The Games and Puzzles of Inchmarnock
Inchmarnock from the Kyles of Bute. It is the tiny island to the left of the boat.
If you stand at Lochranza pier looking north, the hills of Kintyre, Cowal and the Isle of Bute form a continuous horizon on the opposite side of the Kilbrannan Sound as it meets with the Sound of Bute. But if you look at a map of the same area you will see that the land is actually slashed by long north-south oriented sea lochs that make for lengthy journeys round by road unless you have a boat. From the 6th to the 9th centuries AD this area was part of the sea kingdom of the Dal Riata encompassing north-east Ireland and the Isle of Man; a kingdom in which water was central, and land peripheral. It was also a frontier area of the cultures of Gael, Briton and Pict.
Amidst the tribal conflicts, havens of peace, prayer and learning could be found, where monks led industrious, humane and creative lives in the Celtic Christian tradition. From our Lochranza perspective the location of one such haven, the tiny island of Inchmarnock to the west of Bute and the east of Arran, is only clearly visible when its cliffs glow yellow gold at sunset. It’s uninhabited now, except by organically farmed cattle. About ten years ago, the island’s owner, Lord Smith of Kelvin, commissioned an archaeological excavation of the island which yielded some surprising finds. Who would have thought that monks and their novices spent so much time gaming for example? The slate gameboards discovered by the archaeologists were engraved with criss-cross lines for games of hnefatafl (a chase game), alquerque (a war game) and merels later to become known as nine men’s morris. Shells were probably used as counters.
Inchmarnock, like Kilmarnock, is believed to have been named after an Ernan who may have been an apostle of St Columba on the Isle of Iona. Indeed, like Iona, Inchmarnock was found to be rich in distinctive ecclesiastical remains which include stone crosses as well as the inscribed slates. It has been suggested that from about AD600 Ernan’s foundation was a kind of elementary school where novices learned literacy, compass work and design, writing on slates in Gaelic, Latin and Ogham (Old Irish).
The excavation dug up further intriguing puzzles such as a slate bearing both a male and a female name. Could this be unusually early evidence of female literacy? Then there is the matter of the drawing scratched on slate known as the Hostage Stone. Dispute focuses on whether it depicts slave-raiding or an ecclesiastical procession. A warrior appears to be leading a priest or small figure with a drooping head who is clutching what looks strangely like a handbag!
You can see these fascinating finds for yourself in the Bute Museum, Rothesay, and at the same time learn of another captivating story from Inchmarnock. In recent years a farmer ploughing at the north end of the island discovered a Bronze Age cist. It contained the skeleton of a woman of status who was buried on the island 3,500 years ago with her beautiful jet collar necklace and a flint knife. Bone analysis showed that she lived on a land-based not marine diet and that she was born locally. She was about 25 when she died; her height 5’ 4”. She was buried in the usual crouched position of the time with her head turned to the right. Such detail can suddenly make the long-ago past seem just one moment away.
Looking over the sea to Inchmarnock now, instead of seeing a low-lying, windswept, deserted island, I see a home, shaped by people who worked hard and crafted the possessions they would treasure, who made and played games, and who, in their worship would have lifted their eyes to the familiar views of Arran, Cowal, Bute, Ayrshire and Kintyre that we share.
To explore the Argyll and Cowal coasts and the Clyde islands by boat from Arran you can:
· Buy a Calmac Five Ferries ticket that takes you from Arran through Kintyre, Cowal and Bute
· Take a summer sailing on the Waverley paddle steamer
· If you’re a kayaker, follow the Argyll sea kayaking trail. Lochranza Centre, Arran Adventure and Lamlash Outdoor Centre all offer kayak tuition and trips
· Ocean Breeze RiB Tours offer powerboat wildlife-watching trips around Arran
· You can catch a ferry from Lamlash to Arran’s Holy Island
More information about Inchmarnock:
Inchmarnock. An Early Historic Island Monastery and its archaeological landscape
by Christopher Lowe 2008
The Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland: Edinburgh
Above: The Waverley paddle steamer and the Lochranza-Claonaig Calmac ferry approach Lochranza Pier. Below: Approaching Arran from the north