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An ancient gift to the fairies?

21 August 2010

I was showing the new warden around the other day, wandering around discussing things, when we came to the main village spring, the Tobar Childar. Looking down into it’s crystal clear water I made out the unmistakable hue of a piece of flint, just sitting there on the gravelly bottom. I caught my breath; it can’t be! For me, the moment of discovery always commences with a brief moment of disbelief, even when you instinctively know you’ve got something... I bent down and plunged my hand into the icy cold water, momentarily obstructing the view of the flint and causing a panic that it might disappear back into the gravel if I miss or pick up the wrong stone by mistake... but I grabbed at it and pulled it out and there it was; a beautifully coloured flint flake, hewn from a rounded pebble of flint probably during the creation of a scraper – a tool used for preparing hides - many thousands of years ago.

tobar childar

The Tobar Childar

flint in tobar childar

The Flint in Tobar Childar

the flint flake

The Flint Flake

Although use of flint carried on in some places into the Iron Age (c.500BC-800AD) it is likely to be much older – further evidence of the great antiquity of settlement on Hirte. Pebbles of flint wash up very occasionally along the west coast of the Hebrides, originating from sediment deposits dumped upon what is now the continental shelf by the last ice age. As St Kilda is so far off the continental shelf it is unlikely to have washed up here – it seems more likely to have been brought here by early settlers as part of a tool kit for survival. These pebbles are usually quite small and unsuitable for creating an arrowhead, so it seems more likely that this flake was struck off during the creation of a scraper. This particular tool is generally used for preparing hides to be used as clothing, so the flint implies that there was already livestock such as sheep on the island – Soay sheep perhaps? There has always been debate as to whether these sheep were brought over by native Hebridean people (perhaps as early as the Neolithic (c4,000 – c2,000 BC) as they are thought to be a ‘Neolithic’ breed) or introduced by the Vikings (c800 -1266AD), as ‘Soay’ means sheep island in Norse. The flint doesn’t prove anything but certainly helps to build the case for early introduction by Hebridean people.

Also, the findspot is interesting. We know that in later periods, especially the Iron Age, springs were sacred, and often the site of votive offerings – offerings perhaps to the ‘spirit’ of the spring. Such spirits are well documented in many parts of the world and would form the basis of what would be classed ‘animistic’ religion. Indeed, Martin Martin records in 1697 that the inhabitants believe that “spirits are embodied... in rocks, hills and wherever they list in an instant”, which is almost by definition Animistic - the world is animated by spirits which exist everywhere. We know that springs were very important to the Kildians, and not just for quenching thirst. Tobar Nam Buaidh (the well/spring of virtues or of excellent qualities) in Gleann Mor to the north of Hirte was renowned for its health giving qualities, and Mary Harman (p52) records that the people made small offerings to it, even in historical times – indeed there is a pretty little bell hung on a ribbon there to this day.

Another, mystical spring is called Tobar na h-oige (the well/spring of youth). The story goes:

Once upon a time an old fellow, in going up Connagher with a sheep on his back, observed a well which he had never seen or heard before. The water looked like cream, and was so tempting, that he knelt down and took a hearty drink. To his surprise all the infirmities of age immediately left him, and all the vigour and activity of youth returned. He laid down the sheep to mark the spot, and ran down the hill to tell his neighbours. But when he came up again neither sheep nor well were to be found, nor has anyone been able to find the Tobar na h-oige to this day. Some say that if he had left a small bit of iron (a votive offering?) at the well – a brog with a tacket in it would have done quite well – the fairies would have been unable to take back their gift.

(Harman, p.236)

Springs are renowned throughout the Hebrides and beyond, and often have religious associations – as Finlay Mcleods book “The healing wells of Lewis” well documents. Given then the importance of springs in modern day folklore it is not too much of a stretch to imagine a similar reason behind this piece of flint ending up in the Tobar Childar, back in the distant, fairy filled, past.

Ian Mchardy, St. Kilda Archaeologist


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