||To the antiquarians of the mid 19th century the
rock cut cups, rings and channels were a complete mystery. At
first it was suggested that the strange designs were maps of
camps, burial mounds or star constellations, but as more
information became available they eventually settled on the
theory that the carvings some how related to the religious
beliefs of the ancient Britons.
Folklore and custom were mostly silent regarding the carvings but
in a few remote areas of Scotland the antiquarians (and later
researchers) found traditions still connected with cupmarked
stones and rock cut basins which possibly pointed to their
The following extracts give details of their findings.
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of
Scotland vol 34 (1899 -1900)
Notes on some cup marked stones and rocks near
Kenmore, and their folklore.
by Rev J.B. Mackenzie. (Extract - p.330)
".............But to return to the spot from which i have
been looking at the cup marks at my feet, i am struck by the
extreme scarcity of any real tradition regarding them. Only once
do i remember hearing anything genuine. There had been a good
deal of illness in some miserable old houses where i was visiting,
and in speaking to an old man about it, i expressed my wonder
that the people did not remove some boulders which obstructed the
light out of the small windows, and the drainage about the doors
; and added, that it could easily be done and would make the
houses more healthy. No doubt it would he agreed, but then it
would not do to destroy these old worship stones (Clachain
Aoraidh). He said that there had been one near his own door which
was very much in the way, but that he had, with great labour dug
a hole into which he had let it drop and covered it up, for it
would never do to incur the anger of the spiritual beings by
breaking it up. This was more than thirty years ago.
The boulders seemed to me natural and of no significance ; but my
attention being thus called to them i found similar stones at
almost every old house or site - many of them, undoubtedly,
placed there of intention. Some of them had cup marks, but on
many i could find none. I also found that any sort of hollow in a
stone, even when it seemed to me natural, was sufficient to give
it a sacred character ; and that some of these stones were
undoubtedly ancient boundary markers, while others had been used
in the preparation of food stuffs. All have a certain mystery
about them, and several still preserve around them traditions of
the possession of supernatural powers.
So far as i have examined them, these stones seem to fall into
three groups :-
The first group consists of rock cut cups, often single, but more
generally in groups , with at times an elaborate arrangement of
circles and connecting channels. The meaning of these is very
obscure. Nothing which i have ever heard seemed authentic or
simple enough - very simple the ideas must have been, or they
would never have been so common or widespread.
In the second group, the stones present a natural hollow,
smoothed and shaped a little by art. This form may have been used,
among other purposes, for the pounding and rubbing down of grains
before the invention of the quern.
The third group, which is almost certainly of later date,
comprises the entirely artificial stone cups (small ones often
called elf cups) and stone basins used for the manufacture of pot
The last two groups have generally some tradition associated with
them. Many of these have been collected. They most frequently
relate to the power of curing different kinds of diseases
possessed by them. This, however, was not by any means their only
power. There is one belonging to the second group, in a rock near
Scallasaig in Colonsay, and the tradition with regard to it is,
that by means of it the chief of the McPhees could get south wind
when he chose. Hence it was called "Tobar na gaoith deas"
(the well of the south wind). "
"Another of this third group is at
Kilchattan, also in Colonsay. Like the one at at Riskbuie it is
of the pot barley type, and cut out of the solid rock. It is near
the ruins of the church of St Chattan, and of the house of the
chief of M'Mhurich (Currie), who owned this portion of the island.
His house was called "Tigh an tom dreis" (Bramble knoll
house), and according to highland custom he himself was known as
"Fear an tom dreis." As chief of the more fertile
moiety of the island, M'Mhurich was, of course, a much greater
man that M'Phee at Scallasaig. If M'Phee could get south wind, M'Mhurich
could by means of his rock basin get any wind he liked. The basin
was called "Cuidh Chattain". It is quite a mistake to
say, as i have heard at times said, that any Currie could operate
the well. It was only "fear an tom dreis" himself who
could do it. He could get the wind to blow from any quarter he
wished, by the simple expedient of clearing out any rubbish which
it might contain on to the side from which the the wind was
desired. It was sure to come and blow it back again into the
basin. Originally i am persuaded it was not any accidental
rubbish which was cleared out, but (with undoubtedly certain
appropriate ceremonies) the offering of food to the supernatural
powers, which has been left in the basin when last used for its
primary purpose of making pot barley."
"Before passing from the subject of rock
basins and cups, i may mention as bearing on the subject a
tradition i heard from my friend, Rev J. M'Lean of Grantully. We
were about half way up Glen Lyon, when he pointed out to me some
isolated patches of rock by the road side, remarking that they
indicated the limit to which the plague had reached in the Glen ;
St Adamnan, it seems, stayed its further progress by boring a
hole in one of these rocks - catching the plague and stopping it
up in the hole. In the time at my disposal i could not find on
any of the rocks any artificial markings which might have started
PSAS vol 6 1864/66
On the sculpturings of cups and concentric rings on stones in
various parts of Scotland
by prof J.Y. Simpson. (Extract -Page 57)
"The rock upon which the first and largest collection of
concentric rings and cups at Auchnabreach is placed has a Gaelic
name, which, according to John Kerr, an old shepherd brought up
on the farm, is "Leachd-nan-sleagher" - the rock of the
spears. Mr henry D. Graham, to whom i am much indebted for
drawings of the Auchnabreach sculptures and others, believes the
word to be Leach-nan-sluagh" - the rock of the hosts or
gatherings. The rev. Mr M'Bride has perhaps more happily
suggested it to be "Leachd-nan-slochd" - the rock of
the pits or impressions. The rock itself, let me add, is in a
position which commands a charming view of the waters of Loch
Gilp and Loch Fyne, with the distant and magnificent hills of
Arran as a gigantic background."
