'In the landscape which surrounds here in Kilmartin, people have lived, loved, danced, mourned and prayed for perhaps 10,000 years.'
So begins a visit to one of my favourite places, Kilmartin Museum in Argyll in the west of Scotland.
The story the museum tells, through a mix of thoughtfully-worded text panels, beguiling archaeological traces and old fashioned dioramas, is on that is rooted in the landscape in which the modest building nestles.
Like Glastonbury, with its echoes of Arthurian legend, or Salisbury, home of Stonehenge, the area surrounding the museum is steeped in prehistoric mystery. Cairns, cists, stone circles and rock markings abound – there are 25 standing stone sites within six miles of the museum and over 100 areas where you can find rock carvings.
The museum attempts to unravel some of these mysteries, by examining the evidence left behind by the different people who populated the land from 4,000 BC onwards (the peoples before that left no traces, we're told), and piecing together the fragments to build up a picture of the lives they may have led. A broken jet necklace tells of trade with far-off Whitby in Yorkshire; stones on a checkered board of a society with time for games and leisure; a curved iron horn of a skilled, sophisticated and wealthy people.
Yet some mysteries cannot be solved: the museum offers not one but 13 possible explanations for the enigmatic 'cup and ring' carvings that proliferate in the area, from maps of the stars to neolithic graffiti.
But the museum itself (and the excellent cafe, without which no visit is complete) is only part of the story. To live the tales the museum unfolds, you need to get out into the landscape and, following a map provided at the ticket desk, explore the ancient landmarks up close. These include five of the seven burial cairns that once formed a straight line across the glen, and which have been used and reused for thousands of years, and three standing stone sites. Particularly recommended are Temple Wood, a peaceful glade at the heart of which lies a simple stone circle that has connected the land to the heavens for millennia, and the nearby standing stones, which form stern, weather-worn grey markers in a lush green field.
The information boards may try to dampen our expectations ('with such an arrangement of stones, alignment with at least one celestial event is almost inevitable.' Spoilsports.) but nevertheless the whole place reeks of ancient ritual and pagan tradition.
A long walk or short drive of 9km away, Dunadd Hill Fort is also not to be missed. This Iron Age site is thought to have been the seat of the rulers of Dalriada, the Gaelic kingdom that flourished in western Scotland from the 5th to the 8th centuries and whose people were also know as the Scotti – the first Scots. A steep climb to the summit of the hill is rewarded not only by an amazing view across the glen and out to sea, but also by the sight of a footprint and basin hewn in stone which are possibly linked to early coronation rituals, and a faded carving of a Pictish boar (which also features in the toilets at the museum!)
And so to return to the museum (and maybe a slice of cake – did I mention the cafe is excellent?). Here we are told that:
'[The landscape] looks different to the person who knows... its stories than to the person who does not.'
Kilmartin Museum, small and old fashioned as it is, tells these stories and allows you to see this ancient and special land with new eyes.
True the displays are looking a little shabby and dated, with some interactives no longer functioning and a few empty cases. But with an ambitious 6.7 million fundraising programme to redevelop the museum now 70 per cent complete, a much-needed refurb is on the way. Let's just hope it doesn't spoil the magic.
Kilmartin Museum is open 10am – 5.30pm every day from 1 March to 31 October and 11am – 4.30pm 1 November – 23 December. The museum is closed from 24 December until the end of February. Tickets cost £7 for adults and £2.50 for children (aged 3-16). Children under three go free.
For directions and more information check out www.kilmartin.org
Dunadd Hill Fort is maintained by Historic Environment Scotland and you can find out more about it here: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/places/kilmartin-glen-dunadd-fort/
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Elaine is the Content Manager in the Digital Media team at National Museums Scotland.