Glencolumbkille court cairns
The beautiful valley of Glencolumbkille lies at the extreme west of County Donegal, at the end of a peninsula looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. The valley is best known for its associations with Saint Columbkille, the sixth century saint who established a monastic foundation there, attracted by the extreme remoteness and beauty of the site.
Today it is also well known as the home of a vibrant and dynamic school of fiddling: at one stage every house had a fiddle hanging by the fire place and almost everyone could play. However, the valley was first settled by neolithic farmers, and the remains of two fine court cairns can be visited today.
On the north side of the valley lies the majestic monument of Farranmacbride. This huge central court cairn is one of the finest and most elaborate examples in Ireland, and it has the largest court area of the 400 or so court cairns in Ireland.
The monument is in quite a state of disrepair: a road has been dug through the middle of the court and the lintels over the entrances have been pushed over. However, compared to many of the much more ruined monuments around Ireland, Faranmacbride is a very impressive site.
The court measures twenty by ten meters, just slightly larger than the fine example at Creevykeel. Many of the orthostats—upright stones surrounding the court are still in place. Most of the lintels and corbels are still on the site, and several of the massive corbels are still in position over the west chamber. There are a number of smaller chambers around the court, with at least two remaining and possibly four originaly.
Heritage Service report:
This monument is 600 meters North of Glencolumbkille village. It stands just SE of a steep rocky hillside, 1.3km NE of the strand at Glen Bay, on poor pasture that has been reclaimed from the bog. There is a good outlook from the site to the S and SW, but that to the North and NE is restricted by nearby hilly ground. The unclassified tomb at Straid or Glebe (Dg. 115) lies downslope c. 500 meters to the S. The monument, aligned NE-SW, consists of a long oval central court with a two-chambered gallery opening off its narrow North-east and SW ends. In addition, three, and what may be the remains of a fourth, subsidiary chambers are set around the court, two at its S side and one, perhaps two, at the N. Where necessary for ease of reference, the monument is described as if its long axis lies E-W. The cairn The structure stands in a long oval cairn, 60.5m long by 19.5m wide. A sunken trackway crosses the western half of the court and separates the approximate western half of the cairn, which is quite well preserved, from the considerably denuded eastern half.
The western half of the cairn, much overgrown, appears to be stone built and survives to a maximum height of 1.5m. It rises to, and in places exceeds, the height of the gallery walls. The eastern half has been largely removed, and what remains is grass grown, generally level and no more than 0.5m high. At the eastern extremity of the monument the cairn outline is scarcely traceable. The present cairn edge along the North side of the monument is no more than 1m beyond the subsidiary chamber(s) at this side of the court. The South, slightly downhill, side of the cairn, is at least 4m beyond the subsidiary chambers at the S side of the court.
The original cairn perimeter is not now apparent, although three short lines of low stones at intervals just inside the present edge of the cairn at the NE may represent some form of kerb or perhaps an internal revetment. Because their status is uncertain, none of these stones is hatched on the plan. Three of them form a line, 3m long, beginning 2.5m East of the well-preserved subsidiary chamber at the N side of the court. These are between 0.1m and 0.3m high. Approximately 4.5m to the East is a line, almost 2m long, composed of four small stones 0.1-0.2m high. Approximately 4.5m further to the E and c. 9m beyond the back of the north-eastern gallery are three stones forming a line 3m long, none of which exceeds 0.1m high. There are two other, partly buried stones at the surface of this end of the cairn. One is 4.5m SE of the back of the north-eastern gallery and measures at least 0.8m in maximum dimension, and just over 3m SE of that is another, 0.35m in maximum dimension. Neither is definitely structural.
