Tarradale Archaeological Project – Findings to Date

by Dr. Eric Grant (NOSAS)

Background to the project. The Tarradale Archaeological Project started as a private initiative around 2008 and was incorporated as an approved NOSAS research project in 2011. The Tarradale archaeological project aims to investigate and record the surviving archaeological evidence of the multi-period archaeological landscape of the Tarradale area and to interpret the chronological development of settlement and resource utilisation in the study area. The main activity of the project so far has been field walking which has been very successful and as data has been collected and analysed the parameters of the project have moved and the aims extended.

Aerial photo of Tarradale area with Tarradale house in the foreground. Tarradale Castle (destroyed 1308) was probably located above and below the steep bank in the field immediately below Tarradale House. ). (Picture by courtesy of Jim bone).

Aerial photo of Tarradale area with Tarradale house in the foreground. Tarradale Castle (destroyed 1308) was probably located above and below the steep bank in the field immediately below Tarradale House. (Picture by courtesy of Jim Bone).

1. Location and extent of the Tarradale study area. The study area comprises about 750 hectares of mainly agricultural land at the eastern end of the parish of Urray on the northern side of the inner Beauly Firth in Ross-shire. Historically the area was co-terminous with the old landholding unit of Tarradale  estate and the ecclesiastical parish of Gilchrist or Tarradale, which was a separate parish until becoming amalgamated with the parish of Urray in the late 16th The historical centre of Tarradale was the old parish church, now surviving only as a mausoleum at Gilchrist. Following the building (or rebuilding) of Tarradale House in the 17th century, Tarradale House became the administrative centre (caput) of the estate.

A large part of the area is raised estuarine beaches and that area today is flat or gently undulating high-quality agricultural land that is regularly ploughed. To the north of the former raised beaches the land rises towards the Mulbuie Ridge as undulating hillside mainly covered with boulder clay. Apart from Gilchrist Chapel and some standing stones probably erected in the Bronze Age, there are few visible archaeological monuments in the area that is intensively ploughed, although aerial photographs show cropmarks that can be interpreted as ring ditches, pits and enclosures. This contrasts with the more upland and less intensively cultivated area where there are standing monuments including Tarradale chambered cairn and an indeterminate feature which has been called a henge but is better referred to with the more general term of earthwork.

Tarradale chambered cairn

Tarradale chambered cairn

2. Previous research. Only one previous excavation in the area appears to be published (Barri Jones in Proceedings of the Society of antiquaries of Scotland, 131, 2001). In the early 1990s Barri Jones of the University of Manchester excavated a large enclosure, identified from aerial photographs, in a field about 400m west of Tarradale house. Barri Jones was interested in Roman archaeology and the initial reason for the excavation was to investigate a supposed Roman camp or fortification on the site. However the excavation produced no evidence of any Roman occupation but did show that there were timber structures in association with a wide ditch and that within the enclosed area there were hearths and pits and features interpreted as houses.

Radiocarbon determination showed human activity with two calibrated dates; one of around 5000 BCE and another around 800 BCE. The conclusion was that the area within the enclosure acted as a significant focus of human activity over an extended period of time from the Mesolithic through to the construction of least one probable roundhouse in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. By the middle of the first millennium CE the site appears to have been enlarged with the construction of a defended settlement and associated cemetery, but no radiocarbon date was obtained for this period and the mid-first millennium date is based on stylistic analysis of 44 sherds of pottery and four nails.

Field walking ploughed fields within the Tarradale study area

Field walking ploughed fields within the Tarradale study area

3. Mesolithic lithics and shell middens. As soon as field walking commenced Tarradale lithic finds were made and to date more than 1000 lithics have been found, the great majority being flakes, chunks or chips but there is clear evidence of the manufacture and use of a variety of lithic artefacts which can be dated typologically to Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Age (with a small number of post mediaeval gun flints). The great majority of lithic finds are made of flint but a significant proportion are of quartz or quartzite with a small number made of chert, as well as more exotic materials such as Rum bloodstone. The majority of lithic finds are less than 50 mm in any one direction and can be broadly assigned to the Mesolithic period, including flakes, flake tools, scrapers and cores. However, within the general mass of lithic finds, there have been a significant of identifiable Neolithic and Bronze Age artefacts. Generally the density of lithic finds is higher in the southern part of the study area with the density falling off northwards. At the time of writing a detailed lithic analysis of these finds is waiting to be made.

