AYRSHIRE ROOTS

 

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THE PRE-HISTORIC SIRES OF AYRSHIRE

 

Long before the dawn of anything like reliable history in Scotland, Ayrshire was inhabited. There were men and women then, as now, scattered all over the country. They lived in a dim, indistinct age, probing their way onwards and upwards, slowly, surely, towards civilization, but perishing whole generations of them, without leaving behind the record of their deeds. But as the disinterring of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii from the ashes flung out by Vesuvius, ere Christianity was many decades old, have been revealed to tell us how the citizens lived, and wrought, and enjoyed themselves ; how they worshipped in the temples of their gods and gathered in the amphitheatre, to witness the contests between man and man and between wild beast and man. So though in a less decree, have the lake-dwellings of Ayrshire been dug out by patient explorers to tell how our forefathers lived, and to reveal, in their relies, many of the commoner events of their everyday history.

There is much that is partial in the discoveries and much that is incomplete in the deductions that are drawn from them, but there is still enough to enable us, ineffectively it may be, to reproduce one or two scenes of the pre-historic age.

Lake-dwellers, it may be premised, whether in Scotland or in Ireland or in Switzerland, were invariably of Celtic origin; at all events there have been no traces of their ingenious and elaborately constructed crannogs brought to light in lands which were inhabited by other races. The exact period at which they flourished is uncertain; but it is fairly assured that, in Scotland at least, their occupation was co-terminous with the sixth on to the ninth or tenth centuries. The stone age, the bone age, the bronze age, and the iron age all coalesced, so to speak, in Ayrshire. The Celts of the crannogs used implements, as we shall see, of all these materials; and the finding of tools made of smelted iron and copper effectually disposes of the theory that the remains discovered at Lochlea, Lochspouts, and elsewhere, are those of abodes that were tenanted ere Homer sang or the deities dwelt on high Olympus.

Ayrshire was largely forest in these days. Vast stretches of oak, of alder, of willow, of birch, of hazel, were everywhere abundant; and through these roamed the tribes which dwelt in the land. To say that there was nothing that could now be called roads is to convey but a poor conception of the tracks which led from point to point. Two hundred years ago there were only a few well-marked routes of travel in the county, and these were so miserable that historians towards the close of last century, recalling what they had heard and what they had read of them, congratulated their contemporaries on the transformation which had taken place. And if such was the case at so comparatively recent a date, what must have been the condition of the highways, a thousand long, years before? On all hands stretched the forest glades, hardly penetrated by the foot of the hardy wanderer. Dense, dark foliage rose overhead; thick underbrush covered the ground and we can fancy the skin-clothed passenger threading his way through the arboreal omni-presence with nothing to guide him. save the foot-marks of those who had gone before. The fleet red deer fled at his approach, and the startled roe deer retired into the thickets at the intrusion. It is not improbable that he encountered occasionally the ferocious wild, boar, angry because his quiet solitudes were invaded, or that even a stray wolf may have appeared on the edge of the forest to tell him of the dangers of his solitariness. Occasionally he would emerge on a clearing where grew stunted crops of corn and of barley. The sight of fruit-trees charmed whatever taste he possessed, and his sense of the greatness of the race to which he belonged was enhanced when nearing marshy lands or treading the borders of the lakes which abounded wherever the sloping country formed a natural basin, his astonished graze lighted on the strong-holds of the lake-dwellers. These must have seemed to him marvels of ingenuity, standing, like the earth in course of creation, out of the water and in the water, their walls strong to resist attack and their thatched log-dwellings mighty in proportion to the insignificance of the traveller to whom their strength was revealed.

Self-preservation is one of the first instincts of human nature; and so, when a wandering band of Celts came to a spot which seemed to them to be fitted for something like a permanent home, they had to consider, not only whether the surrounding country was capable of bearing the staff of life, providing pasturage for their herds and flocks, and venison for the social board, but also whether it adapted itself for defence. These were the days of the strong arm and the stout heart- the good old days," when might was right, and. when the weak went to the wall even more speedily, if possible, than they do to-day. The chief of the tribe, or sept, sometimes erected a hill-fort, sometimes a crannog, sometimes both ; and to these he and his followers retired when danger was in the air. But the were not only occasional refuges but permanent habitations as well: though it is a reasonable enough deduction that while they were the strengths or strongholds of the tribe, the ordinary tribesmen dwelt in huts or in tents in the vicinity.

