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North of Scotland Archaeological Society - blog department

Digging the Pictish Fort at Burghead

by Anji Hancock (NOSAS)

My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent excavations.

The original fort occupied over 7 acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.

However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’  (Photo Anji Hancock)

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy MacIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy with the copper-alloy finger ring (photo Northern Picts).

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Bobbin Mills in the North of Scotland

by Joanna Gilliatt (Woodland Heritage Researcher, Ancient Woodland Restoration Project)

Introduction

Back in July 2015 there was a NOSAS blog post about the South Kinrara Bobbin Mill, which included pictures of the mill, showed its location on the 1st edition OS map, and identified who ran the mill and when.

Coincidentally, it was this very bobbin mill which had set me off on researching bobbin mills in the north of Scotland, back in August 2014. I had just started work as a volunteer researcher with the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Woodland Restoration project and had spotted the South Kinrara Bobbin Mill on the 1st edition OS map, and decided to find out more about it.

Now I am nearing the end of my bobbin mill research, 3½ years later, so this is a good time to provide an update on my findings.

The Ancient Woodland Restoration project

Ancient woodlands are areas which are shown having woodland cover on the earliest maps (1750 in Scotland) and have had woodland cover continuously ever since. As a result of their longevity, these woodlands tend to have a strong natural and cultural heritage and they provide a home for a complex range of wildlife, including rare species of both plants and animals, with some of these species found exclusively on ancient woodland sites.

Ancient Woodland is increasingly under threat, and the aim of the Ancient Woodland Restoration project (which ran from 2014 to March 2018) was to work to restore areas of ancient woodland which were planted with non-native conifers in the period after the 2nd World War – areas known as PAWS (Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites).

In ten priority areas across the UK, including two in Scotland, Project Officers worked to advise owners and managers about the special characteristics of their woodland, discussed the need for restoration and how to undertake it, and then supported the landowners and managers through the process of restoration.

Volunteer researchers were also involved, as part of the Woodland Heritage strand of the project, with the aim of contributing towards the body of knowledge about the history and cultural significance of our ancient woodlands.

In Scotland ancient woodland is normally considered to consist of remnants of the Caledonian pine forest, with the predominant species being Scots pine. However, upland birch woods contribute 29% of native woodlands in Scotland and many of these upland sites are ancient birch woods. So that’s where my research comes in – contributing to knowledge about the history and cultural significance of the birch woods.

As I come towards the end of my research, I now know that South Kinrara was just one of 88 bobbin mills – and other turning mills which made bobbins – which operated in the north of Scotland (loosely defined as north of Perth) over the 150 years between 1830 and 1980.

Bobbins from Stott Park Bobbin Mill – hazel, birch ash, rowan and alder

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Stony Testaments – Gravestone Recording and Surveying in Kiltearn Ancient Kirkyard

by Karen Clarke ( NOSAS)

Standing Building Survey of E Wall Showing Remains of Curved Window to Left.  (K. Clarke).

Gravestones seem to speak to us.  Although they are not always an accurate historical record they provide valuable family, community, social and economic information.  There is merit in documenting them to form permanent archives for historical and ancestral research purposes especially as they are so vulnerable to damage from weather and desecration. Burial grounds are also of interest to visitors and tourists.

Recording within cemeteries can be a controversial activity. Institutions, communities and most importantly relatives and friends of the deceased may have strong views about what, if any, disturbance is appropriate especially when it involves moving memorials from their original site.  Exposing turf covered stones without due care, attempting to read lichen covered or laminated stones may damage them and lead to future harm from the elements and cemetery maintenance.  Others take the view that much archaeological investigation involves some disturbance and as memorial stones are supposed to be read and the grave occupants remembered if stones are carefully revealed by trained individuals using similar techniques to those employed to record rock art thousands of years old it is perhaps acceptable.  There is no doubt that a great many interesting memorials lie beneath the turf.  Discretion, respect and the approval of the community should be taken into consideration before embarking on any gravestone recording project.

Tranquil Kiltearn kirkyard was the scene of approved activity during 2017 to record memorials in the ancient burial ground and survey the ruined chapel.  This was organised by Evanton Community Trust (www.ect.scot).  They were joined by some of the Kiltearn Community, Friends of Arch (www.Arch.co.uk) and members of Nosas (www.Nosas.co.uk).

Table Tomb in Kiltearn Ancient Burial Ground Looking E to Cromarty Firth.  (K. Clarke).

