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Clachtoll Broch Excavations 2017: The First Month

by Dave McBain (Historic Assynt)

Exterior view of the broch

The excavation at Clachtoll broch has been running for just over a month and with each passing day, the excitement seems to be growing. Clachtoll ticks so many boxes in this aging student’s checklist, it’s hard not to ramble on about it.

Carbon dating tells us that two thousand years ago, someone piled stones forty odd foot high – current estimates from the amount of rubble put the broch at 12-14 metres.  I’m far from a pro and not a great judge of distance, so like to describe that as a little higher than a three-storey house. What were they thinking? Was Clachtoll a key location on the West coast in the iron age? Why put what is surely the largest broch on the West coast there?

Image of 3D Model, created from photos taken 31st July (James McComas). Full model at the foot of the post.

The excavation is a community run project. After some frankly amazing fundraising, Historic Assynt have raised enough to get in a team of professionals for not just the dig, but a series of workshops, site tours, a little bit of experimental archaeology – next week, a corbelled cell will be built and potentially some local otters may get a new home as an outcome and most importantly it will result in a legacy attraction (complete with new path created from the spoil heap) for future visitors.

Then there’s the manner of the collapse. Most broch’s fell out of use gradually. For one reason or another, their occupants abandoned them, died out or may even have been removed. Many have suffered a gradual collapse over the years – in some cases tens of centuries after their initial construction.

The belief is, that Clachtoll is different. Like many others it collapsed, but in Clachtoll it might have been catastrophic, contemporary, and conclusive enough to prevent re-entry or re-use. Continue reading

Walking the old “Fish Road”: Aultguish Inn to Little Garve Bridge

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

The road on the higher ground looking west.

This field visit on 25th June 2017 was by way of a “reccy”; the intention was to prospect the route with a view to including it in the proposed publication “Old Routes in the Highlands”, part of the NOSAS 20 year celebrations. What we know as the “Fish road” was constructed between 1792 and 1797 to provide a land link for the newly established settlement of Ullapool to the “outside” world; it was funded by the British Fisheries Society . The road is known as the “Fish road” but whether or not fish were transported along it is debatable , however in 1794 the Old Statistical Account of Loch Boom Parish reports; “there is an excellent road betwixt Ullapool and the town of Dingwall and it is now nearly finished, where lately nothing could be carried but in creels on horseback, carts and carriages can now travel with the greatest of ease.”

Brief History

A route between Contin and Ullapool has almost certainly been in existence since prehistoric times. In the 17th and 18th century the route was one of the drove routes from the west to the markets in the east and south. ARB Haldane, in “The Drove Roads of Scotland” has:

Pennant in 1772 noted that in the Loch Broom district the sale of black cattle to drovers from as far south as Craven in Yorkshire was the chief support of the people. For these the only practicable route to the south was by Strath Garve to Muir of Ord.
……to Poolewe or to points on the nearby coast came the cattle of Lewis……many of these landed at Aultbea and Gruinard went up the valley of the Gruinard River ….and so by hill tracks to join either the road from Ullapool to Dingwall or that from Achnasheen to Garve…. From Braemore the beasts were driven east to Garve and Dingwall but two deviations from the main road were used by the drovers……one of these turned due south from the main road near Altguish and crossed the forest of Corriemoillie to Garve so shortening the distance and keeping the beasts on the soft ground where grazing was available. The other short cut left the Ullapool Garve road near Inchbae Lodge and crossing the saddle between Ben Wyvis and Little Wyvis re-joined the road to Dingwall at Achterneed.

The settlement of Ullapool was established by the British Fisheries Society between 1788 and 1790. The necessity of a road linking Ullapool with the east coast had been recognised for many years. Captain John Forbes in his Report (on Coigach) for the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates 1755 says;

The roads to and through this country (Coigach) may be reckoned amongst the worst in the Highlands of Scotland, being mountainous rocky and full of stones, and no bridges upon the rivers, so that nothing but necessity makes strangers resort here and for the great part of the year it is almost inaccessible …. the making of a road from Loch Broom to Dingwall ……. would contribute greatly towards the civilizing of this country by reason of intercourse and trade that could be carried on twixt the east and west coasts which is at present impracticable.

