Clach mor an che standing stone

The 1928 ‘Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions of Scotland’ identifies no less than 19 standing stone sites on the island of North Uist. The current Ordnance Survey map identifies ten of these, most of which are to be found close to the sea, and nearly all of which have either a cairn or a burial chamber close by. This has led to the belief that many of the standing stones are actually monuments to long dead kings or warriors. All of the stones have a tale to tell.

It would be beyond the scope of this brief work to describe all of the stones and the legends in detail, so I have chosen three sites that are a representative sample both of the types of stones and also the folklore surrounding them.

One of the largest and most impressive stones is that known as Clach Mor an Che – The Big Stone of The World – which stands at the edge of the seashore (not far from one of only two pubs in North Uist, the Westford Inn). This stone stands eight feet high and is about two and a half feet across. On the first occasion that I visited the stone the sun was just setting and small waves were lapping on the seashore – an idyllic scene if ever there was one. And yet folklore has it that local miscreants were tied to the stone for their wrongdoings. Some punishment! Although it was during the summertime, the Hebridean midges, known for their ferocity, would no doubt have inflicted their own form of punishment upon the wrongdoers! Not far from the stone are the remains of a chambered cairn called Dun na Cairnach, and at least one historian has suggested that the cairn and the stone were monuments to Che, one of the seven sons of Crithne, an ancestor of the Picts who is said to have been buried there following his death in battle.

About four miles away on a hillside overlooking Clach Mor an Che stands another stone about the same height as the latter but much wider, and set at an angle facing south. The stone is visible from the road and I had driven past it on many occasions, but never stopped to walk up the hillside to visit it. On the first occasion that I did, I could see a couple of irregular shapes on the top of the stone. As I drew closer the two shapes suddenly flapped their wings, and two ravens flew in opposite directions from the stone. I mention this because while researching the history of the stone in the local library I found that the name of the stone was Clach Bharnach Bhraodag, which means ‘The Limpet Stone of Freya’. The name Freya is indicative of the strong Norse influence in the Outer Hebrides. According to Norse legend it was Freya who taught Odin a form of shamanistic magic called seidhr – and it was Odin who was able to communicate with two ravens who gave him the ability to have ‘knowledge of all things, in all places’. There is a Gaelic saying Tha Tios Fithich Agad, which means ‘you have more knowledge and understanding than is natural’. The literal translation however is ‘you have the raven’s knowledge’.

Not far from Lochmaddy, on the north western side of Blashaval stand three stones called Na Fir Bhreige – The False Men – set in a straight line. Although not as impressive in size as the stones previously described, they are worth noting for the tale that is told about them. Apparently three Isle of Skye men abandoned their wives and travelled over to Uist with the intention of starting a new life. Their actions came to the attention of the local witch, who (presumably as an act of feminist solidarity) placed a spell on them, and as the men made their way across the hillside they were turned into stone. They stand there to this day as a reminder (and presumably a warning) to any men who may be contemplating a similar course of action!

Folklore and mythology aside, however, the early work of Professor Thom gives a modern insight into the origins and uses of the standing stones. Whilst Thom does not dispute the fact that the stones were used for burial rituals and ceremonial gatherings, his surveys and astronomical data suggest that the stones were used in alignment with cairns and naturally-occurring marker points to fix ritual and ceremonial dates of the year. His surveys in North Uist have shown that the stones and their alignments can be used to set the dates of the Spring Equinox sunset, the Celtic festivals of Beltane and Samhain, and various other sacred days of the year.

It is quite probable that we shall never fully unravel the mysteries that surround the stones and their uses, but the fact that we are still drawn to them and affected by them suggests that we still retain a little of the faith of the original builders deep within our memories. A faith that will ensure not only a continued reverence for these ancient sites, but also a continued reverence for the mysteries of life itself.

- © Alan Pratt, North Uist