During the 1970’s concern about the dereliction of London graveyards led to an interest in graveyard conservation.  Highgate Cemetery is a well-documented example.

Betty Willsher, an acknowledged authority on Scottish Cemeteries, conducted research, mainly in the South of Scotland whilst drawing attention to Highland Graveyards encouraging appreciation of their cultural significance and vulnerability and calling for greater community involvement in their preservation.

Whilst recording at Kiltearn we were approached by local people and visitors from England, America and South Africa seeking the graves of relatives or an ancestor of the 5th President of America.   We conducted many impromptu tours and received valuable information from visitors – it was truly a community project managed by Susan Kruse MBE of Arch and Nosas member. Continue reading

TARRADALE THROUGH TIME: community engagement with archaeology in the Highlands

by Dr Eric Grant (NOSAS)

Trench 2B at Tarradale during excavations in October 2017.

Background to Tarradale through time

This blog sets out some of the recent developments in the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project (see website), a NOSAS led project that commenced in 2017 and is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Environment Scotland and private donors. TARRADALE THROUGH TIME grew out of the earlier Tarradale Archaeological Project which is still ongoing as a mainly field walking and data gathering exercise – see Tarradale Archaeological Project blog . Field walking over the last few years has produced a great deal of data which has been recorded and mapped and the patterns emerging from mapping and analysis suggest that there were several important archaeological sites within the Tarradale study area that merited further investigation. A detailed research project was drawn up as a multiperiod investigation and given the name of TARRADALE THROUGH TIME. The sub title of the project is community engagement with archaeology in the Highlands, as one of the aims of TARRADALE THROUGH TIME is to engage with the local community in order to widen access to heritage through research and understanding and to underline the premise that archaeology belongs to the community and not just to the archaeologists who explore it. The Tarradale Through Time website can be found at www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk.

Community volunteers at the Tarradale castle site excavations, September 2017.

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the project a grant in 2017 and additional funding for specific aspects of the project was sought from Historic Environment Scotland. TARRADALE THROUGH TIME is focusing on five specific subproject areas for excavation and one subproject for detailed surface survey. These were chosen to give as wide a chronological range as possible in order to investigate the relationship between the inhabitants of the Tarradale area with their environment and landscape through time. The currently formulated subprojects are

  • investigating through test pitting and larger scale excavation Mesolithic (and potentially later) shell middens
  • a large barrow cemetery potentially dating from Bronze Age to Pictish
  • a large ditched enclosure with internal structures also likely to date from Bronze Age to Pictish
  • a small Inland promontory fort of unknown age
  • a ditch defended enclosed settlement of possible medieval date
  • the site of the historically recorded Tarradale Castle but whose exact location is unknown
  • surface survey and investigation of deserted postmediaeval agricultural townships or settlement clusters.

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Buntait, Glenurquhart: A Bronze Age Landscape?

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The larger barrow at Buntait – feature ‘X’ on the map below.

Although I have lived in Glen Urquhart for some years, it was only comparatively recently that I first visited Buntait, a hamlet just to the north of the Clava type chambered cairn at Corrimony. This was despite me hearing from a number of local people about the amount of upstanding archaeology that was there. I think I must have presumed that because there are no scheduled monuments there it could not be that interesting – an assumption I will not be making in the future. Later research confirmed that Buntait is in fact full of prehistoric (and post medieval) features – including hut circles, field systems, burnt mounds and rock art. Not only are the field systems extensive and some of the hut circles very well preserved, but also there are a couple of ditched barrow features. Locally, only Garbeg is comparable in terms of prehistoric remains.

Consequently Buntait became the subject of three archaeological field trips in 2017; two led by NOSAS, and one as part of the Archaeology Scotland Summer School planned with the assistance of NOSAS. There were also numerous smaller sorties for quadcopter flying, polecam photogrammetry, rock art recording (for SCRAP) and general investigation.

OS map of Buntait annotated with huts, barrows and buildings in red, cairns in green and dykes in brown. Blue dots show the location of records on Canmore. BM = burnt mound.