John Knox travelling in the Highlands in 1786 on behalf of the British Fisheries Society found no roads in Sutherland, Caithness and Ross-shire (failing apparently to notice the short lived road from Contin to Poolewe!). His criticisms were not without results, for a few years later the British Fisheries Society decided, with Parliaments support, to undertake the construction of a road from Contin to the fishing village of Ullapool. The road was surveyed by George Brown of Elgin about 1790 and the estimated cost was little short of £8,000 which the government considered excessive. Kenneth Mackenzie of Torridon offered to undertake the work, influenced as he later wrote by “the avidity for labour and the necessities of the poor” and in the Spring of 1792 a contract to make 40 miles of road, at fourpence to eightpence a yard according to the nature of the ground and a large number of bridges was entered into. This road was completed in 1797 at a total cost of £4,582……”But Mackenzie’s road fell quickly into disrepair…….. only 12 years later Telford and his colleagues were faced with a demand for renewal.” (New Ways through the Glens, ARB Haldane, 1962)

By 1835 the NSA for the Parish of Loch Broom has:

About 40 years ago a road was constructed at a great expense from Dingwall to Ullapool …. But the line chosen was so absurd and the execution so wretched that the road has been for many years back not only useless but dangerous to foot passengers and riders on horseback, and to wheel carriages almost impassable while several of the principal bridges are carried away or threatened with being so. A new road with the requisite bridges would be an immense improvement.

Telford’s new road, which took the line of the present road, was completed in 1840.

Arrowsmith map, 1807

Continue reading

A few disconnected thoughts after the NOSAS trip to Tiree June 2017

by John Wombell (NOSAS)

Intertidal track ways on the Caolas peninsular

One of the intertidal track ways at Poll a Chrosan, Caolas

This is the first time that I have been aware of such features anywhere in the highlands or on other Scottish islands.  The Caolas track ways are all about 2m wide where stones have been shifted left and right through the intertidal boulder spreads and outcrops to avoid lengthy routes around the hags over the soft and fragile swards of the saltings on the high water mark.

On the east side of Fadamull islet which is connected to the main island by a tombolo (a gravel bar covered at high tide) we found 7 cleared boat landing places most of which were connected to a naturally clear beach where boats could be pulled right up out of the water by a cleared track way that ran parallel to the shore.    Otherwise the cleared landing places stopped short of the high tide mark – all rather strange as we don’t know what they were for.   There are more than a dozen short lengths of seaweed drying walls on the islet but only one possible burning pit.  Our thinking meantime is that the cleared landings were used to beach heavily laden small boats stacked to the gunwales with seaweed after which they were unloaded into carts or panniers using the intertidal track way off the sterns of the boats.  Smart thinking as taking heavy wet seaweed off the sides of a small boat and staggering up a rocky beach with it would not have been very efficient.  Whether this arrangement was purely associated with burning seaweed to produce kelp (soda ash) or for landing seaweed to be used as manure we don’t know.  A bit of both maybe?  Possibly also associated with the time when the iodine factory was functioning and calling for large supplies of seaweed.

Cleared boat landing places Fadamull islet Caolas

Walls in the intertidal area Lon Fhadamuill, Caoloas

Seaweed use as a manure was very important well into the 20th century for many coastal communities.  Seaweed provides a readily available source of nitrogen and potassium i.e. it isn’t locked up in an insoluble form, but there is next to no phosphorous in seaweed.  Seaweed has no lasting manurial effect and must be applied annually.  Animal dung is the best natural source of phosphorous and either the arable land had to be rested and grazed on rotation or dung spread periodically on the land to maintain levels of phosphorous essential for plant growth. Continued cereal cropping using seaweed as the only manure soon results in falling yields.

