“The slab is very much wasted from the effects of weathering and ill-usage, but the faint outline of a Celtic cross can still be traced upon one side of it. It is a cross of the earliest form—incised and undecorated—and it would have made a most interesting memorial of early Christian times had it been better preserved.
I don’t like the A96. It’s a very busy road and the archaeology is not particularly exciting; crop marks and just the occasional cairn. But here I was driving along from Inverness to Castle Stuart to meet the people from ScAPE, beginning their new recording project along the northeast coast. The plan was to walk from Castle Stuart round towards Ardersier, with expectations of good company and a nice day out with a little bit of archaeology.
We walked past the old church and motte of Castle Stuart to the outfall of the Rough Burn where it flows into the Moray Firth. It is a cliché to say it felt like we were stepping back in time, but looking out across to the Black Isle we could have been in a medieval landscape. Salt marsh, an occasional seabird and nothing else. Apart from, of course, a large bank across the edge of the salt marsh. Not just any bank but one belonging to a tide mill (HER MHG36425).
So, let’s go back to the scene…… salt marshes, a substantial burn, an old church, motte and later castle. Obviously, there must be a mill somewhere as part of this old settlement. Tide mills don’t immediately come to mind in the Highlands, however if you have read Marion’s blog on Petty parish you would be expecting it. They work on the same basic principle as any mill. A head of water drives a wheel, which turns the mill stones and grinds the corn. A tide mill uses the sea water as its water source, as the tide comes in it fills the area behind the bank and once the tide turns, the water is kept behind the bank by the bank and a sluice gate until it is needed. The site was duly recorded and on we went to a small wooden jetty, in disrepair but possibly not very old. Next, we found a boat…..or rather the remains of a boat barely visible in the silt but definitely there. Then out to the edge of the bay where the stones of a fish trap were being revealed by the outgoing tide.
I have long been fascinated by crannogs. These are articial island dwellings such as the one in Loch Achilty, pictured above (see Canmore). I remember back in the 80’s tiptoeing across a partly submerged causeway to visit one in a Shetland lochan. Then, later, visiting the reconstruction in Loch Tay and seeing a TV programme about it. Later still, whilst on a Nautical Archaeology Society training course I met one of the divers who had been on the Loch Tay project and heard first hand what it was like to make such amazing discoveries.
About 10 years ago, my late wife Jonie and I decided to try and walk out to the Redcastle crannog in the Beauly Firth (see Canmore). About twenty squelchy steps was enough to convince us that this was a BAD IDEA and we retreated to solid land. And oh! The smell! So the next expedition was by boat at high tide and we passed over Phopachy crannog (see Canmore), which we could see on the sounder but could make nothing out through the water. Another trip at a lower state of tide, we could see the crannog but the water around it was too shallow to approach in the boat. We didn’t try again.
What we did do was to dive around another crannog, the one in Loch Brora (see Canmore). The water was so peaty we saw literally nothing. We knew we had reached the bottom when we felt it beneath us. I put my hand in front of my mask but couldn’t see it, even with a powerful torch. I think I could feel some square timber but it might have been a modern fence post caught in weed.
More recently I became aware, through both diving and archaeology sources, of discoveries of Neolithic pottery found underwater around crannogs in the western isles (see Current Archaeology article). This exploded the received wisdom that crannogs were of iron age to post medieval date. Then in 2021 NOSAS were lucky enough to have a “Zoom” lecture about crannogs, by Michael Stratigos from the University of York, which is available on You Tube (below). This is when the idea for a NOSAS crannogs project was born.
a Powerpoint/pdf slideset accompanies this blogpost, providing a preliminary photo-documentation of the paths, with background history.
The networks of stalkers’ paths created by the Highland sporting estates from their advent in the earlier 19th century and into the 20th century have received remarkably little attention from historians or archaeologists. Yet they transformed access into glens and hills where formerly no made roads or ways had existed, and left persistent marks on the landscape. A recent NOSAS Report (2021) summarises this ‘stalkerpath phenomenon’ and presents the findings of a map, satellite imagery, and field study of a large swathe of the Western Highlands between Glen Cannich and Glen Carron. This study is being presented as a NOSAS Talk in March 2022.
In August 2021, a NOSAS field trip visited Glencarron Lodge to explore a pair of “stalkerpaths”. This novel and simplified term, which I have coined, distinguishes paths made for sporting estate purposes from traditional worn hill paths, and from tracks made for more general use (the NOSAS Report explains the thinking behind its adoption). This pair was chosen primarily for convenience of access, as the better-preserved cases now tend to be rather remote or difficult to embark upon. They are excellent if delicate examples of the classic ‘zig-zag’ design, and have a fascinating history, but unfortunately they display almost none of the typical artefacts.
