Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Smig mhic Mharcuis - The chin of McMarcus

Oh how I miss the old days of haunting used bookstores on the prowl for old Scottish books. It was so exciting to find a remote bookshop in places like Iona or Colonsay, and then discover a book I'd been searching for for a long time. Even back home, my wife and I would often make forays up to Vancouver and Victoria BC, where we'd also find an amazing selection of old Scottish books. Although easier, and quicker, the internet has taken much of the adventure out of searching for old books.

Back in those exciting days of bookshop-prowling, one of my favourite shops was Maclaren's in Helensburgh. It was there that, back in 1993, I purchased T. Ratcliffe Barnett's Highland Harvest (1937). It was while reading this wonderful book that I first heard of an island 'oddity' known as 'Smig mhic Mharcuis' - the chin of McMarcus. The 'chin' is a chunk of stone that is still to be found sitting in the cemetery of Kilbrandon on the isle of Seil.

I have only come across two other mentions of the chin, an 1896 article (see page 25 of this link) in the Proceedings of Scottish Antiquaries, and the following from chapter 2 of Patrick Gillies' book Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909):

A curiously shaped fragment of basalt, resembling a human chin, rests upon the slab. It is known as "Smig mhic Mharcuis" (the chin of MacMarquis). It is popularly believed that this stone, by some supernatural power, revolves upon its axis and points with the chin to a new-made grave, remaining in the same position until a fresh interment takes place. It is also said that should the "chin" be removed from its place on the stone it will always return. Certainly on more than one occasion the stone has been stolen, but sooner or later was found resting in its old position.

When I visited Seil in 2006 I found what I thought was the chin sitting on a tombstone under the arch in the next photo; an arch that is all that's left of the medieval chapel of Kilbrandon - I set the stone atop the arch to take a few photos, and then returned it to its perch on the tombstone, ready to point to the next internment in Kilbrandon.

Arch of the old chapel
The chin - pointing to the next grave?
Smig mhic Mharcuis?

Update (Oct 9, 2015): This post has been so popular recently, that I realized I needed to make a comment. I've left the above text as originally written, but following a discussion with Iain Thornber (Oban Times), I now believe that the stone I found in the burial ground is an impostor, and that the real chin has been hidden away. Below is a drawing of the chin from Patrick Gillies’ Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909); hopefully it will be found and placed in a museum someday.

The chin from Patrick Gillies’ Netherlorn, Argyllshire and its Neighbourhood (1909)

Yet another update (Nov 20, 2015): After some discussions with Iain Thornber, I've been digging through my old books, searching for a newer drawing of the chin that I saw in a book on walks in Lorn. I've not been able to locate that book, but what I did come across were photos from 1997 that I'd forgotten all about - photos that brought a smile to my face. They were shots from my very first visit to Seil, when I found another 'chin-ish' looking stone in the burial ground. It sat on the spot where the chin was said to rest, and I convinced myself at the time that I'd found the chin. In hindsight it was obviously not the chin, and probably just the footing of some table-tombstone. It was quite different from the stone you'll find there today, which I saw on my visit to Seil in 2006 (see previous photos). All this leads me to believe someone is purposely leaving fake chins to keep visitors to the burial ground from looking any further. The real chin must be hidden nearby.

Is it the chin (left foreground)? - 1997

The gullible young fellow who thought he'd found the chin in 1997

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