4 dun liath

Dùn Liath

Dùn Liath; poem & photograph, AF

Strath Shuardail & Strath Mòr were shortcuts
for folk who walked between sea lochs
carrying curroughs on their shoulders
to Loch Ainort, Slapin, Alsh & Eishort,
connecting the old tracks worn by Mesolithic nomads
when the tides flowed deep
   into today’s glens   

later the lochs blossomed a ring
of stone duns, keeping watch over
   their seaward approaches


   Dùn Liath
   Dùn Scaich                   
   Dùn Kearstach                       
   Dùn Beag                   
   Dùn Ringill                   
   Dùn Grugaig                       
   Dùn Geilbt

most eminent of them all, Dùn Scaich
where Sgathaich’s warrior-school trained
on the cliff-top, while sparks & brangs burst
   from the smithy on Eilean Ruairidh

while you look over the silver-grey loch
from Liath to-fort-to-fort, 

hum the son’s lament
‘Cù-chulainn's a Mhac’


   ochone nan och is och eire
   woe is me, my son a-keening

sung for the warrior, Cù-chulainn, who sailed here
to study the secrets of warfare,
mastering such precise skills as would someday
   kill his own son, Conla


   blow mirroring blow
   on an Irish shore
   until the final horror
   of filial recognition

Dùn Liath, The Grey Fort (Grid ref: NG 3598 7002). Site records can be viewed on RCAHMS

The fort is on a spur, on the lip of a slope above Loch Slapin A currough is a coracle; such a 
vessel was recreated by Will MacLean & Arthur Watson, as a framework sculpture, or ‘Crannghal’, 
based on descriptions of these vessels in early literature, at the Gaelic College on Skye, Sabhal 
Mor Ostaig . In 1984 the archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones found Mesolithic settlements 
(c. 8 500 BP) on Rùm. Sgathaich’s warrior school is described in more detail in the guide to Dùn 
Scaich. The performance is by Finlay MacNeill, recorded by the BBC on behalf of John 
Purser for the first series of Scotland's Music on BBC Radio Scotland, broadcast 1991-92. 
Sgathach’s sister Aoife put her son Conla under a spell that barred him from saying his own name. 
When the son met his father, Cù-chulainn, in combat, ‘the son, knowing, sent his spear shaft fore-
most. The father, not knowing, sent his spear point foremost. And the son fell’, Kenneth MacLeod,  
Songs of the Hebrides (Vol II, Boosey & Co, 1917). ‘Woe is me! My son a-keening’ is MacLeod’s 

 view of Dùn Scaich; poem & photograph, AF

Ruth's Curach

the Curach sits upon the water    she responds

to the slightest motion   of water, wind or rower

at times the oars   serve
solely as correctives
rather than propellants

it takes a good Curach crew three years
to develop their collective skills



after Ruth MacDougall, artist, who built her own curach at Carbeth

colouring Dùn Liath

Dùn Liath, KC


we will go down to the dùn
but there’s nothing to see

in today's grey mist
though there is this to see

   Dùn Liath, the grey dùn

   grey, as in many coloured
   grey, as in cloud
   grey, as in pebble
   grey, as in lichen
   grey, as in the marbling of the birch bark
   grey, as in soft pussy willow
   grey, as in a gull’s markings
   grey, as in the heron’s wing
   grey, as in the road, for this is its end
   grey, as in the post, holding up the sign, PASSING PLACE
   grey, as in the cold ashes of the fire left by Liath
   grey, as in a mountain, An Sgùrr, or far off Rois-Bheinn    grey, as in the isles of Eigg, Muck & Rùm
   grey-blue, as in sea covered with a lavender-blue veil

      (after Ottilie Helen Mclaren)

finding our way to the dùn we stumble upon
the bleached white skull of a deer, among
thin trunks of sallow willow bones which will weather
   watery grey come next summer

Dùn Liath, The Grey Fort, situated on a headland, surrounded by woodland; the willow around the 

dùn is saille seileach. Our host John Purser, composer & musicologist, provided me with the phrase
 ‘grey-blue sea covered with a lavender-blue veil’, a translation (from the original French) of a line
by the sculptor Ottilie Helen Mclaren, describing the view she had from Smirisary of Eigg and the sea
in a letter sent to August Rodin, for whom she worked as an assistant. She married the Scottish 
composer William Wallace.

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

colouring mountains

word-mntn (Beinn na Caillich); poem & photograph, AF

bàn, white
as in quartz

gorm, blue-green
as in Cairngorm

glas, grey-green
as in scree

ruadh, rust red
as in winter bracken

dearg, bright red
as in the Cuillin’s
lavic red granite

buidhe, yellow
as in gorse

dubh, black
as in the Cuillin’s
gabbro crags

The Gaelic words for colours are more complex than those used in English, being 'attributive', they 

vary in meaning depending what feature they are describing. This is particularly true in the case of 
landscape, where gorm may mean blue when referring to a hill, or green if it refers to a corrie. Click 
for a leaflet with more information.