NOSAS field visit to Buntait January 2017

“The Glenurqhuart Story” by Alistair Mackell published in 1982, provides a useful if perhaps now outdated introduction:

Not far from the Corrimony Burial Cairn, on Buntait lands, was a settlement of some considerable size where clearly marked hut circles and cairns suggest a community practising primitive agriculture and a boundary wall, which can still be traced, may have served to protect domestic animals from prowling wolves or other marauding wild animals. Some of these circles are 30 feet in diameter and in the centre of at least one, is a depression which may have been a fireplace. These circles are low banks of stones covered with grass or heather about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide at the base. It is difficult to imagine one large roof covering such an expanse, but if so, it would probably have been formed of wattles and thatched with heather or turf, giving, when complete, a dome – shaped appearance. In each case there is a break in the circle at the south east which indicates the entrance. In other parts of Scotland where these structures have been carefully examined, hearth paving stones have been discovered, but we are unable to reconstruct much of the everyday life of the people of these long bygone days, and we can merely conjecture that they combined hunting with their primitive agriculture, for the Highlands were rich in wildlife.

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Jim Bone: Aerial Photography of Archaeological Sites

Jim is a founder member of NOSAS which is celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018. He is known in the Highlands for providing important aerial photos of numerous archaeological sites over many years. This is his story.

Aerial photograph of Mulchaich, Ross-shire. The settlement , distillery and chambered cairn at Mulchaich were the subject of NOSAS projects between 2009 and 2013. See the blog post.

It appears to me that people can be divided into two categories – those who love flying, and those who do not.  Brought up in close proximity to Prestwick Airport, I recall watching aircraft there, and determined that I would one day find out more about aviation.  Inspired by a selection of Biggles books, I joined the local ATC (Air Training Corps) squadron, enabling me to sample flight for the first time in 1950 in an elderly Anson.  Military aircraft have a distinctive odour of aluminium and oil, complemented in this case by an off-putting whiff of vomit, but I enjoyed this first ‘air experience’ flight along the Ayrshire coast.  For the next flight, I borrowed a folding camera, and tried a few shots through the rather scratched Perspex window.  Surprisingly, the results came out quite clearly, and another interest was born.

Going to University in Glasgow, I lost no time in finding the HQ of the University Air Squadron (GUAS), and was fortunate enough to be accepted as a Cadet Pilot in the RAFVR.  This offered a high standard of flying training, during 1953-7, provided by experienced RAF instructors at Scone Airfield outside Perth.  Our Chipmunk aircraft was state of the art at that time, but cameras were not encouraged on training sorties.  At the end of my four years, I asked if I could take a camera with me on a dual flight with my instructor, having noticed some archaeological sites which I wanted to photograph.  By opening the hood, I was able to take quite a good shot of a hill fort to the south of Perth, which presaged further attempts in later years.  The Squadron experience qualified me for a Preliminary Flying Badge – a sort of junior wings – and allowed me to apply for a Private Pilot’s Licence, costing a very reasonable ten shillings, when I left the unit. Continue reading

Surveying Isle Ewe, Wester Ross

by Anne MacInnes (NOSAS)

Aerial of Isle Ewe from Canmore

Isle Ewe is centred on NG 85046 88444 and lies within Loch Ewe just off the coast at Aultbea.

It was surveyed as part of an ongoing project to survey islands in the Gairloch parish area that have been inhabited. It is the largest of these islands comprising 764 acres and stretching roughly two miles from NW to SE. It is an island of two halves due to the geology. The NW consisting of Torridonian sandstone is higher, rockier with rough uncultivated grazing, whereas the SE consisting of deposited New Red sandstone has gentler contours with  improved arable pasture. The SE is also sheltered from the prevailing NW winds.

The earliest reference that I could find about the island was from 1583 when Nicolay refers to Loch Ew and the island. There are various references after this with differing spellings and Roy’s map of 1747 shows two settlements on the island. The island has been settled since the bronze/iron age as I found 5 roundhouses on the island and there could be more as the N end of the island is covered with rank heather overlying deep moss. At times it felt like I was swimming across the landscape, about to disappear never to be found.

Roy Map Isle Ewe

The island is still inhabited by the Grant family without whose help the survey would not have happened.

The full report on the survey can be found on the NOSAS website under ‘past surveys and reports’ so rather than repeat everything I will highlight some of my favourite moments.

The logistics of getting to the island involved constant communication with the Grants about the weather and once on the island a watchful eye was kept on the conditions. They picked me up from Aultbea and ferried me across to various landing points depending on where I was surveying which eventually took about ten trips. I find myself still going back as various queries crop up about more sites as they notice the island through different eyes.

Footings of building at N. settlement marked on Roy’s map

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