The Archeology of Maps
Some strands of our lost story are preserved orally in naming and the making of maps.
It’s funny how we can go a whole life without encountering some words and then all of a sudden become slightly obsessed with the topic they represent. Hagiotoponyms—the name of a place dedicated to a particular saint. It’s how I find myself here, writing to you about a place, a missing Saint and trying to reconstruct what we do know about a landscape while I imagine all that we don’t.
Hagiotoponyms are a big deal in Scotland. There is even a website devoted entirely to the work that has been done on the topic. https://saintsplaces.gla.ac.uk/index.php A map of the west coast of Scotland is a type of archeology in and of itself. So much history is being conveyed by place names. English names layered on top of Gaelic on top of Norse on top of and Old Gaelic and Irish and Scots and Pictish and ones we don’t even know how to name. Names describing people and castles and landforms that aren’t there anymore.
As someone who has carried both a hunger for travel and a need to have a setting for myself in a landscape, maps have always held much magic for me. I could stare at an atlas for hours tracing the great rivers of the world with my finger and later in life playing for ages with the interactive map on the back of the airplane seat in front of me. Wanting to know and understand where I was, who I was passing, dreaming questions about what it would be like there. That’s always been with me. I think I started collecting globes after reading Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient “We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men.” I was in my early 20s when I heard that and it was the first time I understood that maps changed. Such an innocent before and and ever-more cynical after. But since then I have collected the proof that these lines that people die over aren’t real.
When I came to live in Scotland with its Right to Roam policy—the idea that on foot you could legally walk almost anywhere for recreational purposes and no ownership of land entitled someone to keep you off— I broke the learned experience of lines in me down even further.
But maps over time tell stories of history and power too. Who has the right to name something? Who wrote it down and what were they interested in? What weren’t they interested in? Who did they talk to and what were they interested in? How have the forests receded? Who could keep things from being included? I listened to a wonderful talk by Dr. Russell O’Riagain of University College Dublin called “Placenames, Politics, Settlement and Society in Medieval Argyll cAD400-1400” this week and despite all of his research and facts he kept stressing how much we just don’t know. My favourite line was something along the lines of: It’s not like when you are overthrowing a place everyone stops to ask “what do you call this?”
One of the first things I did when I lived at Ardmarnoch was search for the oldest maps I could find online. I managed the first Ordinance Survey Map and with it links to the Book of Names that accompanied it from the late 1860s.
Each morsel of knowledge inspired more questions! And it still does. No one knew for sure about the name. It’s funny to watch the cartographer’s attempting to document and unravel meaning from the same names as I am. My handwriting scribbled on a map in 2022 while a clerk in the 1870’s capturing translations of words like Aoidhe writing the same words “guest” or “stranger” in their column for Descriptive Remarks, or Other General Observations which may be considered of Interest. (Their capitalisation—we need more columns like this in spreadsheets!)
Here are some stories I’ve learned so far:
Sometime between 1309 and 1325 a piece of Ardmernog (as it was recorded then) was gifted to Ewen, son of Fynlay, for his homage and service by the son of the Earl of Menteth, Sir Walter Steward of Scotland who held the vauassarage of Ardmernog. In return Ewan and his heirs must supply one bowman in the common army of the King of Scotland.
In May of 1546 Lachlan Maclauchlane violently ejected a Mr Archibald Lawmond, his servants and goods from his land Auchenahall which lies within Ardmarnok. He kept it and farmed it until he died in 1558. Then his son and heir kept it until his own death when his sensible widow named Margaret Campbell admitted to what they did and had to pay Archibald damages.
Sometime in the early 1860-70s we know that the current owner of Ardmarnoch Dr. Nicol removed the last ruins of the Chapel of St Marnock on the estate. He said there were no graves, but an earlier recording described “a chapel surrounded by a churchyard on a small field” and the oral tradition of it being a place of burial.
The same Dr Nicol, who I am prepared to inspire a villain role when we get to that part of the time line, when being asked about the chambered burial cairn near the house told that 100s of cartloads of stone had been removed from it for construction purposes. So instead of the huge burial mounds of stones like we see still intact in Kilmartin Glen, there is a naked skeleton of a plundered sacred space open to the elements without protection or affection.
To underly his untrustworthiness Dr Nicol also ascribed the origins of the Iron Age fort on the property as from “the Danes.”
A fascinating collection of anecdotes to be sure, but so many questions. Why aren’t any of the standing stones on the property recorded? What about the additional cup marked rocks? How did a cairn stay intact for thousands of years and then one guy decides he’s going to use its parts to do some construction?
My problem remains as always, how to fit so many pieces into the narrative arc of a story? I could be forever lost down the researching rabbit hole. Do I just commit now to writing a series? Perhaps I write a series of short stories or chapters from each epoch to let it settle a little in me. I have so many flashes of each potential story and I know they are all related, but I don’t yet know how. So perhaps this is my answer. I like this challenge and it makes me feel like I am writing (and have already written) something cohesive even though it very much isn’t!
I’ll send the first one next week!
The stories will be sent to those with a paid subscription only. If you are interested in any more of the sources to go down a rabbit hole yourself, reply to this post and I’ll see if I can point you somewhere fun!
Until next time,