Dal Ríada

I thought I had a bit of a grasp of Dal Ríada. Pass Notes style maybe, not extensive. It was a sort of colonial job by 5th century Irish from the North, extending their territory into what is now Argyll and the southern Hebrides, in western Scotland. The Isle of Iona, the monastic centre founded by Colmcille/Columba, was the seat of religious authority, with the royal seat and capital at the fort of Dunadd. There was a lot of territorial tug o’ war with the Picts in the East, in which one would prevail for a while, then the other. Finally the two kingdoms fused into the kingdom of Alba when Kenneth MacAlpin (a Gael by most accounts) came to the Pictish throne. The “Burth of Scotland”, as Neil Oliver would say. Of the two kingdoms, only the language of the Gaels survived (as Scots Gaelic) and we know very little about the Pictish language, which is thought to have been a Brythonic tongue, related to Welsh and Cornish. Its echoes are mostly in placenames now.

Iona Abbey

We approached Dunadd from the south, taking time to see “cup and ring” rock markings around Kilmichael Glen (see image below). A lot of the land around this part of Scotland is surprisingly lush, with beech woods growing right on the coast, and the sense of a temperate climate, quite distinct from some parts of the highlands. We were lucky to encounter a group from an archaeology field-school who were surveying a cup-marked stone called the Lion Stone at Kilmichael. They gave us great advice about where to go and what to see. There are some amazing arrays of ancient rock art up mad trails in the forestry nearby, and it’s notable that the heartland of Dal Ríada was in an area that had been culturally important many centuries earlier. The Kilmartin valley, in which the royal citadel of Dunadd is situated, has a linear series of cairns, stone circles and stone alignments from the Neolithic and Bronze ages.


Dunadd itself, between Kilmichael Glassary and Kilmartin village, is a classic stronghold-on-a rocky-eminence, reminiscent of Cashel or Dunamase in Ireland. It may once have been an island in a shallow bay. There are traces of Iron Age occupation before the establishment of Dalríada, and carving of a boar in distinctly Pictish style, but most of the remains relate to the period of the Gaelic kingdom, Dal Ríada (or Dalriata, etc.). At the height of the fort there is a carved impression of a footprint which (it is believed…) was used in the inauguration of kings. It’s a powerful place, with great vistas off down the valley and to the coast. When you get to that rock with the footprint, you just have to put your foot into it.

The Footprint Stone, Dunadd
Footprint and View, Dunadd

Many, many miles later, in Aberdeenshire, we learned something about this stone that I will never forget, but I’m going to keep that up my sleeve for now.

Cultural identity… it’s such a conundrum. The genetic researcher Brian Sykes visited much of Britain with his team of DNA samplers more than a decade ago, as part of the “Blood of the Isles” project. Apart from the DNA results, his team also recorded cultural attitudes among the people whose DNA they were testing, and these are interesting. In Western Scotland, many subjects expressed an interest in finding that they had Irish roots. In the North and East, that was not regarded as a desirable outcome, with Viking ancestry being seen as a definite bonus, and Pictish connections a good second best.

Neolithic Rock Art, Achnabreck, Kilmichael Glen

When I started to read about Dal Ríada from the point of view of Scottish historians, I came up against the fact that my understanding of it was coloured by Irish narratives, which may perhaps give too much weight to the Irish dimension. Scots tend to see Dalriata (their favoured spelling) as much more a distinct community holding lands in both Scotland and Ulster, and speaking a Gaelic tongue from the mists of time, rather than an Irish colonial venture. There’s something in this I suspect – it’s too easy to transfer modern nationality values onto these long-distant belongings and movements.

Next Post: Dal Ríada II

Freedom of Movement

I have been in danger of losing the thread. Summer came along, and as always I had other matters on my mind – a long list of jobs I needed to get on with in the garden, around the house (both inside and out), managing the bee hives, and of course… Escape.

Escape this summer mainly took the form of a long-promised return to Scotland, and we planned 2 weeks on the road in our camper van. On the 16th of July, we made a break for the Border. Brexit was (inevitably) on my mind – I’d watched the British political system melting down in slow motion over two and a half years, and at this stage the only thing I could be sure of was that anything could happen. Broad consensus seemed the least likely basis for any final outcome, and indeed, how final would that outcome actually be? Anyway, it’s possible that the nature of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland may change soon, and it will hardly be for the better.

Our plan – to drive from Clare north over the Border using the motorway system, and then catch a ferry from Larne to Cairnryan in the SW of Scotland. My fellow travellers were my life partner A and our dog Lyra, the only one of us in the full flush of youth. I wanted to find out about freedom of movement, how much we have, and how that may change.