Glencarron Lodge stalkerpaths locus
The paths ascend the steep, smooth north side of Glen Carron above the Lodge, and are visible as faint zig-zag traces from the A890, especially in low-angle light or thin snow. They have long been abandoned and, unusually for paths close to base, bear no trace of mechanised improvement or vehicular use. They ascend from 150m asl to terminate as the slope eases at ~500m asl, but well short of the broad 550m ridge labelled Coille Bhàn. They share a brief common start, with each branch only half a kilometre long (crow-flight up the hill).
Both paths are marked on OS 1:25000 maps, if not quite to their full extents, but only the western path is shown on the 1:50000. The original start from the Lodge is blocked by a treebelt. The displaced start shown by OS is now also barred, by rhododendron jungle. The path therefore has to be located by crossing footslopes from the lay-by on the main road west of the Lodge. It is reasonably visible near the treebelt, but the bifurcation is lost in thick bracken; even in winter, it is a jink-back that is hard to identify.
The present disuse (both for sporting purposes and by walkers) is a result of vicissitudes of estate history, which must first be addressed.
The moated homestead in Achnasoul Wood (NGR NH 48808 51821 Canmore ID: 274702 Highland Council (HC) HER MHG29192) 4kms west of Muir of Ord was visited by NOSAS members on a winter walk in February 2020 just before “lockdown”. The visit renewed my interest in the medieval period in this area and I began some research into the two homesteads of Davids Fort and Achnasoul with the intention of producing a blog for the NOSAS website. It wasn’t long before I realized what a complex topic I had taken on so I decided to split it into two; the first part, on Davids Fort, appeared on the NOSAS website in May 2020, this piece, focusing on Achnasoul, is part two.
The Achnasoul site is a ringed earthwork with a central mound which was originally interpreted as a “moated homestead” but recently confirmed (on Canmore) as a motte and bailey. It is remarkably well preserved and has been one of my favourite local sites for many years. NOSAS carried out a planetable survey on a cold, wintery day in 2005 (report on NOSAS website at: www.nosas.co.uk/siterecords.asp.) The site remains something of a mystery and seems out of place; clearly it is fortified as it has substantial double banks enclosing a ditch but yet it is situated in low lying ground with higher knolls surrounding it – not a particularly defendable position!
In 2017 the site was scheduled by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) – SM13629. The description in the scheduling document says:
The monument is a large earthwork enclosure comprising a ditch and two concentric banks which enclose a sub-circular area measuring around 43m northwest-southeast by 39m northeast-southwest within which is a raised mound. The ditch defining the enclosure measures 4m to 5m in width and 1.5m in depth and is broken by two causeways on the northwest and southeast. The outer bank of the ditch is complete and varies in height, reaching a maximum of 2m… Internally, the raised mound lies in the northern part of the enclosed area and is c25m diameter at its base, reaching a maximum height of 2m. The summit is encircled by a fragmentary bank, which encloses an area of around 11m diameter.
The size and form of the visible remains… represents a rare survival of a moated homestead of medieval date.
In 2004, I was looking over my garden wall into Rosemarkie’s ancient graveyard and noticed gravediggers preparing a burial plot. Pictish sculpture has been discovered for over two centuries in the graveyard so I leapt over my wall and was told that it was an old family plot and a recently deceased woman was about to join her long-departed husband.
I asked if any pieces of stone had been recovered from the burial plot and I was pointed in the direction of a piece of dressed stone holding down the edge of the tarpaulin. After cleaning off the dirt, I noticed incised lines appearing on one side of the stone. It turned out to be a fragment of a Pictish grave marker dating to the 8th or 9th century. Carved on a finely dressed face was a quadrant of an incised ringed cross with the connecting ring and part of the shaft and one of the cross arms.
I have been interested in Pictish sculpture for many years and I co-authored ‘The Sculptured Stones of Caithness’ (Pinkfoot Press 1998). During my time living in Caithness, I had travelled the county examining old walls and clearance cairns near early chapel sites in the hope of discovering reused pieces of sculpture without success. I was therefore seriously chuffed to have recovered a piece of Pictish sculpture in Rosemarkie graveyard, next door to my garden! This carved stone is now on display in Groam House Museum (GHM) (https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG38857).
