The Ossian Stone or Clach Ossian in the Sma’ Glen near Crieff

The Ossian Stone or Clach Ossian in the Sma’ Glen near Crieff

The A 822  road running from Crieff to Amulree takes  one through the picturesque Sma Glen amidst  some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable . Apart from its  natural rugged  beauty  the road is steeped in Highland history. It was used by the drovers a s a gateway to the lucrative markets on the periphery of the Lowlands. Places such as Fowlis Wester and most notably Crieff where the annual Michaelmas Tryst was a magnet for sellers and buyers alike. Much earlier in time it was the Romans who realised the potential dangers that this natural route could bring and constructed their “glen blocker “fort and watch tower at Fendoch where the Glen truly begins or indeed ends! It was however a professional soldier from Meath in Ireland who transformed the rough tracks into a well-engineered roadway. Major General George Wade had carried out and a study of Highland Scotland in the aftermath of the   1715 Jacobite uprising and had been appointed “Commander of the Forces in Northern Britain “by George I. It was in 1730 that he started work on the Crieff to Dalnacardoch road which extended to some 43 ½ miles or 70 kilometres. This road and the present highway share much of the same route. Coming from Fendoch  the road  twists  and turns all the  way to Newton Brig .About a mile   before  the bridge as the  road  borders  the  tumbling waters  of the Almond , you suddenly espy an enormous  standing stone . This is Clach Ossian or Ossian’s stone!

Much has been  written  about this megalith by a wide variety of  people including Sir Walter Scott and Macaulay. Both these accomplished  writers  did  however rely  on the  writings of an earlier scribe  by the name of Edmund or Edward Burt . Burt is  something of a mystery . His narrative  was  entitled “ Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland “ and were written about 1725/1726 but were  not published  until after his death . After his death it was written that  he was an engineer officer who served with General Wade in Scotland in 1724–28; an army contractor, and an illiterate hack-writer who ended his days in dire distress. War office records fail to show that Burt held military rank. The Scot’s Magazine  published in 1755 declared in  the review of his  book that he had died  : “At London. Edmund Burt Esq; late agent to Gen. Wade, chief surveyor during the making of roads through the Highlands, and author of the letters concerning Scotland.”

Whatever the true background of Burt , he nevertheless made an impression on both Scott and Macaulay It was in 1736  he wrote thus :

“ I have so lately mentioned Glen Almond , in the road from Crief ( sic )  northwards , that I cannot forebear a  digression , though at my first setting out , in relation to a piece of antiquity that happened  to be discovered in that vale not many hours before I passed  through it in one  of my journeys  southwards.

A small part of the way through this glen having been marked out by two rows  of camp – colours , placed at a good distance  one from another, whereby  to describe  the intended  breadth and regularity of the road  by the eye , there happened  to lie directly in the way  an exceedingly large stone , and ,  as it had been  made a rule from the beginning, to carry on the roads in straight lines, as far as  the way would  permit, not only to give them a better air , but  to shorten the  passenger’s journey , it was resolve d that the stone  should  be removed , if possible , though otherwise  the work might  have been carried out along on either side of it.
The soldiers  by vast labour , with their levers and jacks or hand- screws, tumbled  it over  and over  until they  got it  quite out  of the way , although it was not  such an enormous  size that  it might  be  a matter of great wonder  how it could ever  be removed  by human strength and art, especially to such who had  never  seen  an operation of that kind , and , upon their digging a little way  into that part of the ground  where the centre of the base  had stood , there was found  a small cavity about two  feet square , which was guarded  from the  outside  earth  at the bottom , top and side , by square flat stones .
The hollow contained  some  ashes , scraps  of bones , and half burnt  ends of  stalks  of heath , which last  we concluded  to be a small remnant  of a funeral pile . Upon the whole, I think there is no room to doubt but it was the urn of some considerable Roman officer , and the best  of the kind that could be provided in their military circumstances  and that it was so seems  plainly  to appear  from its  vicinity  to the roman camp, the engines  that must  have been employed  to remove  that vast  piece of rock , and the unlikeliness that it should , or could, , have ever been done  by the natives of  the country . But certainly the design  was to preserve  those remains  from the injuries  of rains or melting snows , and to prevent their being  profaned  by the sacrilegious hands of those they called  barbarians , for  that  reproachful  name , you know, they give  to the people  of almost  all nations  but their own .
As I returned  the same way  from the Lowlands I found  the officer  , with his  party  of working soldiers , not far  from the stone , and asked  him what  was to become  to do so ;  the urn.
To this he answered , that he had  intended  to  preserve  it in  the condition  I left  it , till  the Commander  - in- Chief had seen  it , as a curiosity , but that  it was not in his power to do so ;for soon after the discovery was known  to the Highlanders , they assembled  from distant parts, and  having formed  themselves into  a body, they carefully  gathered up the relics , and marched with them , in solemn procession , to a new place  of burial , and there discharged  their fire – arms  over the grave, as supposing  thee deceased had been a military officer .