The sunken trackway, mentioned above, narrows from 4.5m wide at the North to 2 meters at the South. A drainage channel (not on plan) has been dug along the length of the trackway. A wall at either side of the trackway runs southward from another built along the western two-thirds of the northern edge of the cairn. The wall at the East side of the trackway crosses only the court; that to the W crosses the full width of the cairn and joins two others, combining to all but encompass the eastern half of the monument. One of these walls runs alongside the cairn at the South, and the other links with it and runs N-S just beyond the E end of the monument. The court Although many court orthostats are missing, its outline is clear. It is 20.5m long and c. 8.5m in greatest width. Midway along its South side is an orthostat at right angles to the long axis of the monument. This may represent one side of an entrance passage to the court. Five courtstones, two of them fallen, link the NE gallery to the eastern subsidiary chamber on the South side of the court, and four link it to the subsidiary chamber at the North.
The innermost courtstone at either side of the entrance to the NE gallery is tall, in contrast to the others, which are quite low. That flanking the South side of the gallery entrance is 1m high. The second, fallen, is 1.1m long and more than 0.3m thick and would have stood at least 0.3m high when upright. The third here, the top of which is flush with the ground, has also fallen and is not hatched on the plan; its exposed surface measures 0.9m by 0.25m. The fourth stone is 0.4m high, and the fifth, 0.6m beyond it, is 0.45m high. The innermost courtstone at the N side of the gallery entrance is 1.1m high, and the next two, both partly concealed, stand 0.1m and 0.2m high. The fourth stone is 0.5m high (not hatched on plan). The base of this is exposed, and its status is somewhat uncertain. It stands at the East side of a gap, 0.4m wide, in the court that gives access to the entrance passage leading to the adjacent subsidiary chamber. At the W side of this gap is another courtstone, 0.5m high. Just South of this stone is a low stone, 0.2m high, of uncertain status (not hatched on the plan).
At the SW end of the court two orthostats flank either side of the entrance to the SW gallery. The inner one at the N is 1m high, and the outer, 0.5m beyond it, is 0.75m high. The inner one at the S side of the gallery entrance is 0.65m high, and the outer one, 0.5m from the inner, is 0.4m high. Approximately midway along the N side of the court is a line, 3.5m long, of five stones. The middle one, 0.75m in maximum dimension, is fallen, and the others, which are quite low, range from 0.45m to 0.75m in maximum dimension and from 0.1m to 0.35m high. These appear to be on or close to the court perimeter but cannot be relied on as courtstones and are not hatched on the plan. Between the two subsidiary chambers at the S side of the court are three set stones that appear to be structural, although the role of each remains to be confirmed.
Approximately 3.5m E of the western subsidiary chamber a stone protrudes from the base of the largely collapsed wall along the E side of the trackway crossing the site. It is 1m high and may be a courtstone. Just S of it is a prostrate slab, 1.4m in maximum dimension. Approximately 1.7m E of this is the stone, referred to above, that may have formed part of one side of an entrance passage to the court. Though now slightly loose, it seems to be in situ, and it is 0.6m high. The third set stone is 1.4m SE of this and is 0.4m high. It lies just outside a line drawn through the southern sides of the two subsidiary chambers at the S side of the court and perhaps formed part of a cairn revetment. The north-eastern gallery The north-eastern gallery, c. 5m long, is divided by jambs into two chambers. Some partly displaced roofstones cover the inner chamber. Entry to the gallery is between two transversely set jambs, 0.55m apart, that lie on the court perimeter. The southern jamb is 1.05m high, and the northern one is 0.65m high.
On the ground immediately in front of the jambs is a fallen lintel. It measures 2.75m by 1.05m by 0.45m thick. The front chamber is 2m long and 2.2m wide internally. A single orthostat, 0.9m high, forms its S side. Two orthostats form the N side. Both are 0.75m high. The outer one overlaps the entrance jamb. Two displaced slabs lie on the floor of the chamber. That to the North measures 0.95m by 0.6m by 0.2m thick, and that to the South is 1.3m by 0.7m by 0.3m thick. The segmenting jambs are both transversely set and stand 0.5m apart. Both are inset slightly in the gallery sides. The southern one is 0.85m high, and the northern one is 0.75m high. Immediately outside the northern one is a narrow upright stone, its base partly concealed. This is the same height as the inner orthostat of the front chamber, which it overlaps slightly.