The museum is famous for its unique and rich collection of Pictish sculpture and a visit to the museum is always inspiring with the magnificent Rosemarkie cross slab taking pride of place. There are also many other pieces of sculpture on display including parts of an altar or a shrine, emphasising the importance of Rosemarkie as a major monastic settlement in early medieval times (https://her.highland.gov.uk/Monument/MHG25214).
Some of the carved stones were discovered while repairing the medieval church in 1735 when “stone coffins of rude workmanship…” were revealed “…in a vault under an ancient steeple”1, and others were found in the surrounding graveyard over the last two centuries. A number of other fragments of sculpture have been found more recently in local garden rockeries in Rosemarkie and Fortrose! The medieval church was demolished in 1821 and replaced by the current church.
Muir of Ord Golf Club may be unique in having a green on top of a scheduled ancient monument. Castle Hill, the 13th green, is an artificially modified mound, standing at the north end of a ridge, proud of the surrounding flat ground. Its perimeter is delimited by a raised bank inside of which is a circular ditch, with two gaps at NW and SE. This bank and ditch enclose an oval flat area approximately 28 m by 21 m. The ridge probably represents an alluvial glacial moraine before the end of it was subsequently modified.
There has been considerable discussion and debate in the archaeological literature over the last 350 years as to the nature of this feature, when it was created, and for what purpose. However, whatever its nature, it is special, recognised as such by being included in the list of ancient monuments in Section 12 of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendments Act 1913. This important act of scheduling was reported to the Right Honourable Lord Lovat in a registered letter dated 11th April 1957. In the scheduling documentation it was called Castle Hill Fort or Henge. Scheduling is the process that “identifies, designates and provides statutory protection for monuments and archaeological sites of national importance”, with damage to a scheduled site potentially incurring criminal charges. This became relevant in the early 1980’s, see later.
Early Descriptions of Castle Hill
The first historical mention of this prominent feature was towards the end of the 17th century in a massive volume of archaeological recording, the Monumenta Britannica, written by probably Britain’s first archaeologist, John Aubrey (Aubrey, 1665-93). In it, Aubrey records part of a letter he received in 1692 from a Dr James Garden, Professor of Theology in the King’s College at Aberdeen. Aubrey had written to many local dignitaries and antiquarians throughout Northern Britain asking for information about stone monuments. He was delighted to receive this full response from Dr Garden in which the latter refers to a sacred grove thus: “I … have gotten information of two groves yet standing which are reputed sacred. One of them (which stands near to a place called Taradale in the parish of Killernen and shire of Nairn) is enclosed with a trench or dry ditch having two entries to it where the ditch is filled up or rather the ground has never been broken: all that live near it hold it as sacred, and will not cut so much as a rod out of it: my informer adds that, hard by, there is a cornfield where he conjectures there has been one of the Monuments, because in it there are several big stones such as those Monuments use to consist of, fallen down and out of order.” Taradale, now Tarradale, is the name given to the settlement that later came to be called Muir of Ord once the railway arrived in 1862. Garden’s description of the “sacred grove” fits nicely with the structure now called Castle Hill. Also note the description of standing stones in the vicinity, which we will come on to later.
A few notes on Kinellan Crannog for crannog enthusiasts. We are fortunate to live at Kinellan, about 400m away from the crannog as the crow flies. In February this year Kinellan Loch froze over to a depth of 10” and we had days of glorious sunshine when local families were taking their lockdown exercise out on the ice, and we spent an afternoon on the crannog taking photos and chatting to neighbours and their children. About 15 years ago I remember leading a NOSAS visit out to the island during another big freeze.
Some years ago 4 NOSAS members obtained permission from Historic Scotland and the owner to remove some fallen willow that had tumbled into the loch on the south side, in order that locals and visitors could see from the shore track the Medieval stone work surrounding most of the artificial island. That was two days of very hard work, hand winching fallen trees back out of the loch then cutting them up. Seeing young children exploring the island this February made me wonder whether the crannog was ever a family home with children playing or had it always been a male dominated stronghold.
Fraser’s 1916/17 report of the 1914/15 and 16 excavations was published in the PSAS and is available online. It is compulsive reading and I shall not spoil it for you by delving too far into the report. Mr Fraser was a teacher in Dingwall and was only able to supervise the excavations part time and during school holidays. With WW1 raging he had difficulty finding workmen but he eventually found two local men and all work appears to have been done with spades. There is no mention of trowels. He did however engage a Dingwall architect to make measured drawings and another teacher to make sketches. A third person undertook the photography. Fraser was as thorough as he could be at that time and he records a lot of detail. I do not know whether there is an official archive stored away somewhere but a century on I think an updated expert re-interpretation of Fraser’s work would be a good starting point for new research.
