The Story of Keil Hill and its people
Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 10th October 2014
Last Updated on
As far back as human civilisation goes, Keil Hill, home of Highland Titles Nature Reserve, was once also home to a group of Neolithic farmers who were interested in astronomy. We know this about them (though little else) because of the large standing stone they erected near Duror now called the Achara Standing Stone.
It stands an impressive 3.7 metres (12 feet) tall and is aligned to the NE and SW along its longer axis. Investigations into the purpose of the stone reveal its likely use as a marker for the maximum declination of the moon, an event which happens once every 18.6 years. This celestial event was of particular significance to Bronze Age people, but we don’t know why. The fact they had worked out complex lunar declinations at all is an even greater mystery. Many stones were aligned to the same celestial coordinates, including the standing stones of Cnoc Fada on the Isle of Mull. Achara standing stone is about 1000 years older than those, erected about 5000 years ago.
On Keil Hill itself are four distinct stone cairns, around them the remains of stone and turf dykes. These have been listed by Highland Council’s ‘Historic Environment Record’ (HER) as Neolithic. It’s likely farming was practised on Keil Hill by Neolithic people. There are several sites of rig and furrow cultivation, though some have not yet been conclusively dated.
Keil Hill sits in a particularly beautiful coastal area called Appin that nestles along Loch Linnhe from Benderloch in the south to Ballachulish in the north. Today Appin is part of the larger council district of Arygll and Bute. By the time of the 1st Century CE, when the Greek scholar Ptolemy was undertaking his mammoth task of recording the geography of the known world, the region of Appin was at the southernmost end of the tribal lands of a group he called the Creones, or Cerones. Below them lived another tribe known as the Epidii. Keil Hill was part of the Creones’ border and was probably then, like now, a rather remote area.
The Creones may have been a part of a tribal alliance that stretched all the way up the Western highlands to the furthermost point of Scotland, taking in Skye and the other islands of the Inner Hebrides. The conquering Romans labelled them all Caledonii, but this was either one tribe, if Ptolemy is correct, or a tribal alliance. By the 3rd Century some or all of these tribes had joined together, probably to fight a common enemy, and became known as the Picts. The word Celt is also attributed to these collective peoples. Caled is one form of the word Celt, with plural additions. –on is the Celtic plural, and –ii is a Roman plural. So Caledonii means the same as Celts.
There is nothing of significance left by the Creones who inhabited Keil Hill. But a 6th or 7th Century bowl found within their tribal land gives us an indication of the kind of cultural material these people were by then capable of producing.
Picti is in fact a Latin word meaning ‘painted’, as Picts were known to paint themselves blue to frighten their enemies. The word first appears in a speech on education from a Roman orator living in France in 297. It seems the Picts were a worry to contemporary intellectuals who wished to civilise the world in their own image. The Picts refused to be ‘civilised’ by Rome, even though the Britons had adopted Roman ways by then. During Agricola’s leadership of Britain between 69 and 85 CE, the Roman writer, Tacitus, was curiously surprised to find most Britons embracing Roman culture, and coveting luxuries like Roman baths and banquets. Even the toga was fashionable among Britons.
Not so the Picts. They were a proud people, who not only did not embrace Romanisation, but actively sought to destroy it. Throughout the 1st Century, after the building of Hadrian’s Wall in the 2nd, and again with mounting fury in the 4th Century, the Picts attacked the Roman frontier. For barbarians they were curiously hard to conquer by a civilisation who thought itself militarily superior. The Epidii and Creones of Argyll would have lent their strength to this struggle of centuries, while their beloved land and Keil Hill lay pristinely unconquered beneath an ancient sky.
A brand new tribe began to settle in the West Highlands. We first hear of them in a Roman report of 360 CE, which describes a people different in culture but equal in savagery to the Picts. These were known as the ‘Scotti’. It could be that the Picts themselves were immigrants from Scandinavia. A fifth Century historical narrative known as the Exidium Brittaniae mentions them being a ‘transmarine’ race. The Scotti, from whence Scotland eventually gets its name, sailed up from what is now County Antrim on the North Coast of Ireland, fleeing from warring neighbours. Early on it seems the Picti and the Scotti joined forces against the Roman enemy. Picts and Scots are recorded in the annals clashing with the Romano-Britons up until the end of 400 and possibly long after.
