by Richard Guest
The Crannogs project has now been running for a couple of years. Starting as a desktop exercise, we have now progressed to some site investigation and have managed a couple of dives.
A second phase of desktop study is underway and a picture of potential crannog occurrence in Wester Ross, Lochaber and Badenoch is beginning to emerge. Wester Ross has been a real challenge to study, with literally thousands of lochs and lochans, liberally scattered with innumerable islands. Many of these will be natural and picking out those which may be man made is no easy task.
Loch Achilty crannog (HER MHG7791, Canmore 12472) being easily accessible, had already been snorkelled and this verified that it was an artificial island, so it was chosen as the first proper dive. Duncan Ross from the Nautical Archaeology Society joined me for two days diving in August and you can find his blog on the experience elsewhere on the website, so I will not go into too much detail. Travelling in the good ship “Haggis” of the Blackburn line, (a tiny rowing boat ably skippered by Dave Coombs) escorted by the canoes of James McComas and Steve North, we made landfall on the crannog, donned our dive gear and plunged in.
We were able to find several substantial timbers embedded in the silt at the base of the stone mound, at a depth of only about two metres. What these are, is open to debate but some of them appear to go underneath the stones so are probably part of the original construction. There is certainly the potential to take a small sample for carbon dating and the NOSAS committee will need to decide whether the project is to go in this direction, or whether we continue to just observe and survey.
The island was surveyed both above and below water so we have a picture of the full extent of the artificial mound.
NOSAS was fortunate to recruit a new member in the autumn, Andrew Newton, a qualified diver. Now that I have a dive buddy in the society the potential for further exploration is greatly increased and at the earliest opportunity, we headed for Loch Glass for our first dive together.
James again provided canoe transport and we were grateful to the Wyvis estate office for permission to drive up the estate road with the canoe and our heavy dive gear.
Loch Glass crannog (HER MHG8939, Canmore 12980) proved to be a little different from Achilty although it shared the same basic construction – a heap of stones tipped in the water until they just break surface. This time the stones were bigger and the angle of slope much steeper. Although on the surface it looked quite small, there was an extensive, fairly level platform just below water level. It is likely that the loch level has been raised slightly (there is a low weir in the river forming the outlet) so this platform was probably above water at one time. There were ephemeral remains suggesting a possible structure on the top.
Underwater, although there were several timbers, some of which showed evidence of joinery work, we were not convinced there were part of the crannog as they were lying on top of the stones and did not appear to be of any great age. They could however have been part of a structure formerly on top of the stone mound. Disappointingly we found nothing which could help to date the crannog. One thing of interest on the loch bed, running past the crannog, was an old armoured electricity cable which we surmised ran from an early hydro electric installation at the outlet, to the lodge at the head of the loch. Whilst not related to the crannog it is still a piece of archaeology telling of past human activity.
Data on the Loch Glass crannog is scarce. It is included in Canmore on the basis of an entry in the Old Statistical Account by Rev. H. Robertson in 1791 who said “one of the lairds of Foulis had formerly a summer house.” (Did our joinery timbers belong to this?) It was listed by the antiquarian R. Munro in 1882. Later, in 1921 it was recorded by H. Fraser, who had information from the great grandson of the Foulis forester Seamus Ban. He said a tradition existed that the island was built as a water-fowl refuge 150 years before, which would date it to about 1770. Presumably the island’s gaelic name, Eilean na Faoileig, derives from this. The huge volume of stone used in construction seems an excessive effort to undertake just to build an island for birds, so I can’t help but wonder if the eighteenth-century use was built on much earlier foundations.
The unusually mild Autumn allowed us to dive Loch Glass on a beautiful day and in anticipation of the good weather continuing we planned a dive to another potential crannog in early December. This was in Loch Sgamhain between Achnasheen and Strathcarron, where there is a small island, not on the archaeological record, which is very crannog-like in appearance. Sadly it was not to be. The first snow of winter arrived with prolonged sub-zero temperatures. This project is, after all, meant to be fun, not an exercise in winter survival techniques, so sub-aqua plans are now shelved until the spring.
Excellent work … thanks for the updates and great images!