The segmenting jambs support a large but somewhat displaced lintel with a flat base and humpback top. This has tilted toward the back of the gallery and now also rests on a small stone (not on plan), 0.25m by 0.15m by 0.1m, wedged between it and a displaced slab of uncertain status that lies on the considerable fill of earth and stones at the front of the rear chamber. The displaced slab measures 1m by 0.9m by 0.15m thick. The lintel when in place measured c. 2m long, 0.4m thick and 1.25m in greatest height. The rear chamber is 2.7m long internally and narrows from c. 2m wide just inside the segmenting jambs to 1.5m at the back. A single orthostat forms each side. The outer end of each is concealed in the fill. The southern orthostat is 1m high at its inner end. The northern is 0.85m high. A gabled backstone, 1.5m high, closes the chamber. It rises 0.45m above the top of the southern sidestone and 0.6m above the northern one. All but the front of the chamber was covered by a large roofstone, the outer end of which now dips into the chamber. It rests on top of the backstone and on top of the southern sidestone but has slipped down the inner face of the northern sidestone. This is 2.75m long, 2m wide and 0.3m thick. There is a layer of grass-grown peat and clay on top of this stone. Although none is now in place, it is expected that corbels would have been employed here to raise the chamber sides to the level of the tall backstone.
There is a prostrate slab to the N and another to the S of the gallery. One, just N of the front chamber, measures 1.4m by 0.75m and is 0.25m thick. The other, partly buried, lies just S of the gallery segmentation and measures at least 1m in maximum dimension and 0.15m thick. The south-western gallery The south-western gallery is c. 5.5m long. The cairn obscures the outer face of each side of this gallery. Approximately 1m in front of the entrance are three displaced stones, any of which may be a fallen lintel. These measure from N to S: 1.3m by 0.6m by 0.25m; 1.9m by 0.5m by 0.4m; and 2.15m by 0.9m by 0.35m. Entry to the gallery is between two well-matched, transversely set entrance jambs, set 0.7m apart, on the court perimeter. Both are 1.1m high. The front chamber is c. 2.5m long and 2.8m wide internally. A single orthostat forms each side, both approximately the same height. The inner end of the northern orthostat and both ends of the southern one are concealed. The northern one, which leans inward, is 0.7m in exposed height, and the southern is 0.9m.
Transverse segmenting jambs set between the gallery sides mark the division between the chambers. The jambs are 0.55m apart. The northern one is 0.5m high, and the southern one is 0.8m high. Immediately outside the southern one is a small set stone, 0.5m high. This is overlapped by the southern orthostat of the front chamber. A slab laid horizontally on the northern and lower jamb raises its effective height to about that of the southern one. The horizontally laid slab, the northern end of which is concealed by the cairn, measures 0.55m by at least 1m and is 0.15m thick. The inner chamber, measured internally, is 2.4m long and narrows from 2.3m wide just inside the segmenting jambs to 1.9m near the back. A single orthostat forms each side of this chamber. That at the S is 0.7m high. The northern one, the outer end of which is concealed, is 0.2m in exposed height. In the angle formed by this and the northern segmenting jamb there is a fill of stones in front of which well-built dry-walling has been constructed. This work is of uncertain age. The dry-walling, not on the plan, extends 0.6m westward from the inner face of the segmenting jamb and is built to the height of the slab laid on top of the jamb.
