Royal inauguration in Dál Riata

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Volume 136 (2006). Pages 237-58.

Meggen Gondek. “Early Historic sculpture and landscape: a case study of Cladh a’Bhile, Ellary, Mid-Argyll”.

Cladh a’Bhile is an old burial ground on the shore of Loch Caolisport, a sea-inlet on the coast of what was once the kingdom of Dál Riata. It has yielded 29 carved stones of the 7th century. These are mostly cross-incised slabs that probably stood upright in their original positions. Such a distinct cluster of monuments suggests the presence of an ecclesiastical centre, perhaps a monastery, in the vicinity (if not on the site itself). Dr Gondek wonders if the Early Christian activity included formal religious ceremonies involving two nearby “duns” or small hillforts. If the duns were occupied in Early Historic times, and if their occupants regarded themselves as rulers of this part of Argyll, the ceremonies may have incorporated royal inauguration rituals. It seems likely that any minor kings of this district would have acknowledged the authority of the over-kings of Dál Riata after c.700, when the various territories of the Scots began to form a single political entity.

One of the sites considered by Dr Gondek is Columba’s Cave which is about 1 mile from Cladh a’Bhile. In the summer of 2000 I visited this cave and saw the incised crosses mentioned in the article. I recall that the place had an ethereal aura but, at the time, I attributed this to the wildly lush vegetation at the cave entrance! Perhaps I should think again, in the light of Dr Gondek’s theory about a possible Otherworld aspect being part of the 7th century religious rituals 😉

This article makes a significant contribution to the study of relationships between kings and clergy among the Scots of Dál Riata. It gives useful insights into the processes of royal inauguration and state-formation in Early Historic Scotland.

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