AN ANCIENT “cursing stone” used by Christian pilgrims more than a thousand years ago to bring harm to their enemies has been discovered on Canna.
The round stone with an early Christian cross engraved on it, also known as a “bullaun” stone, is believed to be the first of its type to be found in Scotland, and was discovered by chance in an old graveyard on the island.
More commonly found in Ireland, the stones were used by ancient Christian pilgrims, who would turn them either while praying or when laying a curse, and were often to be found on sacred pilgrim routes. Traditionally, the pilgrim would turn the stone clockwise, wearing a depression or hole in a bigger “socket” stone underneath.
The Canna stone is approximately 25cm in diameter and is marked with a clearly engraved early Christian cross.
Derek Alexander, the head of archaeology for the National Trust for Scotland, who examined the stone, said: “This is an amazing find. Often it is usually the socket stones or the dished depressions that are found.
“They are usually associated with holes or worn patches in the ground, as it’s believed that the convention was for these stones to be turned multiple times by worshippers when either praying for or possibly cursing someone.”
The stone was found by NTS farm manager Geraldine MacKinnon in Canna’s ancient graveyard. It was then discovered that the stone fitted into a larger stone located near the island’s large sculptured Canna Cross.
Canna was known as an early Christian site and is believed to have been owned by the monastery of Iona as early as the seventh century.
Canna’s property manager Stewart Connor said: “Our head of archaeology confirmed a possible link to the stone at the cross, and I was so excited that I went back out at 9pm that night to check whether it fitted the stone with the hole – and it did. The whole community is really excited by the find, which is really significant for the island, and potentially for Scotland too.”
In Ireland, folklore attached magical significance to bullaun stones, such as the belief that rainwater collected in the stone’s hollow could have healing properties. The St Brigit’s Stone in County Cavan in Ireland was used as a “cursing stone”, and locals would turn the stone while cursing a sworn enemy.
Katherine Forsyth, based at the University of Glasgow and a leading expert in the history and culture of the Celtic-speaking peoples in the first millennium AD, said: “I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the first pictures of this beautiful stone. Stones like this are found in Ireland, where they are known as ‘cursing stones’, but this is the first to be discovered in Scotland.”
Forsyth added: “These bowl-shaped lower stones have been found elsewhere in Scotland, including on Canna, but this is the first time a top stone has been found. This exciting find provides important new insight into religious art and practice in early Scotland and demonstrates just how much there is still to be discovered out there.”
There are a number of archaeological remains on the island dating from this period, including a series of highly decorated cross shafts and the hermitage site Sgor Nam Ban-Naomha, or Skerry of the Holy Women, a remote location hidden below steep cliffs which was discovered in 1994.
The island was gifted to the NTS in 1981 by Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell. As well as its rich cultural heritage, the island is renowned for its seabirds and boasts puffins, razorbills and Manx shear- waters. There is also a population of both sea eagles and golden eagles.