Loch Eriboll In Sutherland
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In memory of our son James Emerson Hendry who discovered the fossil traces on the top in the hills above Loch Eriboll in 1987
Loch Eriboll is a 16 km (9.9 mi) long sheltered sea loch on the north coast of Scotland. As it is a safe haven from the often stormy seas of Cape Wrath and the Pentland Firth it has been used over the years as a safe deep water anchorage by the Royal Navy and no doubt by other seafarers back over the centuries. One does not have to try to hard to envisage Viking longboats or Highland birlins riding at anchor in its sheltered waters.
There are the crofting townships of Eriboll, Laid, Heilam, Portnancon and Rispond scattered around the shores of the loch but it is a relatively wild and empty landscape, famously nicknamed "Loch 'Orrible" by the sailors of WW1. However in times gone by the area was certainly more populatous and on the west side of the Loch and in the hills above are a couple of sites of some of the earlier human habitation.
The following places are all covered by the OS Landranger series map for Cape Wrath - Landranger 9. I have provided an approximate grid reference for each location and I would recommend to have one to hand.
Port na Conn Souterrain.
Marked on the OS map at grid reference 428613.
The first piece of prehistory is in the form of a souterrain. Located besie the A838 just before the turning to the few houses and pier that go by the name Portnancon, (coming from the Durness side). There is nothing above ground to help find the site and the entrance is hidden in the bracken and heather but its is not far from the road on the loch side.
Generally associated with the iron aged there are a number of different theories as to what souterrains were actually used from food stores to hiding places during times of strife. Generally they are associated with settlements and in the case of the Loch Eriboll one there are traces of hut circle close by. I believe it would seem likely that not all the structues called souterrains on the OS maps where all constructed for the same purpose, and some at least have no doubt fulfill different roles during their existance. Some would seem to have been relatively spacious and have fairly ovious entrances for example Raitts \ Lynchat just north of Kingussie by the A9. The Loch Eriboll souterrain however does have a narrow entrance and itself is not exactly spacious inside, which may simply refelect the geology and how easy or difficult the ground was to excavate.
Port na Conn Souterrain in 1987
Top - the fooded chamber
Left - the entrance with youngest son
peering out of the gloom!
This souterrain has twelve stone steps lead downwards into the main chamber, and previous investgations suggest the passage is about 1 to 1.5 metres wide and 8 or 9 metres long ending in a chamber about 1.6 metres wide and 1.4 metres high. Unfortunately the chamber is mostly flooded so the distance one can investigate is limited. The local name An Leabaidh-Fholaich means 'The Hiding Place' suggests that at some time at least it was used to hide people or possibly goods?
The Meall Meadhonach Wheelhouse.
Marked on the OS map at grid reference 404611. You are venturing onto fairly featureless and barren hills so a map, decent weatherproof outer garments and boots are essential. Remember the weather conditions can change very quickly!
In the hills above the same stretch of road are the remains of a Wheelhouse which probably dates back to the Iron Age. To get there follow the burn on the other side of the road from the souterrain. Where it splits stick to the left had fork and keep heading up into the hills until you come across two lochans. The wheelhouse is of to the left on the shoulder of a hillock past the two lochans.
This structure given the local name of Tigh Na Fiarnain or 'House of the Fingalians' lies high up in the hills above Loch Eriboll on high moorland on the slope of the small hillock, close by a couple of Lochans. First mentioned in 1925 it is approximately circular with six "standing stones" set in a further circle inside which would have carried radiating stone slabs, like the spikes of a wheel, to the surrounding wall. This would prsemably have allowed the construction of the roof to be finished off with possibly a combination of further stone slabs and\or turfs. The basic plan, though small, resembles the iron age wheelhouses of Shetland, although comparison of the original 1925 report on the structure to its current condition suggests that some re-construction has taken place. It may be that the initial structure has been put to later occasional use over the centuries?
"Once these hills were the floor of an ancient ocean".
NOT marked on the OS map but approximate grid reference 408609. As before you are venturing onto fairly featureless and barren hills so a map, decent weatherproof outer garments and boots are essential. Remember the weather conditions can change very quickly!
Not too far away from the wheelhouse are remains of a different and very much older kind. Seemingly incised into the bedrock are what at first glance might be taken as some form of carving. In fact when my son first came across this site we wondered if they might be some kind of weird runic carving as we had seen the runic grafitee in Maes Howe tomb on Orkney a few days previously.
Example of Runic script carved into rock.
After finding these photographs were duly taken and passed to our local museum who themselves were baffled although fairly sure they were not Runic. They in turn passed the images onto Robert Gourlay the Highlands Reginal Archaeologist at the time. He was intrigued and it was agreed that we would meet and take him to the site. The following summer we all met in a layby and again set of up into the hills and more photographs were taken. Once more the marks were deemed not to be Runic but with no immediate expanation as to what they actually were.
These are the marks discovered by James
Note the resemblance of some of the markings
on the slab in the third photographto the some of the characters in the
Runic script shown above.
Evetually a letter was forwarded to us from Dr Tom Mackie who had examined the photograps which suggested that the most likely source of the marks were the fossilised traces of the "tunnels" made by a burrowing worm from the Silurian Period which occurred from 443 million to 416 million years ago. Although it would seem that there were more a few such worms Dr Mackie "best guess" art the time was the most likely candidate was one called Diplocraterion. An Image of (Dr Mackie's Letter much of which sails over my head...
However if I undertstand the theory correctly these were creatures who lived in U shaped burrows in the sand\mud of intertidal and shallow subtidal environments. (?possibly not unlike the lugworms whose casts and blow holes connected by a similar U shaped tunnel can be found below the tideline on most UK beaches - see example right?). The sand and mud they inhabitated became rock and was then eroded by glaciation leaving just the trace of the "U bend" in the rock. Need less to say we were all quite chuffed to have stumbled across this phenominon
To get there follow the directions until you get to the wheelhouse and then continue up on to the top of Meall Meadhonach. You will be confronted with many slabs of bedrock at which point it becomes a case of looking for the particular ones with the markings. Good luck!
The Echo from the cliffs of Creag an Faoilinn.
Cliffs shown on the OS map at grid reference 539395.
If you are journeying around the loch it is worth stopping beneath the crags of Creag an Faoilinn at the head of the loch, getting out of the car and shouting at the cliffs. If you are in the right place you will be treated to a remarkable echo which I can confirm having done this very thing one morning on route from Durness to John O'Groats many years ago. There is of course the issue that you will get some odd looks from any other road users but fortunately these are few and far between.
Ard Neackie, Heilam Ferry cottage and the Limekilns.
Marked on the OS map at grid reference 445597.
Ard Neackie across Loch Eribollfrom the slopes of Meall Meadhonach.
A small scale lime industry developed here in the 19th century on the Ard Neackie peninsula which was also the the location of the eatern end of the Heilam Ferry which used to ply across the loch from Ard Neackie to Port nan Con across non the western shore the loch. The peninsula itself is a picturesque mound of land only just missing out on being a "proper Insula" by being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip of sand and shingle where the Tongue road descends from the east. The ferry ceased operation in the 1890s when the road around the loch was completed, but the ferry house built in 1831 still stands. Also on the peninsula are four large lime kilns built in 1870 built by the Reay estate which produced large amounts of lime which was loaded it into ships.