A horizontally laid corbel covers all but the inner end of the northern orthostat. The outer end of the corbel is concealed in the cairn. It is 1.45m long by at least 0.4m wide and 0.2m thick. A flat-topped backstone, 0.7m high, forms the W end of the gallery. A small slab resting on the northern end of the backstone and on the inner end of the northern sidestone overlies the gap, 0.5m wide, between them. This slab is laid horizontally and measures 0.8m by 0.5m by 0.2m thick. A displaced lintel, 2m by 0.85m by 0.4m thick, covers the front of the inner chamber. It now rests on the flat slab above the northern segmenting jamb, on the dry-walling immediately W of this jamb, and on the outer end of the southern sidestone. It rests against, but not on, the top of the inner face of the southern segmenting jamb. A layer of earth covers the southern end of the lintel and the top of the southern jamb. The lintel supports one end of a narrow slab that also rests on the backstone. This slab, which is very unlikely to be in its original position, measures 2.1m by 0.7m by 0.2m thick.
Immediately behind the gallery are two opposed slabs set against the outer face of the backstone and more or less in line with the gallery sides. These lie on top of the cairn mass and are about level with the top of the backstone. Their origin is uncertain, but they may have served to buttress the structure. The northern one, its outer face hidden, measures 2m long by at least 0.3m thick by 0.75m high. The southern one measures 2.75m by 0.7m by 0.8m high. A large slab, 1.8m in maximum dimension, thought to be displaced, rests on the outer end of this. There is a small stone jammed between them. Just 0.2m W of the displaced slab the top of a firmly set stone protrudes above the surface of the cairn. It is 0.8m long, 0.25m thick and 0.5m high. This is very unlikely to be a structural stone, and it is not hatched on the plan. Subsidiary chambers Two well-preserved subsidiary chambers stand 9m apart on the S side of the court, the eastern one 5m from the front of the NE gallery.
Approximately 2.5m from the front of the same gallery and on the N side of the court there is another well-preserved subsidiary chamber. Approximately 9.5m W of this are the slight remains of a possible fourth subsidiary chamber. The subsidiary chambers are so arranged that two stand at opposite sides of each end of the court. Viewed from a position facing either main gallery, the subsidiary chamber on the left is in each case the nearer of the two to the gallery entrance. The three well-preserved chambers are set around the outside of the court, with one side of each on the court perimeter. Their long axes are parallel to the long axis of the court, and each opens to the E. The well-preserved chamber on the N side of the court is entered via an angled approach from the court. There is some evidence of a similar arrangement at the eastern chamber on the S side of the court. Any similar approach to the western chamber on this side would have been destroyed in making the trackway that crosses the monument.
The well-preserved chamber on the N side of the court is c. 1.7m long and 1.3m wide. Its present floor level is c. 0.5m below that of the surrounding grass-grown cairn. It lies to the W of an approach element opening northward from the court. A gap in the court gives access to the approach element. Two transversely set jambs stand 0.5m apart at the front of the chamber and mark the W side of the approach element. The other side of this feature is marked by an orthostat standing 0.5-1m in front of the entrance jambs. This links the court to the outer end of the N side of the chamber, which overlaps the adjacent entrance jamb. The linking orthostat is 1.2m long, 0.25m thick and 0.5m high. A small set stone, 0.5m high, stands at its southern end. The southern entrance jamb is 0.9m high, and the northern one is 0.6m high. A single orthostat on the court perimeter forms the S side of the chamber. It is 0.6m in exposed height at its inner face and 0.4m lower than the adjacent entrance jamb. The outer one of the two orthostats forming the North side of the chamber is 0.55m in exposed height at its inner face. It overlaps the entrance jamb at one end, as mentioned, and the outer end of the inner orthostat on this side, which is 0.8m high. The chamber is closed by an inset, slightly gabled backstone at the W. This is 0.8m in exposed height at its inner face.
