Dun Deardail Vitrified Hillfort Excavations

by Duncan Kennedy (NOSAS)

Dun Deardail (Canmore ID: 23727, HER: MHG4348) is a hillfort located at a height of 1,127 ft (347m) on a prominent knoll on the western flank of Glen Nevis (Figure 1).  It is thought that it was originally occupied in the Iron Age, and saw later periods of reuse by the Picts.  August 2015 saw the first ever archaeological excavation of the site, as the first of three seasons of the Dun Deardail Archaeological Project, which forms part of the ambitious Nevis Landscape Partnership.

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Figure 1: Dun Deardail, centre, sits in a commanding location above Glen Nevis (©2011 FCS by Caledonian Air Surveys)

Although currently known as Dun Deardail, the site has in the past been known by a variety of names – it’s Dundbhairdghall on the 1873 OS map for example, and has also been noted as Deardinl, Dun Dear Duil and Dun Dearg Suil.  The meaning of the name is uncertain, and the site has been tenuously linked with Deirdre, a tragic heroine of Irish legend who fled to Scotland.

Dun Deardail is one of Scotland’s many vitrified forts (see also our blog post on Craig Phadrig), where the walls have been subjected to burning so intense that some of the stones have fused together.  Vitrification has been the subject of much debate, with proferred theories including it being either accidental or the result of attack. However, it requires that very high temperatures are sustained for long periods, so the fires would need to have been carefully managed and maintained – possibly for several days.  This suggests that the process must have been intentional, but questions still remain.  Were these fires built by an enemy after capturing the fort, for example, or was this a ritual act of closure of the site marking the end of its use? One thing for sure is that the fires would have been spectacular, particularly at night, and would probably have been visible for miles.  Part of the project involves the University of Stirling, in partnership with Forestry Commission Scotland, investigating the process, purpose and significance of vitrification in the Scottish Iron Age and Early Historical period.

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Figure 2: 2015 Plan © FCS by AOC Archaeology

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Focus on Ormond Castle, Avoch, Ross-shire

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

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3D model of Ormond Castle (Alan Thompson)

The North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) and Avoch Community Archaeology (ACA) group joined forces in March 2016 to survey and photograph Ormond Castle, GR NH 6963 5358 (HER ID: MHG8226, Canmore ID: 13572). The castle overlooks the village of Avoch on the Black Isle and commands good views across the Moray Firth to the south and the former ferry crossing between Chanonry and Ardersier in the east.

To date Ormond castle has not received the attention it deserves. It is traditionally associated with William the Lion (1143 – 1214). He built two castles on the Black Isle in 1179, one at Redcastle and a second which is thought to be this one. Andrew de Moray was owner of the castle in the 13th century and principal commander of Scottish forces in the north during the Wars of Independence in the late 13th Century, but was mortally wounded fighting alongside William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. In 1455, after being in the hands of the de Moray family and the earls of Ross, the castle passed to royal control and in 1481 James III granted it to his son, the Marquis of Ormond, from whom the present name derives. The castle was destroyed by Cromwell’s forces in 1650 and the stones were transported over the firth to build the Citadel in Inverness.

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Craig Phadrig Vitrified Hillfort, Inverness

The following is based on a transcript of notes by Mary Peteranna (AOC) for her presentation at the Highland Archaeology Festival Conference 2015. It describes fieldwork at Craig Phadrig hillfort carried out by AOC Archaeology in early 2015 on behalf of Forestry Commission Scotland, see Data Structure Report.

Craig Phadrig (Canmore ID 13486, HER MHG 3809) is located on the west side of lnverness, a prominent position overlooking River Ness and entrance to the Beauly/Moray Firth. The Beauly Firth marked a southern boundary of an area defined in the north by the Dornoch Firth landscape, supposedly held by the Decantae tribe in the lron Age as shown in Ptolemy’s map. Knock Farrell and Ord Hill hillforts are in line of sight, and a third possible fort is at Torvean In Inverness (Canmore ID 13549, HER MHG 3749).

2892 Craig Phadrig AP 3 (low res)

Aerial view of Craig Phadrig, Inverness, the Kessock Bridge and Ord Hill (Forestry Commission Scotland).

Craig Phadrig LANDSCAPE (low res)

A visualisation of the same scene as it might have appeared in prehistory (Forestry Commission Scotland).

