Category Archives: Archaeology by Location

Isle Martin Burial Ground: An Investigation

By Cathy Dagg

Back on a lovely sunny weekend in May, which many of you will remember, NoSAS came over to Isle Martin to do some fossicking and recording in the burial ground, of which more later.

For those of you who didn’t get to visit, Isle Martin is a small island in community ownership just north of Ullapool, with a rich history associated with curing of herring in the 18th century. The island’s name suggests a dedication to St Martin, but it is more likely to be an anglicisation of the Gaelic Eilean Martaich: ‘island of the pine marten’. Locals refer to ‘the Isle of Martin’ but never to ‘St Martin’s Isle’. But there is a small burial ground, with a couple of early cross-carved stones, a burial aisle on or near the probable remains of a chapel.

When I started writing this blog about what we discovered, I thought I’d start by chasing up all the previous references to the burial ground and the carved stones. Casual mentions in old guide books of stones covered in hieroglyphics, memories of being shown ‘the other carved stone’….. obviously there was a lot more to the burial ground than what was now visible.

The story so far

1. 1775. The earliest reference to the burial round on Isle Martin is in the instrument of sasine granting the ten scots acres to John Woodhouse of Liverpool and ensuring ‘liberty to those having right of burying within the spot of ground marked B on said plan (drawn by William Morrison surveyor of land, in National Archive but not yet seen)

2. 1886. Ordnance Survey Name Book gives: Clach Fear Eillean Mhartain – Applies to a stone situated on Isle Martin about quarter of a mile westward of Rhuda Beag about quarter of a mile east of Camus a’ Bhuaibidh. The name means “Stone of the Man of Isle Martin” on account of an owner or inhabitant of the Island at a remote period having been buried under it.

3.1875 and 1902 1st and 2nd edition OS map show:

4. 1913. James Caird, architect: Note of an incised cross stone near the burying ground, Isle Martin, one of the Summer Isles, Wester Ross-shire PSAS 1913:

The burying ground is quite near the shore of a little bay at the south east corner of the island. The ancient stone, standing about four feet in height, with the cross carved on it, adjoins the burying ground.

Note that Caird mentions “near the burying ground and “adjoins the burying ground rather than within.

5. Early 20th century. Mrs Mitford, writing about the island in 1936 quotes one Major RS Hutchison:

At the dawn of the Christian era St Martin came on a pilgrimage to the Highlands to propagate the Gospel. He erected chapels in every place he travelled. It was on the Summer Isles that he breathed his last and over his dust lies a large stone on which the Cross is seen, covered with hieroglyphics. […]

The ruins of St Martin’s chapel are on the west corner of the isle, close by the grave of his followers and among them his own grave, surmounted by a high headstone carved with the cross and an unusual cross with double arms.

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Initiating CAERoS: Coastal Archaeology and Erosion in Wester Ross

by Stephanie Piper, Newcastle University (stephanie.piper@newcastle.ac.uk)

In April 2019 myself, two Master’s students from Newcastle University – Callum Hardman and Holly Holmes, and Paco Martínez-Sevilla, a colleague from Durham University, based ourselves in Poolewe to begin a week-long walk-over survey of the coastline around Loch Ewe. The aims of the survey were to:

  1. Establish the potential of eroding coastlines to yield early prehistoric sites in the north-west Highlands.
  2. Contribute to active monitoring of archaeological sites at risk of erosion.

Why were we drawn to this remote part of the Scottish Highlands? Precisely because it is remote! The evidence for early prehistoric occupation is sparse across much of the Highland region. For example, there is no evidence for Mesolithic occupation along the coast between Redpoint, in Gairloch parish, and Smoo Cave, Durness parish (although this has not been fully confirmed). By contrast, the coasts around the Inner Sound of Skye and Applecross were intensively surveyed by the Scotland’s First Settlers project from 1998. The project identified over 130 new archaeological sites, including the Mesolithic rockshelter site at Sand, Applecross. We felt sure that the absence of sites to the north was due to a lack of research, primarily because of the remoteness of the region and lack of ‘visible’ archaeology, rather than an absence of people in the past. CAERoS was therefore initiated to investigate the next stretch of coastline, north of where Scotland’s First Settlers had finished and with the hope of finding further evidence for Mesolithic coastal occupation.

As this was just the start, our methodology was simple: walk, and look. I spent several years during my postgraduate degrees working on a project in the Western Isles with Durham University. During the field seasons, we identified a number of Mesolithic sites exposed by coastal erosion (two on Harris, and three around the Bhaltos peninsula in Lewis). Because early prehistoric sites are often deeply buried under peat or machair, they are invisible to traditional means of initial identification such as a field-walking, and are so ephemeral they rarely respond to geophysics. The destruction caused by erosive processes therefore provides opportunities to investigate hidden archaeology, including early buried landscapes. This then, was to be our ‘window’ to the past, and we struck out across the headlands to observe and record any archaeology within c.50m of the coastline using the ShoreUpdate App, developed by the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk project (SCHARP).