The eastern one of the two subsidiary chambers at the South side of the court measures, internally, 1.7m long by 1.5m wide. A grass-grown heap of earth and stones, possibly original cairn material, immediately to the N of the chamber partly obscures some of the orthostats. Entry to the chamber is at the East, between two well-matched, transversely set jambs, 0.4m apart. Single orthostats form the sides and back of the chamber, which is roofed by a single slab. In front of the southern jamb and at right angles to it is an orthostat 0.7m high. This may have formed the southern end of an approach element from the court similar to that in front of the subsidiary chamber on the N side of the court. Between this orthostat and the jamb is a small stone 0.1m high, which may not be an original feature and is not hatched on the plan. A stone 0.25m in maximum dimension rests on this and appears on the relevant sectional drawing.
Access to the chamber from the court may have been between the outer two of the five courtstones linking this chamber to the main gallery at the NE. The southern entrance jamb of the chamber is 0.75m high. It is set immediately in front of but inside the line of the southern sidestone, which is 1m high. The northern jamb, its outer end concealed, is 0.7m high. The northern sidestone, which lies on the court perimeter, is broken. The butt of this is in situ, but its detached upper part lies in the chamber. The butt, largely concealed, is 0.3m high. The detached piece measures 1.8m, the approximate original length of the stone when intact, by 0.65m by 0.35m thick. An original height of c. 1m is thus indicated, the same as the southern sidestone. The backstone is inset between the sides of the chamber and is also broken. The butt of the backstone remains in place and is 1.3m long, c. 0.5m thick and 0.4m high. The detached upper part lies behind the butt. It is clear that when intact this stone was gabled in outline and 1.1m high.
The roofstone, approximately rectangular in outline, now rests on the southern sidestone and the broken northern sidestone and overlies the broken backstone. It does not cover the entrance jambs and is 2.05m long, 1.85m wide and 0.4m thick. Just over 3m E of the front of this chamber are two prostrate slabs c. 0.25m apart. The larger one, to the W, is 0.9m in maximum dimension, and the smaller one is 0.35m. The front of the western subsidiary chamber at the S side of the court is incorporated in the field wall crossing the monument. In front of the N side of this chamber a stone 0.7m high protrudes from the E face of the wall. It is of uncertain status and is not hatched on the plan. The cairn largely hides the outer faces of the sides and back of the chamber, which is 1.7m long and 1.5m wide, internally. Entry, at the E, is between two well-matched, transversely set jambs that stand 0.4m apart. The northern jamb is 0.9m high, and the southern one is 0.8m high. Single stones form the sides and back of the chamber. Each sidestone partly overlaps its adjacent entrance jamb. The northern sidestone, which lies on the court perimeter, is 0.8m high measured at its inner face. The southern sidestone, which leans against the backstone, is 0.9m high.
The backstone is 1.15m high and rises c. 0.3m above the tops of the sidestones. The northern end of the top of this stone is somewhat damaged, but it appears to have been slightly gabled in outline. A fourth subsidiary chamber is indicated by the presence of what appears to be a possible sidestone lying parallel to the long axis of the cairn and in a position that, if it is a chamber orthostat, lends a degree of symmetry to the arrangement of the burial chambers around the court. It lies at the N end of the trackway crossing the monument, and its W end is overlain by the field wall crossing the court. It is at least 2.3m long, c. 0.3m thick and 0.2m in exposed height. Approximately 1m S of its W end a smaller stone protrudes from the base of the wall. This is 0.35m thick, 0.35m high and at least 0.5m long. Its status is unclear, and it is not hatched on the plan. Just 0.5m E of this is a prostrate slab, 1.1m by 0.5m by 0.35m. Approximately 0.9m E of the long set stone and at right angles to it toward the S is an upright slab, 0.15m high. It is somewhat loose in the ground, and, although it may be a structural stone and is hatched on the plan, there must be some uncertainty about its status. Norman Moore (1872, 525), who visited this monument in 1871, noted that some of the chambers were then in use as shelters for farm animals. He recorded a local claim that a skull and 'a piece of earthenware' had been dug up near one of the 'cromlechs'. The skull was reportedly buried in the nearby churchyard. He was also informed that during digging to clear a 'cromlech' for use as a malt store its side slabs were found to rest on 'a basement slab'.