Craig Phadrig is a prominent landscape feature, referred to at the time of James Vl in 1592. It is an oblong fort, a type which clusters around the Moray Firth region. Similar forts in East Scotland such as Finavon, Dunnideer and Tap o’ Noth also feature lack of entrance and massive walls suggesting an exclusive use. Many show evidence for lron Age construction, abandonment and secondary re-use.

Previous survey and excavation. Numerous previous surveys have been conducted on Craig Phadrig, probably sparked by Penant’s 1769 Tour of Scotland where he mentions vitrified stone. Plan shows the 2013 RCAHMS survey with the estimated area of these excavations.

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Craig Phadrig. Plan of fort incorporating results of RCAHMS survey (Sept 2013) and earlier surveys (Canmore).

Finally, in 1971/72 Alan Small and Barry Cottam dug for two seasons, from which only an interim report after the first season was produced. lmage of the inner rampart from 1971; Small found that the inner rampart had been built sometime in the 4th Century BC and that the wall core was significantly vitrified. He also noted significant disturbance by other earlier excavations.

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NOSAS in Forres: A Visit to the Medieval Burgh

by Dr John R Barrett

Forres folk are suspicious of strangers – and especially suspicious of foreign strangers who pretend to know something about Forres history. And I should know. Having worked as an archivist in the royal burgh for barely thirty years, and lacking at least three Forresian grandparents, I am still a couple of generations short of qualifying as any kind of expert on Forres history.

And Forres is suspicious of people from the North. Long local memories recall a time when Moray held the front line against the Vikings; and longer memories of local independence are now reinforced by academic research that places Pictish Fortriu in Moray (or Moray in Fortriu) – the Pictish kingdom persisting as the heartland of the Cenel Loarn branch of the Dalriadan Scots.

But, despite this history (and also because of it) I rashly accept an invitation to guide NOSAS around the royal burgh.

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We choose a day of icy wind and leaden skies. We gather in a draughty car park for the prelims (safety check, head count, toilet break). And then there are the necessary explanations: this will be a walk in feet and inches – a concession to my age, and also because (notwithstanding modern archaeological practice) the place was built to an older yardstick.

We note the regular snaking roods[i] of burgh biggid land that curve sinuously from high street frontage to head dyke (at the foot of the feu) with back passage beyond.  The linked head-dykes formed a continuous wall to define (if not effectively defend) the liberties of the burgh. Beyond extended unfenced commonfield arable, with pasture and peatbog to support the burgh community. On the north side the burgh was originally defined by the Mosset Burn. And even after the Burn abandoned its medieval course, cautious burgh notaries conservatively continued to draft sasines by reiterating the descriptions contained in older deeds – defining feus by the old run of the river.

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The Achavanich Beaker Burial Project: New Research on the Bronze Age of Northern Scotland

by Maya Hoole

In 2014, whilst working with the Highland Council Historic Environment Team, I came across the record of a Bronze Age beaker burial from Caithness in the Highland HER records (MHG13613). Although the site was discovered and subject to a rescue excavation in 1987, and some preliminary post-excavation had been undertaken, it had never been fully researched or published. The burial was positioned in a rare rock-cut pit with a stone lined cist, complete with cap stone. Inside were the remains of a young female (fondly known as Ava, her name an abbreviation of the place of discovery), aged 18-22 years old, accompanied by: a highly decorated beaker, three pieces of flint and the scapula of an ox or cow. Within seconds of opening the file and starting to read I was completely captivated. At that moment, I had no idea of the impact of my curiosity. I was totally clueless as to what was in store and completely oblivious to the fact that two years down the line my passion for the site would not only have increased but it would have extended far beyond myself.

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The Beaker from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

The project began with my own research: I sorted the paper archives, located the artefacts at the Caithness Horizons museum, and subsequently photographed, measured, recorded and illustrated them. I went on to: re-discover the exact location of the site, re-create site plans, analyse the decoration on the beaker, make comparisons on a national scale and build a database and complete record of the artefacts. I bashfully presented my findings at a couple of conferences and… then things started to get interesting. At the very heart of the project was research. The initial goal was always to find out more about the individual buried at this site and to increase our knowledge of Bronze Age society in Northern Scotland. With the help of many different organisations and individuals, I applied for funding and soon found myself talking to experts (and to BBC news reporters, twice!) who were interested in developing our understanding of the site.

