Buntait, Glenurquhart: A Bronze Age Landscape?

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The larger barrow at Buntait – feature ‘X’ on the map below.

Although I have lived in Glen Urquhart for some years, it was only comparatively recently that I first visited Buntait, a hamlet just to the north of the Clava type chambered cairn at Corrimony. This was despite me hearing from a number of local people about the amount of upstanding archaeology that was there. I think I must have presumed that because there are no scheduled monuments there it could not be that interesting – an assumption I will not be making in the future. Later research confirmed that Buntait is in fact full of prehistoric (and post medieval) features – including hut circles, field systems, burnt mounds and rock art. Not only are the field systems extensive and some of the hut circles very well preserved, but also there are a couple of ditched barrow features. Locally, only Garbeg is comparable in terms of prehistoric remains.

GIS map of Buntait annotated with huts, barrows, cairn fields, dykes and other archaeological features.

Consequently Buntait became the subject of three archaeological field trips in 2017; two led by NOSAS, and one as part of the Archaeology Scotland Summer School planned with the assistance of NOSAS. There were also numerous smaller sorties for quadcopter flying, polecam photogrammetry, rock art recording (for SCRAP) and general investigation.

NOSAS field visit to Buntait January 2017

“The Glenurqhuart Story” by Alistair Mackell published in 1982, provides a useful if perhaps now outdated introduction:

Not far from the Corrimony Burial Cairn, on Buntait lands, was a settlement of some considerable size where clearly marked hut circles and cairns suggest a community practising primitive agriculture and a boundary wall, which can still be traced, may have served to protect domestic animals from prowling wolves or other marauding wild animals. Some of these circles are 30 feet in diameter and in the centre of at least one, is a depression which may have been a fireplace. These circles are low banks of stones covered with grass or heather about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide at the base. It is difficult to imagine one large roof covering such an expanse, but if so, it would probably have been formed of wattles and thatched with heather or turf, giving, when complete, a dome – shaped appearance. In each case there is a break in the circle at the south east which indicates the entrance. In other parts of Scotland where these structures have been carefully examined, hearth paving stones have been discovered, but we are unable to reconstruct much of the everyday life of the people of these long bygone days, and we can merely conjecture that they combined hunting with their primitive agriculture, for the Highlands were rich in wildlife.

The main group consists of 13 hut circles (Canmore ID 12242) labelled A to N on the map above. These are all basically circular with diameters of between 6 and 13 metres and entrances in the SE where they can be identified.  Construction appears to consist of rubble, or rubble and turf, walls enclosing a central internal living space most likely surmounted by a coned roof. The huts are associated with prehistoric field systems made up of a network of curved earth banks and areas within, where stone has been cleared for cultivation. Clearance cairn heaps survive presumably at the edges of these plots and form part of the overall footprint of prehistoric landuse surrounding the domestic structure, however the evidence left on the ground today can be difficult to interpret. Similar upland hut circle sites, such as at Achany Glen near Lairg, have been dated to the Bronze Age. A settlement in nearby Garbeg, excavated in 2014 by the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts Project, yielded dates of c 1500 BCE.

One of the best upstanding examples of a hut curcle at Buntait is “M”, which is 9.5 m in diameter and has surviving walls up 0.6 m in height. It also features a clubbed entrance in common with several of the others. The image above left shows the hut rendered with photogrammetry by Alan Thompson, whilst above right can be seen the plan by RCAHMS for comparison. The photogrammetry quadcopter image below shows the wider landscape with hut circles M and N in the bottom left and field system(s) made up by small cairns and a number of curvilinear dykes. A contrasting straight 19th C head dyke running roughly N-S is just out of view to the right of the image, however it can be seen on the map. The image extends up to the forest boundaries to the north and west.

Aerial of huts circle M and N with field system (Alan Thompson)

20th Century forestry has broken up the group and 9 of the huts can only be found by venturing deep into the trees. Some of the huts in the forestry have certainly been damaged by forestry ploughing, especially in the western group. However it perhaps surprising that the tree planting generally respects the hut footprints. Conversation with local former foresters led me to understand that they were local men and knew of the features there, so took at least some care to preserve them.

Two of the huts are in the forest are directly adjacent or contiguous, with one (J) being almost 13 m in diameter and the other (K) only 6 m. This lead to some speculation on the possible relationship between the two, assuming they were both in use simultaneously. Theories varied. Did the larger one serve as an unroofed byre, whilst the smaller was a roofed domestic living space? Or might they have both been domestic dwellings with the smaller one being perhaps the modern equivalent of a “granny flat”.

Current theory however seems to suggest Bronze Age farming landscapes were dynamic environments where initial domestic use of a round-house may not have lasted more than 10 years. The site may then have served as a animal byre for a period and then as a vegetable plot whilst domestic houses were established elsewhere in the vicinity. As such, although it is tempting to assume that groups of hut circles were inhabited contemporaneously, this may well not have been the case.

Hut circle G in the forest at Buntait. NOSAS field trip January 2017

Artist’s impression of a reconstructed hut circle or round-house at Achany Glen, Lairg

The Western most part of the settlement contains two more huts, A and B, plus two other features which are officially described on the record as cairns (Canmore ID 12259), labelled X and Y. The whole field, which contains remnants of field systems as well as post medieval settlement, can be clearly seen in the aerial quadcopter image below (X and Y bottom left). Both X and Y have outer ditches and the larger of the two is also surrounded by a 15m diameter surrounding bank. At first glance X almost resembles a hut circle with a large cairn in the middle, albeit one without any obvious entrance.

