Circles on the Photographs – Cataloguing the J S Bone Collection of Aerial Photography

by Jonathan Wordsworth

As part of the cataloguing the JSBone aerial photographs (see earlier blog post) donated to North of Scotland Archaeological Society, a team of NoSAS members have been identifying the sites revealed on these images.  Occasionally some intriguing queries arise. One such site came up recently and was from a photograph taken near Braelangwell on the Black Isle.  Here on an image from 2012, a series of small circular mounds were revealed.  Initial thoughts were that these might be the remains of an unknown barrow cemetery similar to that excavated at Tarradale.  While the density and similar size of the circles did cause some scepticism on their origin, searching on earlier Google Earth satellite views showed similar features were visible at least as far back as 2004.

JSBone P100014  Centred at NH68652 64114 and taken on the 14th January 2012. The low mounds highlighted by the winter sunlight are glacial moraines but in the field below are an intriguing set of circular and possibly square barrows.

Andy Hickie of Avoch Heritage was sufficiently intrigued by these, as he had previously identified a site of interest nearby the year before, that he agreed to fly his drone over these features, before processing to enhance the images through RTF software.  His results can be seen below.

Images processed by Andy Hickie from his drone photographs and which he describes as ‘photogrammerty-derived false colour images’.

After processing, the possible barrows can all be seen to be circular and more critically to lie above the diagonal lines making the position of field drains across this field, confirming they are in fact modern features.  They are, in fact, the remains of a series of cattle feed rings where bales of hay or silage are stored in metal holders.  In wet conditions, the stock eating round these create the pattern we see here.

Further confirmation of the modernity of these mounds is confirmed by looking at earlier OS maps where this field is shown as improved grassland or arable ground and would have been subject to a regular crop rotation including ploughing over many years – see for example

Ross-shire and Cromartyshire – Cromartyshire LXXVIII.1 (Combined) Surveyed 1872

Similar example of cattle feed rings masquerading as archaeological sites can be seen on another of the JSBone images.

JSBone P105864 Druim Mor, Swordale  Centred at NH 57529 66129 and looking SW, taken 21st February 2010.

Here again circles again can be seen with a central mound and again in quite a large density, but critically they are placed over the central large ring-ditched feature[1], which a look again at earlier OS maps shows was the site of buildings when surveyed by the OS in 1875 (R&C LXIV.16  In the field to the right, the circles can be seen again lying over broad linear ditches that are almost certainly the remains of broad rig cultivation that has been largely ploughed out but still survives as hollow lines within the modern field.

However not all circles are the results of feed rings!

JSBone P1000840 Ruthven Farm Steading, Abersky centred at NH 60216 26894  26th March 2012

The large circle outside the steading is clearly the remains of a horse mill used for threshing corn , a common feature on many improved farms in the 19th and early 20th century, but note in the enclosure to the right a series of low circles, partly obscured by more recent vehicle tracks. A more careful look shows these to be arranged in lines, flattened and raised above the surrounding ground.  Some 30-40 of them are shown here and these are almost certainly the remains of stone footings for corn stacks prior to their being ground in the horse mill over the winter.

Thanks to Elisabeth Blackburn for selecting the Braelangwell photo, Andy Hickie for his excellent photos and image processing and Roland Spencer-Jones and Meryl Marshall for discussing some of these images. 

[1] The ring-ditched feature, MHG55319, is of significant but separate interest and potentially of much earlier date, given that Druim Mor, MHG14145, to the E (left), is one of the richest areas of cupmarked stones in the locality.

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