Fig.1 Exploring the circular stone structures and raised beach deposits at An Sean Inbhir

On the first day, we walked west, covering the stretch from Cove Battery to Camas Mor. We noted several sites along the way, including circular stone structures and modern fisherman’s bothies at An Sean Inbhir (Fig.1), a turf-covered wall at NG763921, which is probably associated with the abandoned township and head dyke at Camustrolvaig, and a sheepfold built against a rocky outcrop at NG805925. The building recorded at Camas A’Chall wasn’t identified, nor does it appear on the current OS map. By far the most interesting aspect of this stretch was the World War II memorial and three abandoned lifeboats (centred on the memorial at NG796926, Fig. 2). The memorial is in commemoration of those who lost their lives after the American Liberty Ship USS William H. Welch ran aground at Foura Island, on 26th February 1944. The plaque is also dedicated to local community members who were involved in the rescue efforts. The plaque does not appear in the HER and the abandoned lifeboats are at serious risk, situated in the intertidal zone. These have been logged with SCHARP who are very interested in incorporating them into a future project. If anyone happens to be in the area and visit them, it would be worthwhile continuing to take photographs of their condition.

Fig.2 The memorial at Cove, and barely-surviving lifeboats (midground, left)

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Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

NOSAS regularly make field visits to the Tarbat Ness area. When browsing through my archives recently I came across a review for a book “Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke 1833” by Hamish Mackenzie, which I had written for the Clan Mackenzie Magazine in October 2012. The review includes some lovely descriptions of the people and the settlements of Tarbat Ness two centuries ago; I make no excuse for quoting them in the review.  Apparently the book is still available from the Clan Mackenzie Society and the Amazon website but promoting it is not my primary intention here!

 

“Tain, Tarbet Ness and the Duke 1833” by Hamish Mackenzie

Book review, October 2012

The author of this book is to be congratulated on a fine piece of work, which, for anyone interested in the history of Ross-shire during the upheavals of the 19th Century, is essential reading. The book is very readable and has involved some original documentary research; it reveals an intriguing story. The tale emanates from a desire of the Duke of Sutherland to acquire lands in Ross-shire. Much of the original material was discovered in the Cromartie Muniments at Castle Leod and it is these papers which Hamish Mackenzie has so painstakingly studied – a labour of love indeed

By 1833 the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were the richest couple in Britain, owning estates in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Yorkshire, as well as the most part of Sutherland in Scotland. They were able to draw on the revenues of the coal and canal investments of their estates in the south and pour significant amounts of money into “improving” their Sutherland estates. Hamish Mackenzies book tells us: “the coastal strip along the east coast was occupied by a neat orderly landscape of 36 single tenant farms each with its courtyard of buildings set amongst squared fields”. The Duke was also responsible for building roads, bridges and harbours in the county. Not satisfied with this, in 1833 at the age of 75, he looked to acquiring more territory and his eye fell on Tain and the Tarbetness peninsular across the water from Dunrobin Castle. In the event the Dukes plans for the purchase of these lands did not come to fruition because he died later that year; but the legacy of the plan, that of the documents at Castle Leod, give a remarkable description of the landscape on the Tarbatness peninsular at that time.

George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland by Thomas Phillips

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Tarradale Through Time: 2018 Excavations

by Eric Grant

In September 2018 two sites were investigated by TARRADALE THROUGH TIME near Muir of Ord. These were a fortified enclosure just west of Gilchrist church and a rather enigmatic and possibly ritual site south of Gilchrist church, but located on Balvattie Farm.

Gilchrist Promontory Fort

The Gilchrist fort is a rather unusual monument  and walking past it gives no clue to its existence, size or age. Canmore describes it as a promontory fort based on their interpretation of crop marks as the arcs of three concentric ditches “Apparently designed to cut off approach to a tongue of low-lying and comparatively level ground running NW into marshland, they are in effect part of the defensive system of a promontory fort measuring about 85 m by 30 m”.

In addition to the black-and-white photographs on the Canmore database, the late Jim bone, who was an enthusiastic archaeologist and also a pilot, took some good colour photographs of the site. Jim’s aerial photograph shows three dark green curved features representing the fort’s ditches on the east side of the promontory. The ditches are now under cultivation and have been filled in and ploughed flat so there is nothing to see above ground; it is only the aerial photographs that have encouraged archaeologists to see this as a fortified promontory. It is unusual to find a promontory fort inland unless it is in a situation like this where it is surrounded by water or marshland. Most hill and promontory forts in Scotland appear to have been constructed during the late Bronze Age and Iron Age and the latest ones were built or reoccupied in Pictish times.

