Kinellan Crannog, Strathpeffer

by John Wombell

Loch Kinellan, Google Earth 2015.

A few notes on Kinellan Crannog for crannog enthusiasts.  We are fortunate to live at Kinellan, about 400m away from the crannog as the crow flies.  In February this year Kinellan Loch froze over to a depth of 10” and we had days of glorious sunshine when local families were taking their lockdown exercise out on the ice, and we spent an afternoon on the crannog taking photos and  chatting to neighbours and their children. About 15 years ago I remember leading a NOSAS visit out to the island during another big freeze.

Kinellan Crannog taken from the south shore looking north, February 2021.

Some years ago 4 NOSAS members obtained permission from Historic Scotland and the owner to remove some fallen willow that had tumbled into the loch on the south side, in order that locals and visitors could see from the shore track the Medieval stone work surrounding most of the artificial island.  That was two days of very hard work, hand winching fallen trees back out of the loch then cutting them up.   Seeing young children exploring the island this February made me wonder whether the crannog was ever a family home with children playing or had it always been a male dominated stronghold.

Fraser’s 1916/17 report of the 1914/15 and 16 excavations was published in the PSAS and is available online. It is compulsive reading and I shall not spoil it for you by delving too far into the report.  Mr Fraser was a teacher in Dingwall and was only able to supervise the excavations part time and during school holidays.  With WW1 raging he had difficulty finding workmen but he eventually found two local men and all work appears to have been done with spades.  There is no mention of trowels.  He did however engage a Dingwall architect to make measured drawings and another teacher to make sketches.   A third person undertook the photography.  Fraser was as thorough as he could be at that time and he records a lot of detail.  I do not know whether there is an official archive stored away somewhere but a century on I think an updated expert re-interpretation of Fraser’s work would be a good starting point for new research.

The last known use of the crannog was as a kitchen garden and orchard by the tenant of Kinellan Home Farm in the late 19th and early 20th C.  A thicket of old fruit tree rootstock scrub still survives and few tangled gooseberry bushes.  Today though the crannog is dominated by dense mature ash and willow trees, an occasional gnarled Hawthorn and two very fine birch trees.  Many of the willows have fallen down, most are dead and rotting away but a good number, especially those that have tumbled into the loch remain alive and have produced masses of new stem growth called Phoenix growth – raised from the dead!

Kinellan Crannog west end with Medieval rip rap stone work
Kinellan Crannog south side. Boat landing place, possible naust
Kinellan Crannog south east side, showing willow fallen into the loch
Kinellan Crannog west side with leaning mature willow
Kinellan Crannog east end. Many fallen willows, some still alive with Phoenix growth

The fact that the island was used as a garden means the presence of top soil and Fraser’s excavations revealed a 2 ft depth of soil over a good part of the island.  Where might that have come from?  Not out of the sky.  Fraser also revealed the clay bonded stone footings of a rectangular building 28 ft by 18 ft.  He writes of first finding a wall 6ft wide but his photos suggest walls more like 2ft to 2ft 6” wide.   I shall stick with imperial measurements as the report is all in imperial.   Assuming that he measured the building externally, which he doesn’t say, that would give an internal measurement of 23 ft by 13 ft.  This is well within cruck frame technology and my guess is that the top soil on the island is the result of turf walls above the stone footings and a turf lined thatch roof probably rebuilt several times.   One thought though is about security.  The crannog lies well within bow and arrow firing range of both north and south shores.  A well aimed fire arrow could easily set a thatch roof alight.   Good supply of water though to put a fire out!

The levels below the stone footing are intriguing.  The upper later phase building sits on what appears to be substantial carefully joiner worked oak beams and posts.  Fraser does not speculate as to what the older underlying timbers represent and this is another good reason for expert reappraisal.    More than likely they are the fallen remains of an earlier structure or structures that once sat on piles.  The popular conception of such a building is the reconstruction, based on underwater excavation evidence, at the crannog centre near Killin, Perthshire. 

