Rock art and bait holes: cutting by John Sands (1884)

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Dundee Advertiser, 3 June 1884, 3

Sir,—An friend (I thank him) has sent me a copy of your issue of the 19th instant, which contains an interesting article on the Cargill Cup-marked Stone. In 1882, when residing in Tiree, I spent many an hour in studying the cup-marks to be seen in “numbers numberless” upon the rocks that fringe the shore there, and I discovered that they were so arranged as to express mystic numbers. Three cups in a straight line form the key to almost all the groups that appear on the south end of the island. I notice that the holes as delineated on the sketch plan you publish of the Cargill Stone follow the same method. The existence of Druids has lately been disputed or denied, otherwise I would have pronounced these cups to be a relic of that priesthood, who, we are informed, worshipped the sun and had their mysteries. About 200 yards from the sea in Tiree the corner of a rock crops through the grass, and exhibits on its surface [see illustration] six cups so arranged as to make three lines of three, which, when added or multiplied, give the magic number nine, which in the Hebrides as well as here in Shetland is still regarded as a peculiarly lucky number. In Tiree there a large block of stone called the Clach Ghoilear, or kettle stone, from the metallic sound it emits when struck, which is marked on all sides with cups, likewise arranged in lines of threes. The Cargill Stone is doubly interesting to me from being marked with channels as well as cups, an example of which I have never seen. The rocks all around the coast of Shetland as well as in the Western Islands are marked with cups, as I lately ascertained from answers to an inquiry I made in the le paper. In 1882 I wrote a paper on the Antiquities of Tiree, including the cup-marks, for the Society of Scottish Antiquaries; but the official (who is the tongue of the trump) to whom I sent it seemed to believe in the vulgar theory that the cups on the shore had been made merely to hold bait in. I afterwards wrote a paper on the same subject, but containing the result of greater experience, for the Glasgow Archaeological Society. Perhaps you will kindly permit me to say that I claim to have discovered that cup-marked stones are leaves of the Bible of pre-historic man, and whether existing on the shore or on rocks in the interior or on relics boulders, they are all of the same ancient religion whose creed included the belief that certain numbers are magical. Great care seems to have been taken that the sacred mysteries should remain so to the uninitiated. The channels on the Cargill Stone may have a meaning of their own, or they may have been to mislead the profane and to conceal the real design or they may have been made by some early Christian iconoclast. It is well known that the missionaries of the early Church were in the habit of cutting the cross upon stones that the heathen used as objects of worship. I may take the opportunity of remarking that our Antiquarian Societies are not so well adapted for the promotion of research as they ought to be. Indeed, as at present constituted and conducted they are more an obstruction than a furtherance to the pursuit of archaic knowledge. To gratify their own vanity and to increase their own power seem to be their ruling motives, rather than the acquisition of information which would throw a light on the past. They elect a Lord as their President that they may gain the respect of the ignorant. They court some powerful daily journal that they may get liberty to write their own reports, to praise their favourites, and to damage those they dislike. For years I have been searching unexplored islands, such as St Kilda and its satellites, Tiree and Foula, for ancient remains, and using the spade as well as pen and pencil, and have made many remarkable discoveries; but from no Society have I received the slightest encouragement, but the reverse.—I am, &c., J. Sands. Isle of Vaila, Walls, Shetland, 23d May: —This rock may have, from having three corners: have been considered uncommonly suitable for putting the sacred cups upon. It is close to a brook and to an ancient graveyard, in which I discovered the foundation of a chapel.

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