  (after John Purser)

dùns: an argument as to their function & meaning

Purser blend; poem & photograph, AF

at Dun Liath I shared tea and chat 

with a local expert

He: (as he pours the tea)

with respect to how they are sited
all the dùns I’ve seen have no consistent logic:
whether we view them as fortifications,
status symbols or potential alignments,
these conceptions are no more than projections
   of our own preconceptions


can we agree then, each dùn presents its own
unique problem & solution? –
though I see I’m being romantic,
preferring fallen d
ùns which, being ruins,
are my wild highland gardens,
rich with sorrel, thyme, rowan,
foxglove, birch, hazel & ash,
thriving in the debris of dwelling,
and, being roofless & windowless,
ruined dùns make perfect viewpoints
offering a conspectus, free from the fixed frames
   of historical certainties

Among the typical flora found on Highland dùns: sorrel, samh, thyme, lus an rìgh, rowan, caorann

foxglove, lus nam ban-sìdh; birch, beith; hazel, calltainn; & ash, uinnseann. There is a more detailed 
discussion of flora and how they may relate to dùns in the guide to Dùn Gerashader.

a walk through cleared land

Suisnish, KC

viewed from Dùn Liath the coast of Loch Eishort
is a succession of cleared crofts, from Boreraig to Suisnish,
townships whose occupants were brutally ejected
into waist-deep snow, witnessed by the geologist
   Sir Archibald Geikie


a strange wailing reached my ears
I could see a long and motley procession
winding along the road north from Suisnish
a cry of grief went up to heaven,
a long plaintive wail like a funeral coronach,
the sound re-echoed through the wide valley
in one prolonged note of desolation

The townships were cleared by Lord Macdonald in 1853. The verse is based on Sir Archibald Geikie’s 

account. I was struck by a conversation between the poet Meg Bateman and curator Emma Nicolson, 
that many families on Skye (and elsewhere) were cleared and then cleared again, made homeless and 
then made homeless again. A coronach is a lament or keening.

Ken Cockburn, vision of Creag an Daraich

Suisnish; Michael Bromley, 2010

this poem describes a walk along the coast
Cille-Chrisod – Boreraig – Craig an Daraich – Suisnish – Kilbride

a dusty coastal path
winding through gorse
and grassy inclines
steeply rising
to cliff-wall and blue sky

should at the crest
I encounter a traveller
the sun on his shoulder
descending towards me
I’ll raise my arm
to shade my eyes

a gesture open
perhaps to misreading
as Oedipus blocked
not seeing his father
fells a stranger

as Cù-chulainn dazzled       
by the warrior’s dexterity
only after delivering
the ultimate stroke
recognizes his son

an aching lament to cliff and sky
that reaches the ears of a blind king
wandering the dusty coastal paths

   (Ken Cockburn)

Cockburn made this walk during the week we spent at Kilbride, in April 2012. Dazzled by the sun 

blazing over Creag an Daraich – Cliff of the Oak – he was reminded of the scene in Pasolini’s film  
Oedipus Rex (1967): the son's accidental murder of his father echoes Cù-chulainn’s murder of his 
son, Conla, who he was unable to recognize.

Glasnakille Wood

The MacAlisters' tomb, KC

take a walk from Dùn Liath
through the woods of Glasnakille
following the old path beside Allt na Cille, 

between birch & hazel, past MacAlister’s tomb
down to Port Dùn Liath, where pebbles skirt
cliffs of undercut sandstone whose seam points
over to Clach na h-Annait and the pinkish paps
   of Beinn na Caillich & Beinn Dearg Mhòr

Glasnakille mesostic; poem & photograph, AF


                        Grass of parnassus
lesser butterfLy orchid
northern marSh orchid

Port na Dùn Liath renga

above the wrack
this fresh spring’s been
breached by the equinoctial tide

   the pebbles roughly slough
   their liking for lapping

on the creamy rocks
barnacles give way
to black lichen

   a gull and cormorant
   divvy up Clach na Bonait

aspen on Creag nan Sgarbh
grip the overhang
of the bitten cliff

   primroses & ramson
   a bit before bluebells

stone-broken nuts
the hazel wood
is yet to leaf

   beneath the trees
   there are mossy lazy-beds

filling the grave
put on, put on the earth
as MacAlister put on us

   their first cows
   Butterscotch & McCowan
over on Suisnish
you can still see
green field patterns

   the walls of the house
   ruined the dùn & dyke

defensive thickness
conferring status
or central heating

   Ken’s compass shifts
   the mountain onto the island

   (Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn)

