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The Storied Isles

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There is a deep and abiding enchantment in the atmosphere of an insular environment, about its isolation in the great desert of ocean, in its remoteness and tranquillity, and this delight in the withdrawn and the distant is nowhere more profoundly experienced than in the magical archipelago which stars our British seas.

Plutarch tells us that "of the islands around Britain many lie scattered and uninhabited, of which some are named after deities and heroes," and that the people who dwelt in the islands nearest to those which were desert "were sacred and inviolable in the eyes of the Britons." The Celts of Britain regarded the insular groups off their Western coasts as the abodes of the spirits of the dead, or of powerful deities or enchanters, like Manannan the son of Llyr, the sea-god after whom they named the Isle of Man, or Skatha, the Amazon from whom Skye took its name, or Lewis, the isle of Lug or Llew, the Celtic god of the Sun. Nor did the actually existing islands off these coasts suffice the imagination of this race of natural poets, but out of their teeming fancy they must needs invent mythic insular localities such as Avallon, Benwick, Lyonesse and Hy Brasil.

If, like the lieutenants of Caesar, or the nephews of Saxon Hengist, we circumnavigate the wild, rock-buttressed coasts of the mainland of Britain, we shall retain a lifelong memory of native beauty, grandeur and romance worth many a Continental journey. If we would make an amateur antiquary's pilgrimage among the storied isles, let us charter a steam yacht on which we can put into bay or harbour as we list, a craft suited to the business of leisurely and familiar navigation, whose skipper knows no schedule of times of sailing, but who will cast anchor beside such beaches as we desire to explore.

We sail from Wight, but before we leave the Solent let us glance at the antiquities of this Hampshire in the sea. The very name of the island is, indeed, the key to British history, for the name "Wight" is, Celtic scholarship assures us, merely another form of "Qicht," "Pict" or "Cruithne," the earliest form of the word "Briton." So that "Wight" means "The Briton's Isle." The Romans found a congenial footing in Wight, and they built villas at Carisbrooke and Brading, where some exquisite tessellated pavements have been found. Only slight traces of Quarr Abbey remain on the northern shores of the island. It seems to have been one of the earliest Cistercian foundations in England, dating as it did from 1131, and played a quietly active part in the affairs of Wight for four hundred years before it fell into the greedy hands of Thomas Wriothesley in 1537. One of the most venerable sites is that on which the ruins of Carisbrooke Castle stand. Its foundations date from early British times, but the main fabric was raised at different periods from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. Cowes Castle, modernised by Henry VIII, and now the headquarters of the Royal Yacht Squadron, still retains much of its Tudor grace, as far as exteriors go, and the quaint old port of Yarmouth, "the first port inside the Needles," whose charter dates from the twelfth century, besides a notable little "market house," has a small Tudor castle, now transformed to the uses of a hostelry. But let us sail for Scilly.

Scilly, the Lyonesse of the Arthurian romances, has not a few relics of a prehistoric past scattered over its miniature archipelago, the last outpost of English land lying in the Atlantic. The shadows of Phoenician legend cluster about its lilied shores, but there is good evidence that the matter-of-fact Romans used the group as an insular "house of correction," a kind of British Devil's Island, to which they consigned refractory Gauls and rebellious Britons. But on the coming of Athelstan in 938 the Saxons founded an abbey at Tresco, the ruins of which still remain. When the Godolphins became the grand seigneurs of the group, they built Star Castle on St. Mary's island about the middle of the sixteenth century, and here it was that Charles II found a refuge in 1645 after Naseby and the failure of his attempt in the West when making his cautious way to exile in France. The remaining site of antiquarian importance is the so-called "Cromwell's Tower," raised on the island of Tresco in the time of the Civil War, with an eye to French invasion. But what might not Scilly yield to the spade of the practical archaeologist? Surely the soil of Lyonesse should produce a wealth of Phoenician and Romano-British remains, were it suitably explored.

