ince time out of mind young aboriginal men have gone into the wilderness, often with fasting and meditation, to discover the animal totem or Spirit Guide that represents their own spiritual identity and which would accompany them throughout their life. For me, that spiritual identity is the "crannog" - a circular prehistoric homestead build on an artificial island in a lake or marsh. I cannot say when I first became obsessed with crannogs. Perhaps on my first visit to Northern Ireland in 1993, where the remnants of Celtic "raths" - circular farmsteads enclosed within an earthen ring wall (see below) - can often be seen scattered across the landscape.

y the time I returned there a few years later, I was already marking the locations of crannogs and raths on Ordnance Survey maps and making wish-list itineraries of sites to visit, depending on the good graces of our hosts. While my quest to see the archeological remnants of raths qualified me as someone with an odd attraction to the "lumps and bumps" of the rural landscape, my quest to find the even more rare surviving crannog sites (see below) strained credibility. But it was the setting - separated from land and society on a tiny island in a landscape of imagination and uncertainty - that drew me to search for their illusive remains.

One of the more dramatic crannog sites of those scattered in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

he more I study crannogs, the more I see them as representative of my own "spirit" or perspective on reality. I like the idea of isolation - of being totally separated from everything around you. I imagine the solitude one gains by living on their own little island, and perhaps that is linked to the deeply embedded human dream of living on an island in the ocean somewhere like a modern Robinson Crusoe. But this isolation is maintained still in proximity to the world around. Society is close; the natural environment is close. But it is a proximity by choice, not imposed by the world. And of course, security in times of strife underscores the whole concept of a defensible island retreat. The best image of this is a very early map showing a battle between forces on the mainland (society at large) and people living on the crannog (below).

ut in times of peace, according to archeological and historical evidence, these crannogs served as centers in the community for craft work, where artisans could work their trade in a setting of creative isolation. We cannot say if the setting inspired the creative spirit of the creators, but there must have been a reason why they chose to come out to such a place of peaceful separation to do their work. 

icrannogleadlettert.jpgherefore I find the concept of the crannog appealing. I like to keep society at arms length... a bit of emotional distance... separation. I prefer, much of the time, to be the observer, not the participant. And in my self-imposed separation - my psychological crannog - to be introspective and creative. In a world of unpredictability and risk I preserve my security by maintaining a distance, and yet a proximity, much in the way the crannog builders did centuries ago.

ne of the entrancing features of both crannogs and raths is their circularity - round houses within a round walled settlement, mimicing perhaps the circular perfection of the World and Universe. Virtually all Celtic Bronze Age houses were round. It makes perfect architectural sense, in that round houses and structures in general are easy to build and strong. When the Romans arrived in Britain in 43 AD, they brought with them the rectangular building style, with separate interior rooms, instead of one large open circular space inside the house. When they left Britain, the idea of the separate rooms went with them, but the idea of the rectangular house remained behind, and became the norm for later Anglo-Saxon architecture.

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The typical round houses of the Pre-Roman Bronze Age gave way to the typical rectagular houses of the Post-Roman Iron Age

nce the tradition was broken, an evolution of house design began that saw expression down through the ages to the present day. The scale increased gradually to become recognized as the typical medieval hall (below, left) and in its most extreme expression, the Elizabethan Manor house (below, right). Grand as these structures seem to us today, they fly in the face of the basic concept of circularity.

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icrannogleadlettero.jpgf interest is the fact that after the Roman abandonment of England around 400 AD, the emergent Saxon villages, (below. left) although exhibiting rectangular houses, were enclosed within a circular earthwork similar to that of the Iron Age settlements. And in the 11th century, with the Norman invasion, the typical Motte and Bailey fortified settlement also exhibited a certain amount of circularity; in both the surrounding earthwork and the elevated castle mound (below, right).

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icrannogleadletterb.jpgy Medieval times, the rural English farmstead (below) had lost its need for an earthwork, leaving just the rectangular buildings that had emerged during the past centuries of evolution since Roman times. Looking at this site plan today, we see the pattern that would become the norm for the rest of English history - a complex of rectangular buildings within a rectangular settlement plan.

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he origin of the rectangular English house, being the Roman occupation of Britain, symbolizes the impact of structured society, inequity of social stratification and the brutality of military domination. As such it mimics much of the negative side of modern civilization. Just one of the reasons the round house within the round homestead set on an artificial island in a lake appeals to me.


The remains of a prehistoric crannog somewhere in Scotland.

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