[Yn Lioar Manninagh Vol 1 No 2 pp49/55]



(Read 7th February, 1889.)

IN looking for authorities on this subject, I find only two books which give anything like a detailed account of the structure, and both, in my opinion, are to a certain extent erroneous. They, are Oswald’s Vestigia, and Cumming’s Guide to the Isle of Man, 1861.

Oswald, as you are aware, says :—" This example comprises a series of stones on the east, placed in semilunar or circular form (apparently he was not quite certain which at the time he wrote), from which a flat terrace of loose stones leads westward to the brow of a ravine, where it terminates in a large cairn of stones, thirty feet in diameter, out of which rises a tall, thin, conical slab, to the height of 10ft. and upwards. The broogh on the West and the semi-circle of stones on the East, are distant from each other upwards of 40 yards. (On his plan (fig. i, plate 9), he gives the distance as "about 90 yards," which is near about correct.) The terrace connecting them is bisected by the high-road, and on being opened was found to be made up of two rows of immense flat boulders, placed edgeways, four feet apart, and inclining towards each other, so as to form an arch. Was this a low passage between the two extremities, or was it a vault for the remains of the dead ?" To this description Mr Cumming adds that the owner "broke into a dome-shaped vault, similar to that which existed at the Cloven Stones." Probably that described by Train in these words :—" The excavation laid open a tumulus of about 200 feet in diameter, exposing on two opposite sides of it the base of an arch, which in rough stone, was formerly sprung over the spot, enclosing an interior vault of 15 feet square. Near the centre of the vault is a tomb of a most singular and unique construction. Two large convex stones form the sides of the tomb. They measure 9 feet in length, by 6 feet broad, and 8 inches in thickness. These are placed upon one edge, about 3 feet apart at the bottom, and inclining towards each other as they rise, leaving a small aperture at the top of a foot or eighteen inches in width. Over this, in all probability, a thin cover stone had been laid, but which had been broken to pieces in the course of time." So, in the cairn at Gretch Veg, there was, according to Cumming, "in the centre a kist vaen, composed of two large slabs of schist placed parallel to each other in a direction nearly east and west, but inclining towards each other above. At the extremities of these originally there had been placed thin slabs of the same rock; these were broken. Inside were the teeth of a horse, and some brittle bones," and, I may add, a piece of curved iron pierced with square holes, and somewhat resembling a very small thin horse shoe. If such it was, the horse could have been no larger than a small Shetland pony.

The visit of the Excursion from the British Association in 1887, and the remarks then made, will be quite fresh in the memories of our members. Since that time, and principally during the past few months, I have paid some attention to these remains, and I now have the pleasure of laying my observations before this Society. First, as to the monolith at the western end; this I find to be 9 feet high, 2 feet 5 inches wide at the base, and 6 inches thick, and from its present sloping position I imagine that it is not very deeply set in the ground; in fact it appears to be gradually falling, and must eventually do so as the soft earth is washed away by the rain from the eastern base. Eight feet westward of the monolith is a recumbent stone 2 feet 5 inches in length, standing with the ends east and west, and another 9 feet west of this, or 17 feet from the base of the pillar, is a stone of smaller dimensions, evidently one of those forming the western circle mentioned by Dr Oswald. Another stone of this circle stands about 3 feet away towards the north. A third stone, of smaller size than those just alluded to, stands i. feet due north of the central pillar, but apparantly did not form part of the circle. There is, however, a stone a little further north and west, on the edge of the glen or "ravine," which may have formed one of the circle, as it is 17 feet away from the base of the pillar. These three stones at a distance of 17 feet each from the pillar, one due north, the others almost due west, are, I believe, the only stones left in situe of that circle or "cairn of stones 30 feet in diameter," or, more correctly 34 feet. Measuring 17 feet to the southward, lands us in a cultivated garden, and of course all traces of ancient remains have been removed from thence. About 2 feet eastward of the pillar commences the long narrow aperture known as " King Orry’s Grave," which, so far as we can judge, appears to have been divided into sections, the first, and only perfect one of which measures about 10 feet in length by 3 feet 10 inches in width; each side being composed of large slabs, those on the north side measuring 4 feet and 6 feet respectively, whilst the south side is made tip of a stone 4 feet 8 inches in length, then a small space, followed by another stone 4 feet long, and again a space up to the end of the section, which is terminated by two thinner slabs placed transversely, with an oval aperture between them. The northernmost of these stones stands exactly 4 feet above the soil in the bottom of the cavity, and the other one 3 feet 11 inches, it having apparently sank a little, judging from the angles at the aperture, the stones not being in exact apposition. The length of the aperature is 24 inches, and the width at the centre 10 inches, so that if used for the deposition of urns within the adjoining section, as has been supposed, the urns so introduced must have been extremely small. It seems more probable—as suggested by the Rev E. B. Savage—that the aperture was left as a means of access by which the spirits of the dead buried there could pass from one section of the grave to another. I was some time ago told by the owner of the land that when he cleared out this section of the grave, he found an immense slab which sounded hollow, and he was of the opinion that another cavity exists beneath. Such may be the case, but when we are told that this buried slab is inscribed with " figures of stars, diamonds (or fusils), and triangles,’ why, we naturally take it cum grano salis — or a little more.