Lying like a granite tooth in the open jaws of the Bristol Channel, the island of Lundy displays in the narrow space of three miles almost every class of prehistoric monument known to the archaeologist. It would almost seem as though its former Celtic denizens had been anxious to bequeath a complete range of antiquarian specimens to posterity. Among its "earthquakes" - as the good folk of the island call the cavernous depressions which score its western side - on the cupped plateau of its Devil's Punch Bowl, and beneath the sheer granite coves which rise on its sea-cliffs, are scattered the traces of round towers - surely the only remnants of those on English soil - kistvaens, most of which are, however, rifled, tumuli or standing-stones, and, so that nothing may be wanting, a fine specimen of a logan or rocking-stone.

From the time when the Norman Mariscos took it over at the Conquest to the middle of the eighteenth century Lundy appears to have been a smugglers' and wreckers' paradise, and was not altogether free from the suspicion of piracy. Its only antiquity of the historic era is Marisco Castle, a grim keep, which literally hangs over the brows of a beetling cliff. Only the site of the ancient chapel of S. Helens can now be traced, and there is a battered little building known locally as "John o' Groat's House." But what does John o' Groat, the Caithness worthy, in sea-girt Lundy? It is like finding the Welsh god Llew in Lewis, and one suspects him of an equally supernatural origin.

Generations of romancers, mystics and antiquaries have searched for that House of Glass in the silver sea of the West into which Merlin bore his magic ring, and to which none unversed in Druidic lore might penetrate. But Lady Charlotte Guest, in her "Mabinogion," surely one of the three Delightful Books of Britain, locates this crystal palace of the Celts on the tiny isle of Bardsey, the isle of the bards, which lies off the promontory of Braich-y-Pwyll in Carnarvonshire. However, if it were not a species of magical conservatory, Bardsey was certainly a house of refuge for the Celt, who in the " killing times " of the early sixth century sought sanctuary there from the axes of the bloodthirsty Saxons.

Only the bare ground-plan of its abbey of S. Mary and the remnants of a tower now exist. The sanctity of its patron, S. Dolmers, who died there in 612, made the abbey famous all over early Britain, and whenever a monk of especial sanctity died, his remains seem to have been conveyed to the sacred isle. In time its two miles of narrow soil became a veritable cemetery, and acres of graves lie side by side, many interesting slabs recording the tale of pious and laborious lives passed in cell or cloister.

Anglesey, the ancient isle and last retreat of the British druids, naturally retains numerous memorials of this native priesthood. The scene of the Roman landing on the fatal day when the druids and their defenders were practically decimated is near Llainden, on the south-east coast, and the place known as Pont y Yscraphie is said to be where the Roman scaphae or flat-bottomed boats were beached. There are the ruins of several small British towns near this battlefield.

At Caer-leb, on a piece of ground called Trevwry, a number of circular stone foundations are to be found, and at Tun ben y Cevn there are two large quadrangles which are supposed to have been the site of the palaces of the chief druids. At Trer Dryw is a large circle of earth and stones rising to a considerable height, and bearing the foundation marks of eight or nine great pillar-stones arranged in a circle of about forty feet in diameter. This is said to be Bryn Gwyn, the place of the supreme tribunal of the druids, and was anciently surrounded by a thick grove of oaks, whence their priests obtained the sacred mistletoe, which they regarded as the symbol of all life. Cromlechs are also to be found at Llyslew Barn and Bodowyr.

The Isle of Man now rises in gloomy majesty from the stormy Irish Sea, equidistant from the three British kingdoms. This mysterious little country, the legendary home of the Celtic god Manannan, the three-legged " churner of the Ocean," is almost a monument itself, so plentifully besprinkled is its surface with those extraordinary Celtic and Scandinavian crosses which seem to have been the chief evidences of its ancient culture, and of which even the merest catalogue would fill many pages.

Peel Castle, on the west side of the island, and the most outstanding of its monuments, is situated on S. Patrick's Isle, a rocky islet connected with the mainland by a causeway. This islet is almost entirely occupied by the ruins of the castle, but also contains an ecclesiastical building of note known locally as "the Cathedral," the foundations of which date back to the early years of the thirteenth century. It was left derelict, however, until completed by Henry, Earl of Derby, in 1593. The Cathedral is surrounded by several ruined structures, once the residences of the bishops and the lords of the isle, and an interesting if shattered armoury, and the whole is encompassed by battlements looking out on a stormy sea. Not far off stands S. Patrick's Chapel, with its isolated round tower of the true Celtic type.

