By James McComas (NOSAS)
Keppoch is a cleared village near Dundonnell in Wester Ross (NH 09519 88665). I have a visited a few such settlements before but it did not take long to realise that Keppoch was something special. This was partly the situation; overlooking as it does the wide valley floor of Strath Beag near the entrance to Little Loch Broom, with the snowy shoulders of An Teallach looming on the horizon. However the number and extent of the buildings easily identifiable was the real draw. Also poignancy was provided by the historical information we had, largely complied by Cathy Dagg, which showed that the settlement had been apparently cleared of its tenants between the 1820’s and 40’s. Only four households were listed as remaining in the 1841 census; a weaver, a carpenter, a fisher and a cotter.
Anne MacInnes (who originally suggested the site), Meryl Marshall and Beth Blackburn between them had organised a four day programme running across the last weekend of April. Friday and Saturday would be taken up with clearing the site, whilst Sunday would be the meat of recording and drawing the features. Monday was reserved for a trip out to another nearby cleared village at Glenarigolach.
I did not manage to make it down until Saturday lunchtime and by this point clearing operations were well under way with a few newly discovered buildings being added to Meryl’s original drawing. The afternoon was spent disposing of the remaining brambles and gorse, and was finished with a tour of the village during which each building had numbers attached for easy identification the following day. After this everybody was more than happy to get washed and changed before reconvening for a very pleasant meal at the Aultbea Hotel.
Meryl Marshall had prepared a fearsomely comprehensive information booklet for the weekend. This had been emailed to all the attendees with stern warnings to thoroughly digest the contents prior to Sunday. Meryl had actually done a fantastic job of producing a simple but effective guide to recording and surveying a township, including handy “top tips” (the whole manual can be accessed at here and is well worth checking out). It informed us that standard of information to be collected could range from a “one star” up to a “five star” treatment. We were to give Keppoch a four star treatment, which would involve a full written description, photos and a dimensioned sketch of each building.
Sunday morning started off with a talk by Meryl which covered the basics of writing a site description and then went on to talk through the sketching and labelling of the buildings. I had had some previous drawing experience at a couple of digs, and in recording the fishing boats wrecks at Loch Fleet. However, I had not taken part in a NOSAS recording project like this before which the majority of other attendees had. Also I have to confess it is not my favourite job, I generally feel much more comfortable with a trowel or a shovel than with a pencil. Any trepidation though was quickly dispelled though once the work got underway.
We had all been paired off and given a group of buildings to record. Michael Sharpe and I had been given building numbers 17, 18, 19, 20 and 24. We decided it would easiest to establish a baseline in order to quickly plot the corners of buildings using the tape and offset method. This made sense since our structures was close enough together to allow them all to be drawn on same piece of paper at a scale of 1:200. Once these basic points had been plotted the more involved task of drawing in the detail of each building could begin. Michael and I took in turns to draw and annotate while the other took measurements.
Initially it took me a little while to get the hang of providing the appropriate level of annotation for each drawing, I found I had a tendency to write more detail than was really necessary. Also there was a certain amount of rubbing out; engendered by my tendency to write annotations where the drawings of adjacent buildings would need to go! Another challenge was deciding how the building walls should be drawn. With two of the buildings there were substantial courses of stone remaining which obviously suggested representation by a continuous line. However, in the three other buildings the walls were frequently sketchy and in places represented only by sequences of rough boulders. In these cases we chose to draw in the individual stones, and used dashed lines to show where wall lines appeared to continue below the exposed surface. All in all we found that most issues could be resolved by employing a degree of common sense.
Annotated drawings completed and tidied up, we next completed a written description for each building. For this a pro-forma was used which Meryl had helpfully provided. Although this might not have been suitable for all applications in the field, filling it in was nevertheless a helpful exercise in that it forced one to consider the kind of information that was needed. Fortunately most of the pertinent facts were already in the drawing annotations. Photographs, another essential element of the recording process, also had to be taken for each structure and these noted with the descriptions.
By mid afternoon everyone seemed to have finished their allotted tasks and there was the opportunity to compare notes with other teams and further explore points of interest in the village. One building (no. 16 on plan), situated on an island between two branches of the burn, was clearly revealed to be a kiln or furnace of some sort. Superficial cleaning revealed a flue leading in to a raised kiln or furnace bowl at the North East end of the building. Interestingly slag was spotted in the burn immediately upstream by a sharp eyed Hazel Keiro. This obviously suggested an alternative or additional source of iron working to the north of the site. John Wombell quickly identified a likely looking apron of land below building no. 34, where one of several small test pits revealed further slag deposits of a different composition to those found in the burn.
The walk back to the road was filled with a buzz of conversation about the implications of the slag finds. On the way Anne MacInnes took the opportunity to point out some old cultivation rigs plus a trio of impressive round houses. This made for a very satisfying end to an absorbing day’s recording at a fantastic site. A vote of thanks is due to everyone involved in organising the weekend.