Places of worship

The classical records suggest that Celtic religion was practised in natural places, such as groves, forest clearings, pools, lakes and islands, rather than in the monumental buildings familiar to the Romans and Greeks, so it is unsurprising that overtly ritual sites are hard to find.

The Latin poet Lucan, writing in the first century AD though describing events of a century earlier, describes a dark and hidden woodland sanctuary near Marseilles, where human sacrifices were offered up to crude wooden images of gods. Recent archaeological work in Gaul, however, has begun to add new layers to our understanding of Iron Age religious practices. Formal and long-lived ritual enclosures have been identified at sites like Gournav-sur-Aronde and Ribemont-sur-Ancre in Picardy, both characterized by the deposition of weaponry and animal and human remains. The activities at Gournay seem to have focused around a 'temple' building, the design of which its excavator has compared to contemporary structures in the classical world. No such elaborate sanctuaries have yet been identified in Scotland, however, where the evidence for formal ritual locations remains elusive.

Most favoured for communion with the supernatural world were liminal places, such as hills between earth and sky, caves between the living world and the underworld, settlement boundaries between the domestic and the wild, and rivers between land and sea. Certain islands, too, seem to have been regarded as sacred. Anglesey, according to Tacitus, was a Druid preserve at the time of the Roman invasion, while Plutarch relates the story of a traveller, Demetrius of Tarsus, who had visited other holy islands (possibly in the Hebrides), during Agricola's campaigns. The attraction of remote islands for the later Celtic Christian monks may even reflect this much earlier tradition.

Watery places

Bogs, rivers and lakes are our most plentiful source of bronzes from the earlier part of the first millennium BC well into the Roman period. While there is, as yet, no known Scottish equivalent of the artificial pool near Navan fort in Ulster, where animal and human offerings were placed amid swords, pottery and clay moulds from around 900 BC, there are hints that similar sites may exist. Many hillforts, such as

Barry Hill in Perthshire and Finavon in Angus, enclose large wells or cisterns that may have been used for more than simple utilitarian purposes. Northern broch towers, like Midhowe in Orkney and Crosskirk in Caithness, often contained elaborate wells reached by steps carved from the rock. The recently rediscovered site of Minehowe in Orkney comprises an elaborate well reached from a flight of stairs dug through a mound and surrounded by a substantial ditched enclosure. This enigmatic structure seems to have been a focus for activity for many centuries. Even in the historical Pictish period, the great promontory fort at Burghead in Moray had a well-built vaulted chamber containing a well that might have acted as a place of ritual and sacrifice rather than as a simple water source.

Temples and sanctuaries

In both Gaul and England the immediately pre-Roman period saw the emergence of rather more formal temples, presumably influenced by Mediterranean fashions. In Scotland, however, where Roman influence was much less strong, there is little evidence yet for unambiguously religious buildings at this date.

There is some evidence nonetheless for the reuse of much older religious monuments. A list of place-names in Roman Britain, probably copied from an earlier map at Ravenna in the sixth century AD. includes Medio Nemeton (middle sanctuary), somewhere close to the Antonine Willi. Stuart Piggott has suggested that this might refer to the Neolithic henge monument on Cairnpapple Hill 111 West Lothian, where there is a scatter of late burials possibly dating to the Roman period (72). The site commands views as far east as the Bass Rock, north to Schiehallion in Perthshire and west to Arran, so could certainly justify the name. Indeed knowing what little we do of Celtic religion it is hard to imagine that a site with ritual associations in such a dramatic location would have been ignored in the Iron Age.

Another ancient ritual site apparently still venerated was Pict s Knowe, a small henge monument in south-west Scotland. A simple wooden ard had been placed in the ditch directly opposite the entrance, probably in the second or third centuries AD (71). Many other monuments of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages may also have had lengthy Celtic after-lives, although little material evidence may have accumulated to prove it.


At the end of the 19th century, a number of burials, both male and female, were found in the MacArthur Cave, near Oban in Argyll.These were originally thought to date to a period thousands of years before the Iron Age, because of the presence in

71 Sonic time in the early centuries AD this wooden ard, or early ploughing implement, was placed in the ditch of what might have been an earlier 'lienge' monument at Pict's Knowe in south-west Scotland. © National Aluseums of Scotland.

12 Cairnpapple, 11 est Lesbian: iitis this ritual enclosure or 'lienge', originating around 3000 BC. the Medio Nenieton or 'middle sanctuary' oj the Scottish Celts mentioned by the Romans? The pits shown in the foreground o f this view are probably Iron Age graves.

the cave of Mesolithic bone tools, but radiocarbon dating has now placed them in the middle of the first millennium BC. Similar burials from other caves and rock shelters around Oban may well belong to the same burial tradition, and the presence of children as well as adults of both sexes suggests that these caves may have been used as cemeteries by small communities in the vicinity.

Other Scottish caves witnessed rather more complex ritual activity.The Sculptors Cave is a deep natural cleft cut into a sandstone coastal cliff near Covesea on the Moray Firth. This dark recess was used for ritual purposes over many centuries, though perhaps intermittently, from around 800 BC through to the sixth or seventh centuries Al) when a series of I'ictish symbols was carved around the entrance. A series ofcarved crosses, including one from the twelfth century AD. shows that even in medieval Christian times the site retained some religious resonance. When Sylvia Benton visited the cave in 1928, prior to her excavations, she observed that the floor even then was 'strewn with human bones'.

The Sculptor's Cave appears to have served originally as an ossuary, probably in the Later Bronze Age. Records of the early excavations are rather sketchy but refer to some 2000 human bones, including a large proportion of children, and numerous bronze artefacts. Many of the dead had been beheaded. While later activity may have been more sporadic, and there is no sign of habitation in the early centuries AD, valuable and exotic objects including fake Roman coins, bronze tweezers and pins were deposited, perhaps as offerings to underworld deities.

Elsewhere, early records offer tantalizing hints of sacrificial burial. A cave at Seacliff m East Lothian contained the bones of two newborn infants along with fragments of

Bronze Roman ObjectsSculptor Cave Covesea

Iron Ago pottery below a huge stone, possibly an altar. Although vague, such records suggest that Sculptors Cave may not have been unique.

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