At several locations around the island we found plenty of drying wall evidence but few or no burning pits nearby.  Maybe all traces of the pits had been removed during subsequent land improvement or the seaweed was being taken to a central township location for burning?  Other places had pits by the dozen. Continue reading

Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) – Progress so far

SCRAP banner

The story of the Project and NOSAS’s involvement up to the end of May 2017

by Alan Thompson (NOSAS)

Background to the Project and NOSAS involvement

Scotland’s Rock Art Project is a five-year project to record and research prehistoric rock art. The scheme is run by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The aim of the project is to improve understanding and awareness of Scotland’s rock art through research.  In order to research the carvings, we need to first develop a comprehensive, detailed record of where they are and what they look like.

As many of you will already know, NOSAS is a partner in this project.  Our specific role in 2017 is to work with Tertia Barnett and her team to pilot and test the recording methods to be used.  Beyond that we will be one of a number of Community groups recording rock art across Scotland.

As with all such projects, there is a challenge in ensuring that small groups, working independently in the field, make their records in a sufficiently consistent and comprehensive way that the results are meaningful for analysis by Tertia and her academic partners.

Tertia has extensive experience in recording rock art in England, including in the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project (NADRAP).  At that time photogrammetry was still somewhat specialised and could only be used selectively, but despite that some great results were obtained demonstrating that rock art is an ideal subject for photogrammetry.  The progress of technology since then means that our project will major on the use of photogrammetry – we intend that all panels (each discrete exposure of a piece of rock art is called a panel) should be recorded this way.

Tertia also plans an App for recording, the idea being similar to that used by the Scharp/Scape project which some of you have used.  That will take a little time to specify and program, and so in the meanwhile (for the pilot work) we are using paper forms.

Discussing how to record this CMS. (Photo Anne Cockroft)

NOSAS Involvement in the Pilot Project

NOSAS has committed to work with Tertia to record enough panels in our local area in 2017 to fully test the methods she is developing.  35 members have indicated an interest and most of these have already become involved.  If other members are interested they should contact John Wombell or Alan Thompson.

Progress to date

The project is now underway.  We have held two ‘familiarisation’ afternoons at Clava, plus training sessions with Tertia at Dingwall and Drumore. Continue reading

Kinbeachie Castle or “Kinbeachies House”?

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

NOSAS members carried out a measured survey of a site at Kinbeachie on the Black Isle using planetables at the beginning of March, the project also included photographing the site using an aerial drone fly-over. The site is known as “Kinbeachie Castle”; it includes not only the amorphous linear banks thought to be the castle but also a farmstead of 4 buildings and a horse-gang. The remains of the farmstead were obvious, but our initial investigations of Canmore and the HC Historic Environment Record indicated that there was also a typical 18th century “lairds house” there; see photo below, taken in 1959. So was there a castle or a house at the site?Kinbeachie typical 18th century “lairds house”

The small estate of Kinbeachie, amounting to “a half davoch”, is located in the northwest part of the Black Isle overlooking the Cromarty Firth. Today it is productive arable land but in the 16th century there are references to “the King (James IV) hunting in the woodland along the Kinbeakie Burn”.  The area of Kinbeachie has almost certainly been associated with the Urquhart family of Cromarty from this time and the family of Urquhart of Kinbeachie itself from the mid-17th century. Research into this family was to be part of the project.

Brief Description of the site

The site covers an area, 70m x 50m, of rough grassland in the corner of a field. It comprises 2 parts;

  1. The central part thought to be the site of the castle; the remains here are most substantial in the NW part where the footings of two walls up to 1m in height are at right angles to one another. To the SE there are two indistinct parallel banks which terminate in linear stone settings
  2. The farmstead comprises the footings of 4 (possibly 5) rectangular buildings, a horse gang and a semi-circular yard. The buildings have turf covered stone walls up to 0.5-0.7m height and measure between 10-14m x 4m internally. The horse gang platform is 11.5m diameter. The semi-circular yard is 50m NW-SE x 25m NE-SW and bounded on its curving SW side by a discontinuous sloping retaining wall which has stone facing in places and is generally 0.7m in height.