Typical range of mainly Mesolithic flint chunks, flakes and artefacts

Typical range of mainly Mesolithic flint chunks, flakes and artefacts

In addition to lithic finds made while field walking, spreads of marine molluscs were identified in the plough soil at the number of places and we have found evidence of at least eight shell middens mainly spaced along the top of a degraded cliff (representing a former shoreline between two raised beaches) which is now a little distance inland due to later changes in sea level. There is a strong correlation between the area of denser lithic finds and the  presence of  shell middens identified from spreads of marine molluscs. Some of the middens appear to be well scattered by ploughing but in several places auguring demonstrated the survival of layers of shells below the plough soil.

Field walking in 2011 discovered, about 500 m west of Tarradale House, a much denser than usual spread of shells which was found to have occurred because the farmer was using a deeper than normal plough. A number of 1 m² test pits were excavated through the plough soil to try to identify the depth and extent of a presumed shell midden. These test pits showed that the plough had just caught the shallow northern edge of a surviving shell midden but a few metres further south the test pits showed relatively deep layers of midden that had been preserved by being buried underneath an increasing depth of soil that had moved downhill because of soil wash and ploughing action as far as a post mediaeval field boundary but the midden was then truncated due to ploughing in the field below causing the formation of a negative lynchet.

Lithic find spots and shell middens identified by field walking

Lithic find spots and shell middens identified by field walking

The test pits revealed that in addition to the presence of very large numbers of mollusc shells (estimated to be in excess of 1 million if not several million), there was good survival of organic remains and samples of charcoal and  antler gave dates of approximately 6500 BCE and 6100 BCE respectively. Analysis of the shells from one of the test pits showed that the most frequently surviving were mussels closely followed by periwinkles. They greatly outnumbered oysters but because oysters are so large they dominate the volume and weight of shells recovered. It is not known if there were any nearby Mesolithic structures but the chance of their surviving on the uphill side of the midden is likely to be poor due to plough action and soil movement downhill to the south. Any features including potential hearths are most likely to have survived in the southern part of the midden where the topsoil is deeper than the current plough zone.

Mollusc Minimum number of individuals       (ie hinges or spires; no. of hinges should be divided by 2) Weight of shells
Mussel with hinges 5791 3493 g
Mussel without hinges 1717 g
Periwinkle with spires 2816 3836 g
Periwinkle without spires 133 g
Oyster with hinges 1760 8913 g
Oyster without hinges 8896 g
Cockle with hinges 444 ?
Cockle without hinges 1937 g
Whelk (spires or columns 143 202 g
Whelk with no columns 250 g
Venus and other bivalves with hinges  70 28 g
Venus and other bivalves without hinges 34 g
Other gastropods with spires 7 2 g

4. Undated shell midden. A recent excavation on the supposed site of Tarradale Castle (see Medieval below) uncovered a shell midden in the area supposed to be the bailey of Tarradale Castle. The layer of shells was deposited right on top of what is interpreted as a raised beach at about 9m OD comprising gravel, pebbles, cobbles and boulders. One lithic artefact was found within the shell midden as well as representatives of the same type of molluscs as in the previous shell midden excavated (see table above). In addition some small fish bones representing pollock/saithe, herring and flatfish were also found along with one antler tine. A range of animal bones was also mixed in with a midden material some of them being broken or split, possibly for extracting marrow. However some of the species and bone sizes represented  appear to be more indicative of more recent animals. The environmental data from this midden has not yet been updated so it is impossible to put a date on the origin of this midden.

The major part of a mid to late Neolithic axe from the Craig na Caillach, axe factory on the side of Ben Lawers, near Killin.

The major part of a mid to late Neolithic axe from the Craig na Caillach, axe factory on the side of Ben Lawers, near Killin.