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

Dr Tom Booth of Natural History Museum examining the cranium from the Achavanich cist burial (Maya Hoole©)

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David’s Fort: a Medieval Motte?

by Marion Ruscoe (NOSAS)

In around 2000 Janet Hooper, Allan MacKenzie and I undertook a survey of David’s Fort, a rather enigmatic site in Balavil Wood, near Conon Bridge.  Our intention was to survey the site, clarify its purpose and investigate the related documentary and contextual information.  We did arrange a geophysical survey which was cancelled due to Foot and Mouth, and that was replaced with a later walkover of Balavil Wood.  David’s Fort itself is scheduled, but there are other features in the immediate area which may be related and which are worthy of notice.

David's Fort aerial photograph by Jim Bone

David’s Fort aerial photograph by Jim Bone

David’s Fort (NH5394 5328; HER MHG8986) is essentially a large earth mound surrounded by a ditch, surrounded by an embankment.  The mound and embankment were created by digging out the ditch.  It’s trapezoidal in shape, and the top of the mound measures approximately 80 x 85 feet.  The moat is around 15 feet deep and is partially filled with water.  There’s no sign of any structures on the top of the mound, but these would probably have been wooden and evidence would not have survived the trees and bracken which have invaded the site.

There is a dip on the west end and a corresponding dip in the embankment with a track running down to the mediaeval road which runs from Tarradale on the Beauly Firth to the ford over the River Conon.  It’s been assumed that this is where the entrance was, though, since the embankment is considerably lower than the top of the mound, any bridge would either be very sloped, or mounted on a framework which raises the question “why the dip in the embankment and the very obvious path leading from that dip?”  The embankment surrounding the mound has been extended for a short distance at three of the corners.  The purpose of this is not clear.  Water was fed into the moat via a channel leading from a lochan to the east of the site and controlled by a sluice but this channel has been damaged by the embankment which carries the power lines.

Dip in embankment, indicating possible original entry. 1998

Dip in embankment, indicating possible original entry. 1998

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The Picts at Garbeg and Whitebridge

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The Pictish people of the mid to late first millenium AD once inhabited what is now northern and eastern Scotland. They left very little written record and the evidence of buildings so far identified are sparse. Perhaps their most obvious remains in the landscape are the enigmatic symbol stones and the imprints of their burial sites.

Although modern Angus and Perthshire have traditionally been seen as the Pictish heartland, in recent years new research is reveavaluating the importance of the northern picts, north of the Mounth. Two highland burial sites which feature impressive upstanding remains are to be found on opposite sides of Loch Ness; at Garbeg near Drumnadrochit, and at Whitebridge in Stratherrick. Pictish funerary practices appear to have been diverse (see our earlier blog post), however barrow* cemeteries have been identified as one recognisable form. Round and square type ditched barrows appear alongside each other at both Garbeg and Whitebridge – a feature thought to be unique to the Pictish cemetery.

Side by side comparison of a plan of part of the Garbeg cemetery and a quadcopter aerial photo by Alan Thompson. (The brown patches on the photo are the result of recent gorse clearance, and dark green areas are piles of cut vegetation.) The barrows excavated by Wedderburn and Grime on this plan are nos 1,2,3 and 8.

Side by side comparison of a plan of part of the Garbeg cemetery and a quadcopter aerial photo by Alan Thompson. (The brown patches on the photo are the result of recent gorse clearance, and dark green areas are piles of cut vegetation.) The barrows excavated by Wedderburn and Grime on this plan are nos 1,2,3 and 8.

Garbeg and Whitebridge were visited by NOSAS field trips in 2014/ 2015 and Garbeg has also been the subject of gorse clearance, quadcopter photography (blog post section 4) and QGIS survey by the group. Subsequently in 2015 many NOSAS members were involved with survey and excavation by the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts Project on possibly contemporaneous building remains at Garbeg (see project update – a NOSAS Blog post on the dig is forthcoming).

The cemetery at Garbeg (Canmore ID 12281, HER MHG3361) consists of 23 square and round barrows with surrounding ditches. The barrows are thought to cover single long cist burials. They are situated on a natural plateau at an altitude of some 300m on open moorland used for rough grazing.  The immediately surrounding landscape is one rich in archaeological remains, including prehistoric field systems, groups of hut circles and a series of burnt mounds which are largely thought to predate the Pictish period.

Members of NOSAS at a field visit to Garbeg, November 2014

Members of NOSAS at a field visit to Garbeg, November 2014

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