Category Archives: Archaeology by Location

Peter May, the Commissioners, NOSAS and the National Library of Scotland – a story of discovery

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

“Coigach is a very large country”

In 1756 a young man was sent by his employers to Coigach, the rough open wild country west of Ullapool. His job was to measure and survey the land. But he wasn’t altogether happy in his task. He wrote to his 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. Everything is scarce and dear, my living costs me more here than it does in Aberdeen although I can scarcely get bear bannocks.

(Adams, 1979, pp10-11).

The man was Peter May, his employers were the Commissioners of the Board for the Forfeited Annexed Estates.

The battlefield of Culloden saw the demise of more than the men who fought there. The clan chiefs who “came out” had their land appropriated by the Crown. Much of it was then ravaged, particularly those estates nearest Culloden. The Lovat estate at that time centred on the seat of the Fraser clan, Castle Dounie, at the head of the Beauly Firth. Castle Dounie was burnt following the battle. The estate comprised the parishes of Kiltarlity, Kirkhill and Kilmorack, near Beauly, the lands of Stratherrick on the south side of Loch Ness and a small section of land on the north side of that Loch at Dalcattick and Portclair. The Mackenzie estate of Cromartie consisted of land around Cromarty on the Black Isle, New Tarbat on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, parcels of land on the Tarbat peninsula, Castle Leod (near Strathpeffer), and the lands of Coigach on the west coast. Castle Leod was the ancestral seat, New Tarbat became the seat in the late 17th century, and the lands of Coigach were obtained in the dowry of Margaret Macleod of Lewis in 1606 (Clough, 1990, p3).

New Tarbat House in the late 17th century ©Canmore

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The Archaeology of the Findhorn Dunes

by Michael Sharpe

Findhorn Dunes Site from the NE. In the upper left is the caravan park, and beyond the Cromarty Sutors.

Introduction

This story begins back in 2002 or so, when during a conversation about local history and archaeology, a local farmer and digger driver I had worked with mentioned to me that he knew of a site in the dunes east of Findhorn Village, Moray, where people had found flint in the past (Figure 1). I decided to go and have a look, and before long was finding not only flint tools and debitage, but also pot sherds, beads, fragments of copper alloy, and the remains of a midden. It is likely that this is the site of a flint scatter and old land surface (OLS) reported by Ian Shepherd (1977) and recorded on the Moray Sites and Monuments Record (NJ06SE0010 – Findhorn), although there is a discrepancy of 0.5km as to location. He probably wouldn’t have had even a basic GPS unit at his disposal, and it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint locations among the dunes.

Fig. 1 Location map

What follows is summary of the results of 15 years of surface collecting of finds, and recent efforts to investigate the site more systematically: namely a few test pits in 2016, but mainly a weekend of work in 2017—an informal dig staffed mostly, if not entirely, by NOSAS members. Permission for the collecting and minimal digging was given early on by the Findhorn Dunes Trust, which has a duty of care for the land surrounding the site.

Shore section showing eroding old land surface. The figure is standing on top of the east dune.

The local archaeological context

I won’t attempt an exhaustive summary of the archaeology of the area, as there are many good publications that do that, including numerous papers in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Suffice it to say that broadly, within the coastal lowlands of the south Moray Firth coast, there is ample evidence of prehistoric occupation from the Mesolithic onwards. This ranges from Mesolithic and Neolithic arrowheads at Culbin; numerous Bronze Age (BA) cist burials, such as those at Burgie Lodge Farm near Rafford, one of which contained a jet necklace (Callander 1916); and larger BA burial monuments, such as the Clava Cairns near Culloden. As at Rosemarkie, there are numerous caves on the coast between Hopeman and Lossiemouth where excavations—most recently by Ian Armit—have found evidence of occupation from the Mesolithic onwards, including BA burials, and the remains of decapitated individuals from the IA. Excavations by Fraser Hunter at Birnie—south of Elgin—and at Clarkly Hill near Burghead revealed IA farming settlements on the productive farmland of the coastal lowlands, and also evidence of probable contact with the Romans.

Findhorn and its immediate surroundings have offered up: a BA hoard containing two spear-heads and a socketed axe (Callander 1920); a rich BA burial from Findhorn Village in which a large cinerary urn contained the cremated remains of a young woman and a neonate as well as a substantial number of faience beads, a rare find in the UK (Shepherd and Shepherd 2001); and the remains of two cremated individuals among the dunes east of the village (Black 1891).

Bradley et al. (2016) have proposed the new site type of Maritime Havens: areas which developed early on after the Pleistocene Ice Age, and which went on to become centres of trade and industry, with extensive links across both water and land. The exceptional quantity of artefacts found at Culbin Sands during the 17th to 19th centuries led him to propose that the Culbin Sands was one such haven. Due to its proximity, the people using the Findhorn Dunes Site were likely connected with this activity. The one artefact type which connects this dunes site, the Findhorn burial, and Culbin Sands also happens to be one of the rarest—faience beads. Continue reading

Droning on about Tarradale

by Andy Hickie

Drone image of Tarradale Through Time barrow cemetery dig, as featured in “Current Archaeology” November 2019.