5. Neolithic. The main Neolithic feature in the area is the Tarradale chambered cairn located it on a hillock of glacial origin (within the ice contact area) and overlooking the  lighter raised beach sandy soils of the presumed arable land to the south. The Tarradale chambered cairn is currently unscheduled but is under threat from metal detecting and fires being lit within the chambers. However, pressure from NOSAS and other interested parties means that it is likely that HES will schedule the cairn in the foreseeable future.

Within the current area of intensively worked fields that are the main areas available for field walking, the lithic finds include a number of identifiable Neolithic artefacts including two leaf shaped arrowheads and one triangular arrowhead, and the larger part of a stone axe probably from the Craig Na Caillich axe source at the western end of the Ben Lawers range in Perthshire. Although no particular concentrations of lithic finds of presumed Neolithic date have been discovered, the occurrence of lithics that can be assigned to the Neolithic indicate that the fields  around Tarradale were being exploited for hunting, and presumably agriculture. It is assumed that agriculture was an important contributor to the Neolithic food economy, sufficient to maintain a community capable of resourcing and building the chambered cairn. It is anticipated that fields as yet not fully field walked will lead to finding more Neolithic lithics that will add to and refine the existing mapped distributions.

Neolithic leaf shaped point

Neolithic leaf shaped point

Bronze age tanged and barbed projectile points

Bronze age tanged and barbed projectile points

6. Bronze Age. Early and middle Bronze Age evidence was until recently largely posited on the presence of identifiable Bronze Age lithic finds, including several barbed and tanged arrowheads as well as different types of scrapers and other tools. In 2014 the field-walking find of piece of beaker pottery near a barrow cemetery and the 2014 metal detecting find of a very well-preserved tinned copper alloy flat axe of Migdale type near the Neolithic chambered cairn has brought the Early Bronze Age into focus. At least one other historic find of a beaker from the Tarradale estate (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) also adds weight to the importance of the early Bronze Age in the area.

Fragment of an all over corded beaker (AOC beaker) c 2250 BC.

Fragment of an all over corded beaker c 2250 BC.

Evidence of later Bronze Age activity is evidenced from the metal detecting find of part of a socketed axe near the barrow cemetery and the historic find of a socketed axe near the chambered cairn. In addition A late Bronze Age radiocarbon date obtained by Prof Barri Jones from what appears to be a hearth within the ditched enclosure area between Tarradale and Gilchrist attests to settlement within the area. The nearby barrow cemetery (which is now considered to be one of the largest barrow cemeteries in Scotland) may have a Bronze Age origin as crop marks suggest the presence of two or three larger ring ditch features that may be Bronze Age barrows. It is hoped to be able to pursue further investigation of the surviving unploughed (but apparently badly disturbed) part of the barrow cemetery as well as of the adjacent ploughed out barrows seen in aerial photographs.

Flat copper alloy axe, tinned, of Migdale type circa 2000 BC (metal detecting find 2014)

Flat copper alloy axe, tinned, of Migdale type circa 2000 BC (metal detecting find 2014)

7. Iron Age and Pictish. The ditched enclosure partly excavated by Barri Jones could still provide information that might lead to a better understanding of the dating of this complex site and feature. The presence of spreads of iron slag in an adjacent field but apparently within the enclosed area suggests metalworking on a certain scale. The western extent of the ditched enclosure is not known as it appears to disappear in the fields to the west and north. A distinct circular crop mark with a possible encircling ditch is evident in a field further to the north-west near the Gilchrist east kettlehole and it is not clear how that relates to the ditched enclosure. Aerial photographs also show the survival of a small multi-vallate ditched enclosure projecting into the Gilchrist west kettle hole, west of Gilchrist church. The presence of several square barrows within the barrow cemetery, identified from crop marks on aerial photographs as well as resistivity survey, suggests a Pictish presence in the area presumably emerging as successors to the Iron Age population of the area.

