Myths from an ancient landscape;Scotland;Early Civilisations;Travel

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Gillian Thomas finds 10,000 years of history at Kilmartin Glen

When David Clough was a boy at school in Argyll in the 1970s, he never learned about the ancient treasures nearby in Kilmartin Glen. In pre-historic times this broad valley between Lochgilphead and Oban was gouged out by ice flowing down from the Grampian Mountains. Iron Age forts and crannogs were built there, followed centuries later by medieval castles and the nine-mile Crinan Canal.

When David learned of the glen's significance, it became his ambition to spread the word. A zoologist by profession, he founded the Kilmartin House Trust with his anthropologist wife Rachel in 1993. European and lottery funding enabled them to establish a centre for archaeology and landscape interpretation, which has just won the Scottish Museum of the Year and Caloustie Gulbenkian awards for excellence.

Education officer Damion Willcock has built up a comprehensive schools' programme. The museum tells the story of how people have "lived, loved, danced, married, farmed, hunted, played and prayed" there for 10,000 years.

Archaeological finds, models, videos and audio tapes show how different generations have used the landscape and how it affected them.

The displays include treasures like ancient brooches, pottery and a sword found in a local bog, together with replicas of pre-historic tools, utensils and weapons. Using headphones at sound posts, children can listen to the call of a stag, the fairy-like tones of an elder flute and the chant composed in honour of St Columba, who landed at thebottom of the glen from Iona in the 6th century. They can play an ancient board game, make rock rubbings and knock out a tune on a lithophone - like a xylophone made of stones - excavated nearby.

Next door, Kilmartin's Victorian church contains a unique collection of crosses, some 1,100 years old. The six-mile glen stretches from Carmassarie Castle, a well-preserved ruin dating back to the 1560s, to the 200-year-old Crinan Canal built by the Duke of Argyll so ships could avoid the long, hazardous voyage round the Mull of Kintyre.

With enough time - ideally a whole day - Damion stages a re-enactment of an ancient coronation on Dunadd Hill Fort, which is carved out of a dramatic rocky outcrop and dominates the glen.

Another prominent feature is a line of burial cairns. The oldest is a large chamber with four compartments, evidence of Neolithic habitation around 5,000 years ago.

Ballymeanoch standing stones are visible from the A816. But the Achnabreck site, where a cluster of round indentations called cup marks is engraved on flat slabs of rock, can only be reached along a forest track. More than 300 of these carvings have been found in the area but no one is certain what they are.

With the glen's range of habitats, the wildlife is exceptionally diverse. Moine Mhor is among the few remaining raised peat bogs in Britain and is home to some of the rarest butterflies.

Kilmartin House Trust, Kilmart, Lochgilphead, Argyll PA31 8RQ. Tel: 01546 510278. Admission pound;2.50 per pupil (local schools free)

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