The Cairn Of The Dead

As you pass through the attractive Perthshire village of Fortingall, tucked against the hill line at the gateway to Glen Lyon, your eyes cannot but help to be drawn to the pretty and neat collection of thatched, white cottages built in the ‘arts and crafts’ architectural style.

However in the lush, expansive field opposite the cottages, about one third of the way before the field reaches the River Lyon and Drummond Hill to the south, stands an upright and unassuming granite pillar. The stone, slight and with a pointed top, sits atop a grassy mound. A closer inspection of the mound reveals this to be turf covered and tumbled-down cairn of stones. Secured to the northside of the stone is a metal plate bearing the following inscription:

Here lie victims of the Great Plague of the 14th century.
Taken here on a Sledge
drawn by a White Horse, led by an old Woman.

The Cairn of the Dead

The description is a vivid one. It appears that during the 14th century the village of Fortingall was ravaged by yet another unwelcome visit of the Bubonic Plague to the shores of Britain. At the time the original village of Fortingall (originally known in Gaelic as Fartairchill – church at the foot of a steep slope) was not where the attractive thatched cottages now sit, but across the fields, alongside the banks of the River Lyon. It is highly probable that the first victims were buried at the church but that the villagers simply ran out of space as the disease ripped through the population. The superstitious inhabitants refused to bury anymore dead within the grounds of the old church, for fear that any later internments would release the disease again. Nor, as panic engulfed the community, would the remaining villagers touch the bodies of their deceased loved ones, for fear of infection. Remembering an ancient story handed down to the inhabitants by their ancestors, they prayed and pleaded for divine intervention, doing little else to check the spread of the infection. Instead the victims were left unburied and lying in the fields and in their cottages. Eventually, the legend tells us, that only one old woman was left alive. She was kindly, unafraid, and apparently unaffected. Slowly laying the bodies on a rough sledge, to which she yoked an old white horse, she then led the faithful animal across the field to a safe distance from the village and buried them in a shallow grave. On top of this grave was piled a heap of stones and the upright stone pillar which now marks the grave. The metal plaque marking the site was added in the 1900s. The old village was razed and buried too, leaving no record of the former community. The modern village, as we see it today, was not constructed until the 1890s (some 500 years later), following the purchase of the Glen Lyon Estate in 1885 by Sir Donald Currie.

So, does any truth lie behind this tragic story? Certainly, the story is believed locally and survives in the great Scottish story-telling tradition. The stone memorial itself appears to be a re-used Bronze Age stone, possibly originally used for ceremonies of a religious (pre-Christian) significance. Archaeological investigations during the 1920s and 1950s seemed to indicate that the mound had been enlarged at some point. This does not necessarily mean that it does not contain victims of the plague, however. Perhaps, in fact, the site was chosen because it already held some spiritual significance? There is certainly a great deal of evidence showing early Christian activity in the area, including the possible site of a monastery. The site certainly gained later significance. Local legend tells us that the cairn was, for many years, the focal point of an ancient Samhain (Halloween) festival. A great fire or Samhnag was lit on top of the mound each year. The whole community took hands when it was blazing and danced round the mound in a sunwise and anti-sunwise direction. As the fire began to wane, some of the younger boys took burning embers from the flames and ran throughout the field with them, finally throwing them into the air and dancing over them as they lay glowing on the ground. When the last embers were showing, the boys would have a leaping competition across the remains of the fire, reminiscent of the Beltane festival. Following the ceremony, the young people went home and ducked for apples and practised divination. There was no Scottish ritual of 'guising' (this is a fairly modern and ‘imported’ tradition), the bonfire being the absolute centre of attention until it was finally consumed. The Samhain celebrations at Fortingall apparently came to an end in 1924. The location of these festivities at the burial mound does seem to add some significance to the importance of the site though.