The Scotti from County Antrim were the founders of a new kingdom they called Dalriada, located in and around the tribal lands of the Epidii. The Picts had for a long time traded and communicated with the Irish so there didn’t seem to be any problem with having them settle in the Western isles and highlands, in what would later become Argyll. The Irish royal family eventually came to Dalriada to rule this separate kingdom while the Epidii vanished into history.
The Irish settlers spoke Gaelic, but the Picts spoke Celtic. A few centuries later Gaelic would become the dominant language of Scotland. The kingdom of Dalriada stretched as far as Oban in the North, which lies 20 miles south of Keil Hill. So whoever was roaming on Keil Hill and catching their dinner in Loch Linnhe or the salmon-rich Salachan Burn is likely to be of the Creones, and would still be speaking Celtic.
In the 6th Century Christianity arrived in Scotland and Keil Hill acquired the name it is known by today. In 563 St Columba followed his Irish ancestors to Dalriada, his purpose: to bring the Christian message to the Picts. He travelled up the West coast of Scotland then eventually founded a monastery on the island of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides. It is entirely possible that his feet walked on Keil Hill. The word ‘Keil’ is a derivative of Cill or Kil, a Gaelic word meaning sanctified. It usually denotes the name of a chapel, burial ground or parish church, as in Kilbride or Kilmartin. On its own it’s most certainly a dedication to St Columba.
St Adomnan, the ninth abbot of Iona, wrote a biography of St Columba’s travels. According to him Columba stayed at Coire Salchain, which could be a misprinted reference to Salachan Glen. Salchain or Salachan means Willow. Coire means corrie (a corrie is a large circular hollow carved out by a retreating glacier). Salachan Glen doesn’t have a corrie, but change a letter and Coire becomes Coille, which means wood. Coille Salachan, or willow wood, fits the topography perfectly. Salachan Burn and Glen are at the southern end of Keil Hill. Columba’s visit here would explain the Christian-naming of Keil hill.
For further evidence of Columba’s presence, very close to Keil Hill a medieval chapel lies in ruins on a private estate. We‘d know little about it if it wasn’t for the work of an extraordinary man. In the late 1580s a mathematician and cartographer named Timothy Pont took it upon himself to spend the best part of a decade conducting an extensive survey of his own country. In between graduating from St Andrew’s university, and taking up his living as a Presbyterian minister at Dunnet Parish in Caithness, this young man travelled throughout Scotland putting together the first detailed maps of any European country. A staggering seventy seven of them still survive in the National Library of Scotland. They remain today some of the oldest maps in existence and it’s thanks to Timothy that we are able to name that ruined medieval chapel as Kilcholmkill, or St Columba’s Chapel.
Meanwhile all did not remain lovely between the Picts and the Scots. Inevitably ambitions for territorial expansion brought conflict. St Bede, the Christian historian, describes a battle between King Bridei of the Picts and King Gabran of the Scots in the 6th Century. Later on King Adrian of the Scots tried to extend his boundaries through warfare but was beaten back by the Picts. Keil Hill would have seen many a scuffle between these two kingdoms over the next two centuries. Around 736 the Pictish king Oengus (we’d spell it Angus) defeated the Scots and captured their centre at Dunadd, 53 miles south of Keil Hill. But by 768 the Scots were back on top and driving East, defeating the Pictish King Kenneth.
King Constantine finally brought a lasting peace during his reign, being cleverly descended from both Pictish and Scottish royal families. At the end of the 8th Century the local people of Keil Hill heaved a short sigh. Short it was, for by 839 the Scots and Picts were both under attack on the Western shores of Scotland by a new enemy, the Vikings. Keil Hill was directly in the path of Scandinavian ambitions.
It began at the end of the 700s. Norse longships slid through the narrows of the Sound of Harris. They attacked and destroyed a remote Dalriada settlement on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. There they built a fort and took over the farming and metal manufacturing and generally made themselves at home. Then they moved on to the Inner Hebrides, ever closer to the mainland. Lindisfarne Abbey on the Eastern seaboard was viciously attacked in 793. Iona in the West suffered a similar fate two years later, and became a victim of repeated raids. In 806, sixty eight monks were slaughtered on Iona at what has since been called Martyrs Bay.
