Paradoxically, Ben Hynish was the last of our three hills to pique my interest.
The presence of the Golf Ball radar station somehow marked it as a place of activity. A place with a road. A place of people.
Looking East from the flank of Ben Hynish, across the crofting landscape of Tiree.
Being the sort of creature that prefers to be alone, it was therefore less attractive to me.
If you’d told me that, in fact, Ben Hynish would capture my imagination in a way far more profound than the wild, reeking seabird cliffs of Ceann a’ Mhara – I would have treated you to a raised eyebrow and an incredulous expression.
But it has turned out to be so.
Now, Ben Hynish exudes an interesting sort of magnetism.
The blame for this archaeological crush rests at the feet of Dr John Holliday.
For those who have not yet had the pleasure, Dr Holliday is a man of medicine, tweed sports jackets and brightly irrepressible curiosity.
His energetic sallies into our office are a welcome source of distraction: He rarely arrives without a small zip lock bag, filled with interesting things (the saga of The Microliths is a tale for another day).
Dr Holliday, turning the archaeology up to eleven on top of a well preserved shieling hut.
My primary interest is nature. Dr Holliday’s primary interest is people.
This is apparent in everything he does – from an alarming ability to extract your life history like a splinter (using nothing but a shrewd, spectacle-skimming glance); to his work with Tiree’s community museum; to his love of language, Gaelic culture, archaeology and writing.
I’m afraid I am languishing rather lower down the intellectual food chain than Dr Holliday – but there’s nothing more medically contagious than enthusiasm.
Before setting a date for the first of his summer archaeology walks, we thought it best to check the Ben Hynish route for length and safety.
It was the first time I’d been up there on foot, and I didn’t know enough about the area to have any preconceptions or mental pictures.
On arrival at the first viewpoint, I was faced with a typical hill-grazing landscape.
Yet, the rank and yellowing vegetation was interspersed with puddles of lush grass. These oases, once noticed, attracted my gaze like little beacons.
As you zoom yourself into the landscape of Ben Hynish, more features pop out like a magic eye picture:
Strange green mounds sitting proud as warts. The faint etchings left by ridge and furrow agriculture. Large, back-breaking raised terraces. Enclosures made from “Dragon Tooth” walls.
Plus an awful lot of -er- stones.
I was only permitted a moment to take it all in, before lurching after Dr Holliday to join his conveyor belt ride through pre-history.
And what a ride it is.
One of the groups that Dr Holliday and I have taken onto Ben Hynish, to learn about the site’s incredible past.
Of all the marvellous structures that Ben Hynish disgorged on that first afternoon, there is one with a siren song more compelling than the rest. Now, my mind paddles out to it in idle moments: I am desperate to know the truth.
The Boat Thing has a beautiful, deliberate curve.
Rough blocks of gneiss have been positioned in such a careful way that your hand extends to touch the sequence before you’re aware of the movement.
Its situation commands an impressive view. Certainly, I’m not the only one to think so; Ravens and Peregrines have both left their tell-tale pellets on its prow.
This natural outcrop – the “prow” – projects from a steep slope and onto a limitless blue horizon.
Below it, waves boil around the base of Dun Hiader.
Since the very first time I saw The Boat Thing (so named by Dr Holliday) I have desperately wanted to sit in it.
Too self-conscious to do this in front of paying guests, I scuttled back like a criminal on the next fine evening.
The truth of the matter is, we have no idea what the structure’s function or significance was. This has been lost with time. I refer to it now as boat-like; but for all I know, it could have been a prehistoric milking pen.
However, whilst I’m certainly not an archaeologist – I am a human being.
Could we still be receptive to pangs of recognition from simpler times (admittedly, well buried under a buzzing pile of smart phones, tablets, Google searches, and a gratuitously immediate lifestyle)?
Even today, I suspect that we subconsciously rate the merits and usability of a landscape as we have done for thousands of years; retaining at least some of our ability to identify and respond to postcards from the past.
The Boat Thing is positioned in what feels like a special place. It feels special in and of itself.
Frustratingly, the best photographs of The Boat Thing (which better show its lovely, curved shape) are still languishing on my mobile phone! This shot shows the rear of the structure in the foreground, with the “prow” back and centre. The Dun Fort is in the distance to the right.
You could tell me it was a humble shieling hut until the cows came home, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t believe you without solid evidence. Preferably handed to me in a small zip lock bag.
The cattle of Ben Hynish were ablaze with interest when I finally stepped into The Boat Thing and lay down on the cool turf.
From this eccentric position, the view across the sea over the “prow” was persuasive. Seeing its curvature from the inside served to enhance the feeling of seafaring containment.
There is a term used in archeology: If a newer feature gives way to an older feature without recycling or destroying it (thus demonstrating some grasp of its significance) the newer feature “respects” the old.
I respected the boat thing, and felt a very odd desire to take my shoes off first.
Of course, Dr Holliday had sown the boat seed prior to my first visit. Had I decided to sit in the structure without this pre-planted notion, I suspect that I would have stumbled on the same word.
All this, before we even mention the known presence of Norsemen in this area.
If ever the stage and lighting could be set for fanciful thinking: The mysterious stone outline of a Boat Thing, looming over a horizon that extends unbroken to America, which also happens to be a look-out for Ravens and Peregrines, situated close to a Dun Fort and known Viking settlement, on a remote Hebridean island… well, it’s a rich enough diet for anyone’s imagination.
Lying on my back with my head cushioned by a small (and terribly enticing) mound towards the “stern” of the structure, it seemed to fit around me so perfectly.
The thought that – perhaps – I wasn’t enjoying the experience alone was more a comfort than a chill.
If indeed there was someone else there, the remains of the day slipped from us in companionable silence.
Many people are buried on Ben Hynish; signalled by the presence of their cairns and the brooding orthostats that mark them.
On the twilight walk home, chieftains, warriors, navigators, hunters, architects, craftsmen, priests, farmers and laymen were surely my company.
What a sadness that I could not talk to them.
The view of Ben Hynish from my house, on the evening that I returned from this walk. Eerie indeed.
Dr Holliday and I have been leading weekly archaeology walks to honour the VisitScotland Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology 2017.
We want to engage people with this incredible site in the hope that one day, increased academic interest might lead to a better understanding of it.
This blog was not intended to contain factual information on the many structures of Ben Hynish; I want to encourage you to experience it for yourself.
…for that, I’m afraid you’ll just have to join us!
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