Above: Quadcopter images of the barrows at Buntait and the wider landscape processed with photogrammetry by Alan Thompson. Below left: RCAHMS plans of the two Buntait barrows. Below right: Plan of Urchany bowl barrow.

In discussions with various learned folk a number of different interpretations for these features have been proposed. One theory is that they are Pictish burial barrows. However feature X in particular seems to demonstrate distinct differences of both size and form to those found at Whitebridge, Garbeg and elsewhere (see earlier Blog post). Another suggestion is that they are Bronze Age burial barrows. A few miles to the north of Buntait, at Urchany is a recently scheduled Bronze Age bowl barrow (HER MHG56050). Although larger in scale and featuring a causeway (perhaps a later addition), the Urchany barrow does seem to demonstrate many similarities in form to feature X at Buntait. Y is smaller still, shows signs of disturbance (possibly by the addition of clearance) and lacks the distictive outer bank of X, but could still also “qualify” as a Bronze Age barrow. As ever excavation would probably be needed to prove the point.

A Bronze Age date which would place these barrows in the same very broad period as the hut circles and field system, and indeed Corrimony chambered cairn – visible from here just across the glen. Alastair MacKell in the Glenurquhart Story goes on to posit a possible direct relationship between the Buntait huts with Corrimony cairn; “It can never be proved that the chambered cairn at Corrimony was the burial place of some renowned chief of the Buntait settlement, but it may easily have been so.” This may indeed be a considerable stretch, but these possible Bronze Age barrows together with other prehistoric features at Buntait could make a connection more plausible, even if primary use of the sites might be separated by many generations.

Stood on the larger barrow, looking across to the smaller, on the Highland Archaeology Festival “Huts, Cups and Barrows” walk 8th October 2017. Corrimony chambered cairn can just be made out in the distance centre-right.

On one of my earlier trips to Buntait, we managed to quickly locate a cup marked panel under turf which had eluded RCAHMS on their previous visit. The cup marked rock (Canmore ID 12251) is close to the site of Char’s stone (Canmore ID 12257), a standing stone which has sadly been broken within living memory. These features can be found in the lower right portion of the map at the top of the post. The OS Name book 1876 -1878 reports that Char’s stone “applies to a Standing Stone about four feet high three feet broad and two feet thick. There is a tradition in the district that this stone marks the grave of one of the King of Denmark’s Sons named Char, nothing further appears to be Known about the history of this stone. It is the property of The Chisholm of Erchless Castle”. Like Monie’s stone at Corrimony however, there is little doubt that its origins are much earlier. Clearly the site, which surmounts a gentle knoll with a commanding view of the district, had some significance in prehistory .

Char’s stone as it looked in the 1950s.

At the newly rediscovered cup marked stone, December 2016.

On subsequent visits we found that the area of the around the cup marked rock had been mechanically stripped and we identified a further single cup marked panel a metre or so away. We also recorded another interesting cup and ring marked rock a few hundred metres to the east (Canmore ID 259329 and 3D Model). Examination of the original panel revealed a very worn surface with well over 50 cups, many linked by distinctive troughs – these can be seen more clearly on the photograph and 3D photogrammetry model below. To assist with the Scotland’s Rock Art Project recording we marked the cups with small lengths of yellow dowelling and connecting troughs with green (thanks to John Wombell).

Theories about the purpose of cup marked stones may never be resolved, but some of the more persuasive arguments are for territorial markers or posts on important routeways. They are generally thought to date from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age although they are frequently found incorporated into Bronze Age monuments, such as at Corrimony chambered cairn.  Even if the cup marks and the standing stone do predate the hut circle settlement below them, it seems plausible that they may still have held some significance for the inhabitants.

Discussing the stone and attempting to define the cups with short lengths of yellow dowelling, 8th October 2017.

As will be evident above, my primary focus at Buntait has been on the prehistoric. However, I also spent some considerable time tracking down a later feature. Upon reading “A Bridge to the Past: An Oral History of the Families of Upper Glenurquhart” by Peter English, I was immediately struck by a photograph of Curadan’s well, described at being at Buntait. However the well could not be found in the archaeological record and it eventually took some local knowledge to help me locate it.

St Curadan’s well with an audience. 8th October 2017.

The well is named after St Curadan who lived in the 8th Century AD. William Mackay in “Urquhart and Glenmoriston; Olden Times in a Highland Parish” (1893) states:

Contemporaneous with St Adamnan was Curadan, or Kiritinus, surnamed Boniface, an Irishman who for sixty years preached to the Picts and Scots, and who became bishop and abbot of Rosemarkie, where he died at the age of eighty. To him was dedicated the old chapel at Corrimony Clach Churadain and after him is called Croit Churadain (Curadan’s Croft) , and Tobar Churadain (Curadan’s Well), both on the adjacent lands of Buntait. The neighbouring churches of Bona and Struy were also dedicated to him. According to tradition, he and Gorman, a saint who gave his name to the hill called Suidh Ghuirmein, or Gorman’s Seat, near Corrimony, were the first to evangelise the people of the Braes of Urquhart. Whether that be true or not, these dedications and place-names show how intimately associated he was with the district.

Of course there is no current evidence to date the well to the early medieval period, or even definitively to say that this is the same well mentioned in the text (although I could find no other candidates). However it is a good story and the well, still fed by fresh water, is certainly worth a look.

Interior of the well by John Yule.

Many thanks to the Girvan family for allowing us access to the area. If you are planning to visit these sites please contact the estate first and follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

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