2 Dùn Scaich

Dùn Scaich     

Dùn Scaich, LA

fused to a detached block of cliff-top
this dùn’s isolated situation has barbaric vigour,
true to the warrior it was named for,
Sgathaich, queen, lover of Cù-chulainn;
his best instructor in the arts of war,
their eyes red bowls that will spurt
   black blood




now dare the broken arch
of the voided drawbridge
to gain the wave-washed rock;
scent the thyme, whose rule outlasted
the walls of the dùn and its
   fierce queen
below the wind a skein of geese   
call from the bay of ób Ghabhsabhaig
echoing over the crags clinging rowan, bog-cotton,
milkwort & the patches of spaghnum
   bandaging the moorland

Dùn Scaich, Sgathaich’s Fort (Grid ref: NG51SE 1). Site records can be viewed on RCAHMS

The description of Dùn Scaich draws upon an unpublished poem composed for the road north,
in collaboration with Ken Cockburn. The story of Sgathaich & her sister Aoife is fictionalized in 
Janet Paisley’s historical novel Warrior’s Daughter (Penguin, 2009). The image of the warriors' 
eyes as bowls spurting blood is taken from the Irish epic The Táin (tr. John Kinsella; Oxford 
University Press, 1969). The warning sign is after a passage describing the torments Cu-Chulainn 
faced in his siege of Dùn Scaich in Siaburcharpat Con Chulainn, The Phantom Chariot of Cu-
Chulainn, tr. Professor W. J. Watson, published in Seton Gordon’s Highways & Byways in the 
West Highlands (MacMillan, 1935). Thyme is lus an rìgh; the barnacle geese flying over the bay 
are cathan; the cliff-top rowan by the dùn are caorann; the wildflowers on the moor are bog-
cotton, canach, milkwort, lus a' bhainne, set among spaghnum moss, mòinteach liath.

Dùn Scaich bridge, KC

The true picture of a woman Picte, Theodor de Bry (after John White)

The true picture of one Picte, Theodor de Bry (after John White)

word-mntn (Cuillin), AF


   c ú - c h  u l  a i n n

   c ú      i     l l     i     n

Sgathach’s warrior school

poem AF, photograph LA

with its broken-ridge mountain views
this warrior-school taught martial & magical arts:
how to shake your shanks & joints from head to foot
like a tree in the spate or reed in the stream
   & other tricks & feints

    the apple feat
    the thunder-feat
    the feat of the sword-edge
    the feat of the rope 
    the feat of Cat
    the heroic salmon-leap
    the leap over a poisoned stroke
    the barbed spear
    the breath-feat, with gold apple
    blown up into the air
    the stunning-shot
    the cry-stroke
    and the running up a lance and standing erect
    on its point, and binding of the noble hero 
    (around spear points)

some pages of the manual, Instruction for Warriors,
regrettably lost, are thought to have contained:

   the silk-stocking defence against the midge
   the hiker’s feat of repelling the tick-fest
   the incomer’s instantaneous vaporization of rain

if you want to imagine Sgathaich’s school
my pal Chonzie says, think Kill Bill,
slinky Catwoman, or The Man of Steel,
a super-hero with his gae bolga,
a multi-barbed spear, for use

if he ever gets into a fight 
   in a river

cast from the fork of the toes
it enters via a single wound, as a javelin,
then opens into 49 vicious barbs
which can only be removed
by cutting away the flesh
   from the victim's body

The first and last stanzas include phrases from The Tain (tr. Thomas Kinsella); the list of warrior 

skills and weapons is from the same source. The original Gaelic terms are: in t-ubullchless, 
faborcless, faencless, tétcless, corpcless, cless caitt, ich n-erred, corn n-deled, leim dar néib, gae 
bolga, cless for análaib, dreim fri fogaist co n-dirgiud crette for a rind co fornadmaim niad náir
The comparison between Sgathaich and Kill Bill was made by Ken ‘Chonzie’ Cockburn. Sgathaich 
gave Cù-chulainn the gae bolga, sometimes translated as the 'death spear'; descriptions of this 
weapon refer to 7 heads each with 7 barbs; nowadays there are landmines of similar design. Cù-
chulainn uses the spear to slay his son Conla, a scene described in more detail in the Dùn Liath 

the Cuillin of Skye & Rúm

poem, AF, photograph AL

   geese leaving
   keen to see
   Mount Arashi

      (after Issa)

all the more arresting because of its location
the dùn grasps its view over Strathaird
to the Skye Cuillin, sweeping from the red slopes   
of Beinn na Caillich & Beinn Dearg Mhòr               
to the dark scoured peak of Sgùrr nan Eag

   with just one hand
   held up high
   I block out the Cuillin

      (after Kate Bush)

turn south-west, to find the Rúm Cuillin –
align the tips of the moon, then follow the line
down to the horizon blinking over Loch Slapin,
Tarskavaig & the polysonorous sea
which rolls the skittish clouds
across 60 million years of stark peaks,
without motion, without feeling, changed
   only by the rocks wearing

pick out the highest peak, the old boiling pot
caldera of Askival, which poured the pitch-
stone ridge of An Sgùrr, whose notch
forms & names Eigg’s broken backbone,
ending in a nose which gushed the lava lobes
of Orval & Bloodstone Hill,
spilling a vast skin of shimmering light
over Canna, whose basalt gives such a grand yield
   of early tatties

The Japanese poet Issa’s original haiku reads: ‘eager to see / Mount Sarashina / departing geese’. 