About three miles from Peel rises the low green eminence of the Tynwald Hill, from which the ancient laws of the island are still proclaimed in Manx and English. Its name, if not the legal system promulgated from it, is of Scandinavian origin (Thingvallir), and a venerable tradition survives that it is composed of earth brought from the seventeen parishes of the island. In appearance it is a grass-covered hillock about twelve feet high and 240 in circumference, cut into three terraces and approached by a flight of steps. The ruins of Rushen Abbey, founded in 1134, and of Castle Rushen, an admirable example of medieval strength, with four magnificent towers, are eloquent of the island's palmy days, but of the ruined nunnery of Kirk Budden, which tradition says was founded by S. Bridget of Ireland, only vestiges remain.

Entering the waters which upbear the three great Scottish archipelagoes, the Sudreys, or those islands south of Ardnamurchan Point, the Hebrides, including the Long Island, Skye and their near neighbours, and the Orkney and Shetland Isles, we encounter archaeological conditions which, although they bear some general resemblance to those prevailing in Man, are yet extraordinarily apart from the monuments of the past in England or even on the east coast of Scotland. Not one of these islands but was invaded at the beginning of the New Stone Age by the small, dark Iberian race from the Mediterranean who introduced the custom of burying their dead in communal barrows, while at a later epoch a taller round-headed folk descended upon them who practised individual sepulture in short cists, or stone-lined graves. Almost without exception, the Sudreys and Hebrides are extraordinarily rich in remains of those immigrant races, they teem with wonderfully well-preserved specimens of duns or hill-forts, usually built on promontories, and with crannogs, or insular refuges, cunningly contrived on islets in the midst of inland lochs.

Nor must the brochs or dry-stone towers of the Picts be forgotten in the catalogue of Heb-ridean and Orcadian antiquities. These, with innumerable standing-stones and stone circles, compose the prehistoric memorials of the Scottish islands, and indeed in some measure represent almost an epitome of the prehistoric archaeology of the Scottish mainland. As important to the antiquary, and much more so to the historian, are the exceptionally numerous remains and traces of ecclesiastical buildings which are a most noteworthy feature of practically every island from Islay to Unst.

With the Mull of Kintyre on our port bow, we steam up the Firth of Clyde, and gradually watch the lovely island of Arran rise from the sea in mountainous dignity like a miniature Teneriffe. It has been fittingly described as a "characteristic piece of Highland scenery set down in the midst of a southern estuary." "Beautiful as a wreck of Paradise," it shelters a quite amazing catalogue of antiquities, and is, indeed, a regular museum of nearly all phases of early Scottish life. Its chambered cists and cairns would require a bulky volume for adequate description, and it has no less than eight wonderfully well-preserved stone circles, the largest of which, at Machrie Moor, measures forty-five feet in diameter and consists of seven stones, some of which are at least eighteen feet in height. Similar rings, or their vestiges, are situated at Achangallan and Drumadoon. A large number of ancient fortified sites are also to be found among the wild and picturesque acclivities of the island.

Hard by the village of Kilpatrick the circular foundations of a venerable Celtic monastery stand in mute memorial of a shrine as to the very name of which even tradition is silent. But we have tradition enough and to spare if we will but seek the King's Cave on the silent beach between Machrie Bay and Drumadoon Point, for within its gloomy depths King Robert the Bruce is said to have watched that pertinacious spider, the endeavours of which afforded him a model for his own perseverance. The walls of the cave are covered with remarkable incised figures, prehistoric or medieval.

The principal site of ecclesiastical interest in Arran is a shrine bearing the name of the ancient British saint, once a Celtic goddess, S. Bride or Bridget. It is the sole pre-Reformation church now remaining in the island and dates from the fourteenth century. Its churchyard still contains some most interesting sculptured stones.

Brodick Castle, situated on an eminence dominating the north side of Brodick Bay, is almost occluded by the modern additions which were made to it in 1844. In 1845, when the renovations were at their height, the old tower fell one tempestuous midnight with a terrific crash. The ancient remaining portion of the structure consists of a main rectangular block from three to four stories high, finished by battlements and crow-stepped gables, and terminating eastward in an artillery battery. Loch Ranza Castle stands at the north end of the island.

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Pictures for The Storied Isles

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