You will believe that the recital of all this ceremony led me to ask the reason of such homage to the ashes of a person supposed to have been dead almost two thousand years. I did so; and the officer, who was himself a native of the hills, told me that they (the Highlanders) firmly believed that if a dead body should be known to lie above the ground , or be disinterred by malice , or by the accidents  of torrents of water , &c and care was not taken to perform to it the proper rites , then there would arise  such storms  and tempests as would destroy their corn, blow  away their huts , and all sorts of other misfortunes  would follow  till  that duty was performed  and you may here recollect what I told you so long ago, of the great regard  the Highlanders  have for the remains  of their dead ; but this notion is entirely Roman . “

Wades Bridge over the Newton Burn

There are a number of points Burt’s article raises. He was advised of the actions of the Highlanders by their officer in charge who too was a Gaelic speaker. The incident occurred about 1736 and no mention was made of the name Ossian being attached to the stone. Who, then, was Ossian? Ossian  was in fact invented  by a gentleman called James MacPherson who claimed  to have found  manuscripts of parts of Gaelic poems written by “ Ossian “ and published  by him  as a translation around 1760 .These  proved  immensely popular  although they did  arouse the
doubt of none other  than Samuel Johnson  who insisted  that MacPherson produce  these documents  for scrutiny . How then did  the name Ossian become associated  with this  stone and grave in the heart of Glen Almond ?    Author  , Thomas Newte writing  some  fifty years later in his  book “ Tour in England and Scotland “ reported that he was  told  by people living in the Glen that:

the people of the country , for several miles around , to the number  of three or four score of men, venerating the memory of the Bard rose with one consent , and carried  away the bones , with bag pipes playing, and other funeral rites, and deposited them with much solemnity  within a large  circle of stones , on the lofty summit of a rock, sequestered and  of difficult access, where they might never more  be disturbed  by mortal feet or hands , in the wild recesses of  Western Glen Almond  "

What then is the factual evidence  concerning this isolated megalith ? It  is in probability a glacial erratic  having been deposited at the en d of the ice  age . It is  substantial in size  being  some 7 ½ feet high ( 2.29 metres ) and  approximately  5 feet  square . What about the allegations that the buried  remains  are those  of a Roman officer ? Again  quite improbable . Yes  indeed  the Romans  had a “ glen blocker “ fort  and watch tower at Fendoch further up the Glen but the  remains   appear  to pre date this period  and again in probability are those  of someone of  much greater antiquity .

This  extract in the “ Northern Antiquarian “ is illuminating and refers  back to 1834  when the stone was  part of a stone circle :

Described in some of the archaeology texts as just a ‘cist’, this giant stone is obviously the remains of much more.  For a start, as the 1834 drawing illustrates here (coupled with several other early descriptions of the place), other visible antiquarian remains were very much apparent at Ossian’s Stone before a destructive 18th century road-laying operation tore up much of this ancient site.  A marauding General Wade of the English establishment was cutting through the Scottish landscape a “military road”, to enable the English to do the usual “civilize the savages”, as they liked to put it.  This curious “Giant’s Grave” was very lucky to survive.

 Let me conclude  with a somewhat unconnected point of information ! Just some  two miles  further on from Ossian's Stone and over the Newton Brig lies a   small field . It was  her  that scenes  from the  hit movie  "Chariots of Fire "were shot  depicting a  young Eric Liddell  !


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