The place names here are: Allt na Cille, Burn of the Church, which may relate to a former grave-

yard or possibly a church; Beinn na Caillich, Hill of the Crone; Beinn Dearg Mhor, Big Red Hill
The 2 poems listing the names of flora that grow in Glasnakille Wood are mesostics; the species 
names are from a local SNH report, with some additional help from John Purser. The woods are 
a mass of Bluebells in late Spring, and many varieties of wild orchid can be found, as well as 52 
lichens. The longer poem is a renga, a Japanese form of linked verse. The flora in the renga 
include: lichen, crotal, primrose, sòbhrach, ramson, creamh, and bluebell, currac cuthaige
Purser has collected local place names from the community and old maps, including Creag nan 
Sgarbh, Cormorant Rock. Butterscotch & McCowan are the names of his first pair of Highland 
cattle. He also told us the tale of a local crofter decrying the unpopular landlord, MacAlister
saying, as he buried him: ‘put on, put on the earth, as MacAlister put on us’.


Prunus spinosa, poem & photograph, AF

plum sweet
from this
wild sourness

John Purser’s vision of Glen Scaladal

I trudge the ridge and furrow
of old lazy-beds: the loss and gain
where the cas-crom, heavy hilted,
long-footed, drained the land.
Now the land weeps, deserted,
choked with rain.

These written griefs
frowning and weeping
through the green-glowing glen
remain unspoken:
they are home for the iris,
stately and fine,
and burial ditch for the spent ewe,
her loins plundered by foxes –
the torn womb reveals
a small wet eyeless head.

There are no children here
whose supple hands
would have been asked to ease
that hard delivery:
and thinking of the lambs of all the world I hear
only the voice of a child running
mad-cap to her mother's woollen skirt
across sunlit Glen Scaladal,
and in that cry the perilous call
that searches still
for the warm comfort of humanity.

   (John Purser)

‘Glen Scaladal’, was first published in Chapman 82 (1995). The characterization of The Cuillin as a musical 

composition (below) derives from Purser’s description of 'Skyelines' (1994), a musical portrait of the 
mountain range, for trombone and organ.

word-mntn (Ben Cleat), AF

7 June, 10:00, The 17, performance, Ben Meabost, Isle of Skye
The 17, BD

In the summer of 2006 Bill Drummond visited John Purser at Drinan and together they walked 
up Ben Meabost, bare-foot, in silence, at John's suggestion.

 word-mntn (Ben Meabost), AF

the Scottish mainland & southern isles

word-mntn (Beinn Bhuidhe); poem & photograph, AF

as we become more familiar with our viewpoints
we can align the d
ùns into a series of
   pagan threesomes

Dùn Scaich
looking over Liath, toward the skyline
   of the Cuillin

Dùn Liath
looking past Scaich, south-east over An Sgùrr,
toward the stern peaks of Knoydart &  Morar,
   & further south, to Sanna and Mull

Dùn Bàn, the white fort on the east coast of Sleat
shares the panorama of landward mountains
with Liath, looking down Loch Eishort
to Sgùrr na Còinnich and the crowded peaks
   of Knoydart

to detail the view from Liath, look from Beinn a' Chapuill
to the twin peaks of Beinn Sgritheall
   beside Loch Hourn

from Beinn na h-Eaglaise to Beinn na Caillich
another of the peaks that belong
   to the Winter Queen

down to Ladhar-Bheinn,     deep in the wilds,
and the neighbouring peaks Stob a' Chearcaill
   & Meall Buidhe

due east of Liath, the summit of Meith-Bheinn
   in Morar

peer through the branches that screen the dùn,
south to Loch Ailort & the constellated summits
   of Rois-Bheinn

on a clear day the view reaches over Ardnamurchan
   to Ben More on Mull

the massif of Rùm Cuillin remains out of sight
until you approach the incline of Ben Cleat
   or climb Ben Meabost

Eigg is the Notched Island, named for the shape of An Sgùrr, The Peak. Translations of the 

other mountain names are given in the conspectus below.

 word-mntn (Rois-Bheinn); poem & photograph, AF


word-mntn (Beinn Bhuidhe), AF

Dùn Liath 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 Dùn Liath. 
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 Dùn Liath 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 Dùn Liath, 
can be found on the drawing page.

An SgùrrThe Peak
Beinn a' ChapuillMountain of the Horse
Beinn BhuidheYellow Mountain
Ben CleatCliff or Rock Mountain
Beinn Dearg MhòrBig Red Mountain
Beinn na Caillich Mountain of the Crone
Beinn SgritheallMountain of the Scree
Ben MeabostBost, homestead; mea, narrow (?)
Ben More Great Mountain
Meall BuidheYellow Knoll
Mèith-bheinnSappy Mountain
Rois-bheinnprobably mountain of showers (otherwise Norse, horse mountain)
Sgùrr na Còinnich Peak of the Moss
Stob a' ChearcaillStump of the Circle


Alec Finlay (AF)
Ken Cockburn (KC)
Bill Drummond
Alison Lloyd (AL)
Gavin Morrison
John Purser

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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