As it turned out, we had a remarkable degree of freedom of movement. As usual, the Irish Border was so frictionless that it was really difficult to spot exactly where we crossed over, the only clue being the change in speed limits from Km/hr to m.p.h. Even the ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ sign had been unofficially removed. Driving through the countryside of the North is in some ways a primer for Scotland – the imprint of the Ulster Scots is there on the landscape, though the prevailing feeling is still of travelling in Ireland.

When it came to embarkation for the ferry, security was cursory and friendly. Most curious of all, during the whole trip from the Republic to the North, around Scotland and back, we were not once asked for ID. Not a passport, not a drivers licence, not a dog passport.

We don’t like to plan too much, but there were a few threads to our trip. We wanted to check out the parts of Scotland that were historically Dal Ríada (or Dalríata), the seat of the Irish settlement in the early Christian period. More about that later.

Anther possibility suggested itself too. We knew we were likely to be near the Isle of Jura, one of the near Hebrides and the place where George Orwell retreated to write his dystopian masterpiece “1984”. Might a visit be possible?

And then, because our trip would also take us down the eastern seaboard, we were in search of the enigmatic remains of the Picts. Each of these bets paid off handsomely, if not exactly in the way we had imagined.

The next post is about DAL RIADA

Thatching Pt.II

Continuing the Thatching thread, This is about Hazel, the thatcher’s friend.

Hazel rods growing from the base of a hazel stool

The name of the townland we live in is Carrownagoul, or Ceathrú na gCoill, which means “The Quarter of the Hazel”, and it’s well named. The land is a mixed pattern of fields, scrubby woods and rocky limestone crag bordered by a turlough or “disappearing lake” at the North West. There is plenty of hazel, from the dwarfed scrub just surviving in the crevices of the crag, to the miles of hedgerows where it’s mixed with whitethorn, ash, spindle and buckthorn, and then there are the more established areas where the hazel finally rises above scrubdom and becomes a tree of the woods. It is not a big or showy tree, the largest trunks don’t get much thicker than my leg and it can rise to about 6 or 7 meters at best, but while all trees have their special uses, hazel is particularly generous. For this reason it was classed under ancient Brehon Law as one of the Lords of the Wood.

“Coil ‘hazel’. In spite of its relatively small size, the hazel is included among the lords of the wood. The ninth-century legal commentary explains that this is because of its nuts and its rods. Hazel-nuts were an important element in the early Irish diet: the fact that they could be stored made them a particularly important foodstuff during the generally lean and hungry winters endured by the early Irish. Later legal commentary describes the hazel as in briugufeda “the hospitaller (food-provider) of the wood”. It is clear from both the documentary and the archaeological evidence that the strong, pliable and quick-growing rods of the hazel were of the utmost importance in the construction of fences, enclosures and house-walls.” http://www.forestryfocus.ie/

Hazel nuts drying

Of course I use hazel for all sorts of things, but it’s thatching I came here to talk about. It’s probably the best of all native trees for producing long smooth rods that are strong but pliable. Willow is another contender – it produces softer rods that are better for the basketmaker, but second best for the thatcher. We need 2 kinds of rod, the longer ones that lie across a layer of thatch (we call them stretchers, but they have other names) and the staple-like scollops that pin down the stretcher. Stretchers can be whole or split, but scollops are nearly always made from splits. Here’s how it’s done:

Splitting a hazel rod and making a scollop

In the video, you can see that before I bend the hazel rod, I first have to twist it. This is the key to making a decent scollop – if you tried to bend the split rod double without the twist, it would just splinter and break. Twisted, the fibres separate and become pliable, but the straight part is strong and, believe me, sharp enough to injure you if you don’t pay attention.

A traditional cottage might use 2000 or so of these scollops and a few hundred stretchers. It’s labour-intensive work, thatching, and skilled labour at that. Most thatchers now buy in their hazel rods ready-made, or arrange for someone to do the work for them.

The traditional way to roof a new house with thatch was to first cover the roof timbers with sods cut from a bog or field. The sods, usually called “scraws” need to be tough and fibrous, so they were cut from old pasture to make sure they were held together by a wiry mat of roots. The scraw was good for adding insulation, but it was quite heavy. Nowadays the first coat of thatch is usually “stitched” onto roof battens using wire ties instead of scollops, but subsequent coats can be fixed into this layer using hazel scollops. I’m going to show this picture again, because you can see the battens and the wire ties on the modified roof structure:

Wire fixing method

There’s a lot more to be said about hazel and the local economy. The years of WWII, or The Emergency as it was known here, were significant. Due to difficulties with imports from Spain, hazelnuts from Ireland were suddenly a cash commodity, and many local nut-gatherers were able to sell them to agents for English buyers. There was also, I’m told, local production of charcoal for “producer gas”, a rather clunky alternative fuel to petrol which was heavily rationed.