The chieftain, then, with his warriors, their wives and families, and their store of cattle and sheep, roamed through the land until he reached a spot suitable for colonisation. To him and his the methods of the lake dwellers are no secret. He knows just what sort of a lake or a loch will suit him ; he knows how to drive the pointed piles or lay the foundation; and when he reaches a spot that strikes his fancy, he, surveys the landscape and guages its capacities; and having made up his mind that the water will afford him shelter, the hillsides pasture for his sheep, the plains grazing for his cattle ; when he has made sure that he is in the run of the red deer and that the woods will not fail him ; when he has examined the soil and assured himself that it will grow corn and barley, when he has satisfied himself of these things he sets about the construction of his abode. It is summer time, and the waters of the loch are low, so his men can work the more easily and, with greater comfort. He settles temporarily in a rude encampment in the forest. The first thing to ascertain is the nature of the bottom of the lake. If it consists of deep ooze or yielding mild, without any hard or reliable subsoil, he must lay a wooden foundation; if, on the other hand, there is good holding ground, he will drive in piles, and on these he will build his abode. If he elects to do the former he will have to cut heavy stakes, not unlike railway sleepers, on these he will have to place layers of moss and branches of trees and large stones, and when he has attained a sufficient thickness he will bind it all together, and on the top will lay another platform of stakes, and connect with uprights, the upper floor with the lower no rising waves that disturb the surface of the lake will ever shake his foundation though built on the mud it is secure and lasting. Should he elect to drive in piles he will have to construct outer and inner circles, and these lie will have to pack with clay, with brush-wood, with stakes and stones, and outside of all he will have to erect a palisading breast high above the water, over which no foeman shall be able to climb without subjecting himself to the deadly thrusts of the defenders with their long bone-headed or iron-headed spears. He elects, we shall say, to drive in piles; the bottom is marshy, but underneath the surface there is a clay subsoil which will ensure permanence and stability.

The Ayrshire lake-dweller has an accumulation of implements. He comes upon the scene with a knowledge of how to smelt and form iron into ally shape he may desire. But his knowledge is crude and rudimentary still. Iron is the future age characteristic; and while he uses it, he still clings to the tools and the weapons of his fathers. Out then into the forest go his men. On their shoulders they bear their flint and stone-headed axes. They select such young oak and birch trees as will answer their purpose, and the glade rings with their telling blows. The work is hard for the flint axes cut but slowly, and great care must be taken that the strokes are straight and steady. Time is not of much account, and there is none of the hurry and the rush of the nineteenth century jerry-builder. There is no scimping of work; no inferior wood is taken ; only that which will last for generations is put into the foundation.

The woodmen cut and cleave, and down tumble the trees. Their branches are lopped off and laid aside for the purpose of packing the double rows of the palisading. They do not strip the trees; the bark is left on so as to resist the action of the water. For days upon days the workmen work, until they have piled up ready for further use hundreds of strong straight logs. Next they proceed to point them. This is done either with the axes or with the aid of the fire, or with both. This, accomplished, they are carried out into the water, put in position, and driven home with heavy hammer stones. The work slow, but it is sure, and every passing day sees the circles more. and more complete. At last the last log is in its place, and the gratified builders gaze upon work well done, satisfied with the progress they have, made. Next the division between the outer and inner circles is packed, transverse planks, are laid across the top of the poles, morticed into them, and made additionally secure by long wooden or bone pins, the holes being bored by iron awls. On the top of the piles is laid a wooden platform, and by this time the workers are clear of the water : for between their work and the shore they have laid a gangway, no makeshift construction, but destined to be the means of permanent communication between the crannog and the land. The erection of the houses now goes merrily on. As the iron tools blunt, they are sharpened on whetstones; even the circular grindstone is not unknown to the builders.

The variety of their implements for work is greater than may be imagined. Not only have they axes of flint, of stone, of iron, hammer stones and awls but also stone polishers, flint scrapers and iron chisels, pickaxes, gauges, saws, knives, and punches. With the aid of these the houses soon begin to assume the appearance of dwellings. They are circular, constructed of piles erected in close juxtaposition to one another, the interstices filled with moss and clay, and above these a conical roof heavily thatched. There are door-posts and lintels as there are to-day. The door affords them light as well as entrance and exit. In the center is the fireplace, which is generous of size as becomes the times. A common possession to all the dwellers on the crannog and a spot easily accessible to the whole community is the ash pit, whither all the broken. ware, effete or disused tools, the refuse of the, food, the bones of the animals slain, and the whole et cetera of domiciliary life find their way. Little did the lakemen dream, or the women of the crannog, as they cast their refuse into the water, that ten or twelve hundred years, after they had gone hence, the antiquary would revel in delight as he turned over their compost heap, and that he would dissect its contents with the care of an anatomist, to discover the ways and work of their every-day life.

The number and variety of the relics so discovered indicate that the lake-dwellers were by no means the savage barbarians which they are popularly supposed to have been. That they were warlike, and that they lived in readiness to resist attack is evident from the very nature of their dwellings. Their weapons of conflict and for the chase consisted of flint-headed arrows, of sling stones, of heavy wooden clubs, of iron daggers, and of iron and horn-headed spears. All these have been found hard by their abodes. But while they cultivated the arts of war and were ever on the alert to maintain by the strong arm what the strong arm had won for them, they by no means neglected the accompaniments of peace. Round their dwellings must have arisen clustering huts, the nucleus of the towns and villages of later days. Community of residence and of interest naturally begot esteem for the common good. The country, therefore, was laid under the beneficent tribute of the waving grain. They sowed their barley seeds and their corn, and in the fall they reaped their harvests, and when they had winnowed the cereals, they ground the grain in their querns. These were the primitive predecessors of the vast roller mills of to-day. The quern consisted of two stones, the upper and the nether millstone, the former sitting in the hollow of the latter and turned round with a handle not altogether unlike that of a curling stone, with this important difference, however, that whereas the handle of the curling stone is at the center that of the quern was at the side. In the middle of the upper stone was a hole, large enough to hold a closed fist ; and into this was poured the grain, the worker turning the stone with the one hand while he or she fed the quern with the other. Thus they obtained their meal. Without a doubt it was coarse to a degree ; but as the lake dwellers were unacquainted with any finer, its quality was naturally accepted without demur.

