Before history ~ the Annait


On the north side of the Scoraig peninsula, on the western headland of Annat Bay is a substantial ruin known locally as “the Annait”. The ruin is thought to be one of the monasteries founded by Donan, one of the early Christian missionaries who did much to establish Christianity in Scotland, but there`s no evidence to support that view. There are old stories of there having been a broch on the headland which was demolished to build the dwelling houses of the township of Annet, the remains of which are probably the ruin that we see today. The OS names the headland talladh na h`Annait, and close to the shoreline below the headland a fresh-water spring issues from a natural rock formation upon which a large stone lintel has been placed. The site represents a substantial slice of early Scottish history.


The term Annait

Until relatively recently (Christian) historians believed that the term referred to  the church of a patron saint or the church where the patron saint`s relics were kept. In his Celtic Place-names of Scotland, first published in 1926, Watson however cast doubt on this, observing that these sites “appear to have been places of no particular importance.....often in places that.....must always have been remote and out of the way. It is very rarely indeed that an Annat can be associated with any particular saint, nor have I met any traditions connected with them. But wherever there is an Annat there are traces of an ancient chapel or cemetery or both; very often too the Annat adjoins a fine well or clear stream”.


Other Annait sites

Watson names 46 Annait sites altogether; Macdonald, writing in 1973, identified a further 19, a total of 65.  Watson`s list includes sites on Loch Rannoch, Cilligray and Skye. Ratcliffe Barnet, “having got word of this.....Annait on Loch Rannochside…..searched in the dark pine wood of Annet, and.....came upon a lost village! Six or seven ruined houses and a long walled place of graves oriented east and west.

On the Eil na h`Annait, the fire of Annait on the northern headland of the island of Cilligray between Harris and Lewis are the tobar and teampull na h`Annait, the well and temple of Annait mentioned in the Statistical Accounts (1771 – 1779). The OS reports that the grass-covered foundations of a rectangular building lie almost due east to west, situated within a disused burial ground. At least one grave can be seen within the chapel. Approximately a quarter of a mile away is a spring enclosed within a drystone wall and covered by a large stone lintel, as is the one at Annet Bay on Scoraig. The Statistical Accounts of 1794 record a description of the site by an 18th century minister of Harris as “the temple of Annat, a goddess mentioned by mythologists”.

When Boswell and Johnson visisted the isle of Skye in1773, Boswell was shown the teampull na h`Annait near Dunvegan by their host Rev Dr McQueen, “which he called a temple of the goddess Anaitis..... The place itself is green ground..... well drained, by means of a deep glen on each side, in both of which there runs a rivulet with a good quantity of wate…..The first thing we came to was an earthen mound, or dyke, extending from the one precipice to the other. A little farther on, was a strong stone-wall, not high, but very thick, extending in the same manner. On the outside of it were the ruins of two houses, one on each side of the entry or gate to it. The wall is built all along of uncemented stones, but of so large a size as to make a very firm and durable rampart. It has been built all about the consecrated ground, except where the precipice is deep enough to form an enclosure of itself. The sacred spot contains more than two acres. There are within it the ruins of many houses, none of them large, a cairn, and many graves marked by clusters of stones. Mr McQueen insisted that the ruin of a small building, standing east and west, was actually the temple of the goddess Anaitis, where her statue was kept, and from whence processions were made to wash it in one of the brooks.”

Boswell mentions a body of learning about Anaitis collected by McQueen, which presumably included Herodotus and Strabo on the near-Eastern goddess Anaitis. Could the “temple of Anaitis” on Skye, the teampull na h`Annait on Cilligray, the talladh na h`Annait on Scoraig and the 62 other Annait sites across Scotland really have been dedicated to the great goddess of ancient Anatolia (present-day Turkey)?


The Goddess Anaitis/Anat

“Anaitis” is the Greek name of the ancient Anatolian goddess Anat, also known in ancient Ugaritic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Egyptian, Persian and Cappadocian languages as Anatu, Anath, Anata. Anta, Antu, Anant, Anit, Anti, Antit,  Anahita and Anahit in Cappadocia. Some linguists believe that the etymology of the name signifies a spring of water.
Strabo travelled widely in present-day Armenia, and described the worship of Cappadocian deities in fire-sanctuaries within enclosures, commenting that “the same customs are observed in the sanctuaries of Anaitis,...these also have enclosures and the carried round in a procession”. Strabo also reported that Anaitis was a goddess closely associated with water.


An Anat-olian connection ?

Genetic research has recently traced wave upon wave of migration to the British Isles from the end of the last glaciation c. 10,000 years ago, including two from the near East into Scotland. The male gene J2 is characteristic of Semitic-speaking people and its UK distribution is concentrated in Scotland and particularly on Pitlochry. It can be traced from the eastern Mediterranean to the Basque region and up the Atlantic seaboard into the UK. The female gene J1b1 also derives from the near East but reached Scotland by another route, via the Black Sea and Norway.

Some linguists believe that a Semitic language reached Scandinavia in the 6th century BCE before moving into Scotland where its last remaining traces are in Pictish, in the name Pitlochry for example. It`s logical to presume that not only would these Semitic people take their language with them, but they would also have taken their deity/ies. Could the talladh na h`Annait and the other 64 Annait sites across Scotland really represent the furthest outposts of the empire of Anat? Surely not.

The Reverend Dr McQueen may have used some imagination when interpreting the “temple of Anaitis” on Skye. There was a huge amount of interest in the Classical world amongst the educated English at the time, and the link is an easy one to make.  Macdonald believes that the name of the  teampulls na h`Annait on Cilligray and Skye demonstrate what he termed “antiquarian tampering”, preferring to translate the term annait as “old church”, deriving it from the old Irish andoit or annoit. “The Annat names denote ….. churches of any kind which were abandoned”, probably during the Norse invasions. Macdonald`s definition appeals, being wide enough to encompass the possibility that McQueen was right about Skye`s temple of Anaitis and the minister of Harris too about that on Cilligray. After all, we still have the tantalising evidence of a double migration of Semitic genes to Scotland from the eastern Mediterranean, and the possibility that the Pictish language had Semitic roots. 


Scoraig`s talladh na h`Annait

MacBain`s Celtic dictionary defines “taladh” as “enticing, hushing, caressing; from the Norse tál, allurement, bait, trap”. It`s tempting to conclude that the headland could have been a place where Norse invaders were tricked and defeated, but the spelling isn`t quite the same. Scoraig`s talladh has two “L”s which may mean something completely different, although an exact match hasn`t been found. It could be that the spelling has changed over time. Other possible definitions include the Norse and gaelic talla, a hall, and the gaelic hjalli a shelf or ledge in a mountain side.

© Lesley Hunter, 2010

MacBain`s Celtic Dictionary
Macdonald A: “Annat” in Scotland; a provisional review: Scottish Studies 17, 1973.
MacPherson N: Notes on Antiquities from the Island of Eigg: 1878.
Oppenheimer, S: The Origins of the British: Robinson, London: 2007.
Ratcliffe Barnett, T: The Road to Rannoch: 1930. 
Swire, Otta F: Skye, the Island and its Legends: Blackie & Son: 1961.
Swire Otta F: The Inner Hebrides and their Legends: Collins: 1964.
Swire, Otta F: The Highlands and their Legends: Oliver & Boyd: 1963.
Watson W. J: The Celtic Place-names of Scotland: Birlinn: 2004 edition.
"Anat." Encyclopedia Mythica from Encyclopedia Mythica Online.
Personal communications with Cathy Dagg, local archaeologist.