I have always had a special feeling about going off into the hazel woods to gather rods. There are a lot of hazel woods, but only certain places yield good rods. In more populous areas like the South of England, where the land is richer, hazel coppices were established in which the stools of hazel were regularly cut, on a cycle of about 8 years or so. We do things differently in the Burren. We hunt the wild scollop, seeking out the darker places in the woods where young shoots have to reach up towards the light. In my early years hunting for prime rods, I would come across the telltale marks where someone else had cut rods, maybe 5 years earlier, out in the wild places. They were usually the best places. Now I only see my own cuts as a rule – no-one else cuts rods here now. The hazel woods of the Burren have their own magic: elf-cups, the tiny red fungi that grow deep in the woods, bluebells and wild garlic in spring, and above all the sense of being outside the World’s time.

More in Thatching Pt.III


Difficult to know where to start when it comes to discussing thatching – it is woven through my life from my 20s onward. So what is it about thatch and me?

Reed Thatching in progress

It all began about 1979, after moving to the west of Ireland. We were part of the Back to the Land movement that grew out of alternative ways of looking at society and lifestyles in the late 60s and 70s. We wanted to house ourselves and be the producers of a lot of our own needs, whether that was food, health support, clothing – you name it. We were going back to Simple, or that was the general idea.

We weren’t interested in overturning the System so much as turning our backs on it as much as possible. It turned out that land was available if you looked hard, and it was cheap, if you actually had some money.

Reconstructed Iron Age house, Craggaunowen Co. Clare

I had notions about designing and building a house since I was in my teens, and looked to earlier and more traditional ways people had gone about it. It had to be small in scale, non-industrial by nature, extremely affordable (which meant not hiring people with specialist skills) and aesthetically pleasing. Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux vision man, had said “the birds build their house in a circle because they have the same religion as us”, and I knew that the old houses in this region, way back in the Iron Age, were usually round. I had to learn to thatch.

Ridge work

Luckily, there was help. A friend of mine who lived in a thatched cottage had made an arrangement with a local thatcher which involved working with him for a while to learn the basics. We did some skill sharing. Then there was this great book from England “The Thatcher’s Craft”, literally an apprenticeship manual with hundreds of photos of technique.

The “Haynes Manual” of thatching

The house got built eventually (another story) and indeed thatched, with reed from the Shannon estuary. I did cut some reed, but it needs a lot, so most of it was bought from the reed-cutters. More about them later. But I had figured out the thatching and it suited me. After a while people began to ask me to do some thatching for them – first repairs, but then full roofs, and before too long I had a trade.

Shannon reed-cutters

Thatching was my main occupation for 12 to 14 years, depending on how you count it, because I always did other stuff. The usual hippy smallholding stuff, like milking goats on winter nights with an oil lamp hanging from a nail in the beam overhead. Shoeing horses, hauling dung… Thatchers were scarce and mainly elderly at the time, which meant there was work about, but expected rates of payment seemed to be stuck in the 1950s, perhaps with a proposal that “you’ll take half now, and I’ll give you the rest when we sell the hoggets”. Anyway, it was possible to get by on the money, and many of the people I was working for were just wonderful. In the old way, tradesmen were treated with great respect, overfed at regular intervals and their work blessed at every turn.

Traditional thatched cottage

There is something about thatch that appeals to people of all ages. It draws passers-by to the foot of the ladder ( where they are not supposed to be, according to Health & Safety ) and it would be unnatural not to exchange a few words with them. Several times I was greeted (God Bless the Work!) by men of an advanced age, who proudly told me that they too had been thatchers. I noticed that they were generally very arthritic, and began to wonder. The West of Ireland is proverbially a wet place, and thatching is an outdoor occupation – one that requires strange postural arrangements and a lot of running up and down ladders. -Note to self.

