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North of Scotland Archaeological Society - blog department

Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past

by Susan Kruse (ARCH and NOSAS)

Thanks to funding from Historic Environment Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, ARCH launched an exciting project ‘Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past’ in October 2017. The project had three main strands. In the first year, 13 experimental archaeology days and 10 school visits took place where craftspeople demonstrated and explained different technologies used in the past. The workshops were filmed and the edited videos and blogs for each workshop can be accessed on the ARCH website.

Jim Glazzard at the Viking ring silver workshop

In the second year, the objects resulting from these workshops will then be used to create loans boxes which will be freely available to borrow. Our workshop leaders often generously provided more than one object. An archaeologist and teacher will now work together to create learning materials, so that the loans box and videos of the experimental sessions can be used in schools and other groups. The project already has attracted a wide and diverse audience, and we hope that the loans boxes will also contribute to this legacy.

The idea for the project emerged from North Kessock & District Local History Society’s Feats of Clay project, where ARCH helped facilitate a visit by Neil Burridge who demonstrated Bronze Age metalworking. Everyone in the audience was caught up in the excitement of the day, and learned so much about how objects were made, what raw materials were needed, and how craftsmen in the past managed without gauges and modern equipment.

Neil Burridge at the Bronze Metaworking workshop

In the first year 13 workshops took place, one a month, each showcasing a skill from the past, spanning from earliest settlers to more recent times. The workshops were exciting to attend, but were also filmed. Continue reading

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The Lovat Estate Map Project

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

©Colin Prior

In 1756 a young man had been sent by his employers to Coigach, a rough, remote area on the west coast of Scotland, just north of Ullapool. He wrote to those employers on 21st July:

The estate of Coigach is a very large country, and the subject difficult and tedious to measure, being little else but high mountains with scattered woods, steep rocky places, and a number of lochs in the valleys, which with the great distance there is between houses makes me obliged to sleep in the open fields for several nights together, which is dangerous in a climate where so much rain falls. I wish (you)  would condescend to allow me a tent or otherwise I’ll have great difficulty to go through. There is no such thing as sleeping in their houses in the summer time, they are so full of vermin[1].

The man was Peter May, an Aberdeenshire land surveyor, and his employers were the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates. After Culloden the British (London!) government forfeited, and therefore took possession of, the estates that had “come out” in the 1745 rebellion. Six years later an annexing Act was passed, in 1752, and three years later the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates finally met. They wanted to know what lands they now administered, and also wanted to improve the economic performance of those lands. They therefore appointed land surveyors for the main 13 estates that were their responsibility, including the estates of Cromartie (the Mackenzie Estate, and hence Coigach) and Lovat. Peter May was appointed to these two estates, and produced a series of maps, surveying the entirety of the estate ground.

The archaeology of Urchany.

Urchany on the 1757 Peter May map.

I had seen a hand-drawn copy of one of these Peter May maps, pertaining to the Barony of Kilmorack, when NOSAS had undertaken a survey of the lands of Urchany, a multi-period deserted settlement west of Beauly. I was keen to see and study the original, which was said to be in the Lovat Estate offices in Beauly. After a little persistence, I was allowed to look at the map, which was a valuable experience. I then realised that the office contained many more maps that could also be relevant to the survey. Not all of the maps were known, even to the estate manager. I asked him if I could  catalogue and therefore research the whole map archive. He said yes! Continue reading

A Lonely Linear Line of Communication

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

On a recent hillwalk in the remote hills to the south of Scatwell/Strathconon, we came across a line of derelict telephone poles. The poles “marched” (with various atitudes!) over the hill towards Loch Orrin; an unusual feature at an altitude of between 330m and 430m – why were they there? what was their purpose? and when? We were keen to find out.

Lines of telephone poles are, or were at one time, a bit of a blight on the landscape but now we see fewer of them and they are rapidly becoming a “thing of the past” as more phone lines are buried underground. One could argue that they are not of archaeological importance, but they are certainly part of our history. We decided to record these poles and investigate.

The poles are located 4kms south of Scatwell House and stretch for c1.5kms from Loch an Fheoir (NE end GR – NH 3939 5326) to Loch Aradaidh (SW end – NH 3862 5255), following the line of the well-made estate track from Scatwell over to Glen Orrin. Ten disused poles in various states of preservation were seen, most were upright but some had fallen and others were at jaunty angles. The poles are of timber and generally 12cms in diameter and up to 5m in height; many had wire stays. Most had a single step-iron near the top and metal discs with identification numerals. Only one had a timber cross-piece with ceramic insulators near the top, all however had the notch for the cross-piece. Continue reading

Rosemarkie Caves Excavations: Interpreting the results of three years of excavations – 2016 to 2018

by Steven Birch

This article is a repost from the Rosemarkie Caves Website – see original here.

June 2018 saw a strong team from the Rosemarkie Caves Project carry out a third consecutive season of excavation in a group of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. The fieldwork took place in two of the Learnie Caves, continuing the excavations to investigate cave function in Learnie 1A and Learnie 1B (Dead Horse Cave). The caves are located in the same headland below Learnie Farm, which also houses Smelter’s Cave (Learnie 2B), where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made in 2016 (see previous blog posts here and here), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metalworking.

As in previous excavations, some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th to early 20th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, sherds of window glass and worked bone/horn. The excellent preservation found in many of these caves also produced other organic remains including worked wood in Dead Horse Cave. Some of the more recognisable wood elements comprised fragments of roundwood around 6-8mm in diameter, some of which had trimmed ends. Further analysis of these finds is required, but it is possible that some of this material derives from the manufacture of baskets or fish traps. Other artefacts associated with this period of use included ceramics, bottle glass, a metal spoon, knife blades and handles, the remains of a small penknife including a part of the finely decorated bone handle, iron fittings, bone and mother of pearl buttons, several potential stone tools, and the ubiquitous clay pipe fragments. Several objects manufactured from copper alloy were also recovered including studs, pins, three low-denomination coins and fragments from an oil or paraffin lamp. In the upper levels of Learnie 1A, we recovered a large number of old shotgun cartridges, which may have been used to shoot rabbits and birds (the recent analysis of the animal bones from previous year’s excavations by Karen Kennedy has indicated high numbers of rabbit bones in the faunal assemblage from this period).

Composite pipe fragment from Learnie 1B.

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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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