The Straid Monument
The second court cairn is at the centre of the valley in the townland of Glebe or Straid and is right by, and even under the modern Church of Ireland building. The Faranmacbride monument is visible 500 meters to the north.
This monument is much disturbed and the site hae been reused many times since it was built in the neolithic. The monument has been bisected by a roadway which runs between it and the church. An early Christian cashel or settlement was built over the court, possibly the site of an earlier structure that has since been replaced by the modern church.
This site is now the first station of the Christian pilgrimage route or circuit of the valley. Little remains of the megalithic structure except a jumble of large stones and some of the cairn—a strange mixture of ancient and modern religeous beliefs. The section of dry stone walling in the monument may be the remains of a penitential altar.
To find out more about the Glencolumbkille turas visit Voices from the Dawn.
Heritage Service report:
The monument, just W of Glencolumbkille church and graveyard, stands on a slight ridge in low-lying, level pasture 600m E of the inner end of Glen Bay and c. 150m N of the Murlin River. The court tomb at Farranmacbride (Dg. 56) is visible 0.5km to the N. The monument is considerably ruined. Three structural stones, two to the N and one to the S, can reliably be identified. These stand at opposite ends of a long, grass-grown mound of irregular outline measuring 12m NE-SW by 8m NW-SE by 1.75m high. The status of some other set stones is less certain, and these, along with prostrate stones, are not hatched on the plan. A stone-built field wall runs N-S across the top of the mound. The monument has long been appropriated by Christian ritual as one of the stations in the turas, or pattern, associated with St Colmcille (Price 1941, 73).
A facing of dry-wall construction, 1.5m long, set into the western side of the mound near its northern end may be the remains of a 'temporary altar where mass is said to have been celebrated in modern times…[and where] some portion of the station ceremonies is usually observed' (Fagan 1845-8). Fagan also claimed that there were further 'sepulchral' remains c. 20 yards (c. 18m) W of the surviving structure and that here too a 'temporary altar' had been constructed. Of these features there is now no trace. The southern orthostat at the site is 2m in from the SW end of the mound.
Aligned roughly NW-SE, it is gabled in outline and 0.9m high. The other two structural stones stand at an angle to each other at the eastern edge of the N end of the mound. The southern one lies roughly E-W and is 0.5m high. The northern stone lies roughly N-S and is 0.8m high. There are three stones close to the western edge of the mound. The southernmost, a set stone, is 0.5m NW of the southern orthostat. It measures 1.1m by 0.6m by 0.7m in exposed height at its western face. The second, 0.4m to the North, lies against the edge of the mound and measures 0.95m by 0.4m by 0.8m high. The third, 2.5m N of the second, is a set stone at right angles to the line of the other two and measures 1.05m by 0.55m by 1.2m high at its western face. A displaced slab measuring 2.15m by 1.4m lies prostrate at the N end of the mound.
Approximately 1.5m to the S is another displaced slab, 1.6m by 1.35m by 0.4m thick. This, overlain by the crossing field wall, rests on the pointed top of a stone, at least 0.5m in maximum dimension, that protrudes 0.4m above the surface of the mound. Approximately 1m E of the last a set stone, 0.5m by 0.3m, rises 0.25m above the mound surface. Approximately 1.5m S of this a slab, 1.2m in maximum dimension, is visible at the E face of the crossing-wall, and 2.5m to the S a large displaced block of stone, 0.9m in maximum dimension, has been incorporated in the wall. A possible interpretation of the remains is that the gabled orthostat at the South is the backstone and the two orthostats to the N are a sidestone and a segmenting jamb of a NE-facing court tomb gallery c. 8.5m or more in length. Confirmation of this interpretation would require further investigation, and pending this the monument must remain unclassified.