8. Medieval: Tarradale Castle. The presence of a castle at Tarradale in the 13th and early 14th centuries is known from documentary sources but the identification of the site of Tarradale Castle has always been somewhat equivocal. In the past it was considered to be represented by a ring ditch in the field immediately to the west of Tarradale house but the Tarradale Archaeological Project has shown that there is no field walking evidence of medieval settlement (such as pottery) there and that the ring ditch is more likely to be a post-medieval bank enclosing a game covert coincident with the unploughed part of the barrow cemetery. However, field walking and metal detecting by the Tarradale Archaeological Project have discovered a concentration of medieval pottery as well as large nails and a number of 13th century silver pennies that strongly suggest that the site of what may be the motte of Tarradale Castle lies on a raised beach immediately southeast of and on the same level as Tarradale house, with a steep slope immediately to the south (representing the drop to the next lowest abandoned shoreline) being utilised as a defensive feature.

Medieval horse harness pendant from site of Tarradale Castle

Medieval horse harness pendant from site of Tarradale Castle

It is possible that a bailey associated with the motte lies on the lower raised beach just below the steep abandoned shoreline. However, excavations in 2015 on the site of the supposed Bailey, and right at the foot of the slope between the two raised beaches revealed no evidence of occupation that could be directly associated with the period of the castle as the main finding was a shell midden which has not yet been dated (see Undated shell midden above).

Magnetometer survey in November 2015 of the supposed sites of the motte and bailey gave a generally poor result, but the scenery distinct evidence of circular features (such as a ditch or bank) enclosing a central feature which may be equivalent to the motte, while on the lower level the western component of a ditched enclosure was apparent while the rest of the supposed Bailey enclosure may be indicated by rather fuzzy anomalies on the magnetometer survey. A trial excavation across the supposed defences of the motte as well as the supposed Bailey enclosure might confirm these features.

9. Medieval: Gilchrist settlement focus. It is likely that there is another major mediaeval focus within the study area around the old parish church of Tarradale/Gilchrist. Historical documentation for Tarradale only starts in the early 13th century and it is not known when Tarradale church was first established. Field walking in the fields to the south of Gilchrist early in 2015 found a number of shards of medieval pottery including a concentration of such shards in the field immediately to the south of Gilchrist east kettle hole and where aerial photographs show an approximately circular ditched enclosure that may be some kind of homestead site. It is likely that there are other smaller foci of mediaeval settlement within the study area that may be determined from finds of pottery through field walking. Some of the current and abandoned farm sites may date from mediaeval times, although there was considerable reorganisation of the settlement patterns and agricultural landscape resulting from agricultural improvement that commenced in the late 18th

10. Post-medieval. The Tarradale area is fortunate in that there is a surviving highly detailed estate map of Tarradale surveyed by David Aitken, one of the foremost surveyors of his day and who was commissioned to survey and map Tarradale estate in 1788 by Dr Kenneth Murchison the then new owner of Tarradale. The area recorded on the estate map is the basis of the study area of the Tarradale Archaeological Project. Analysis of the estate map shows the existence of a number of farms and clachans occupied by mailers (i.e. small tenants) that are now abandoned due to settlement reorganisation that was part of the agricultural improvement and reorganisation started in the late 18th century under the patronage of Dr Kenneth Murchison.

The Tarradale Archaeological Project is intending to survey the surviving remains of these clachans and other building that are just visible in the landscape or on aerial photographs. The agricultural improvements of the late 18th century included relocating Tarradale Mains farm from being immediately adjacent to Tarradale House to a new site about 400 m north east of Tarradale house. The farm buildings dating from the early 1790s appear to survive largely intact and include a dovecot over the entrance to the court enclosed by the agricultural buildings. The northern area of the Tarradale estate which is the more upland area of boulder clay and other ice contact features, included part of Mulbuie Common until the common land was enclosed in the early 19th Some of the cottages of tenant farmers that had originated from unofficial intakes of the common land before enclosure or as permitted development after enclosure still survive in the landscape today and one of the aims of the Tarradale Archaeological Project is to identify and record any buildings or occupation sites that survive from that period.


See the Tarradale Through Time Website for details about the 3 year Heritage Lottery funded Project, which commenced in Autumn 2017.

A New blog post by Eric on Tarradale Through Time can be read here

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