At the far end of Migdale Loch are a collection of unprepossessing landscape features which give us some clues about the ancient civilisations of the region.
At the westerly tip of the loch there is a signpost to an ancient enclosure, directing the archaeologically-minded visitor down a track towards a house. From there two faint paths stretch across an area of rough pasture about the size of half a field, patterned with some bushes, and trimmed with some birch overhanging the loch. Try as I might, I could not find the ditch and low walls. There was a hopeful looking area, slightly raised up, but no evidence of a circular form or any other shape could I spot. I criss-crossed the patch of ground without success. I am fairly sure I was reading the map and the sign correctly, but I failed to find it. Nonetheless, I knew I was in a place which had been special, probably of spiritual or political significance, maybe both, to residents of Migdale in Bronze AgeSutherland. Using these place names makes me wonder what Bronze Age people called themselves and what they called their place – the Norse roots of ‘Sutherland’ and ‘Migdale’ date from later times. What I was hoping to see on the flat ground near the shore, was a small round area enclosed by a low bank and a ditch, with an entrance on the south south east. There is evidence that a small stone slab once stood in this entrance and that there was a wooden post in the centre of the circle. Both the post and the slab lined up with a notch in the hills at the other end of the loch. Because all that remains is inorganic, it is very difficult to date this site. The best guess of archaeologists is that it was constructed between 2500BC and 2000BC, or between 1200BC and 700BC.
Looking down Loch Migdale towards the enclosure: Photograph from Collection of Elizabeth Ritchie
It is also rather difficult to tell what the enclosure was built for. There are little clues. That the wooden post, the stone slab and the notch in the hills line up is highly unlikely to be a co-incidence. The alignment may well point towards where the sun rises at a particular time of year – perhaps at the autumn equinox (21 September), or at the spring equinox (21 March). All across Scotland, and further afield, there are stone circles and stone rows and stone chambers which are aligned with the sun, moon or stars at particular times of the year. It seems probable that patterns of the seasons, and the movement of celestial bodies were thoroughly studied, perhaps by members of a priestly caste. It seems that communities marked times of transition in the year through ceremonies at these special places. Such constructions, even on such a small scale as that at Migdale, are a lot of effort for a subsistence community to go to simply as a calendar, so it seems likely that the stone circles and the seasonal shifts were bound up in religious beliefs. It maybe that priests used their ability to predict the movement of the sun, moon and stars by suggesting that it was they, through their ceremonies, who were moving the heavenly bodies. This could give them, or perhaps local rulers that they may have served, tremendous power over the local population. Most of these features are in places which were probably close to where people lived and farmed – they are not at the tops of inaccessible mountains. So it seems likely that the community gathered round to watch, if not to participate, in these ceremonies. It is not hard to imagine how hair-raising a night-time or dawn ritual could become. The addition of burning torches; perhaps singing, chanting or horn blowing; maybe priests dressed in masks and animal skins, would create a fearful anticipation of whether the sun would in fact rise where it was meant to, spelling prosperity or doom for the next year. Little evidence remains of how the structure was used, but archaeologists have found that a fire was, at least once, lit in the centre of the circle, and the remains of smashed quartz hint obliquely at some ritual.
We know almost nothing about what the Bronze Age population at Migdale believed, and very little about what they did down by the loch in their specially constructed enclosure. All the remains give us are some cryptic clues to a people and a culture long dead.
Key information was taken from an interpretation panel on the north side of Loch Migdale, designed by the Kyle of Sutherland Initiative by the National Museums of Scotland, 2005.
More detailed information can be found on the website of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/14025/details/loch+migdale/