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.
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.
And wouldn’t you know it? There was a spider web just inside.
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.
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.”
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.
Not all the Christian graffiti is ancient, though. Arran in Focus confirms my suspicion that this one is recent.
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!)
Most evocative of all were the carvings of animals, such as this horse and rider.
“These could be a deer and calf, or deer and hound,” says our online guide.
“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.
Her photo of the horse and rider shows the hodge-podge of old and new carvings that surrounded it.
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.
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.
And of course in the long run, all human art will prove as ephemeral as footprints in the mud.
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.