The stone pillar atop the burial mound, although probably a re-used Bronze Age pillar, was seemingly added later. It also seems unlikely that the one remaining old women in the village would have been able to move the stone into place unaided. The attached plaque, containing the inscription, is not mentioned during an archaeological survey in 1928, but is during similar investigations in 1956. We can safely assume it was attached at some point in between. Some repair work seems to be have been undertaken at the same time, since the pillar of stone is now secured in modern concrete. No doubt it had started to lean, or perhaps fallen altogether, over the previous 600 years. So far, no excavations have been made to determine the presence of plague victims, although of course, there is also the possibility that the cairn is merely a memorial and the original burial site is long forgotten. ‘Evidence’ of a more unearthly nature is abundant, nonetheless. Legend tells us that ‘when the stars come out over Creag Mhor there is the gleam of a white horse moving about in the gloom near the pillar of the dead.’ Sightings of this ghostly apparition have been reported by various paranormal investigators and in occasional newspaper reports. Also, on still nights, it is said that the sound of crying can be heard from the sight of the old village. This has been variously interpreted as either the souls of suffering children sobbing, or that of a Cailleach (an ancient Gaelic term for an old woman in lament or suffering, sometimes also known as a ‘divine hag’).

On a more scientific basis, what evidence actually survives to confirm the existence of the plague in the 14th century?

The Cairn of the Dead

In fact, the presence of the plague during that period is well documented and irrefutable. The National Library of Scotland hold extensive records detailed the epidemic. During the early months of 1349 Scottish soldiers, engaged in border warfare, praised God that many of their English opponents were being felled by a new and terrifying affliction. This affliction soon spread, of course, into Scotland carried by diseased rats. During the course of 1349 -50 the ‘Black Death’ killed one third of the population of Scotland. The infection was particularly virulent and coupled with poor hygiene, immunity and diet, could have undoubtedly been responsible for the decimation of the old village of Fortingall. In addition, it has also been frequently suggested that the memorial is incorrect, and should, in fact, refer to the ‘Great Plague’ of the 1660s. However, the outbreak in the 1660s largely did not impinge upon Scotland (confining itself to English cities instead) and the Highlands were unaffected. We can therefore assume that the dates mentioned in connection with this story are true.

However, in an interesting twist, there is evidence of an even earlier plague epidemic in the area now known as Fortingall and Glen Lyon, as far back as the year 664. The stories also surrounding the two tragedies share remarkable similarities. The English Benedictine Monk, the Venerable Bede, recorded that during an eclipse in the year 664 (astronomers have now been able to confirm the occurrence of a solar eclipse on 1st May 664, thus adding credence to the story) that:

‘In the same year of our Lord 664, there happened an eclipse of the sun, on the third day of May, about the tenth hour of the day. In the same year, a sudden pestilence depopulated first the southern parts of Britain, and afterwards attacking the province of the Northumbrians (what we would now call Northern Britain and Scotland), ravaged the country far and near, and destroyed a great multitude of men.’

At this time, Adamnán of Iona, (c. 624 –704), also known as Eonan, an abbot from Iona Abbey, and the adopted Saint of Glen Lyon, had built his chapel at Milton Eonan in Glen Lyon. As the Great Plague swept up the Glen legend tells us that he bravely ventured out to meet it. Only four miles from his church he climbed the rocky hillock of Craig Fhionnaidh and prayed. The terrified locals begged him for a miracle. Adamnán inserted his crucifix into a hole in a large stone and ordered the plague to enter – thus ridding the Glen of infection. Crucially, he also administered more practical help. Firstly, he separated the unaffected from the sick, sending the healthy to shelter in the mountains. He remained behind to tend to the sick and to single-handedly bury the dead. He seems to have been spared from the disease, as documentary evidence indicates that he later returned to Iona and did not pass away until 704 A.D. – some 40 years later.

Perhaps legend and the Gaelic tradition of vocal story telling had blended the two tales over the years?

It does seem, however, whether or not the stories have been embellished, the existence of the Bubonic Plague in Glen Lyon is almost certain.

The Cairn of the Dead

Even today, farmers steer their ploughs well clear of the mound as they traverse the field.