At one time most of the thatched roofs around here ( S. Galway and N. Clare) were straw thatched. Oaten straw – absolutely a joy to thatch with – soft, golden and biddable stuff. I thatched a few houses with it, in what would be called “longstraw” in England. That means the straw has been through a thrasher to remove the grain, and then has to be pulled or “drawn” into sheaves by hand. There is nothing like the golden sheen of a newly straw-thatched roof. Unfortunately, oat straw was on the way out when I started – it belonged to an earlier phase of agriculture where many farmers grew a lot more tillage crops and most of their own feedstuff. Tillage dropped off, the combine harvester came in, and thatching straw was hard to get. Reed from the lakes and the estuary had always been used very locally, but now it was the best choice. It takes no more labour than the straw to put up, but lasts a lot longer if it’s done right.

Bringing in reeds

So, apart from reed or straw and a fearless heart, what else do you need to go thatching? Well, you need a ladder and some tools, of course, but you also need lots and lots of rods… hazel rods by preference.

Split hazel ‘scollops and stretchers’

Thatching Pt II will mostly be about Hazel.

Auntie Nan’s clock – Pt.II

Objects that tell a story

Auntie Nan’s key

Anything made by people has a story to tell, I suppose, but it’s specially interesting when you find intentional communication by someone’s hand. A mason’s mark is more personal than the testament of his work alone. In the loft-space of an 18th Century windmill outside Amsterdam, I was shown the carved names of every miller that had operated and maintained the mill, up there in the beams where hardly anyone sees. Makes you think.

Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, ANC also had some secrets hidden where hardly anyone sees – signatures of long-dead clockmakers/menders, and with dates. Most couldn’t be seen without dismantling the clock’s movement, so they represent more than a routine inspection. The earliest date is for John Gelston, 1823.

John Gelston

You probably can’t read that. In fact the inscription is hard to read with the naked eye – I had to reflect light off it in several directions before I could read it properly. It says: Cleand March 1823 John Gelston.

So that’s the earliest date that I have associated with the clock, or rather, the clock movement, because there are clear signs that some elements don’t match up – that we actually have a bit of a hybrid here. I’ve no way of knowing whether the case and the works originally belonged together, but the dial certainly doesn’t match. There was a family story that Uncle Bob bought it from a man with a garage full of dodgy clocks that he was in the way of splicing together into working specimens. He was very likely a talented bodger, unlike John Gelston, who can be traced online. He was a respected clockmaker who worked in Newry, Lisburn and Belfast. His dates are 1754 – 1830, so he was nearly 70 when he cleand the clock. He cleaned it again in 1826, but this time he put his mark on the outside, so perhaps did not dismantle it.

A. Kenmuir, April 1871

Here’s Alexander Kenmuir, another member of an established clockmaker family from Lisburn. There are 2 Kenmuir inscriptions, A. Kenmuir in 1871 and H. Kenmuir in 1880. Alexander lived from 1825 to 1886, but H was harder to pin down. There was a Henry Kenmuir listed in the 1901 census for Lisburn, born 1853, probably our guy.

So, if the clock was first cleaned in 1823, how old does that make it? We can only guess – the gaps between the inscriptions are incredibly irregular, varying from 3 years (shortest interval) to at least 40 in the longest. I don’t think a new clock should need any more than an occasional drop of oil for at least a decade, so my best guess would be 1810 or so.

C K Lindsay, May 1933

C K Lindsay, 1933, was the latest date that I could find, and the web was no help in placing him. All in all, we found 6 dated inscriptions, and the “HM” that you may be able to see in the photo above. I don’t think there are any others, although a friend found another Gelston signature on the outside of the plate, that I had overlooked. It seems that I’m probably the first person to strip down the clock movement since 1933, so I’d better proceed with care. At this stage, all the parts are clean, a couple of pivots that were slack have been reworked, and the signs seem good. It could be a long process getting it back into reliable operation, though.

Brass Dial of ANC

The dial of this clock, as I mentioned before, is a bit of a hybrid – “mongrel” might be the word. The first thing you notice is the inscription below the ring of Roman numerals. “McCabe Lurgan” in copperplate engraving. Back to Google…

McCabes are still trading as watch vendors, at least in name. According to the History section of their website: “James McCabe born in 1748 was the son of Patrick McCabe, himself a notable watchmaker from Lurgan in County Armagh in Ireland. James McCabe immigrated to London in 1775 where he established his own business in Bells Building, Fleet Street. On 2nd April 1781, James McCabe, was made an Honorary Freeman of the Clockmakers Company. After this, they seemingly became specialist watchmakers of high reputation. “Among notable owners of McCabes was Lord Horatio Nelson, and the first President of the United States – George Washington who purchased his McCabe pocket watch in Philadelphia in 1793. 

