Meikle Ussie Cup

01 April 2010

News Type:
Find of the Month

The Meikle Ussie Cup is one of the many objects contained within the collection of Dr. William MacLean, a general practitioner who practiced on the Black Isle and in the Dingwall area during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Until very recently, little was known about this local antiquarian and excavator.  However, recent research by Black Isle based historians, Chris and Dave Rendell, is bringing much to light regarding Dr. MacLean's biography and also the esteem in which he was held by fellow antiquarians and researchers of the period.

The cup is one of a number of objects in the collection that has been attributed to a specific location. Meikle Ussie, on the road from Tollie to Knockfarrel, is presumably the place at which this intriguing receptacle was found, although, as is the case with so many of the items in the collection, we cannot be certain. Unfortunately, whilst MacLean’s collection was deposited into the safekeeping of the National Museum of Scotland, then the Royal Museum, in 1931, there appears to have been no archive of accompanying notes and documents gifted along with the array of flint arrowheads, polished stone axes, mace heads, bone tools and pins and spherical stone balls.

Stone ‘cups’ such as the Meikle Ussie Cup have been recovered from throughout Scotland and are most often found in locations associated with vitrified forts, just like the fort that is situated atop Knockfarrel, above Loch Ussie and close to the believed to be find spot. They have been dated to the Middle Iron Age Period, between 200BC and 200AD; the age of broch building.

Most often they comprise a spherical bowl with one short, lug-like, often perforated, handle. Almost half of the known examples of ‘cups’ of this type are made from steatite, sometimes known as ‘soapstone’. Certainly, the Meikle Ussie example has been formed from steatite rich stone.

There has been considerable debate about the purpose for which these objects were made. Formed by chiselling with metal implements, with handles of often insufficient size to enable the weight of the cup to be supported, several examples have been found to have a burning residue on the interior, just below the upper rim. Such a residue can be seen on the Meikle Ussie example. Some researchers believe that this indicates that these objects may have been used as lamps and that the burnt residue, often occurring in the area opposite to the handle, indicates the place where a lit wick rested. Such an interpretation does fit well with the suggestion made by other commentators that the short, stubby, perforated handles were actually used to affix these cups or lamps to sconce like supports.

Others, noting the residual fats and oils, derived from fish or plant sources, evident on the ‘cups’, have suggested that this denotes a soaking of the objects in oil, prior to heating, in order to harden them. Steatite is known to respond in such a way when emulsified and then exposed to extreme heat. Those who argue against their original use as lamps, but rather interpret the artefacts as water cups, will also concede that they may have been re-used as lamps. Certainly, accounts of such cups being used in the Monikie area as water vessels for fowls, does point to the common characteristic of objects being used for a variety of purposes over time.

The Meikle Ussie Cup is decorated with three incised circuits, circumnavigating the exterior of the bowl. A fourth incised decoration has been started and then abandoned. This little detail – signifying what one curator at the National Museum has called a ‘Friday afternoon job’, started in earnest, but then never finished, is just one of the reasons for making sure that you view this exquisite and intriguing object. It will be on display at Groam House Museum from the 1st of May as part of an exhibition of items from the collection being loaned by the National Museum for the next eleven months. The exhibition, entitled ‘Dr. William MacLean: A forgotten collector, his site and his finds’ is being prepared by participants in ARCH’s ‘Display the Past’ Programme. To find out more visit the project pages on this website, by clicking here.

Further information:

Clarke, E. I. (1973) “Aberfeldy, Weem Farm, stone lamp”, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 1973, 42 -43
Close-Brookes (1972) “Two Steatite Lamps”, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland, 295 - 297
NMS (1992) “Swanston (City Parish of Edinburgh): stone lamp”, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, 1992, 54

Photograph: Copyright of Trevor Cowie, NMS, 2010

Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH), The Goods Shed, The Old Station, Strathpeffer, Ross-Shire, Scotland IV14 9DH
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