Passing the transverse barrier into the second section, we find that the side slabs are not nearly as upright as in the section we have just left, but whilst the aperature remains the same width at the bottom, the slabs incline so much towards each other at the top as to leave but a very narrow opening, not more than 2 feet wide. The sides of this section, or what remains of it, are formed of three stones, two on the north and one on the south, the former measuring 3½ feet and 10 feet respectively, and the latter, or south stone, 9 feet 6 inches, these being the largest stones now existing in the cairn. Whether there were any transverse stones forming a barrier here it is impossible now to ascertain, for here the "grave" abruptly ends; its continuity being interrupted by a portion of disturbed ground, a flagged walk, a couple of cottages, and the old road leading over the hill to the Dhoon. "A recent writer," of whose personality we have no knowledge, writing in a "popular" guide in 1876, has some rather severe strictures upon the designers of this road ; but what interests us most in his article is the statement that he gathered, "from a careful examination of the locality, that a large number of the graves were obliterated during the construction of the road." Whether he means by this that a large number of the sections of this one cairn were destroyed, or that a number of other graves external to and besides this met that fate I do not know, but most probably the former.

Be that as it may, when we have crossed this via vexata we come to the eastern portion of the cairn, situated on considerably higher ground than the western end, and possessing a character, I think, peculiarly its own. It may be remembered (and it appears in the " Report ") that Professor Boyd Dawkins gave it as his opinion that this portion of the cairn was not continuous with that at the western end, but formed a place of burial distinct from the other. I think this was a mistake of his, arising from his position at the south-east angle of the cist, and taking the line of the southern side as his guide, this line crossing the northern line at an acute angle a short distance away, and passing to the rear of Kelly’s house, instead of traversing it, as the north line does.

It is with the published descriptions of this eastern end of the grave that I am most at variance. It has hitherto been described as a circle, or a section of a circle, or "a series of stones placed in a semilunar or circular form," and we have been led thereby to suppose that it had or may have had at some time something to do with moon-worship, that it was, in fact, a Ra fhail. The idea seems to have been that there was a long subterranean vault or passage covered with a flat terrace of stones, and uniting a circle of the sun at one extremity with a circle, or semicircle of the moon at the other; but I am afraid I shall have to upset this theory, beautiful as it may appear especially as regards the circle of the moon. Oswald’s plan distinctly shows a perfect semicircle—there is no doubt about it—with the convexity towards the west; but if there is a semicircle at all in the structure, which I very much doubt, the convexity is the other way. In fact, Oswald's semicircle is a right angle, as I shall show, and as an examination of the remains will certify.

But first a word as to the last or easternmost section of the long grave, continued from the circle on the west. The north side of the cist is formed by one large deep slab, not sloping much, and measuring about six feet in length. This appears to run in a direct line with the north side of the western portion of the grave, and was, doubtless, originally continuous with it. The south side is formed by two stones, one 3 feet, the other 3 feet 8 inches long, placed end to end, like all the rest, but these do not lie parallel to the stone on the north side of the cist, the opening between them being 6 feet 5 inches wide at the eastern end, and contracting to 3 feet 6 inches at the west. This diagonal direction of the south side does not appear to be owing to accidental misplacement, but is part of the original design; why, I cannot say. There are no appearances of the cist having been closed at the west end by a pair of stones similar to the eastern end of the first section, nor can I hear of any stones having been removed, at least since the adjoining house was built. ‘What was done then we don’t know, though I have made all possible inquiry, but we may fear the worst. At the eastern end of the cist, however, are four large upright stones, varying in dimension from the soil to the summit, wide at the base and narrow at the top, or narrow at the base and wide at the top, or widest midway in the height. Each varies from the other, but, taken collectively, they form a straight line from north to south of about 17 feet, and about 15 feet south of them is another massive stone almost hidden in the remains of a hedge. The southernmost of the four stones referred to is 4 feet wide, and stands external to the south wall of the cist; the next to the north is ~ feet wide, and the next i foot, at the base, these two last closing in the east end of the cist. Outside these again is the last of the line, a stone ~ feet wide. There is then a vacancy of two or three feet, and, beyond that, at a distance of about 17 feet from the south end of the line, stands what for convenience we may call the corner stone, measuring 2 feet 7 inches, east and west. Eastward of this we have a space of about 4 feet, and then a line of three stones running at a right angle to those just named. The first stone after the space is a long thick slab, like the stone of a cist, measuring 8 feet, and beyond that a stone of 4 feet, then a small space, and again a stone measuring 3 feet, close up to the hedge which separates these remains from the adjoining field. How much, if any, farther eastward the cairn extended we have no means of ascertaining, as all the land beyond this point is cultivated, In the hedge, however, are six or seven large stones, and, as the hedge is curvilinear, these may have given rise to the idea that there was an eastern circle, but I do not think such an opinion tenable after a thorough examination of the ground. The section of a circle (almost a quarter) formed by the hedge has the concavity towards the north.west. If the circle was complete on the line of the hedge the long grave would not terminate in the centre of the circle, as at the western end, but in the southern half-circle; and, if the hedge formed a circle, why this angle of large stones in the south-cast quarter of the circle? Two other stones remain to be noticed. These are placed within the north line, and parallel to it at a distance of about 5 feet, the westernmost being some 3 feet long, and the other one 4 or 5 feet eastward, measuring only about a foot in width. All the eight stones forming the north and west lines, it should be noted do not have their bases on a level with the floor of the cist, but on the natural surface of the ground, about on a level with the upper edges of the slabs forming the walls of the cist.

