The NOSAS Crannogs Project

by Richard Guest

I have long been fascinated by crannogs. These are articial island dwellings such as the one in Loch Achilty, pictured above (see Canmore).  I remember back in the 80’s tiptoeing across a partly submerged causeway to visit one in a Shetland lochan.  Then, later, visiting the reconstruction in Loch Tay and seeing a TV programme about it.  Later still, whilst on a Nautical Archaeology Society training course I met one of the divers who had been on the Loch Tay project and heard first hand what it was like to make such amazing discoveries.

About 10 years ago, my late wife Jonie and I decided to try and walk out to the Redcastle crannog in the Beauly Firth (see Canmore).  About twenty squelchy steps was enough to convince us that this was a BAD IDEA and we retreated to solid land.  And oh! The smell!  So the next expedition was by boat at high tide and we passed over Phopachy crannog (see Canmore), which we could see on the sounder but could make nothing out through the water.  Another trip at a lower state of tide, we could see the crannog but the water around it was too shallow to approach in the boat.  We didn’t try again.

What we did do was to dive around another crannog, the one in Loch Brora (see Canmore).  The water was so peaty we saw literally nothing.  We knew we had reached the bottom when we felt it beneath us.  I put my hand in front of my mask but couldn’t see it, even with a powerful torch.  I think I could feel some square timber but it might have been a modern fence post caught in weed.

More recently I became aware, through both diving and archaeology sources, of discoveries of Neolithic pottery found underwater around crannogs in the western isles (see Current Archaeology article).  This exploded the received wisdom that crannogs were of iron age to post medieval date.  Then in 2021 NOSAS were lucky enough to have a “Zoom” lecture about crannogs, by Michael Stratigos from the University of York, which is available on You Tube (below). This is when the idea for a NOSAS crannogs project was born.

An “Antiquity” paper (Garrow and Sturt, 2019) https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2019.41  explains the current thinking and also explains that there are only about 50 radiocarbon and dendrochronological dates for crannogs in the whole of Scotland and 80% of recorded sites have no associated dating evidence of any kind.  There has been little research on landscapes surrounding the monuments.

Michael’s lecture

One of the key facts to come out of Michael’s lecture was just how little scientific work has been done on crannogs.  We don’t even know how many there are.  Most of the ones which are recorded come from antiquarian records, in particular the Rev. Blundell in the early 1900’s.  Michael has done map searches in Caithness and Sutherland and came up with over 50 potential unrecorded crannogs.

The potential for new discoveries is huge, but equally some of the recorded crannogs seem to have found their way onto Canmore with very little justification.

A Blundell record (Simon Arnold/ Arch Highland)

Start of the NOSAS project

In April 2021 I was approached by Roland Spencer-Jones, NOSAS chair at the time, with the idea for a project.  Five NOSAS members enjoyed an outdoor meeting, taking advantage of the recent relaxation of COVID regulations which meant we could actually meet real people again.  COVID did however seriously restrict what we could do for the rest of the year.  Nonetheless we came up with a set of objectives, based on legacy questions posed by Michael in his lecture.  We would search for unrecorded crannogs, try and establish if they were really artificial and if so, how they were constructed, look for dating evidence and see if there was a relationship with nearby terrestrial settlement.  We asked for volunteers and the project began.

The Desktop Study

As usual with NOSAS there was no shortage of willing volunteers, and we soon had a team of 15.  We held a training session at a time when COVID regs permitted and soon everyone was beavering away, studying  maps, satellite images, Lidar, Canmore and HER records and by Christmas 2021 we had covered almost 10,000 sq km of the Highlands and found over 130 potential crannogs.  Because Michael Stratigos had already searched much of Caithness and Sutherland, we started with Easter Ross, Cromarty and the eastern part of Inverness-shire. 

The original 5 members got together, by zoom this time, to go through the results, homing in on a list of 36 most likely looking crannogs.  This list was distilled down to 14 sites which warranted site visits.

Only 4 of these sites are previously unrecorded, 3 are scheduled and the other 7 are recorded but not scheduled.  None of them appear to have been excavated or dived.

Another 9 volunteers have come forward and the search has been expanded to cover another 9400 sq km. taking in Wester Ross, Lochaber and Badenoch.  One of our more computer-literate members has created a superb webmap, using OS open data, which identifies all the areas of open water which we need to look at; much more reliable than just scanning the maps by eye.

Site Visits

Loch Knockie, unrecorded site (Stratherrick)

So far, site work has been largely confined to checking accessibility.  Very few sites have public road access to the shore but some of them have private roads of a good standard, if we can get permission to use them.  To survey a crannog will need access to get at least a canoe to the shore, although many lochs have rowing boats maintained on them for fishermen and these can be available to hire.  Diving gear is very heavy and carrying it any distance over pathless ground is a serious challenge.

Loch Ruthven scheduled site (see Canmore)

Multiple dives on a site will either need a portable compressor, or the air tanks will have to be carried in and out for each dive.  So initial underwater exploration is likely to be by snorkel, or confined to a single dive, just to assess potential for future work.  To continue the project beyond initial assessment will be a whole new ball game requiring substantial funding.

Loch Achilty is well used by canoeists, paddleboarders and wild swimmers and has public road access, so this is the only crannog we have visited on the water.  Snorkelling verified that it consists of a mound of similar-sized smallish stones laid at a very even slope.  No timbers or artefacts were seen but the slope continued out of sight below snorkelling depth.

Two members hiked over pathless ground to Loch nam Faoileag (Glen Convinth) to check out a promising looking island identified from satellite images. However it turned out to be completely natural, so that’s one off the list.

Loch Nam Faoileag natural island

By far the remotest possibility, still to be visited, is Loch nam Buidheag in Sutherland, which we will try to get to when the weather improves.

Two divers from the Nautical Archaeology Society have kindly volunteered their assistance and we hope to submerge at the end of August.  Just where that will be will depend on our assessments of the various sites over the coming months.

See The Crannogs Project page on the NOSAS website for further information.

Read also our earlier blog post on Kinellan Crannog.

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