9 Dùnan an Aisilidh

Dùnan an Aisilidh

Dùnan an Aisilidh, KC

An Àird’s peninsula curls its crooked finger
into the Narrows, toward its mirror,
the promontory of Aird Ghiuthais,
only  –a   –stone’s     –skip     –from
   Dùnan an Aisilidh

for the right path in, park at Gedintailor,
by the post-box, & follow the path
down the eye-sweet glen,

through foxglove, hazel & willow,
stepping out onto Camus a’ Mhòr-bheòil
as slowly as the stones are being sieved
   along the tombolo

their smooth shapes & limitless
colours sparkle or shine
by dint of the moon’s twice daily lure,
pulling them that way & this,

this way & that, in the bay’s
   broad sweeping curve

An Aird tombolo, LA

only the sea can direct everything
through the quiet breathing

of the kyle, but you can swing
your way on to the shingle end
of the tide-wide strand,
   past Loch an Amadain

displaced as a pendulum bob, slowly
sensing a shift in equilibrium,
as the walk finds its proper pace
amid this matrix of time & space,
notice how the changeable dùn

seems as close or as far as
the coast of Skye seems near
   in the distance

Dùnan an Aisilidh (Grid ref: NG53NW 5), one of Skye’s less well-known but most 
coastal forts. For more detail on the site see RCAHMS. Set at the end of the tombolo – the sand
bar joining the point to the mainland – on the peninsula of An Àird. The Dùn faces a similar
aird on Raasay, Aird Ghiuthais, The Height of the Fir or Pine. The wood contains hazel, calltainn,
& willow, seileach. The beach is Camus a’ Mhòr-bheòil, Bay of the Great Mouth. The lochan,
Loch an Amadain, Loch of the Fool. The name Aisilidh is unclear, though Maoilios Caimbeul
suggested it may derive from axle, suggestive of this location as a centrepoint, with the mountains
wheeling about it. The verse describing the quiet breathing of the kyle is from a workshop with
students from Portree Primary School and High School, guided by George Gunn, for Taking Stock: 
The Claim of Crofting, at Braes Hall & Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye, 16 March, 2012; for a review of
the event see Northings.

photograph, AF

poem and photograph AF

word-mntn (Dun Caan), AF

the fringe

on a clear day, if you coincide
   with a dainty tide,

the sea will crimp the shingle fringe
   into a pastry trim
   all along the shore

photograph KC

Dùnan an Aisilidh

word-mntn (An Stòrr); poem & photograph, AF

eòin mhòir sgiamhaich na h-Albann
great beautiful bird of Scotland

   (Sorley MacLean)

Skye is traditionally visioned

   as a great bird

Aisilidh is a salt-wing beaten
by time & tide, battered
to a rickle of tinged stone,
   bone of dwelling
Aisilidh is a reason

to be as searching as the sea
that picked and pared

this cormorant head,
   yet spared its frail acuity               

Aisilidh defined sea-culture

within an alpine skyline:
here ships returned

safe from the ocean
& set out again
   into the inland sea

Aisilidh’s ramparts were defensive,
but flaming beacons suggest

a signal station to set
alight the Neolithic telegraph,       
   a hub of ceremony

Aisilidh’s towers were designed

for display, panorama, landmarks
that connect and relate
   the mountainous outlook

all of which suggests, the point

of these coastal dùns
   is their point

The epigraph is from Sorley MacLean’s poem, ‘An t-Eilean’, ‘The Island’, From Collected Poems

(Polygon, 2011). The lines describing the bird skull are after Charles Tomlinson’s poem, To Be 
Engraved, On the Skull of a Cormorant, (Unaccompanied Serpent Press, 1968). The discussion 
of the alignment of the dùn with natural features was influenced by the writings of Paul Devereux,
such as Earth Memory: Sacred Sites (Llewellyn Publications, 1992), and discussions with
archaeologists, including Ian Armit and Martin Wildgoose, and poets, Ken Cockburn and Meg
Bateman. The flora described in the poem catalogue below: samh, sorrel; an lus mòr, foxglove;
tonn a' chladaich, thrift; propach, wrack.

KC; photograph AF

AF; photograph KC

 word-mntn (Ben Tianavaig), AF

flora of Dùnan Aisilidh

Aisilidh’s flora shelter under rocks
   highlighted by grey, yellow
   & orange lichen

   bitter samplings
   so close to the sea

an lus mòr
   always fond
   of fingering ruins

tonn a' chladaich
   spray-bleached at
   the rock’s lip
   tangled on cliffs
   & sea stacks

more notes on dùns


Dùnan an Aisilidh, KC

the dùn was processional

the dùn was where seeing becomes viewing

the dùn and the mountain horizon were calendrical

the dùn was a compass

the dùn was a rite for the sails arrival, the sails departing

the dùn was a foreshore fort & watchtower

the dùn was a home, the local Big House, a standard

the dùn was cellular, a beehive

the dùn was a marginal sea-farm, for fishing and mussels

the dùn was farm, byre & larder

the dùn was a wild garden of bitter sorrel, elderflower for cordial & spontaneous thyme

