The Ossian Stone or Clach Ossian in the Sma’ Glen near Crieff
The A 822 road running from Crieff to Amulree takes one through the picturesque Sma Glen amidst some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable . Apart from its natural rugged beauty the road is steeped in Highland history. It was used by the drovers a s a gateway to the lucrative markets on the periphery of the Lowlands. Places such as Fowlis Wester and most notably Crieff where the annual Michaelmas Tryst was a magnet for sellers and buyers alike. Much earlier in time it was the Romans who realised the potential dangers that this natural route could bring and constructed their “glen blocker “fort and watch tower at Fendoch where the Glen truly begins or indeed ends! It was however a professional soldier from Meath in Ireland who transformed the rough tracks into a well-engineered roadway. Major General George Wade had carried out and a study of Highland Scotland in the aftermath of the 1715 Jacobite uprising and had been appointed “Commander of the Forces in Northern Britain “by George I. It was in 1730 that he started work on the Crieff to Dalnacardoch road which extended to some 43 ½ miles or 70 kilometres. This road and the present highway share much of the same route. Coming from Fendoch the road twists and turns all the way to Newton Brig .About a mile before the bridge as the road borders the tumbling waters of the Almond , you suddenly espy an enormous standing stone . This is Clach Ossian or Ossian’s stone!
Much has been written about this megalith by a wide variety of people including Sir Walter Scott and Macaulay. Both these accomplished writers did however rely on the writings of an earlier scribe by the name of Edmund or Edward Burt . Burt is something of a mystery . His narrative was entitled “ Letters from a Gentleman in the North of Scotland “ and were written about 1725/1726 but were not published until after his death . After his death it was written that he was an engineer officer who served with General Wade in Scotland in 1724–28; an army contractor, and an illiterate hack-writer who ended his days in dire distress. War office records fail to show that Burt held military rank. The Scot’s Magazine published in 1755 declared in the review of his book that he had died : “At London. Edmund Burt Esq; late agent to Gen. Wade, chief surveyor during the making of roads through the Highlands, and author of the letters concerning Scotland.”
Whatever the true background of Burt , he nevertheless made an impression on both Scott and Macaulay It was in 1736 he wrote thus :
“ I have so lately mentioned Glen Almond , in the road from Crief ( sic ) northwards , that I cannot forebear a digression , though at my first setting out , in relation to a piece of antiquity that happened to be discovered in that vale not many hours before I passed through it in one of my journeys southwards.
A small part of the way through this glen having been marked out by two rows of camp – colours , placed at a good distance one from another, whereby to describe the intended breadth and regularity of the road by the eye , there happened to lie directly in the way an exceedingly large stone , and , as it had been made a rule from the beginning, to carry on the roads in straight lines, as far as the way would permit, not only to give them a better air , but to shorten the passenger’s journey , it was resolve d that the stone should be removed , if possible , though otherwise the work might have been carried out along on either side of it.
The soldiers by vast labour , with their levers and jacks or hand- screws, tumbled it over and over until they got it quite out of the way , although it was not such an enormous size that it might be a matter of great wonder how it could ever be removed by human strength and art, especially to such who had never seen an operation of that kind , and , upon their digging a little way into that part of the ground where the centre of the base had stood , there was found a small cavity about two feet square , which was guarded from the outside earth at the bottom , top and side , by square flat stones .
The hollow contained some ashes , scraps of bones , and half burnt ends of stalks of heath , which last we concluded to be a small remnant of a funeral pile . Upon the whole, I think there is no room to doubt but it was the urn of some considerable Roman officer , and the best of the kind that could be provided in their military circumstances and that it was so seems plainly to appear from its vicinity to the roman camp, the engines that must have been employed to remove that vast piece of rock , and the unlikeliness that it should , or could, , have ever been done by the natives of the country . But certainly the design was to preserve those remains from the injuries of rains or melting snows , and to prevent their being profaned by the sacrilegious hands of those they called barbarians , for that reproachful name , you know, they give to the people of almost all nations but their own .
As I returned the same way from the Lowlands I found the officer , with his party of working soldiers , not far from the stone , and asked him what was to become to do so ; the urn.
To this he answered , that he had intended to preserve it in the condition I left it , till the Commander - in- Chief had seen it , as a curiosity , but that it was not in his power to do so ;for soon after the discovery was known to the Highlanders , they assembled from distant parts, and having formed themselves into a body, they carefully gathered up the relics , and marched with them , in solemn procession , to a new place of burial , and there discharged their fire – arms over the grave, as supposing thee deceased had been a military officer .
You will believe that the recital of all this ceremony led me to ask the reason of such homage to the ashes of a person supposed to have been dead almost two thousand years. I did so; and the officer, who was himself a native of the hills, told me that they (the Highlanders) firmly believed that if a dead body should be known to lie above the ground , or be disinterred by malice , or by the accidents of torrents of water , &c and care was not taken to perform to it the proper rites , then there would arise such storms and tempests as would destroy their corn, blow away their huts , and all sorts of other misfortunes would follow till that duty was performed and you may here recollect what I told you so long ago, of the great regard the Highlanders have for the remains of their dead ; but this notion is entirely Roman . “
There are a number of points Burt’s article raises. He was advised of the actions of the Highlanders by their officer in charge who too was a Gaelic speaker. The incident occurred about 1736 and no mention was made of the name Ossian being attached to the stone. Who, then, was Ossian? Ossian was in fact invented by a gentleman called James MacPherson who claimed to have found manuscripts of parts of Gaelic poems written by “ Ossian “ and published by him as a translation around 1760 .These proved immensely popular although they did arouse the
“ the people of the country , for several miles around , to the number of three or four score of men, venerating the memory of the Bard rose with one consent , and carried away the bones , with bag pipes playing, and other funeral rites, and deposited them with much solemnity within a large circle of stones , on the lofty summit of a rock, sequestered and of difficult access, where they might never more be disturbed by mortal feet or hands , in the wild recesses of Western Glen Almond "
What then is the factual evidence concerning this isolated megalith ? It is in probability a glacial erratic having been deposited at the en d of the ice age . It is substantial in size being some 7 ½ feet high ( 2.29 metres ) and approximately 5 feet square . What about the allegations that the buried remains are those of a Roman officer ? Again quite improbable . Yes indeed the Romans had a “ glen blocker “ fort and watch tower at Fendoch further up the Glen but the remains appear to pre date this period and again in probability are those of someone of much greater antiquity .
This extract in the “ Northern Antiquarian “ is illuminating and refers back to 1834 when the stone was part of a stone circle :
Described in some of the archaeology texts as just a ‘cist’, this giant stone is obviously the remains of much more. For a start, as the 1834 drawing illustrates here (coupled with several other early descriptions of the place), other visible antiquarian remains were very much apparent at Ossian’s Stone before a destructive 18th century road-laying operation tore up much of this ancient site. A marauding General Wade of the English establishment was cutting through the Scottish landscape a “military road”, to enable the English to do the usual “civilize the savages”, as they liked to put it. This curious “Giant’s Grave” was very lucky to survive.
Let me conclude with a somewhat unconnected point of information ! Just some two miles further on from Ossian's Stone and over the Newton Brig lies a small field . It was her that scenes from the hit movie "Chariots of Fire "were shot depicting a young Eric Liddell !