8.3.5 Caves

An important and distinctive feature of early medieval Argyll is the (re-) occupation of caves in the early medieval period. Several of these have been identified from Christian symbols carved on the cave walls, for example Nuns’ and Scoor Caves (CANMORE ID 21977), Carsaig; Eilean Mór (CANMORE ID 38642) (Fisher 2001); and St Columba’s cave, Ellary (CANMORE ID 39012) which was excavated by Marion Campbell in the 1960s and 1970s, but published much later using her archives (Tolan-Smith 2001, 25-72). Both St Columba’s cave and Boulder Cave (CANMORE ID 39032), Ellary (ibid, 73-148) produced a range of finds which can be ascribed broadly to the first millennium AD. These include a hand-pin, bone combs, a folding balance, an oil-shale box (possibly a reliquary), as well as evidence for fine metalworking. It is unfortunate that these important finds were not fully investigated, the emphasis of Tollan-Smith’s work being on the prehistoric use of the caves, and further information may result from closer study. Other caves have been proposed as early medieval hermitage sites based on local tradition or placename evidence, but have not been excavated. A significant cave setting with extensive Norse runic inscriptions has been recorded on Holy Island, Arran, just outside modern Argyll. St Molaise’s cave (CANMORE ID 40079), with its cross and runic inscriptions, was initially examined by Balfour (1909). The use of caves in contemporary Iceland (Arhonson 2015) and Ireland (Connolly et al. 2005) illustrate that this is a widespread phenomenon in the Atlantic region.

Detail of linear crosses, trident symbols, horse-shoes and cup mark carvings on the walls of Scoor Cave ©HES

Detail of the runes inscribed on the wall of St Molaise’s Cave