King’s Cave, Arran

sea caves

On the west coast of Arran, quite near Machrie Moor, are a series of sandstone sea caves, formed by wave action when the sea level was higher than it is today. One of them is full of petroglyphs, some of which date back to the Iron Age if not before. It’s called King’s Cave — one of many caves around Scotland alleged to be the one where the fugitive Robert the Bruce famously observed a spider persisting in trying to attach its web to the slippery walls, and so resolved to be similarly persistent in fighting for Scottish independence.

King's cave entrance

The cave has a gated entrance, but we found it open and went on in. Had we remembered to bring flashlights? No, we had not. Fortunately, it was a bright, sunny day, and the ambient light was enough to show us most of the petroglyphs.

cave 13 robert the bruce

And wouldn’t you know it? There was a spider web just inside.

cave 12

The cave was shallow and high-ceilinged — not a particularly good place to hide out, one would have thought. But a decent shelter capable of hosting, say, a large beer party. Which I kind of suspect is why there are so many petroglyphs and graffiti on the walls. Yes, some of it is clearly Christian, suggesting the place may have been used as a hermitage for a time. But those early monks were not averse to good brew, either, so I’m sticking with my beer-party-spot theory in general.

King's cave graffiti 3

This cross occupies the central position at the back of the cave. According to a very informative, illustrated post at Arran in Focus, which is my source for most of the identifications here, “This has been reworked many times and has had various interpretations, from a two handed sword (associated with Bruce and [the mythical Irish hero] Fionn), Christian cross and ‘tree of life’, a common motif in early Christian art.”

King's cave graffiti 2

A human figure with arms upraised. The raised hands are thought to represent prayer (or supplication?), in part because of the figure’s location immediately to the right of the big cross.

cave 07

Not all the Christian graffiti is ancient, though. Arran in Focus confirms my suspicion that this one is recent.

King's cave graffiti 1

These are assumed to represent serpents. Nearby, apparently, are some Ogham inscriptions, which we failed to spot. See the Arran in Focus post for photos. (If only I’d discovered that post before we visited the cave!)

King's cave graffiti 5

Most evocative of all were the carvings of animals, such as this horse and rider.

King's cave graffiti 6

“These could be a deer and calf, or deer and hound,” says our online guide.

cave 11

“Most likely a horse.” A faint human figure at the right edge of the photo is “now being slowly covered with algae and mineral deposits.” Rachel’s mobile phone camera did especially well in these low-light conditions.

cave 09

Her photo of the horse and rider shows the hodge-podge of old and new carvings that surrounded it.

cave 08

While part of me was aghast at how poorly protected the ancient cave art was from the obviously on-going vandalism, another part of me reveled in the chaos of it all.

cave 01

This was just like any frequently tagged wall in a modern city, with no graffito, however artistic, immune from amendment or even erasure. The difference is that the oldest art on these walls dated back not months, but millennia.

King's cave floor

And of course in the long run, all human art will prove as ephemeral as footprints in the mud.

cave 02

Or so I reflected to myself at the time. A few days later, on another walk, I’d see fossilized footprints in what had once been mud 300 million years ago. But that’s another story.


Thanks again to Rachel for letting me use some of her photos. As before, mouse-over to find out who took what, and click through to Flickr for larger versions.

10 Comments


  1. thinks about a blessing from the Morrigan (which may or may not be felt as a curse) and the one eye not noticing all like Cu Chulainn..in addition thoughts of Odin..requests to see all and to be shown…the spider, while having changed its explicit meanings and understanding through time, generally–supports understanding and recall of dreamtime but also balance between past(ancestors) and future and using lessons learned to keep balance and to see to make good choices. Here is a link about spider if you wish to peruse more information.

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  2. I remember walking into otherwise empty old churches and cathedrals in Britain and looking in vain for barriers and guards. It humbled me.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. Peter, yes, that level of trust is commendable, though it wasn’t universal on Arran. Brodick Castle, which controls an immense amount of land on the east side of the island, tried to charge us an arm and a leg just to walk through their woods (which is all behind walls). But apparently that’s the norm for properties run by the National Trust for Scotland.

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  4. Wow. Fascinating…I want to see this place!

    Re National Historic sites in Scotland and UK, the absence of barriers, stairs, etc. is pretty usual. At Dumbarton, my daughter noted, “There’s a very small, polite note as you enter, suggesting that Dumbarton Rock may not be suitable for disabled badge holders. These steps were steep.” And at Bothwell, she said, “This is the steepest staircase I’ve ever been on. No way they would have let you climb it in the States. They don’t seem to be as concerned about people falling to their deaths around here, which is nice, since they let you explore a bit more.”

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    1. Beth Adams says this about Canada, too, that there isn’t this constant effort to protect everyone from everything that might go wrong. Is anyone in the world as fearful as Americans seem to be?

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  5. I’d like to hear that “another story”.

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