And now arises the question :—Why should one extremity of this extensive barrow be made circular and the other square, as it appears to have been, and half the diameter of the circle at the other end ? You will remember the instance I mentioned at the Cloven Stones, where Train describes a vault of 15 feet square, nearly the same size as this, but that seems to have been enclosed in a circular tumulus, and not at the end of a long barrow. That one, too, enclosed an internal kistvaen, whilst we have no evidence, written or oral, of such having existed here, and certainly the ground bears no appearance of having borne any such structure if we except the two stones internal to the north line, and they are scarcely of a character suited to the formation of a cist. Looking at the next parish, however, that of Maughold, and again consulting Oswald, we find some remains not very much dissimilar, except in extent, to those under notice. I refer to the "Caishtal Ree Orry," of which Oswald says:—(Vestigia, p. 66) a "circle of stones occupied the corner of a field, and the parallelogram contiguous to it appeared a platform about 4 feet high, of an uneven surface, and covered with green sod. The circle, composed of massive stones, stood on its southern end, seemingly an object of minor importance. . . . The circumference of the whole ruin is 90 yards, and the diameter of the circle 10 yards. This structure cannot be said to be merely a grave or burial place," but it "appears to have been a dwelling of some importance, having a druidical circle or temple attached. . . . At any rate, it is an example of some important structure existing in ages to which are ascribed the temples of the Druids." Leaving out the words "druids" and "druidical," this description tallies very much with the structure of "King Orry’s Grave," if we suppose that the square (about 4 feet high for the most part) were originally walled up in the interspaces with sod, and covered in, and if of later date than the long barrow and circle, we may readily imagine that it "may have been the domicile of pagans," perhaps the Norwegian residents of that " Greta-stadt" mentioned in an old document, before their conversion to Christianity, and still remaining, in part, as a curious illustration of the ethnology and civilisation of the dark ages.

There is another theory, however, which I think worthy of notice, and which briefly stated, is this :—It is certain that what is called "dual interment" was extensively practised in early times in these islands, and evidence derived both from cremation and from non-cremation tumuli of the stone age proves that, before the final interment, the bodies had been placed somewhere else until the flesh had more less completely disappeared from the bones. The place, or places, where the bodies were first deposited must have been made secure against the attacks of predatory animals, though our knowledge of similar customs in other countries makes it probable that birds of prey were not objected to. The depositaries must have been open enclosures, but though the modern Parsee depositary is enclosed by a high circular wall of brick or mud it does not follow that those of the ancients were of the same shape. The wall would be constructed, according to custom, by making a fence of stones, more or less separated, to support a wall of earth, and when the earth was washed away by natural agencies the fence of stones would be left bare. In some cases the intervals between the stones may have been filled by palisading or wattlework, and the wall was probably crowned with thorns or stakes as a further protection. Such an enclosure would be large if intended for the use of a tribe, and small if only for one family. The condition of the remains of bodies in some barrows shows that but few skeletons were originally placed there in a perfect state; hence it is likely that an attempt would be made to still further secure the primary depositaries, against depredation. These depositaries would he cleared at certain times, and great funerals would take place, giving rise to imposing ceremonies and to those professional rites for which so much preparation was made in connection with all the larger stone circles. If this were done in relation to some solar aspect, the use of the gnomon set up outside so many circles would be indicated. In this connection the monolith at the western end of this cairn may have been erected as a gnomon, only inside instead of outside the circle. In the isles of Greece, where secondary interment is still practised, the final funeral of many bodies is periodical, and is accompanied by processional ceremonies, and may not the funeral processions of our own time and country be traced back to those far off days of the stone age. My opinion is that the square, or angular termination at the eastern end of the cairn of Gretch Veg, is the rudimentary representative, at the least, of one of these primary depositaries, or enclosures for the protection of bodies against predatory animals during an exposure preliminary to interment, and that from thence the skeletons were removed, with more less of ceremony, for "final" interment in the adjoining barrow, and perhaps also in some other neighbouring cists.


Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 1999