Malvina’s Grave and Ossian’s Arran

A talk by Charles Currie given at the Arran Saltire Society’s meeting on 23rd February 2022, published in two parts in the Voice –

Charles Currie, farmed Drumadoon Farm from 1972 until 1988, succeeding his Grandfather and Great grandfather, both James Currie. Featured image shows Malvina’s grave with Drumadoon beyond. Photo credit: Charles Currie.

Over the years as a young boy going on holiday to the farm every year, he remembers the family calling the group of stones at the foot of the front field as Malvina’s Grave. He wrongly assumed that everyone in the valley knew it as such and when asking his late Aunt Jean in 2019, she told him that the name was well established in the family when she was a young girl in the 1920s and tales of bad things happening to anyone who meddled with the grave were rife when she was young, being used to scare her by her elder siblings. The one myth that came down to Charles was that if you ploughed behind the grave you were likely to die which was never put to the test because the stones were adjacent to the fence which would have prevented such full-hardiness anyway.
What follows is the story of Malvina and Ossian on Arran as researched and told by Charles.

What are the Facts about this collection of stones? Professor Thomas Hastie Bryce, Regius Professor of Anatomy at Glasgow University from 1909 to 1935 and also Curator of the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow wrote in his account of his excavation of the site in The Book of Arran in 1910, reiterating the report that was first published in his 1902 book, The Cairns of Arran stating that the Monument stands on Drumadoon Farm, on a ridge that runs up from the sea.

Seven feet west of the cist, which is directed North and South is a low standing stone rising 2 feet above the ground, 2 feet 11 inches broad and 1 foot 1 inch to 1 foot 5 inches thick.

Lying prone close to this is another somewhat pointed stone, 6 foot 8 inches in length and four foot broad at the base, while the North three stones of the same general character, but not quite so long lie upon one another.

These several stones I take to be the survivors of a circle of standing stones of which there is mention in the New Statistical Account, in a description which I understand to refer to this cist and circle. In 1845, the date of that work, there were several vertical stones standing round the cist.

The same publication gives an account of the finding of an urn containing ashes, which was carried off by those engaged in the operation.

The Capstone now lies exposed. It is a very large, irregular flag, 8 ft 6 inches in its diameter, and 7 ft across and is 12 inches thick at one side and 6 inches on the other. It rests somewhat displaced on the lateral stones of the cist, which is approximately 3 foot square, but as the West and North stones are displaced, it is not possible to determine its dimension exactly.

The West side has a long thick slab, 5 feet 6 inches in length, 10 inches in thickness and 3 foot in depth: while the East side is built of two stones, 3 foot in length, set one above the other.

The South end is completed by a slab 3 foot long, set at right angles to the West stone, 2 feet within its free end. The North stone measures 2 feet 6 inches, but has been displaced, and now lies obliquely.

The Cist has been roughly filled with stones by a previous exploring party. In the soil round it a number of pieces of wood charcoal were picked up and there were patches of brick red earth, which may have been burned.

It may be noted that in the large size of the capstone, in the irregularity of its construction, and the large dimensions, it differs somewhat from the cists exposed in circles on the Machrie Moor. In The Cist at Drumadoon, there has been a setting of standing stones, but the cist itself presents features which prevent it being classified strictly with short cists. It is rather a single megalithic cist, but as no relics are now available it is impossible to say how it ought to be characterised.

During my early research into the stones a found an old book, which I can no longer lay my hands on, which had a line drawing of this cist where the capstone was elevated above the cist on three standing stones in the form of a dolmen. The accompanying text stated that the Dolmen had been blown over in a storm in the early 18th century and this accounted for the displacement of some of the stone circle.

These are the facts, now I must ask you to take the leap from concrete identifiable information to the myths of the past that have been passed down, mainly by word of mouth through bards and poets.

I myself come from a family of bards descended from the clan bards of the Lords of the Isles, the McMhurrichs, one of whom recorded the battle which brought an end of the power of the Lords of the isles, the largely indecisive Battle of Harlaw in 1411 in an epic poem.

In his recent book, Blood of the Isles, Bryan Sykes, the World’s first genetic archaeologist, states,
“We may believe that nowadays we are beyond the grasp of hazy origin myths and treat them as the sole preserve of ignorant and primitive people clinging to absurd notions of their past. But in my research around the world I have more than once found that oral myths are closer to the genetic conclusions than the often-ambiguous scientific evidence of archaeology. Hawaiki, the legendary homeland of the Polynesians, was said to be located among the islands of Indonesia, and genetics proved it. The Hazara tribe of north-west Pakistan had a strong oral myth of descent from the first Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan, and his genes are still there to this day. These are just two examples.”

The modern Historian, Ivor Norman Davies, noted for his publications on the history of Europe, Poland and the United Kingdom, castigates archaeologists for their over-materialist approach to the past and their disdain for myth. While no one would be foolish enough to suggest that they are entirely accurate in every detail, myths have a very long memory. They are also extremely influential.
I therefore turn now to the works of Ossian and the translation from the Gaelic by the Rev P Hately Waddell LLD and his book, Ossian and the Clyde.

