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Kin of Kilmartin

Douglas Blane felt a wordless power in this haunt of kings

On Dunadd, a rocky hill in remote Kilmartin of Argyll, a group of schoolchildren look down on an ancient peat bog. Nearby a river meanders its way to the Sound of Jura, a great splash of sunlit blue in the west.

A small hill, Dunadd was once the prosperous, fortified capital of Dalriada. The people and culture of this coastal kingdom came to dominate a united Scotland. Where the children now stand, Dark Age kings were inaugurated by Christian priests for centuries - the king placed his foot on an imprint still preserved in the hard surface of the summit rock.

This wild landscape of peat and pasture, rivers and sea-lochs is little altered by the passage of 1,500 years. But Kilmartin was already steeped in history when the first kings of Dalriada climbed the hill and surveyed their domain.

Nine thousand years earlier, the last ice-age had relaxed its chilly grip on the land. Plants, trees, wildlife and people returned from the south. As the climate grew milder, Kilmartin Glen became a warm and pleasant place, with plentiful food and shelter. The people abandoned nomadism and felled the forest. They used stones cleared from the ground to build Kilmartin's earliest monuments, now haunting reminders of its past.

Within a few miles of Kilmartin House, the modern museum and archaeology centre, more than 150 prehistoric sites have been discovered. These include cairns, stone circles, rock carvings, duns, crannogs and sculptured stones constructed over a timespan of at least 5,000 years. This is one of the richest archaeological locations in Britain.

"Kilmartin's landscape was dramatic, powerful and awe-inspiring," reads a text in one room of the marvellous little museum. "A line of cairns dominated the valley floor, standing stones dotted the landscape, and rock-carvings decorated viewpoints and access-ways. Kilmartin's landscape communicated an overwhelming sense of power."

It still does. But it is a wordless power. There are precious few written records, even of the Scots of Dalriada. From their Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age predecessors there remains not a scrap. Bowls, bells, brooches, swords and monuments, discovered on and under the ground, and in the water, let today's children catch the distant whispers of their ancestors.

Archaeologists are the people who interpret the language for them. Glasgow University's Ewan Campbell, a leading authority on Dalriada and frequent guest at Kilmartin House, tells how the latest evidence contradicts the traditional view of barbarism and backwardness on the Celtic Fringe: "Here we have Dalriadan kings entertaining their nobles and guests with fine French wines - drunk from expensive and fragile, decorated glasses - eating spice-laden food, and passing round dainty tit-bits from sun-drenched Mediterranean lands."

Archaeology in Argyll has also proved wrong every history book on Scotland written in the last 1,000 years. The Scots did not, as is still taught in schools, come originally from Ireland.

"There is almost no archaeological evidence to support the traditional view of migration from Ireland," says Dr Campbell. "All the evidence points to a continuity of the population in Argyll from the early Iron Age through to the medieval period."

Kilmartin House's programme also appeals to the very young. "My pupils were only six when we arranged for the Kilmartin House education officer to visit us," says Lynn Matheson, a teacher at Ardrishaig primary, Argyll. "So I wondered if they were too young. But they loved it, and were completely engrossed in the simulated archaeology dig - a big box containing peat, with artefacts buried at different levels. The children worked away with little brushes and trowels, and we discussed each item and put it in context as they uncovered it.

"It was a great success. Some of the mums told me afterwards that their kids started digs of their own in their back gardens.

"The museum itself is very hands-on, and the children love being able to touch things. There were always a huge number of sites around here, but unless you were very knowledgeable you missed a lot. Kilmartin House has pulled it all together."

Contact Kilmartin House.Tel: 01546 510278.Email: Web: Kilmartin House is in the village of Kilmartin on the A816 to Oban. Adults pound;3.90, children pound;1.20.The road to Kilmartin passes many accessible sites, including the stone circles at Temple Wood, the Bronze Age cairn, standing stones and henge at Dunchraigaig, the largest cluster of cup and ring marks in Britain at Achnabreck, the capital of Dalriada at Dunadd, and the linear cemetery that stretches all along the floor of the valley south of Kilmartin.

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