Rhynie Excavations Season 4

By Cathy MacIver (on behalf of the REAP Project Team)

A fourth season of excavation took place at the Craw Stane, Rhynie over August – September 2016. The project was led by REAP Project Directors Dr Gordon Noble, University of Aberdeen and Dr Meggen Gondek, University of Chester.

Aerial photographs and geophysical surveys had identified curvilinear enclosures around the Craw Stane, one of the few symbol stones remaining in situ in Scotland (Plate 1).

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Plate 1: Craw Stane with Tap O ‘Noth hillfort (©Cathy MacIver)

Previous seasons of work at the Craw Stane (one of seven Class I Pictish symbol stones from the area) in 2011, 2012 and 2015 had demonstrated that these enclosures took the form of an inner and outer ditch and a later palisade structure with associated postholes.

Excavations in past seasons had revealed a number of high status objects including fragments of Late Roman Amphora, glass beads, metal pins, glass vessel fragments and evidence of metal working in the form of metal working tongs, slag (metal working waste) and clay moulds for metal objects. The features date the site to the early medieval period and radiocarbon dates from the ditches and other internal features confirmed a relatively short 5th-6th C construction, occupation and abandonment of the site.

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Plate 2: Rough draft of the excavations from 2011, 2012 and 2015. A work in progress!

The 2016 excavations aimed to investigate areas of the site that hadn’t been looked at before, continuing to use the successful strip and map approach employed in previous years. This involved 4 large areas or trenches (Plate 3) where the topsoil was removed by machine and watched by archaeologists. The areas were then cleaned by hand by a team of archaeologists, students and volunteers, using hoes, krafses and eventually trowels. This made archaeological features more visible and easier to record. Plans of the site were created using DGPS (accurate to the nearest cm) and aerial photography using a drone. Areas with more complexity were drawn by hand.

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Plate 3: Aerial view of the 2016 trenches

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The Discovery and Recording of a Victorian Hydro scheme at Orrin Falls, Ross-shire

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

Aultgowrie, west of Muir of Ord, is a favourite area for short walks and I have been aware of a hydro scheme at Orrin Falls for many years but never given it much thought. However when I was browsing the Fairburn Estate website looking for something else I came across a photograph c1900 (below) and the following comment:

John Stirling used estate workmen to build a turbine house at the Orrin Falls and one further up river under the supervision of Mr Bagot from Glasgow and electric light was installed (in Fairburn House) in 1898.

The hydro-scheme was much older than I had thought and was worthy of more attention! For many years it had been overgrown with rhododendrons and overhung with trees however a few years ago the estate had carried out a programme of clearing these and it was more accessible. The site is marked on the current OS map as “weir” but there was obviously much more to it than that. It was unrecorded on the Local database http://her.highland.gov.uk/ and on the National database https://canmore.org.uk/.  So 18 months ago I set about gathering more information.

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The Orrin Falls, GR NH 469517, are (or were) a series of attractive waterfalls (see painting above) within a gorge of the River Orrin. The natural rock is conglomerate and the total height drop from top to bottom of the gorge is roughly 15m. The hydro scheme is on the south bank of the gorge and comprises

  1. A dam
  2. The remains of an earlier dam
  3. A lade or channel
  4. A generator house.

And several other features;

  1. A rock-cut channel (on the north bank) probably intended as a salmon ladder
  2. The abutments of a footbridge
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The early photograph of the dam circa 1900 – reproduced with the permission of Fairburn Estate

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Cromarty Medieval Burgh Excavations 2013-2016: An Overview

by Mary Peteranna and Steve Birch.

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Aerial view of Reeds Park during excavation 2015, looking towards the modern town and the Cromarty Firth (Garry MacKay).

The Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project, which has been investigating the lost remnants of Cromarty’s historic medieval centre, has uncovered evidence of a catastrophic burning event along with a wealth of information about the development of a small Scottish burgh. The archaeological site in Reeds Park, Cromarty had been buried below a farmer’s field for over 120 years, before began investigations in 2013 after coastal erosion revealed hints of settlement. The project, which has attracted over 700 volunteers and thousands of visitors, has been dubbed by medieval specialists ‘one of the most important medieval excavations happening in Scotland.’