(Extract page 59)
"Cargill, Perthshire, -In the thirteenth volume of the first
statistical account of Scotland, a description of the parish of
Cargill was published about fifty years ago. It is therein stated,
"near the village of Cargill may be seen some erect stones
of considerable magnitude, having the figure of the moon and
stars cut out on them, and are probably the rude remains of pagan
superstition. The corn field where these stones stand is called
Moonshade to this day" The stones thus marked, and standing
in Moonshade or Moonbutt's field, were dug around and under, and
buried some half century ago in the agricultural improvements of
" In Newbigging, which borders upon the Moonshades field, he
raised a stone, a corner of which jutted from the earth. It is a
slab of grey whinstone, three feet six inches in length, two feet
one inch in breadth, and seven inches in thickness. Upon one of
its faces - as represented in plate V. fig.3 - are five
concentric circles and some isolated cups.
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol 100 (1967
The Cup-and-Ring marks and similar sculptures of Scotland: a
survey of the Southern Counties Part II. By W.B. Morris.
"In hard sandstone or greywacke a cup one inch in diameter
and half an inch deep takes ten minutes to make with a pointed
piece of quartz - I have one i which i made myself. Others at
different dates in history may have passed the time of day doing
this too, for it is a soothing, if noise producing, activity.
People in Islay are still deepening existing cup marks, which
themselves may come from a pre-Christian era, in a wishing
ceremony which seems to be a relic, perhaps of sun worship (list
Nos. 46a, 49, and 50).
The large, smooth and carefully rounded cups on the very hard
gneiss rocks along the coasts of Tiree and western Argyll, many
of which were listed by the late L.M. Mann and other writers in
these proceedings and elsewhere, nearly all occur on rocks which
lie only a few feet above or below the present sea level. In view
of the change in sea level since prehistoric times it seems
probable that until not so mant centuries ago these big cups were
well below the sea, if they existed. I have however, statements
from two elderly fishermen- crofters from different parts of the
island of Tiree that they personally used these cup-marks in
their youth, when fishing, for grinding ground-bait such as
cockles, limpets, mussels, pieces of crab and the like. This
ground-bait was thrown into the sea adjoining the cup-marks to
attract fish. These two gentlemen, and indeed quite a number of
other residents on the island of Tiree and in its vicinity,
pointed out to me that practically all these big smooth cups are
sited at the best fishing points of the area. .........This
explanation seems to fit the facts very well. But no one on Tiree
was able to explain to me why similar smooth round cups were made
one and a half miles inland in one solitary instance on the top
of a hill ...... or on the near vertical sides of the Ringing
stones. I was indebted to the owner of Millport Croft (No.104)
and Mr J. Davies for the word "Croichtican" (or "Crotagan"),
the Gaelic word for these big smooth cups. Perhaps bait mortars'
might be a good name for them in English. They are probably
between a hundred and several hundred years old, but in some
cases, in western Argyll, they may be older.
Knocking-stones, mortars and grinding-mills
have as a rule been omitted, but some are included where carved
out of the living rock, or in very large slabs. A rather special
example is the rock basin or cup on Seil island (no.77) which has
been used for what one might call neo-pagan purposes within
living memory. The widow of the late farmer there states that in
her youth, one day each spring this basin had by custom to be
filled with milk. If it was not so filled, the 'wee folk' (fairies)
would see that the cows gave no milk that summer. The Kerrera
ferryman, to whom i told this, said that on Point of Sleat Farm
in Skye when he was a boy there had been exactly the same custom.
An Islay resident tells me that the same custom existed there,
too, until not long ago and i have received a similar account
from Miss Marrion Campbell concerning the cup marked stone near
the waterfall beside the old chapel at cove, Knapdale(NR 748767).
In Argyll and its isles the pagan gods are not so long dead."
"No.46a Kildalton chapel. Kildatlton. NR458509.
On the flagstone base of the Kildalton Cross 7yds. north of
chapel. On flagstones NE corner was a cup mark, similar in size
and traditional use to that at Kilchoman (list No.50) - broken
off and stolen c.1920.
No.48 Kilchiaran 1. Kilchoman. NR204601. 20yds.
north of road, 20yds WSW. of church. On flat slab (6ft x 3ft, 6inch
high) over 18 cups up to 6.5 inch in diam., 4inch deep 2 cups
penetrate through slab. Cups said to have been enlarged by former
'wishing' rite. see No.50.
No.50 Kilchoman. NR216632. At foot of Celtic
cross 20yds east of church in cemetery. On slate slab (3ft square
0.25 ft high, forming base of cross) 4 basins up to 7 inch diam.
6inch deep - still used in 'wishing ' or 'fertility' rite by
turning a pestle 3 revolutions with the sun and leaving a coin.
Full of pennies on 1968 visit. Church officer collects
periodically. pagan sun worship relic?
No.77 Seil. Clachan Seil. NM776187. 550yds W.
of road, 260yds W. of wall, 15yds E. of ditch. On ground level
slate outcrop (4.5ft x 2.5ft) - basin 5 inch deep and cup. Until
c. 50 years ago basin was filled with milk each spring for the 'wee
folk'. Located by Mrs C. Leckie. legend if not filled, cows would
yield no milk that summer.
No.82 Balphetrish 2. NM027487. 15yds above high
water. 150yds N. of lochs NE. corner. On huge granite boulder (6ft
high) - on all its surfaces except undersides - 33 cups of the
crotagan type, except some are on vertical surfaces. Locally
known as 'The Ringing stone' or 'Clach na Choire'
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