They had all left Lurgan by 1775 according to any records I could find, which means the dial is, in part at least, an 18th Century one. Edit: However: “Irish distributors often stamped their name on the dial so that, if you have a clock that says Donegan’s of Dublin, it may be that it was sold by Donegan’s and made elsewhere. “

If you look carefully, it’s fairly obvious that various brass parts have been bodged into shape to assemble the clock face. See the way the seconds ring has been fitted by filing away part of the inner edge of the hours ring? Another anomaly is the small window in which you can see the number 10. This should be connected to a date mechanism, but there is none on the clock movement, so it always reads 10. There is misalignment too – look at the two winding key openings, they are off level. All rather quirky.

Auntie Nan’s clock

This story may be of interest to my Johnston and Howell cousins…

Auntie Nan was a favourite great-aunt on my father’s side, she lived in Cregagh, Belfast. Much-loved by all her relations, her house was a safe haven and Aladdin’s cave to generations of kids. In the oak-panelled hall stood the grandfather clock that Uncle Bob had bought, probably in the 1930s. After her passing in the 1980s, Auntie Nan’s clock came to live in our house in Co. Clare.

Not Auntie Nan’s clock.

Auntie Nan’s clock, (I’ll call it ANC for brevity), is a longcase or grandfather clock, rather like the one shown above (from an auction site) but not quite so grand. And like the one in the picture, it has a fine mahogany case. A couple of years ago, when I decided the clock really needed taking in hand, I started with repairs to the case. A few softwood parts of the frame had historical woodworm damage and needed to be replaced, and there was one split in the mahogany base.

Repairing the case, ANC.

Now, when all this case-repairing was going on (yes, thanks – it worked out fine) I also had the question of what to do with the movement. ANC has never kept good time for very long – sometimes a few hours, sometimes a week or so, and she stops. I thought I would have to look into this horology business. Old technology is pretty simple, right? So… I put it off.

ANC – the works.

I put it off for a long time.

It was the book – the damn Grandfather Clock repair book. I couldn’t find it. I made some repairs that I could understand ok. Simple things like replacing a click spring in a ratchet. Cleaning and so on… but nothing much. The movement sat in a corner on a jig I’d made to support it. On wet Sundays, I poked around hoping to find The Book (out of print).


Finally found the book this Spring, in a box full of non-book items. With the book, I felt I could take the whole movement apart, check wear and clean all the bearing surfaces. And so, with photos at each stage to help me put everything back in place – I actually stripped it down completely. It gets boring from here on unless you are a clock enthusiast, but I did find something interesting in there.

On the inside of one of the main brass plates, in almost invisible spidery scribings, are the names of people who had opened and cleaned the clock before me. I’ll get into details in Auntie Nan’s Clock Pt II

Finding myself in the Bee-Loud Glade

Bees on the alighting board of a hive

Bees creep up on you.

About 37 years ago I set out an empty hive on the crag behind our garden, and within 3 weeks the bees just moved in. This was outrageous Beginner’s Luck – not to be expected then, and barely conceivable now. But wild honeybees were rather plentiful in the Burren in the early 80s, not so now, for which we can blame the dreaded mite varroa destructor.

Varroa mites arrived in Ireland in the 90s (the books say 1998) and spread so fast that I suspect they had been around but unidentified for a while. They are a parasite on Asian bees, which can coexist with them, but they kill European honey bees – not immediately but gradually. Their presence weakens the colony progressively until they collapse suddenly from stress, infection and debility. Nearly all beekeepers lost a lot of bees, and many of us lost them all.

That’s why there are far fewer wild honeybee colonies – essentially, hives need to be treated to control varroa, or they will die within a few years. The treatments that most of us use now are inexpensive and simple – organic acids like oxalic and citric acid, or in some cases aromatic oils.

Luckily, it is working – hence the Bee Loud Glade.

Bumble bee in our garden

Nowadays, I have 4 or 5 hives in the vicinity of our garden. Four hives is the theoretical maximum that I want to have to manage, but at times there are more. Then there are the bumblebees – 17 or 18 species of these in Ireland, and most of them have a presence in the Burren. In the month of May, it really is bee-loud around here. We are bucking the trend, I would have to say – bee news is generally not good around the world.

To celebrate the continuing vigour of the Roundhouse bees, I decided to push the boat out and buy a cedarwood hive. This is flatpack territory – like IKEA for bees. A well-know bee supply business in Co. Louth sells a rather fine cedar hive with 2 supers (honey decks) for a reasonable price, but you have to put it together yourself.

IKEA for bees.