From a concealed trapdoor in the ground we went down the rabbit hole to Uamh an Ard Achadh with Skye archaeologist Martin Wildgoose, who excavated this exceptional and complex site over a ten year period.
This was the first time we had ever been in an underground cave: darkness except for our torches, water running fast around our feet and clean sharp air. Hard hats and heavy gloves protected us from jagged edges as we squatted our way through a geological history of the Strathaird peninsula towards the original cave entrance, where an astounding collection of artefacts had revealed the very human stories behind the use of the cave. The story of the cave reaches out over 7000 years to be heard by us, its use changing over the millennia, from a place of shelter around 5000BC-750BC, to a place of profound reverence and ritual from around 750BC to 100AD.
We were literally descending through time and through a ritual space, travelling along a passage way to the otherworld and although excavation has altered the cave, standing in the space and listening to the water in the half light still evoked some sense of what the cave could have meant to those who found purpose here. The trails of human ash discovered suggest that the dead were released into the underground stream to continue their dark journey into the otherworld; a gentle letting go, back into the earth, travelling through water to their peace.
As we moved along the cave passage Martin told us more about the artefacts discovered at the site. In his words,
“The interior of the cave appears to have acted as a shrine and, or depository for numerous offerings of domestic items (Querns, needles, pins, spindle whorls, beads etc.) buried singularly or in clusters in the earth just inside the entrance, and later at the foot of the stairs, while ritual offerings of food were buried in the cave floor.”
“Almost all the deposited items seem to be from the female side of daily life and it is tempting to see the cave as the sanctuary or revered place of a female deity, the Celtic Goddess, Brigid perhaps – a name Christianised as St. Bridget and fossilised in the nearby place name Kilbride or the Cell or Holy place of Bride.”
“Around 150BC a specific ‘event’ (ritual feast) occurred. The evidence for this ‘event’ consists of the butchered remains of some 40 pigs, an iron adze (perhaps used to kill the pigs) and the broken remains of many (50+) pottery vessels (filled with something good to drink perhaps) all deposited within the cave. At some point during this second phase of activity the remains of three cows are also carefully buried within the cave system. Around 100 AD a final and ritually very significant event occurs at the site: The stairwell is partially filled with clay and boulders and two small bundles of bone are placed on top of the fill. These bundles contain the skulls and torso bones of 2 small children – a 6/8 month gestation foetus and a 6 week old child. The bones of a foetal pig are also placed with these two bundles. The stairwell is then filled to the top with more boulders and clay.
Finally, and perhaps of most significance, the skeleton of a 25-40 year old woman is placed on the top of the fill. The leg and arm bones of the 2 children buried at a lower level are then placed with this burial – the bones of the fetus in the woman’s stomach area and the child’s between her legs. Both these children are genetically related to the woman. All the remains were disarticulated and must have been stored for some time prior to burial. This closing burial was carried out in spring with the body of the woman laid on a bed of Willow Catkins. White Holly flowers and Water Lily flowers were also placed in the grave. The burials and stairwell were then buried beneath several feet of clean brown earth and stones. The ritual closing of the cave was obviously of great significance to those concerned, with the woman’s body perhaps acting as a seal or door keeper to the special place below.”
“The significance of the relationship between the High Pasture Cave site and the Celtic deity called variously Brigid, Bride, Brigantia or in its Christian form Bridget is noted not only in the local place name Kilbride – the cell or holy place of Bride, but also in the evidence recovered from the site during the excavations.The Celtic deity was the Great Mother Goddess associated with the wheel of the seasons, or more accurately the turning of the seasons and the return of the sun’s warmth in spring. She was also associated with the maintenance of the hearth-fire, the continuing success of the metal-working/smelting process and the protection of the mother and child at childbirth – a role adopted later by the Christian Saint. In Celtic times a sacred cow was kept at Brigid’s places of worship so that the new born might have nourishment. Her spring festival day was called Imbolc (around the 1st of February) later to become the Christian “Saint Bridget’s Day”. The High Pasture site has produced evidence of fire related rituals and feasting maintained at the site for almost a thousand years. There is also much evidence for the smelting and working of copper, iron and bronze over a similar period. Finally the careful burial of cows within the cave might be taken as an indication of the importance of this animal at the site. The arrival of the sun into the interior of the cave on or around the first day of February each year might therefore be seen to have considerable significance in the above context.”
Martin Wildgoose, Co-director, High Pasture Cave and Environs Project, February 2011