They had wooden implements galore. The y ate their food from wooden plates and bowls and served it out with wooden ladles. They delved the ground with a wooden hoe, and they drove long wooden pins into their dwellings to ensure stability. Their cattle they supplied from wooden troughs which also were used for the holding of water. They had wooden goblets, and in these they boiled their food. This was a matter of time and trouble. Clearly they could not put their goblets on the fire, so they had to bring, the heat to the goblets This they accomplished by heating stones, a succession of which, taken from the midst of the fiery embers, they dropped into the goblets and so effected their purpose. They supped their soup, or their porrich, with bone spoons, and sewed with bone needles. They had bone handles to their knives and into these were fitted iron blades. They combed their hair with bone combs, their teeth bearing evident token of having been cut with a saw. These combs were shaped exactly as are the small-tooth combs of to-day. Apparently those useful toilet accompaniments had somewhat hard work occasionally to get through the " tugs " of the long Celtic locks ; for more than one of the combs that have been found are strengthened and bound together in the centre with iron rivets or clamps. As the years rolled away, new and improved requisites reached the crannogs. The wooden pins gave way to bronze ones, the wooden dishes were superseded, partially at least, by pottery, veritable Samian ware; glass found its way north, and was utilised in some form or other, and prepared leather took the place of the sun-dried skins.

Nor were the lake dwellers without their ornaments. No race ever is, however primitive in its manners and customs. The desire to decorate the person is inherent in human nature, and our early forefathers were not above the weaknesses of their fellow men. They wore glass beads and beads of vitreous paste, armlets made of jet and of cannel coal, rings of lignite, of bronze, of iron, of gold ; they had copper fastenings for their leather attire ; and brooches and pins of bronze were utilised for a similar purpose. They had, in short, no lack of ornaments, and when robed in their best attire they must have presented a very different picture from that which is generally drawn of them, They had coins of gold, with a distinct impression stamped upon them, and it is permissible, therefore, to believe that they had rubbed fringes with a higher civilization than their own and that they were not by any means, averse to learn of the nations their ways, and to borrow stores of experience from the world that was "beyond their immediate range of observation.

But, withal, the crude and the relatively civilized blended curiously in their everyday life. The only boats they knew were their dug-outs-canoes hollowed from the solid trunks of trees, and these they impelled with paddles, sometimes with one blade, sometimes with two. The crucibles in which they melted their minerals were of coarse clay ; the ropes with which they moored their canoes were formed of three-ply withs, and the anvils on which they reduced their metals to shape were of hard quartz. The animals, wild and domestic, whose bones have been found in the compost heaps of the crannogs, are not numerous ; but they are still sufficient to tell us that the lake-dwellers were pastoral in their habits, as well as followers of the chase. In their stalls were oxen; on their fields pastured long-horned, short tailed sheep; the pig wallowed in their byres, and the horse neighed in their stables. In the forest roamed the red deer and the roe deer; and it is not improbable that the wild boar wandered at will, or that deer of another species than the roe and the red deer fell victim to their spears or their flint-headed arrows.

These details are sufficient to give the reader something like an idea of how the ancient dwellers in Ayrshire lived. That they were not simply wild, untamed, and untameable men and women of the woods is very evident. Necessity compelled them to form communities for self-defence; and, no doubt, their predatory instincts led them to possess themselves of the property of their neighbours. But as time rolled on they became attached to their habitations, and while they cultivated the arts of war, they by no means neglected those of peace. Whether they were Christians or not is an open question. St. Columba had died ere they drove the piles into the bed of the lakes and his wandering missionaries, heralds of the Cross from lonely Icolmkill had penetrated the south-western lands of Scotland and preached the Gospel to the people. The light of a pure faith had been flashed athwart the darkness ; and it is not by any means unlikely that St. Machar, the remains of whose little chapel stood, within memory, on the farm of Whitehill, in the parish of Dailly, may have sought out the lake-men in their homes, and, seated amid the rude instruments of battle, may have pointed them to the Prince of Peace. Thus, far across the darkness of the centuries, comes a ray of hope that the spiritual, gloom was not quite unrelieved.

 

Source:- HISTORICAL TALES AND LEGENDS OF AYRSHIRE BY WILLIAM ROBERTSON - LONDON: HAMILTON, ADAMS, & CO - GLASGOW: THOMAS D. MORISON 1889

 

 
 

 

 
 

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