In his preface he states:-
“Readers who wish to know the worst that has been said of Ossian or his translator, James McPherson, by the highly critical authorities in Great Britain, may consult at their leisure, Dr Johnston’s Journey to the Western Isle, Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides, Pinkerton’s History of Scotland, in all of which not only is the Ossian theory given studied contempt but also the idea of a written Gaelic history of literature is dismissed as no existent.”

Malvina’s Grave as drawn by Rev Waddell 1870 Ossian and the Clyde

Much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of James McPherson for deviating from the worthy task of translating Ossian’s poetry into English but then over egging the pudding by inventing stories of his own and passing them off as the works of Ossian. For Johnston and the others to denying the authenticity of all of Ossian’s poetry because of this mistake of youthful exuberance, is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

As I said earlier, the tradition in the west coast of Scotland and Ireland was one of bardic verbal relating of stories down through a bardic line, which would have distorted the stories as each teller enhanced the experience for his listeners. By this means it is easy to see how Fingal and his successors, who were possibly taller than many of their contemporaries became giants as each successive bard added a few inches to their stature and increased their powers, deeds and abilities.

As to Johnston and Boswell’s belief that there was no written tradition in the gaelic heritage, John Lorne Campbell’s collection resident on the Isle of Canna, now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland belies this mistaken belief.

More evidence of the existence of Gaelic writing heritage is found in the writings of Rev D McKinnon, also in 1805, in reply to Dr Johnston’s objection that there was no book in the Gaelic language more than one hundred years old. Rev Mckinnon said, “ the good doctor should have been better informed before he ventured to make such an assertion, for there is a book in the Duke of Argyll’s library in Inverary, elegantly printed in the Gaelic language, written in 1567, and in the 19th page of that book the author, Mr John Caruel, superintendent of the clergy in Argyllshire laments, with pious sorrow, that the generality of the people under his pastoral care were so much occupied in singing and repeating the songs of their old bards, particularly those that celebrated the valorous deeds of Fingal and his heroes, that they entirely neglected the Scriptures and everything relating to religion.” This book was written fully two hundred years before James McPherson started to translate Ossian.

Other collectors also have Gaelic writings in their care and the source works that aided Rev Waddell in his Ossian and the Clyde were the property of the Duke of Argyll, who in the early 1800s had a library of such works at Inveraray Castle. Within these written works were the stories that matched the verbal folklore that abounded on the western islands of Scotland and Ireland relating to Fingal and his family.

In 1805 Headrick in his book on Arran wrote of a letter that he received from Rev John Stewart, a gaelic scholar,
“It is believed here that Fingal took Arran for a resting place on his going to assist his allies in Ireland, having come down Loch Fyne in boats and birlings. He landed at Machrie, where there was then a fine harbor and resided in the caves on the Drumadoon shore. On his return he spent some considerable time in hunting.”

For such actions to be possible he must have had allies or at least friendly associates within the Machrie to Lagg area.
Waddell writes in 1871 about the Machrie basin,
“in pursuing our investigations about Ossian, we come now to consider the bearing of certain traditions on the subject, and more particularly, as I hope to show , on the interesting questions of his own life, death and burial. On the Machrie moor are several circles and other monumental stones. Nearer to Blackwaterfoot, however, is a place of indubitable sepulture, alone and separate, in the form of a large Cromlech, which on excavation was proved to contain an urn of unbaked earth full of burned bones, and this by tradition was the tomb of Ossian’s daughter, or rather of his daughter in Law that would have been had Oscar lived, Malvina.”

I stated earlier that Fingal must have had an ally to stay and hunt in the Machrie Shiskine area, and according to Ossian in his poem Berrathon, that ally was Toscar, Lord of Torlutha, now believed to be the fort on the doon, one of the largest fort areas in Scotland. In the time of Ossian the shoreline was further in than at present and the area around what is now the Blackwater formed a loch called the Lutha. From the poem Ossain states that Malvina’s grave was half way between TorLutha and Loch Lutha , with Kintyre to the west and Morvern, where Fingal’s main home was directly north. Evidence is now scarce to prove that the Blackwater was once a lake, but Headrick stated that it was at the time of his visit and, as I said earlier, the sea levels were higher at that time. Waddell sites as further proof, correspondence that he had with a Mr Bannatyne, a native of Shiskine Valley who taught at the Royal Academy in Inverness, who, he says, was a notable Gaelic scholar, and who wrote to Waddell in corroboration of his beliefs that he could point out to any geologist with perfect ease the entire space occupied by the lake long ago in the Shiskine Valley, and he remembers the stump of a decayed tree in that neighbourhood, the remains of the ancient forest once there, still rooted in the soil, and described by him as enormous, so large as to have been used by schoolboys as a redoubt or fort. Further, in the immediate vicinity of the grave itself he saw a trunk of an old tree disembedded from the moss at peat casting that was four to five feet in diameter. Under such a tree could Ossian sat when the smoke of Malvina’s cremation rose.

But who was Malvina and how did she become involved with Fingal, Ossian and his family?

The fascinating second part to this Arran story will appear in next month’s Voice.


Malvina’s Grave location, easily accessible from Shiskine golf course