Holywell Hill – Part 1

It has been a few years since I visited for the first and only time Holywell Hill, basically just to see, how the Grianán looks from this easterly direction and if anything could be found, perhaps even something which may shed some light on the function of Greenan Hill. So I returned, only to find myself remembering a somewhat elapsed puzzle on the way home. In theory, there should be a connection between the two hills, be it only that they are the highest summits on nearly parallel running hill ranges, more or less in a N.E to S.W direction, and containing a burial site respectively, Grianán a tumulus, Holywell a cairn. It may have not caused much further consideration, if an old map would not have visibly pointed out one remarkable feature – the two hill ranges and accompanying hills (Cornamount, Bogey, Ardnamoyle and Drumbarnett) used to be an island. Like a loose vertebrae, unattached to neither Inishowen proper nor the rest of the Island of Ireland, it apparently was sitting like a link in between. The two arms of Loughs Foyle and Swilly consisted of the upper/northern one running from Bridgend to Derry, past Elaghmore, which was so close to the water, that it practically could have had a harbour, and the lower/southern from Burt Castle, through Portlough, meeting the Foyle at Carrigan, opposite Dunnalong – the forgotten Fort of the Ships.

Map by Ashby from 1601 showing Henry Docwra’s fortifications of Inishowen

The summit of the hill itself is in a shameful and much regretted state, seemingly due to the two masts having been erected there. Despite the most spectacular views, wide into the land in all directions, the site has been neglected to such extent that even the holy well, after which the hill is now named, is a deeply sorrowful sight to behold.

Holy well and carn

The recent carn

The recent carn

_MG_3548

The recent carn appears to sit on the foundation of the much older and now much destroyed one and holds a concrete base as found on other Ordnance Survey points to form a platform for the theodolite. The support of which also consisted usually of loose stones, which were so freely available at ancient cairns, sitting conveniently on summits of hills, perfect for observation points, that they probably were taken rather frequently and out of sheer convenience by the Royal Sappers and Miners. Such taking of stones, although against their code of practise during the Ordnance Survey, has been criticised by John O’ Donovan on more than one occasion, but having to carry on foot for miles and uphill heavy equipment and supplies for overnight stays, one can to some extent understand their mindset. And who was going to miss a few stones, apart from John O’Donovan?

Possible fitting for theodolite on top of the concrete base

Possible fitting for theodolite on top of the concrete base

Ordnance Survey marking

Ordnance Survey marking

Close up of the same

Close up of the same

From what I could still make out, the remains of the old cairn seem to be circa 8 metres in diameter with the square, water-filled pit, apparently forming the holy well, being located on the northern periphery of the monument. There is an intriguing, second and perhaps more central opening in the S.W of the cairn, where some older masonry still can be seen in this sad looking pile of stones. Standing on top, Grianán lies to the N.W with Inch Top flanking the south/left and Lough Swilly north/right.

View towards the Grianán

View towards the Grianán

I also found rather large lumps of white quartz on my way up in noteworthy amounts, with one lying right on the southern end of the cairn.

Location of quartz stone with Scalp Mountain in the background

Location of quartz stone with Scalp Mountain in the background

Close up but difficult to make out. It is the first stone above the old tin can.

Close up but difficult to make out. It is the first stone above the old tin can.

Within a short distance of the cairn to the south a large stone, lying in the field, woke my interest, and on closer inspection I concluded that it would make a very nice capstone, perhaps even a standing stone, being about 1.80m in length. Only a few metres away the field wall consisted of ‘older’ stones, rounded and lichen covered, a feature that changed walking further down. In this upper part a walled square, circa 10m x 10m could be made out, attached to the field wall and may have been used for agricultural purpose in more recent times. But the stones, I think, would have come from the cairn. And going by the amount within its close vicinity, this cairn must have been originally of some considerable size.

The somewhat suspicious large stone

The somewhat suspicious large stone

Square, walled enclosure. The outline of which I have darkened.

Square, walled enclosure. The outline of which I have darkened.

As above

As above

Section of the walled enclosure

Section of the walled enclosure

Section of the upper part of the field wall

Section of the upper part of the field wall

Sadly my old photos have been lost but I remembered in particular two very large stones, not far away from each other, one over 3m in length, lying further down in a small gorge of the western slope, amongst other unexplained features. At my current visit the terrain was too bogy to pass to have another look, due to the unwarranted amount of rain for the last six months but it would be more than worthy to return with some archaeologists. This hill is nearly unknown and left utterly unnoticed. Something that may be about to change.

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One thought

  1. Passage graves usually cluster in two or more cairns, consisting of mainly a passage leading to a central chamber, corbelled roofed chamber sometimes in the form of a cruciform shape. The perimeter of the cairn would be edged by kerbstones, like those of Newgrange , Co. Meath and Carrowmore , Co. Sligo. Passage tombs are usually found in prominent locations, such as hill-tops, with spectacular views. Generally speaking, the less complex the passage tomb is the older it is considered to be. The possible passage tombs atop Cairn hill are considered to be among the oldest in Ireland along with Carrowmore, Co. Sligo.

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