An Sgùrr, The Peak, gives it’s name to Eigg, Notched Island; north of Eigg is Canna, Porpoise Island
The verse after Kate Bush is after ‘Hello Earth’, from her album The Hounds of Love (1985). Tristan 
Gooley describes this simple way of identifying the south using the tips of the moon as a guide in his 
book, The Natural Navigator.

word-mntn (Sgùrr na h-Iolaire); poem AF, photograph LA

Eilean Ruairidh

Eilean Ruairidh, LA

north-west of the dùn, Eilean Ruairidh
is a scratch of rocks ripped off the cliffs –
fire-beacon, signal-station and ancient smithy
    bearing traces of vitrification

under the guidance of Julie Brook
a young woman chose to transform
   into the May Queen

she was rowed out to the island
where driftwood was stacked
   tightly on the highest rock

then, as dark fell, the bonfires were lit:
fire echoing fire – a voice called out
   from over the sound

a voice responded, no words,
only sounds, given back and forth,
   from cliff to island

Vitrification, the fusing of rock under the influence of intense heat; there is debate whether it was 

for defensive or ritual purposes. The beacon-fire on Eilean Ruairidh renewed this ancient tradition. 
Meg Bateman first told me of this event when we visited Dùn Scaich in 2010. The artist Julie Brook, 
who lives in Sleat, sent the account on which these verses are based. The participants were students 
from Glasgow School of Art, who Brook brought to Skye to draw in the wilderness.

Inversion, JB

Another of Brook’s fire-based artworks, Inversion (2007-08), realised on Skye: 'I had asked for a 

night event; when it came it was wild, high wind and rain. I thought I would not get the work alight, 
but managed with the help of my family. It was extraordinary, the way for a moment the firelight 
would be sent up in these beams of light and then the wind would gust sending the light-lines awry. 
It felt like the earth was glowing from within.' (2012).

Julie Brook 1: Inversion (2007-08)

Julie Brook 4: Inversion (2007-08)

a walk to Sròn Daraich

Sròn Daraich, KC

close-by Dùn Scaich, between Tokavaig’s frisky waves
and the beach at Òrd, is Sròn Daraich
you can wander in a Druidic wood, named for the oak
that mingle with hazel & birch, within the
   sacred grove

Tokavaig’s name is descriptive of the bay’s frisky waves. The wood is named after the oak, darach

hazel & birch are calltainn & beith. The photograph of a paper wish was taken by Ken Cockburn for 
the road north. Luke Allan’s journey to Dùn Scaich and Sròn Daraich features in his blog.

 word-mntn (Sgurr nan Eag), AF

after a pleasant walk from Tarskavaig to Dùn Scaich
   the poet Luke Allan drew this conclusion



Yama Arashi

artist & judoka Ian Whittlesea translated Sgathaich's fighting moves
into a judo throw, choosing the technique
most appropriate to heroic Dùn Scaich
   & its fierce queen

yama arashi

Ian Whittlesea completed a five-year project to gain his 1st black dan belt at judo, at the same time 

completing a translation of the artist and judoka (4th dan) Yves Klein's Les Fondements du Judo
The Foundations of Judo (The Everyday Press, 2009).

The Foundations of Judo, IW

Sugata Sanshiro

word-mntn (Sgùrr Alasdair); poem AF, photograph LA

Shiro Saigo just was a wee guy,
but he was famous for using Yama Arashi
to defeat bigger enemies,
celebrated in Kurosawa's Sugata Sanshiro            
which ends with an extraordinary showdown
   on a mountain

                                                     the mountain
                                               the mountain is still
                                         clouds scud and winds howl
                                   grasses furl and unfurl as songs call
                           two shadowy figures grapple one figure falls
             winds howl and clouds scud and winds howl and clouds scud
the mountain is still the mountain is still the mountain is still the mountain

Sugata Sanshiro, Judo Saga (1943) 
Akira Kurosowa’s first film (click to view)

word-mntn (Beinn Dearg Mhòr)


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

Beinn Dearg Mhòr Big Red Mountain
Beinn na Caillich Mountain of the Crone
Askival Peak of the Ash
Sgùrr nan Éag
Notched Peak
Orval Moorfowl Fell (?)
An Sgùrr The Peak
Bloodstone Hill T
Sgùrr na h-Iolaire Peak of the Eagle


Alec Finlay (AF)
Luke Allan (LA)
Julie Brook
Ken Cockburn
Alison Lloyd (AL)
Gavin Morrison
Ian Whittlesea

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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