My Highland Adventure: Diving Loch Achilty Crannog and HMS Natal

by Duncan Ross

During lockdown, apart from eating too many pancakes, NASAC (Nautical Archaeology Society affiliated diving club) member Duncan Ross set himself a grand future task of visiting different kinds of underwater archaeological sites around Britain. This summer he managed to add a couple of unique Scottish sites to his gradually-expanding list.

After around two years of communication, in August 2022 I was invited to help out on a crannog investigation in the fairly anonymous Loch Achilty, just a little north of Inverness city. Assisting North of Scotland Archaeology Society (NOSAS) member Richard Guest and his intrepid team, I spent two days at a most-tranquil setting scuba diving, investigating, recording and taking photos and film of a site that could be anything from a couple of hundred years to a couple of thousand years old. 

Richard Guest explores mysterious timber and rocks around the Loch Achilty crannog: Image: Duncan Ross

Crannogs are a fairly unchartered area in the field of archaeology, and most questions about their creation and the purpose of their locations within lochs remain unanswered and open to speculation. All that usually remains is an artificial island of stones piled on top of one another – artefacts and human traces are frustratingly rare, as are diagnostic patterns that could lead to a method of classification. The crannog centre at Loch Tay focuses on the iron age roundhouse model that was discovered there, but little proof exists that others were constructed and utilised in the same way. The depth of the Loch Achilty crannog, previously unrecorded, is an ultra-accessible 2.5 metres. Needless to say, dive times were extremely long for Richard and myself.

Richard Guest and Duncan Ross prepare to place garden canes around the crannog to aid with measurements. Image: Elizabeth Blackburn

Our investigations revealed the extent of the crannog and also its curious placing on the edge of a slope in the loch. From the base of the stone pile the loch bed disappears down into the dark and cold depths. Amongst interesting discoveries were submerged timbers – some possibly very old – beneath and within the stone pile. By the end of the two days, we had measured the height, depth and circumference of the crannog. As a project of admirable scope, Richard is trying to establish a data base of all freshwater artificial and semi-artificial crannogs within a 400km² area of the Scottish Highlands. One down, and a few more to go! A special mention must be made of NOSAS member Beth’s plucky boat Haggis. The two-person (at the very most) vessel carted us and our gear to-and-from the site (thanks Dave and Steve) countless times, and by the end sprang a leak. James and Liz assisted with their superfast canoe after that. As unstable as she was, Haggis was greatly missed.

The NOSAS team. Haggis can be seen in the lower right corner. Image: Duncan Ross

A touch of serendipity aligned the dates and location of my visit to bonnie Scotland with the summer field school being run by Claire Hallybone of the NAS. Recently being granted a license by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Claire was tasked with surveying and investigating the First World War shipwreck of HMS Natal in order to gain an understanding of the environmental hazards it still may present. The wreck lies at a depth of 16 metres in a channel known as Cromarty Firth.

The cruiser, which exploded on New Years Eve 1915, is an official war grave and the last resting place of around 400 individuals – mostly sailors, but also civilians who were aboard at the time of the sinking. Prior to the field school, Claire undertook sonar scans of the wreck site to gauge what still remained of a once very substantial vessel.

https://canmore.org.uk/site/101920/hms-natal-nigg-bay-cromarty-firth lists a huge amount of salvage and demolition work that has taken place over the years to clear any obstruction to passing ship traffic. Cromarty Firth is a busy waterway, so much so that many of the field school investigative dives in August had to be postponed as vessels left and entered the area. Claire, Crawford, Nick, Carsten, Richard Guest (of NOSAS) and I were ferried to the spot by skipper Dave, to conduct the first dives that have taken place there since the 1970s.

The HMS Natal team just about to head out into Cromarty Firth: Image: Duncan Ross

Due to family commitments, I was only able to join in for two days – but what a two-days! The sun was shining, the conditions were flat calm and the viz was very good (for the UK!). Although the preliminary sonar scan data showed a rather unimpressive faint outline of a ship, beneath the waves it was much more substantial than we’d imagined. Huge warped hull plates and crooked beams protruded from the seabed, some reaching up as much as 2 or 3 metres. There were cogs, gears and countless unidentifiable objects scattered around. Site contamination by modern detritus was also present – an odd number of plastic hardhats, possibly from the local oil rigs, were found. As the site covers a huge area, in our 40-minute dives, we could only achieve so much. The field school continued for the rest of the week without me, and a further week of work ran in September. Look out for updates and reports.

A permanent buoy is moored close to the HMS Natal’s ­resting place. As Royal Navy ships enter and leave the harbour, officers and men stand to attention as a mark of respect. Image: Duncan Ross

During some down-time, I took a stroll up to the cemetery where some of the recovered bodies from HMS Natal are interred. Very few victims were found after the disaster, and out of these only a small portion were actually identified. The Cromarty Easter Burial Ground is, obviously a sombre place, but it is also very beautiful. Perched on the top of a quiet hill, it has an incredibly peaceful ambiance. It felt proper to complete my field school experience with a visit to the resting place of some of those who sadly perished that afternoon.

The Easter Burial Ground, Cromarty. A small number of those recovered from the HMS Natal disaster are buried here. Image: Duncan Ross

So, crannogs, First World War shipwrecks, stunning scenery, new friends, great weather and viz – I think I definitely hit Scotland at the right time, and I’ll certainly be back up that way again at some point. I never imagined I’d be returning from the Highlands with sunburn!

To read what a Norwegian team of scientists have recently discovered about DNA found at a Scottish and an Irish crannog follow the link below:

A website dedicated solely to HMS Natal : https://www.hmsnatal.co.uk/.

Find out more about the NOSAS Crannogs Project here and here.

The above blog is a repost of one appearing originally on the Nautical Archaeology Society Dive Club page. It is made with the kind permission of the author.

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