BURSTING out of the trees into a large clearing, in
woods above Tobermory, Hylda Marsh and Bev Langhorn
didn't quite know what to expect. Someone had lived here
in centuries past - that much they knew, or at least
strongly suspected, after seeing aerial photographs
taken in the 1950s showing a square shape in the ground.
But for the best part of half a century, ever since the
woods were planted, the hilltop had been a quiet, lonely
place visited by scarcely a soul To get there, the pair
had walked across boggy fields, thrown themselves over
two burns and climbed up a scramble bank. The burning
question was, who had lived there and when?
"It was quite overgrown with bracken, but there were
obviously two square shapes, of about 40ft by 40ft, "
remembers Hylda, who runs a guest house and holiday
cottage agency in Tobermory.
"It was a bit like looking at one of those 3-D pictures
where you have to take time to focus, " adds Bev, who,
when she isn't sleuthing with Hylda, does the accounts
at a local builders' yard. The ruins indicated a
building set inside an enclosure. They also found a
Their hearts quickened: perhaps this might have been
part of a Viking settlement. Eight months earlier, in
April 2007, the duo had gone along to an open evening
run by Scotland's Rural Past, a project hosted by the
Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments
of Scotland (RCAHMS), which supports local communities
to investigate ruined settlements.
Hylda and Bev had obtained the aerial photograph of the
site from the RCAHMS, so, after measuring out the
proportions of the squares with their feet, they
returned to Tobermory and contacted the RCAHMS, briefly
describing their findings. Half expecting to learn it
was an animal enclosure of some sort, they were
surprised to be told that it could in fact be a chapel.
But don't get excited, said the experts.
evaporated when two months later, in March this year, a
team of experts from the RCAHMS came out with Bev and
Hylda to take a closer look. "That was the day they told
us what they thought it was - an early Christian chapel,
dating from the fifth to tenth centuries - and that was
when it really hit home, " says Bev. "One of the
gentlemen went very quiet and started walking around
quite excitedly. 'Tell me why it isn't, ' he kept saying
to his colleagues, asking them to disprove it."
Documentary evidence of a church on the site is
non-existent. Recently a team of RCAHMS surveyors spent
two days examining, measuring and recording the ruins -
and they concluded that the building was indeed an early
Christian chapel. "We've looked at the plans of chapels
in Mull and it fits, " said Ishbel Mackinnon, SRP field
officer, speaking from the site. "It has the east-west
orientation and an entrance positioned in the north
wall, which conforms to what we would expect.
"We've also had a look at the dish-shaped stone and
we're quite happy that the bowl has been worked." It may
have been filled with oil and used as a lamp.
It is particularly significant because of its proximity
to Iona. "It's an interesting period because of Columba,
" says Strat Halliday, head of policy for survey and
recording at RCAHMS. "Iona is such an important
monastery; it's from there that all sorts of missionary
activity took place. In that context, any new discovery
is of interest."
Perhaps most important is the fact that this site was
previously completely unknown and has now been recorded
in the RCAHMS archive for posterity. It's one of a
string of successes for Scotland's Rural Past, which has
made an army of detectives out of Scotland's Sunday
hikers, dog-walkers and anyone with an interest in local
history. A five-year project that began in October 2006,
its aim is to pinpoint the remains of hamlets,
farmsteads, crofts, weavers' cottages, mills, quarries
and churches in some cases, they may eventually be
turned into visitor sites with interpretation boards.
The Baliscate chapel might never have been discovered if
it weren't for Bev and Hylda. They decided to research
the area around Baliscate, just outside Tobermory in
January. "We were hoping that we'd find things, but we
didn't know what, " says Hylda. "There was some talk
that Baliscate was supposedly one of the original
villages before Tobermory, so we hoped we'd find some of
those clutches of houses from the seventeenth and
Their powers of observation have been crucial. Once they
knew it might be a church, Bev and Hylda went to Mull
Museum and looked for references to a church. The
museum's curator found the transcript of an oral history
interview done a few years ago: it turned out that
according to folklore, there was indeed a church on the
hill above Baliscate, another important part of the
jigsaw of evidence.
Tertia Barnett, project manager for Scotland's Rural
Past, is delighted with the find. "There's no record of
it, it's not on the map and it's very, very old, " she
Though settlements from every period have been uncovered
by SRP, the scheme has a clear remit: the past 500
years, and particularly the Highland Clearances.
"There's a lot of political baggage around things like
the Clearances, which are poorly understood, " says
Barnett. "This project has been brought about to address
Several hundred sites relating to the past 500 years
have been recorded. In Strathconnon, Rossshire, traces
of more than 20 illicit whisky stills have been found.
Documented history identifies the area as having been
rife with illicit distilling, says Barnett. "There are
known to have been scuffles between excisemen and
locals, " she says.
Findings have also been made from the Neolithic until
the early mediaeval period, including prehistoric rock
art, round houses which could be Iron Age or later, and
The majority of what's been done so far has been in the
Highlands, where there are more crumbling settlements,
says Barnett. "Within 50 years, something could go from
being a roofed building to being ruined." Hence the
urgency: the effects of weathering, land erosion and
development can erase these human traces all too easily.
So can we expect Bev and Hylda's chapel to feature on
Time Team in future? Well, although Scotland's Rural
Past has been shortlisted for best project in the
British Archaeological Awards, sponsored by Channel 4,
among others, it doesn't mean that the sites it helps
uncover will be excavated. The RCAHMS survey and record,
and their purpose is to preserve rather than dig up.
"Realistically, it's probably not going to be excavated,
" says Halliday.
The amateur surveyors are doing a crucially important
job building up a national collection, he adds.
"Scotland's Rural Past is adding to the sum of our