Aerial photograph of Gilchrist showing ditches as dark green curves (JS Bone Collection)

Our research agenda sought to identify and characterise the ditches, and to ascertain when the fort was constructed, how long it was occupied and what activities may have taken place there. Three large trenches were initially opened, one running at right angles across the defensive ditches, a second running from the long side of the fort down into the bog and a third on the highest part of the interior of the fort. We were very quickly able to establish that the three ditches seen on aerial photographs did exist, with a hint of a fourth ditch closer into the fort. The outermost ditch was reasonably shallow but the second ditch was a massive construction 5-6 m wide at the top and sloping steeply to about 1.5 m below the plough soil though we consider that the upper part of the ditches have been lost due to ploughing and the intervening banks of excavated material flattened. The third innermost ditch was not quite so deep, but right on the edge of the actual fort area we found what may be an inner ditch that might have continued round the fort perimeter as a wall and perhaps with a timber fence palisade on top or just in front.

Plan of Gilchrist excavations showing crop marks and trenches (HAS)

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Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP): An Update

by Alan Thompson (NOSAS)

Led by Dr Tertia Barnett, ScRAP is a five-year project which “aims to enhance understanding and knowledge of Scotland’s rock art through community co-production and research”.

NOSAS has been involved with the project since it began (see previous post), and members have tested and contributed to the design of the fieldwork during the pilot phase. For some time now we have been clear to make progress with the fieldwork, and as a result we are getting to know the prehistoric rock art in our area and beginning to appreciate its many different forms.

For our members, the attractions of rock art and of the ScRAP project are many, indoor and outdoor, group and individual. The challenge of making sense of the records in Canmore and the local HER; the challenge of finding the panels, known as well as new; fossicking (prospecting); cleaning and recording on site; examining the 3D models to confirm or amend our field observations; and getting a panel firmly and correctly on the record.

The process is now well established, and ScRAP has an excellent website at www.rockart.scot.

This blog post is an opportunity to present a few of the more interesting panels we have recorded to date, along with some personal observations.

Some Examples

When most people hear about ‘cup and ring boulders’ they think of the famous panels at Kilmartin – wide, flat outcrops of smooth rock onto which cups with multiple concentric rings have been carved. Few panels in our area are like this, but we will start first with one that is, at Easter Backlands of Roseisle.

Easter Backlands of Roseisle

This sandstone panel is both damaged and worn, but the rings around at least 9 and possibly 11 cups can be seen.  One cup has 3 concentric rings, and three others have two. Looking more closely the radial grooves which go out from some of the cups are also visible.

Easter Backlands of Roseisle

More typically in our area we find one or more simple cups generally on the highest point on rough (medium grained) schist boulders; for example Balnafoich 2.

Balnafoich 2

Balnafoich 2 is a large boulder of schist, 4.3 m by 3.0 m by 1.5 m high, with three well formed cups at its highest points. The panel is on an east facing slope, near to the confluence of the Rivers Nairn and Farnach (just visible in the background). It is one a group of four panels. A few meters away is Balnafoich 1 which is a flat slab of schist, flush with the ground. It boasts 25 cups and is quite different in character to its neighbour. Continue reading

A Metal Detecting Survey of Beauly Fields

By Eric Soane

Eric is a local metal detectorist whose exploits include discovering the Belladrum hoard of Roman coins, among other finds. He has put his email address at the end in case you want to contact him directly. This article is the report of a recent survey in the fields at the back of Beauly, in the angle between Station Road and Croyard Road. It appears to have identified a military firing range, in use throughout the 19th Century, which was previously unknown.

A and B on the map below identify the fields where the finds were made and the red arrow shows an approximate direction of fire on the range throughout its use as explained in the following report:

Musket balls

The image above right shows the musket balls found, the main group top left are all for the Brown Bess calibre of musket, about l l bore or 0. 75 inch. This was in use up to the middle of the 1800s and gives us  the early date for the military use of the land. There is no evidence of the earliest date, but it is reasonable to suppose that it began as training for the defence of the realm in the time of the Napoleonic wars, which could place the start just back into the 1700s.  The group of balls bottom right are smaller and may be pistol shot, or more likely from officers’ privately owned muskets. The two folded pieces of lead are almost certainly home made flint holders to clamp the flint into the musket securely. The majority  of these items were found on field “A”  and as they are relatively short range, being quite inaccurate due to the smooth bore and loose fit of shot in that bore, it points to this being the firing point of all the weapons.

Minie bullets.

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A Little Piece of Coppice at Coulmore, Formerly on the Redcastle Estate

By Jonathan Wordsworth

Cycling regularly along the north shore of the Beauly Firth from North Kessock to Tarradale, I have noted just past Coulmore Point a small patch of woodland with a collection of twisted multi-stemmed trees.  Consisting predominantly of oak but with a mixture of species including ash and beech, the trees are widely spaced and used as shelter by stock grazing the field above.  As a result the wood has an open and sparse aspect.

The curving and multiple stems of the trees in the woodland show that this is a rare survival for this area of a former coppiced woodland, where the stems were cut down to  supply timber on a regular cycle of  15-20 years.

Coulmore and the woodland copse shown on current Bing aerial photography.  Note the caravan park at bottom right of photograph to help locate the woodland site.

Earlier maps show it was one of two similar sized copses set beside the road and on the edge of the raised beach.  They are both shown as wooded on the land utilisation survey of the 1930s shown below, though the western copse has now disappeared.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

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