1st Edition OS map

The site viewed from the SE

Continue reading

Adventures in Arboll: An Abandoned Township on the Tarbat Peninsula

by Karen Clarke (NOSAS)

The area between Inver and Portmahomack (OS 1:50,000)

NOSAS members John Wombell and Jonie Guest have been organising a series of Ad Hoc coastal walks.  The purpose of these walks is to observe and survey sections of coastline particularly after winter storms in order to interpret, record and note the condition of newly exposed archaeology, also to revisit and record possible threats to known structures and update the Scotland Coastal at Risk Project (SCARP) data base.  There had been a great deal of Second World War (WW2) activity along this section of the Coast.  Military activity continues even now with proximate areas requisitioned as bombing ranges.  In January 2017 we walked between Dornoch Golf Course Car Park and Dornoch Bridge mainly recording the WW2 Anti Glider Poles.  On 1st February 2017 John Wombell and Meryl Marshall led a group between Inver and Portmohomack, Tarbat Ness.  Tarbat derives from the Gaelic for Isthmus but the area it comprises is perhaps better described as a peninsula.

One township of particular interest to us was the proximate long abandoned Arboll (NH 8835 8283, HER ref. MHG8523  Canmore ID 15318) which can be seen on Google Earth reasonably well.  Meryl Marshall and NOSAS volunteers had part recorded this in 2003.  Meryl was keen to continue with her re-creation of the township.  Arboll now refers to several scattered farms 10km East of Tain a short distance inland from the Dornoch Firth.  Information with respect to the township of Arboll’s early history and eventual abandonment is sparse however David Findlay, NOSAS member and proximate resident, kindly sourced some maps and historical references.  The 1984 Ross-Cromarty Book of the Northern Times Ltd suggests that the name Arboll derives from the Old Norse ‘bolstadr’ meaning a homestead with the first element of the name, also Norse, meaning Ark or Seal.  Place names of Easter Ross also informs us that Arboll (Arkboll 1463 and 1535) is Norse ork-bol or ark-stead but perhaps orkin meaning seal.

Arboll township as seen via satellite on Google Maps

Continue reading

Introducing Rosemarkie Man: A Pictish Period Cave Burial on the Black Isle

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The Pictish period skeletal remains, c . 430 – 630 AD, of a robust young man with severe cranial and facial injuries was found by archaeologists in a cave on the Black Isle in 2016. As has been widely reported, a facial reconstruction of the man was later produced by Dame Sue Black and her team at the University of Dundee. This is an account of the story from a digger’s perspective.

Rosemarkie Man fully revealed (J McComas)

Rosemarkie Man fully revealed.

The Rosemarkie Caves Project (RCP), founded and led by Simon Gunn as a part of NOSAS, has since 2006 investigated the archaeological potential of a range of 19 caves on a 2.5 mile stretch of coast north of Rosemarkie. Activities have included comprehensive surveys, test pitting and fuller excavations (see our earlier blog post for an introduction).

In September 2016 it was decided that a full two week excavation would be carried out at “Cave 2B” where previous test pitting results had been revealing some interesting results. Here animal bone and charcoal excavated from depth of over one metre had yielded calibrated radio carbon dates of 600 – 770 AD, which is generally regarded as the Pictish period in Scotland. In addition this particular cave also had an unusual built wall structure spanning its entrance. It was felt by the RCP Committee that these factors made it a prime site for more detailed excavation.

Cavefull (JMcComas)

View of the cave towards of end of the 2016 excavation. The excavation area had now been divided into quadrants. Note the substantial wall in the entrance.

The Rosemarkie Caves Project was extremely fortunate to have experienced professional archaeologist Steve Birch volunteer to direct the excavation full time. In addition Mary Peteranna was also in attendance on a number of days when her duties as Operations Manager at AOC Archaeology would allow. I had signed up as a volunteer for almost the full term along with the rest of a small but enthusiastic team.

What was meant to be the final day of the dig started like any other.  We had already had a successful two weeks, having identified a potentially important iron working site. That morning I was hoping to be able take out a section in the wall entrance in pursuit of a possible slot feature there. However I was somewhat disappointed to be deployed in the NW quadrant at the back of the cave, where a cobbled surface had previously been removed and a depth of midden material still remained to be worked back. Continue reading