Stravaigin: Innis Bhuidhe, Killin

The highland village of Killin is bisected by the River Dochart which splits just below the old bridge there to form an island: Innis Bhuidhe (“yellow island” in Gaelic). Last week the Historian and I were in Killin. Having obtained the gate keys from the local librarian, we made our way onto the island itself, a surprisingly still, silent space in the midst of the busy village, its sounds dampened by a thick carpet of yellow leaves and a heavy canopy of branches above. While the Historian hunted an extremely camera-shy red squirrel, I turned my attention to the shaped and carved stones which inhabited this autumnal landscape.

Entering Innis Bhuidhe (© Dawn Hollis)

On first passing through the gate to the island, you are confronted with two massive pillars and a rubble-built screen wall, but thereafter the path leads straight and unimpeded through the trees until you pass across a ditch and inner rampart of earth, encircled by a low stony bank, to enter the prehistoric fort at the north-east end of the island. It wasn’t the fort we were after, though, but what was subsequently built atop it: a burial ground for the clan Mac an Aba (MacNab).

The burial ground viewed from the east (© Dawn Hollis)

This burial ground is complex to say the least. It contains seventeen carved stones – that I could see, anyway – as well as a number of uncut stones and a large rubble-built enclosure. According to local tradition, the burials within the enclosure pertain to the chiefly family of the MacNabs of Bovain while those outside, to the east, belong to other cadet members of the clan. What I found most intriguing, though, were the multiple layers of use and reuse, all wrapped up in complex, sometimes competing meanings, which were evident in the site.

Peeking through the gate into the enclosure.  Note the recumbent figure almost buried in grass and leaves (© Dawn Hollis)

The enclosure itself – like the pillars and screen wall at the other end of the island – seems to be eighteenth century in date and was probably the doing of the antiquarian-minded Francis MacNab of Bovain (1733-1816). Within it, however, are at least two significantly earlier burials. The gate to the enclosure was locked when we were there, so I was unable to examine the stones inside in detail, but one was undoubtedly the perhaps medieval recumbent figure which has been noticed by a number of previous scholars. A worn and grass-covered thruchstane which had no carving visible from ten feet away was probably the tomb noticed by William Gillies in the 1930s as that of Finlay MacNab of Bovain (d. 1573×74).

So we have a first period of sixteenth-century, perhaps even medieval, use of this burial space (I should also mention in passing that the Chronicle of Fortingall records the death of an earlier Finlay MacNab of Bovain who died in 1525 and was “sepultus in Kyllyn”, quite possibly on Innis Bhuidhe). There is no material evidence of futher burial, however, until 1777, when a roughly incised headstone was erected east of the enclosure with the inscription “Hear lay the cors of patrick McnaB in [sic] Taylor in Aucharn Woodend 1777”. This was followed by a series of burials in the first decades of the nineteenth century, some commemorated by contemporary stones, others by small rectangular wall plaques which appear to be early to mid-twentieth century in date.

The pictorial reverse of Patrick MacNab in Aucharn’s stone.  A traditional angelic head is visible at the top of the stone as well as remnants of memento mori symbols further down (© Dawn Hollis)

The third period of use is in the modern day, from the 1970s to the present, represented by one wall monument on the exterior of the enclosure and several tombstones in the area to the east. With one exception these commemorate the most recent generations of the chiefs of Clan Macnab, proudly denominated as such on the stones, and their spouses. Judging from the recently erected sign on the screen wall, the burial ground as a whole is now partly or wholly in ownership of the clan association.

If we think for a moment in terms of the creation of heritage or the creation of a certain type of memorialising space, Innis Bhuidhe offers a particularly interesting example. An early modern, possibly medieval, burial ground has been demarcated and reused in the late eighteenth century, and this same burial ground has been reimagined as a locus for clan “belonging” in the late twentieth century. The result is a complex, layered space which is brimming with multiple signifiers pointing in different directions (early modern displays of power, eighteenth-century antiquarian pride, modern fascination with genealogy and heritage), but also overlapping and entangled with each other, as in the case of the twentieth-century plaque within the enclosure which proudly notes that “there are fifteen graves in this enclosure nine of them being graves of chiefs”.

This plaque and the others like it appear to postdate a 1911 survey of Innis Bhuidhe (© Dawn Hollis)

If Innis Bhuidhe has taught me something, it’s that when studying early modern carved stones, you can’t study them in a chronological vacuum; you have to be aware of the later use and reuse of sites as well as the meanings which subsequent generations have given them. In due course, I’d like to return, obtain permission to access the enclosure, and properly record the early stones within, but those stones can only be made sense of fully in light of how they were preserved and understood, whether that was by a lineage-obsessed Georgian gentleman or by a modern clan association spreading halfway across the world.

One of the remarkable eighteenth-century heads atop the enclosure wall (© Dawn Hollis)

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams

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