Case Study: Balachullish

At Balachullish, in western Scotland, an anthropomorphic figure was found in a bog in 1880 by workmen building a wall (Christison 1881; Coles 1990). The figure, carved from a single piece of alder and with quartzite eyes, is female and stands almost 5 feet high. It has been dated to 730-520 BC, a period spanning the Late Bronze Age -Early Iron Age transition. The pubic area is deeply carved and the figure appears to hold a phallic object over its abdomen; it may therefore have been a representation (or embodiment) of a fertility deity. The use of quartzite pebbles to create the eyes is interesting; as we will see below, this material was considered to have magical qualities in prehistory.

A composite image showing a carved wooden human figure on the left and a disfigured and warped wooden human figure on the right

The Ballachulish figure, as discovered in 1880 (left) and how it appears today (right).

The figure was found lying on its face in the bog. Above it were the remains of wickerwork panels, suggesting it may originally have stood in a shelter of some sort, overlooking the dangerous stretch of water where Lough Leven meets the sea. Here, a deity guarded a liminal zone, and parallels may have been drawn between the perils of travel and encounters with the other world.

Return to Section 5.4 Belief systems and ceremony in Bronze Age Scotland