They seem, however, to have walked over Keil Hill without stopping on their way to Northern domination. We have no archaeological record of Viking presence here. Keil Hill, with its Willow woods and rustic farming, was not exactly at the centre of things.
The threat of a Viking takeover did much to accelerate the nation building of Scotland, with the merger of the Scots and Picts under one language, Gaelic, and one ruling family, MacAlpin, after Kenneth MacAlpin, known as King of the Picts. Whether he was actually a Scot or a Pict is much debated. His descendants ruled this emerging nation for 200 years, surrounded by Vikings to the north, west and south, and under constant threat of invasion. Though it was fast achieving nationhood, Scotland couldn’t seem to settle on a name. It became known in the annals as Pictland, then Alba. By 1286 we start to see the name Scotland.
Eventually in 1098, King Edgar of Scotland signed a treaty with the Viking overlord of the Hebrides, achieving a moment of peace, and relinquishing Scotland’s claim over the Hebrides and Kintyre. Appin and Keil Hill were still part of Scotland, just, with Viking neighbours breathing down their necks.
Over time emerged a new threat of dominance by the Lords of the Isles, a powerful clan, who were part Viking, part Gaelic. Keil Hill was surrounded by their lands: Ross to the North, to the West Skye, and the Kintyre Peninsula to the south, and they all but ruled the Hebrides on behalf of Norway. An ambitious and unruly lot, they paid homage to the Norwegian king and kept trying to invade the rest of Scotland. Between them King James III and IV brought this Lordship to an end and reclaimed the lands for Scotland, including the Hebrides. The lands were then awarded to the Stewart Clan, loyal cousins of the king.
As the Kingdom of Scotland grew in nationhood during the Middle Ages, the arable and grazing land of Keil Hill was farmed by medieval peasants. The remains of two circular buildings on the hill are likely to have been medieval sheiling huts, a dwelling place used in seasonal pasture during the summer months. Sheiling huts fell out of fashion after the 17th Century, but in remote areas like Keil Hill they continued to be used well into the 18th Century. Things didn’t change much at Keil Hill. Despite wars and regime change, the odd visiting missionary or cartographer, the essentials of life remained basically the same for the local inhabitants. They lived in villages around the Loch and farmed on the hills. Their way of life was one of simple subsistence.
There are also the remains of a turf house, with walls nearly a meter thick. This is a more permanent dwelling, the sort of house locals would have lived in from the early medieval period until the end of the 18th Century. They were very cosy as turf roofs provided the best insulation. Turf is still used for roofing today in the Faroe Islands. The largest turf house was where the principle tenant lived. This was known as a kreel house during Medieval Times, and the one on Keil Hill is large enough to be considered as a kreel house.
The last piece of archaeology on Keil hill is the remains of a lime stone quarry. The nearby kiln no longer exists. In 1746 it was burned by George II’s government troops who were marching through the area on their way to Inverness, where they would meet with the final and decisive confrontation of the Jacobite uprising. The kiln was burned in March, a month before that last battle, with at least 86 miles still to go before the troops reached Culloden Moor.
The Highland Clans were Jacobite supporters and the government troops would have been punitive towards any lands that belonged to them. The Appin chief of the day, Dugald Stewart, didn’t fancy marshalling his clan to the Jacobite cause. He was living the high life in Edinburgh and getting heavily into debt. Shortly before 1745, to pay off his debts, Dugald Stewart had to sell Keil Hill, along with other land, to Donald Campbell of Airds. The local tenants were probably left to fend for themselves. No doubt those were dark days for the people of Appin as the British soldiers marched north and fires burned on Keil Hill.
As modern times approached land changed hands in commercial transactions rather than in battle. In 1779 Duglad’s son, John, sold Keil Hill to Alexander Stewart of Invernahyle. By 1841 it belonged to Robert Downie. Downie’s grandson sold Keil to James Stewart in 1931. He sold it to Gordon Morrison in 1947. It was sold by his widow to Neil Sutherland of Ardsheal in 1983 who sold it to Peter Bevis, director of Highland Titles. Now it is being sold off plot by plot to the inhabitants of the world, and is the permanent home of trees, birds, butterflies, bees and other animals too numerous to mention.