The reconstructed crannog on Loch Tay, near Killin

One feature that both the tenant of Kinellan Farm found before 1914 and Fraser found was evidence of an outward leaning palisade ring of posts that both men thought once ran right around the island.  One can only speculate that the earlier phases of the crannog were late prehistoric.  One curious and unexplained feature near the bottom of the numerous pits dug by Fraser was what he described as un-crushed brushwood.  Might the earliest version of the crannog have been a mass of brushwood contained within a timber palisade with a timber structure on top?    Rather like a huge floating raft?

Fraser talks of his intention to fill in all his pits and trenches but oddly today the surface of the crannog is very uneven with numerous hollows and mounds of earth.  I have wondered whether after Fraser finished in 1916 there was later clandestine digging by treasure hunters before the monument was scheduled.

Kinellan Crannog typical interior, view 1
Kinellan Crannog typical interior, view 2

One vital issue confronts any understanding of the biography of the island and that is the relationship between the water level in the loch, which varies seasonally, and the occupation levels interpreted by Fraser, no less that 4 in one particular section, the uppermost of which in 1915 lay well below the winter water table level.   One can speculate that the island, being entirely artificial has continued to sink.  Think of a double cheese burger slowly sinking!

There is a historical account of the followers of the mediaeval chiefs staying on the shore nearby but whether in camps or in built structures it doesn’t say.  There is no trace of anything on the ground today and we know that the small historic period nucleated settlement or farm town of Kinellan lay a good 250 m to the south 270 years ago.   There are hints of possible platforms further up the bank in the field opposite the crannog and these have been the subject of inconclusive resistivity survey.  What is certain is that everything they ate on a crannog, apart from occasional trapped fish or duck maybe, had to come from nearby farming activity or hunting.  Fraser found a great many cattle bones on the island along with a much smaller number of lightly framed  sheep and domesticated pig bones.  

Here for a moment we might pause to contemplate why build and live on a crannog and what that meant for daily living.  What did they do with daily food waste and human waste?    Dump it all round about?  What a stink and health risk that would be, contaminating the waters around the loch through which there is normally very little through flow.  Whoever was living on the island would have been completely reliant on regular supplies coming in to survive.  Not very handy in times of unrest.  How secure were crannogs in reality?  Wolves are good swimmers I believe.  Rats and mice were probably discouraged but they also swim.  Kinellan Crannog is well placed to have been accessed by a raised timber walkway with a drawbridge.  How might we prove that possibility?

Whilst the numerous fascinating structural timbers recovered at the time, wooden artefacts, and indeed a damaged dugout canoe used in the lower foundations, have no doubt long since turned to dust though a lack of conservation technology at the time, a lot of pottery was found in association with the upper occupation levels. This assemblage was sent to Edinburgh and was analysed by Alex O Curle the then director of the National Museum of Antiquities.  Curle placed the manufacture of the pottery as being between the end of the 14th C and end of the 15th C which fits nicely with the period the Earls of Ross and the Mackenzies of Kintail are known to have used Kinellan Crannog.    So, where is that assemblage now and where might the carved ivory gaming piece also found on the crannog now be?  Is the pottery still hidden away in a drawer in the depths of the National Museum’s out store?    As to the ivory gaming piece it could be anywhere.  It might have been given to Mackenzie of Coul who owned the crannog at that time or the proprietor of the nearby Spa Hotel who leant the team a boat to get to and from the crannog.  The Spa Hotel burnt down in the 1940s so if it landed there it is long gone. 

Curiously last summer I dug a hole in our back lawn for a small water feature and found a nice lightly abraded (meaning that it had not been in plough soil) shard of glazed mediaeval pot, since dated to around the 13th or 14th centuries.  The only known medieval site for miles around is the crannog and I would love to think that it came from there.

Medieval pot shard, found Kinellan 2020

A final thought is that the elusive Picts were well established here.  They weren’t at all fussy where they lived.  They were quite happy to reoccupy earlier Iron Age settlement sites and work the same fields.  I wonder if they were also living on the crannog?  I can only encourage you now to read the report by Mr Fraser, the dominie from Dingwall, and enjoy it, then to come up with more ideas for future research.

A recent online talk by Michael Stratigos on Highland crannogs, including Kinellan

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