The notes on dùns draw on my research from the road north, and from the archaeologist Ian Armit’s 

survey, The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (Edinburgh University Press, 1996); a further 
set of these notes appear in the guide to Dùn Gershader. For 'dùn' see also 'Atlantic roundhouse' & 
'broch', overlapping terms for human constructions that remain various and open to interpretation.

aligning Dùnan an Aisilidh


word-mntn (Dùn Caan); poem & photograph, AF

Aisilidh pairs with Dùn Caan, aligning NE-SW
   toward the Skye Cuillin

the broch floats on a deck of rock
at the centre of the Clàrach,
beneath heights that stretch our eyes out
on fescue stalks, past the pitted upslopes
   of Ben Lee & Glàmaig

take your turn drawing the veil to reveal
on this elemental theatre of mountains;
see how the conspectus opens,
see the eastern seaboard stand
   entirely altered

Dùn Caan, capping Raasay

Beinn Dearg Mòr, of the smooth Red Cuillin,
declining into Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach

Glas Beinn Mhòr on Loch Ainort

Sgùrr nan Each, Garbh-Bheinn
   & Beinn na Caillich

glimpses of Ben Aslak and, back on the tombolo,
   the thrust of Beinn Sgritheall

the great fore-shoulder of the Black Cuillin’s
   serrated ridgeline

heading the loch, Ben Tianavaig,
merging into the undulating slippage
   of Trotternish ridge

The stretch of sea south of Raasay is known as The Clàrach, The Flat Surface. Translations of the 

mountain names are listed below the conspectus. White tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) nest 
on Ben Tianavaig’s cliffs, called iolaire sùil na grèine in Gaelic,  Eagle of the Sunlit Eye.

photograph AF

poem & photograph AF

Oskaig–Peinachorainn, Sorley MacLean's eyeline


word-mntn (Glàmaig); poem & photograph, AF

draw your eye from the dùn;
trace a line from island to island,
as low as cormorants plying over The Clarach,
as high as the peaks of Sgùrr nan Gillean
   & Am Basteir

Aisilidh rests at the midpoint
   of the poet’s life-line
siting here, reading time & seeing space,
your view encompasses Sorley’s life
& gazes through the frame
   of his poetry

tha bùird is tàirnean air an uinneig
the window that looks to the west

tha bùird is tàirnean air an ear
the window that looks to the east

age’s retrospect gazes from his final home
at Peighinn a’ Chorrainn,

over the narrow sound, back toward
the recollection of his childhood
cottage, down on the shore
   at Oskaig

Sorley MacLean and his wife Renee moved to the poet’s great-grandmother’s house, at Peighinn a’ 

Chorrainn, or Peinnachorrain, in the township of Braes, in 1972, following his retirement from Plockton 
School. The house is near the start of the walk to Dùnan an Aisilidh. MacLean’s childhood home was at 
Oskaig, on the west side of Raasay; the view from the window is referred to in his famous poem, ‘Hallaig’, 
described in more detail in the guide to Dùn Caan.

poem & photograph, AF

word-mntn (An Stòrr), poem & photograph AF

word-mntn (Sgurr nan Gillean), AF

Dùnan an Aisilidh conspectus

This conspectus is composed from the names of some of the mountains that 
visible from this location. The centre-point marks the location of Dùnan an Aisilidh.

The typography represents the view as it is experienced by the human eye, 
giving an
approximate impression of distance and scale. Mountain ridges are 
indicated by
overlapping names. The gradation of hill slopes is suggested by 
the use of grey-
scale, with the peak in black.

Click on this graphic to view the original and, if you wish, 
print it out for use in
situ. A booklet containing all 14 conspectuses is available from ATLAS ArtsThe
14 conspectuses have also been archived in an 
album, indexed hereA complete 
list of the mountains referred to in the Dùnan an Aisilidh guide is given 
below, with 
links from each one to its OS map. English translations have been 
given where
possible. A gallery of word-mntn drawings, including mountains visible from
Dùnan an Aisilidh, can be found on the drawing page.

Am BasteirThe Executioner
An StòrrThe Big (One)
Beinn Dearg MheadhonachMiddle Red Mountain
Beinn Dearg Mhòr Big Red Mountain
Beinn na Caillich Mountain of the Crone
Beinn SgritheallMountain of the Scree
Ben Aslak(Norse) Aslak's Mountain
Beinn LìColoured or Water Mountain (?)
Ben TianavaigBay or Harbour Mountain
Dùn CaanPorpoise Fort
Garbh Bheinn Rough Mountain
GlàmaigThe Greedy Woman
Glas Bheinn MhòrBig Grey-green Hill
Sgùrr nan EachPeak of the Horses
Sgùrr nan GilleanPeak of the Lads


Alec Finlay (AF)
Ken Cockburn (KC)
Gavin Morrison
Emma Nicolson

Gaelic consultant
Maoilios Caimbeul 


to view the next conspectus click here
to return to the map with links to all 14 guides click here
to read the project overview click here 

for basic project information, including acknowledgements, click here

Còmhlan Bheanntan | A Company of Mountains
commissioned by ATLAS, Skye, 2012-13


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