Although the core of the medieval burgh of Cromarty was thought to have been located at the base of the castle brae, to the southeast of the present town, the presence of any surviving remains of the settlement were completely unknown before digging began. Now, working with a range of specialists, including historians and artefact experts the archaeologists are piecing together the exciting archaeological results spanning periods of settlement between the 13th to 19th centuries. In 2015-2016, after several seasons of digging, the excavation has come down to the earliest layers and provided a detailed look at the layout of the medieval town

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Two corrected aerial photographs of the Cromarty excavation site by Alan Thompson. Above is the view towards the end of excavations in 2015.

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…and this image shows the substantial progress made by the end of the 2016 season.

The burgh of Cromarty was set in a strategically important location, controlling the entrance to the Cromarty Firth and the ferry crossing on the coastal route north of Inverness via Nigg, the most direct route to the medieval shrine of St Duthac’s in Tain. Cromarty was a natural location for a medieval power centre, with good coastal access and rich agricultural hinterland, strategically located on a key frontier zone in Northern Scotland. Unlike other areas of the north and Highland regions that were under clan control, Cromarty fell under the feudal authority of the Scottish crown. Although there is little documentary evidence for the town’s medieval history, it has been suggested that it was the logical location for a thanage in the 11th/12th centuries. A castle situated at Cromarty would have been a sensible location to establish royal authority on this borderland. While it was documented that the town’s sheriffdom had been established by 1266, little was known about the early history and layout of medieval Cromarty.

The archaeologists’ work from 2013-2016 has provided a detailed picture of the transitioning burgh, showing the buildings, property boundaries and zones of activity within an area focused on a former road alignment, referred to mysteriously as Thief’s Row in the 18th century. The latest buildings recorded on the site, dating to the 19th century  were located on the north side of the road; rectangular stone-built structures running parallel to Thief’s Row and set within plots of land demarcated by single coursed stone boundaries. The foundations of earlier buildings, most likely constructed during the closing stages of the 17th century mirrored the footprints of those latest buildings, displaying multiple phases of restructuring within these centuries. Artefacts associated from this period consist of low status ceramics and glass, and personal objects representing general subsistence living. Continue reading

The Military Roads from Slochd to Sluggan

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

The following notes were provided for a NOSAS field trip in December 2015. Photographs from the day have been included.

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Slochd Pass accommodates several routes both old and new; 4 roads and a railway jostle for position through the narrow defile. We are all familiar with the current A9 and the old A9, a Telford or “Parliamentary road, constructed in 1834. This walk follows sections of the 2 earlier roads

The Military road of 1803 (shown below on the plan of the proposed line of the 1834 road) was built by James Donaldson in order to avoid some of the steeper sections of the original Wade military road. The road descends into the glen from our starting point at Slochd Cottages (Stagehouse on this map) and crosses the Allt Slochd Muick at “Donaldsons Bridge” GR NH 843241. This bridge survived intact until the 1960s and has now been replaced by a wooden structure; a further bridge 200m to the north crosses a side burn and is in a better state. Of this road Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus in Memoirs of a Highland Lady Volume 1 (p346) writes (in 1814) “a new road has been engineered along the sides of this “pass of wild boars”, Slough Mouich, thought a wonder of skill when viewed beside the frightful narrow precipitous pathway tracked out by General Wade, up and down which one could scarcely be made to believe a carriage with people sitting in it! had ever attempted to pass. My mother had always walked those 2 or 3 miles, the new route not having been completed until some years after…….”

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General Wade’s Military road constructed in 1728-29 is joined after 1km at one of its better preserved sections. To the north the feint remains of an earlier road can be seen taking a direct line over a hill, while to the south the line of the road has been interrupted by the later railway constructed in 1897. The Wade Bridge at Ortunan was reconstructed relatively recently and that at Insharn built of dressed stone may not be the original. From Insharn southwards the Wade road is part of the National Cycle route. The first 1.5kms has seen severe estate use and nothing remains of the original road; however after the junction with the track to Inverlaidnan it improves and a possible five-mile marker stone is seen at NH 8553 2181 Canmore ID 139468 “This stone, on the S side of the track, is possibly that mentioned (Salmond 1938) at the top of the ascent as being one of those marking a 5 mile stretch. However, that marker stone is more likely to be the one visible 118m further W”. Continue reading

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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