Case Study: Bullauns and taxonomy

Case Study 2

Bullauns and taxonomy

Katherine Forsyth

The term bullaun (from Irish bullán, itself a borrowing from English ‘bowl’) is well established in Irish archaeology for a range of ‘man-made hollows or basins cut into outcropping rock, boulders or small portable stones’ (Dolan 2013). Antiquarians have applied it loosely as a blanket term for a wide range of hollowed stones ranging from prehistoric cup-marks, basin-stones, rock mortars, through to well-shaped fonts and stoups.  Even though the use of the word ‘has probably blurred distinctions which ought to be made’ (Hamlin 2008, 144), the handy label did raise awareness of this material and since the 19th century it has been routinely recorded in Ireland. The term, though used sporadically in Scotland, does not have the same currency and Scottish ‘bullauns’ are under-recorded and largely over-looked (but see Lacaille 1953). More than 300 are known in Ireland, but the distribution of bullauns in Scotland is hard to establish because they have not been systematically recorded. The lack of Scottish interest in them is in part due to the difficulty of dating them, their simple form, uncertainty regarding their function, and their liminal status—not quite a monument, not exactly an artefact.

The body of basin-stones is heterogeneous:  most  have an artificial hollow in one face only, a smaller number are double-sided, and a few have more than one depression side-by-side. These depressions are typically circular or sub-circular and, in profile, hemispherical or conical, occasionally straight-sided. They vary in depth, but do not usually exceed c. 23 cm. More detailed recording and analysis of their morphology and dimensions is required before an effective taxonomy can be established.

It is argued that Irish bullauns are mortars used in food production and/or metallurgy (Hamlin 2008; Dolan 2013) but this explanation is insufficient to explain all types. Free-standing and rock-cut bullauns are noted at a number of Irish inauguration sites, suggesting a ritual function (cf. the rock-cut basin at the royal inauguration site of Dunadd). Recent work on the very extensive collection of bullaun stones at the major monastic centre of Glendalough has emphasized their role in the devotional rituals of pilgrims (McGuinness 2013). The Scottish material is suggestive but inconclusive: a bullaun excavated at The Carrick, Loch Lomond, in association with two iron-working platforms and an enclosed cemetery, was dated to AD 690–900 (MacGregor 2009); a basin-stone at the early ecclesiastical site of Killuradan, Inverness-shire, is marked with a cross. Many Irish bullauns have been incorporated into ‘pattern’ rounds and local pilgrimages, through attribution of healing properties to the water collected in them. While these practices are not necessarily ancient, there is evidence for the ritual turning of special stones during formal liturgical cursing by the early Church e.g. the clocha breca of Inishmurray.  Cursing stones are also occur in Scotland: Iona’s clach bràth ‘Judgement/Doom stone’ were destroyed by the local minister, but the hemispherical hollow ground into the cross-base Iona no. 99 still provides evidence of the practice.  The cross-base of Kilcholman, Islay, retains a pear-shaped ‘turning-stone’ which fits snuggly in its circular hollow and a cross-decorated turning-stone discovered on Canna fits perfectly into the hollow of a special slab in the churchyard. 

Scotland’s ‘bullauns’ are long overdue a modern, rigorous study. While in Ireland there has been a focus on bullauns at ecclesiastical sites leading to possible distortions in understanding, a more comprehensive approach is required in Scotland. 


Figure 1: Broken bullaun stone with two hollows, Iona. Copyright Katherine Forsyth


Figure 2: Early medieval cross-base with several episodes of reuse, Iona no. 99. Rounded hollow in bottom-left corner apparently the result of the repeated turning of a circular stone, perhaps as part of a formalised process of liturgical cursing, or subsequent informal personal rituals. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland