Knocking Stones In Mid Argyll – Part 3

Many thanks to the Kist for permission to publish this article.

By Bernie Bell

Having received the most recent edition of ‘Kist’, the journal of the Kilmartin Glen Museum , and read the articles with interest, two in particular stood out, for me, as possibly being of interest to ‘Orkney News’ readers, as Orkney is such a place for interesting stones.

I checked with the Museum that it would be OK for me to share these articles,  and the very helpful lady there, sent me them, all formatted and ready.  So, here they are – much of interest – as always from ’Kist’……

Further Thoughts on Stone Basins in Argyll

By Roddy Regan

This issue of the Kist includes Dave and Pat Batty’s article on ‘knocking stones’ in Mid Argyll, (Knocking Stones of Mid Argyll : Part 2 )which tells us that one of the main functions of these features was undoubtedly their use as mortars for processing cereals and producing pot barley.  This is perhaps underlined by many of these stone basins being associated with settlements and located near buildings.  To their list of stones associated with settlements we can perhaps add those at Kirnan More (NR 8680 9560), Leacna Ban (NR 78685 92066, Regan and Webb 2006) and Eyvary (NR 78359 93493, James 2003).

Basin at Leacna Baan

Basin at Leacna Baan

Basin at Eyvary

Basin at Eyvary

The earliest reference I have managed to uncover as to their use as cereal mortars comes from a  publication of 1847 which gives a description of a:

‘‘Clach-an-Eòrna’or barley stone, a large rude mortar about the height of an ordinary seat, and very like a small ancient font used for shelling barley by bruising it with a heavy wooden pestle.  In former days, one stood by every door, and they are still occasionally seen at the entrance of ‘black houses’ and small farms’ (Sobieski and Stuart 1847). 

This use is potentially an ancient one given that a similar stone mortar was recently found inside a broch structure at Clachtoll in Assynt, which was all the more remarkable for the fact that the mortar was full of carbonised cereal grains,  these left in situ after the broch had been severely burnt.

Stone Basin with burnt grain from the broch at  Clachtoll

Stone Basin with burnt grain from the broch at Clachtoll

However, as the Battys’ article also alluded to, stone basins occur in many forms and likely had different functions.

One such recorded use was for grinding bait for fishing (MacKenzie 1900, Morris 1968).Morris tells us that he was told by fishermen-crofters on Tiree that they had used the basins, Croichtican or Crotagan in Gaelic, for grinding ‘cockles, limpets, mussels, pieces of crab and the like’ which was thrown into the adjacent sea to attract fish.

However, as MacKenzie and Morris, along with others, have previously noted, any stone with a hollow has the potential to attract other uses.  MacKenzie notes that some stones were used as boundary markers while others have associations with healing.   Other stories tell of the stones being used as ‘wishing stones’ such as the stones on Islay at Kilchiaran and Kilchoman, the former still being used in 1968 where an individual would turn a pestle three revolutions in the stone sun-wise before leaving behind a coin (Morris 1969, no. 48 and no. 50; Caldwell 2008, 13).

Dr Clare Ellis, in her publication of a chapel site of Baliscate on Mull, has recently discussed the use of stone basins that appear to have some kind of religious association. In Ireland these are called bullaun stones and as in Scotland may have been used to hold water for baptism, or for the washing of hands and feet before entering a church.  These stones may also have been used in ritualised liturgical cursing where a stone was turned within the bowl of the bullaun in an anticlockwise direction this practice formerly sanctioned by the Church(Ellis 2017).  Other stone basins in Argyll associated with religious sites have previously been recorded at Killeyan and Finlaggan on Islay, Killiemor on Mull, Kildalven, Inchmarnock, St Blane’s on Bute, St Ciaran’s cave and St Columba’s cave.  Locally, we can perhaps add the basin recorded at Kilmartin and the one at KilmichaelInverlussa which was reported in Dave and Pat Batty’s article.

The religious use of these stones also echo some of the folk traditions associated with other rock-cut basins in Argyll, such as the summoning up of favourable winds as with the basins at Scallasaig and Kilchattan on Colonsay, the latter called ‘Cuidh Chattain’ was apparently used for summoning the requisite wind direction by clearing out a basin on the side from which the wind was to blow.

Morris also cites another belief concerning a stone basin at Clachan, Seil, which each spring was filled with milk to placate the fairies, so that cows produced milk in the summer (Morris 1969, 62 no.77).

Of course we also have the famous rock-cut basin at Dunadd, which some suggest was used in kingship ceremonies.  The Dunadd basin lies adjacent to some cup-marks, and other basins such as those at Glasvaar, Dippin, Croitachoimbie and Fincharn also appear to be associated with rock-art.

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As such we perhaps have to be careful when ascribing names or functions to specific stones, although it is possible they had more than one function or indeed were used in less functional ways.  A good example of this would be the rock-cut basin we recently recorded near Dunyvaig castle on Islay (Maričević 2019).

Basin at Dunyvaig

Given its proximity to nearby buildings and to the sea, the basin could have been a mortar used for grinding grain or perhaps bait production, however, given the presence of a possible cup-mark on the same rock the stone may also have had a less apparent association.


Ellis, C 2017 ‘Monks, Priests and Farmers: A Community Research Excavation at Baliscate, Isle of Mull’ Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 68, 95.

James, H F   2003  Medieval and Later Landscape and Settlement in Mid Argyll and Knapdale, site 80)

Mackenzie J B 1900 Notes on some cup marked stones and rocks near Kenmore, and their folklore. ProcSocAntiq of Scot, vol. 34, 330.

Maričević, D et al 2019 Dunyvaig and Hinterland Assessment Project 2018: Archaeological evaluation and survey of Dunyvaig Castle and environs and the geophysical surveys at Barr an t-Seann Duine and CillMhoire in preparation for the Dunyvaig Project, Data Structure Report.

Morris, R W B 1969 ‘The cup-and-ring marks and similar sculptures of Scotland: a survey of the southern Counties, part II’, ProcSocAntiq Scot, vol. 100, 62.

Regan, R and Webb, S 2006 Barnluasgan Dun and Enclosure, Dalriata dun Community archaeology project, data structure Report, Site 30)

Sobieski, J and Stuart, C E 1847 Tales of the Century Between the years 1746-1846, 171-172 (notes).

Related articles:

Knocking Stones of Mid Argyll : Part 2

Knocking Stones In Mid Argyll – Part One

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