The last known use of the crannog was as a kitchen garden and orchard by the tenant of Kinellan Home Farm in the late 19th and early 20th C. A thicket of old fruit tree rootstock scrub still survives and few tangled gooseberry bushes. Today though the crannog is dominated by dense mature ash and willow trees, an occasional gnarled Hawthorn and two very fine birch trees. Many of the willows have fallen down, most are dead and rotting away but a good number, especially those that have tumbled into the loch remain alive and have produced masses of new stem growth called Phoenix growth – raised from the dead!
Caithness at the end of the 18th century was an exciting place to be. While maybe not the centre of the world, it was home to some of the big names of the time. Sir John Sinclair, ‘Agricultural’ Sir John, of Ulbster is a name we should all know. He instigated the Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland, an amazing resource which is often the first place we look for details of life in the 1780s and 90s. His name appears in many of the forward-thinking documents of the time, not just the OSA, he was author of the General View of the Agriculture of the Northern Counties. He was a member of the British Fisheries Society and a Trustee of the Board for the Improvement of Fisheries and Manufactures along with his near neighbours in Sutherland, George Dempster of Dunnichen, founder of Spinningdale mill, and Lord Gower, later the Marquise of Stafford and then the Duke of Sutherland.
This group instigated several moneymaking (Improvement) schemes, one of the most successful was the development of the herring fishing industry off the coast of Caithness during the 19th century. The British Fisheries Society was responsible for building Pultneytown immediately south of the Wick River. It was laid out by Thomas Telford in 1786 and was so successful it became known as ‘Herringopolis’ with the harbour so full of fishing boats which meant you could walk across it without touching water. But Pultneytown was just one of many harbours developed along the coast of Caithness during this period.
Figure 2: Storehouse, well and track to top of cliff
First the excuse. I tried this in the Autumn of 2019 to boost entries for the Tarradale Through Time art competition with a new interpretation of Balblair man, on a panel long since removed from a position beside Kilmorack School to Moniack Castle. Despite being a Mercian through and through I have lived and worked in the land of the Picts for over half a century. This, as well as being married to someone with Pictish genesfor sure, has led one to develop an ongoing interest in the mysterious Picts. Living not far away, we visited the Sueno’s stone in Forres more than once with the children many years ago.
For a decade plus I had responsibility for a number of burial grounds in Kincardine and Deeside with fine Pictish stones in them (Fordoun, Tullich and Migvie). Then came one of those special moments in archaeology; when digging at Birnie I discovered the Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble and that kept my interest going. Stories of discovery are rarely told unless it is the likes of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the story of the discovery of the Birnie pebble has never been told so why not now?
I had been patted on the head and set to cleaning and defining an area within what was thought to be a small Pictish house built in the ruins of a roundhouse. What was revealed was a small setting of smooth cobbles looking like it might have been a crafting workplace. When I first encountered the pebble it was tilted slightly on its long axis. Fortunately that day I was in ‘careful mode’ and as soon as the top edge of the pebble was revealed it was clearly quite different and it looked like quartz or quartzite. I left it firmly in place and carefully cleaned away another cm or so of sand from round about it. It continued to look interesting so I called over Alan Braby, who’s trench I was in, for a look see. Alan came over, peered at the pebble, plucked it out of the sand and asked me if I had a wee brush of some kind, which I had. Then he cleaned the pebble off and said ‘have you any idea what this is?’ ‘Haven’t a clue,’ I replied, ‘other than a finishing stone for some kind of craft work maybe’. So then he showed me the feint decoration on the stone that was becoming clearer as the pebble dried out. Well Alan says, ‘it is a Painted Pictish Pebble and the first to be discovered on the South side of the Moray Firth.’ Then we realised that it was decorated on both sides. It was most exciting day.
Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble
Painted Pictish Pebbles are rare artefacts and most have been found at Caithness and Shetland broch sites. They are at the very bottom of the Pictish art spectrum and I remain convinced that the designs on them reflect the Picts knowledge of cup and ring marked rocks, which in Pictish times would have been far more numerous than today. Since then I have never stopped looking for blanks of the same size and shape and they are as rare as hen’s teeth. Beach pebbles of quartz tend to be rounded and if oval they tend to be too large and too heavy. The nearest I have found are quartzite and the replica I made of the Birnie pebble is on such a blank. There is plenty of information on Painted Pictish Pebbles free online.
Selection of painted pictish pebbles from Shetland.