along a rough south-west to north east orientation. There is some debate as to whether this is significant or simply due to coincidence (There were many more cairns here in the past, and not all of them were aligned. The cairns also follow the natural geography of the valley to some extent). The second cairn has a modern hatch built into it which allows visitors to descend into a (modern) chamber which contains a cist. Two of the slabs that make it up are decorated with cupmark and axehead motifs. The fourth is the only chambered cairn and was in use for perhaps a thousand years. There is evidence of it having been used around 2,500 BC. You can actually go into the chamber, which I found a rather strange and exciting experience.

      Nearby are two stone circles, one of which is believed to be aligned with the midday sun on the winter solstice. I love this part of the Glen, as it is very atmospheric. The stone circles are set against a background of trees and, in the spring, bluebells. It is very peaceful there (apart from the occasional attack from the ferocious Scottish midge! If you have never encountered these pesky little horrors, you have never known real fear!!!). One of the circles has a cist in its centre, although this is probably a later addition. One of the stones has a double spiral motif carved onto it, reminiscent of Irish rock art.

      Further on comes what is for me the jewel in the crown. The ‘Nether Largie’ standing stones are a striking sight, mostly because of the way they are aligned. The 5 main stones stand in two pairs facing each other 60 or so metres apart, with another cup mark stone in the middle. There are a few lesser stones around as well. I defy anyone to stand there and not feel awed by the sight of these beautiful stones. The resident cows don’t appear to think very much of it all though…

      Let’s now take a short walk towards the final place I will take you to on this tour. On a sheet of bedrock in a nearby field, we can observe one feature which for me is synonym with this area (although for all I know it might exist in other places, I really have no idea). I’m talking about rocks which have been left in situ but carved with cupmarks (small circular depressions), some with one or two rings carved around them. This particular example has a great many cupmarks on it. What are they? Who made them? I just love thinking about that, but all we have are theories. They all have their merits but I guess we will never know. And in a way, I don’t really want to know. I love the mystery to be left intact, in this “Valley of Ghosts”.

      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      This was just a quick tour I took you on, but there are many more things to see around the area. In particular, in Kilmartin cemetery, near the church, there is a remarkable array of fine medieval carved grave slabs. And of course, a short drive away, the remnants of Dunnad fort. But this will have to wait for another day.

      Thanks for reading.

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