Back in 2017, I caved in to the demands of consumerism, and purchased a new quadcopter, a Phantom 3 Advanced, which is equipped with a camera and GPS unit. I flew multiple flights around Avoch but, after a while, the novelty of seeing one’s house from the air at different angles and altitudes begins to wear thin, and I began to wonder what I could actually do with a drone. Having always had an interest in archaeology and, spurred on by seeing some of the images Alan Thompson of NOSAS had created, I decided to carry out a few experiments of my own.

My first flights took in locations such as the distillery and settlement at Mulchaich, and the features of Kinbeachie castle – sites which had already been mapped by Alan by drone, the results of which I could use as a ‘benchmark’ against which I could compare those of my own.

At the same time, I began experimenting with various flight planning apps which allow for off-line autonomous flight planning, as well as online platforms for image processing. I found that “DroneDeploy” and “Mapsmadeasy” combined provided a fairly user-friendly pipeline, whereby image capture and photogrammetry can produce georeferenced photomosaics and digital surface models (DSMs). These can then be imported into software such as QGIS for further processing.

Having found the software which satisfied my needs, I then turned my attention to potential sites which I could map – and decided on the cropmarks of the Barrow Cemetery at Tarradale. At this point, my intent was purely to satisfy my own curiosity – just to see what I could see, and how it would compare with the archaeology found at the forthcoming 2019 dig.

And so, on 10 June 2018, accompanied by my daughter Emma to act as co-pilot and “spotter”, I visisted Tarradale to map the area with the drone. I can still recall the excitement I felt as the images began to appear on the monitor of the remote controller, which showed the cropmarks were developing. However, my satisfaction was tempered somewhat when I got home and began to process the photographs. Although the cropmarks were indeed evolving, the crop was insufficiently ripe, and many of the details remained hidden (see image below).

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Pictish Eagles and the Strathpeffer Stone

by John Wombell (NOSAS)

There are 12 known Pictish Eagle carvings, all in the RCAHMS publication of 2008 ‘The Pictish Symbol Stones of Scotland’.  They vary considerably and by far the best known and the best preserved is on the Clach an Tiompain at Strathpeffer (HER MHG43542) meaning the ‘sounding stone’ but known more widely as the Eagle Stone.

There are many images of it in circulation but a week ago I took a new set of photos which Alan Thompson kindly processed for me using photogrammetry (see images above and below, as well as on Sketchfab).  The reason behind this was that I wanted to try to produce an engraving of it on wood and needed to see more detail that is not visible to eye or touch at the stone.

The Eagle Stone has had several lumps bashed off it in the past removing part of the horse shoe symbol and the eagle’s rear end.  Otherwise damage to the carving is minimal with only part of the eagle’s leading leg either fallen or bashed off.

My dilemma was whether to give the eagle a tail or not.  I feel sure that unlike most Pictish eagles this one was drawn from a live eagle depicted walking.  It is correct in a lot of detail even though the carving is full of symbolism.  I decided to give my version a short dipped tail represented as two feathers after one of the Orkney eagles. Continue reading

A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

by Anne MacInnes

Photographs of all 4 faces of the Conan Pictish stone © HES.

Whilst on a walk close to Dingwall, I came across a site that struck me as being slightly mysterious, atmospheric and with an air of neglect about it. I was immediately fascinated, and started to try and find out more about it.

I established that it was an early religious site, privately owned, and asked the landowner if I could have permission to survey it. This granted, and because of the difficult access, I began to form a plan of just how to carry this out. A specific parking place for one car was established and the survey began.

I followed the methodology used by Susan Kruse at Kiltearn, where I had helped carry out the survey (see blog).

First of all, three of us, sectioned off the site using tapes and this enabled me to draw up plans marking all the visible stones. They were all numbered, and then surveyed and photographed in detail. Inscriptions were carefully copied on to the recording forms, which at times involved a lot of head scratching due to the worn stone. Moss was removed but not lichen as this could damage the stone. Linda helped me almost every day, with Meryl and Beth helping when they could.

The weather was kind in the winter months when this survey was done, and we were struck by the oasis of peace, emerging wildflowers and variety of birdlife with occasional visiting roe deer. A large area of ponticum and invasive sycamore was cleared with chainsaw by Terry Doe, with Linda, Kay, and myself dragging it offsite. Finally a group of nine NoSAS members planetabled the site and did levels to show the footings and platform of a chapel, and Meryl drew this up.

The survey revealed as well as the probable chapel footings, upright headstones in various shapes and sizes, lair markers, tabletombs, graveslabs, some lightly covered by moss.

Most of them looked like this, either blank or with initials carved at the top. All the stones were orientated with their carved faces towards the east.

One day, I was brushing off leaves from a graveslab sitting on the ground, not buried, when I  noticed a bit of carving that looked like a foot. Carefully removing a bit more, a leg was attached to this foot! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, so much so that I went to do something else and ignored it. However on my return it was still there and more was revealed. Continue reading

A Year of Highland Archaeology

by James McComas (NOSAS)

A Year of Highland Archaeology book cover, showing Tarradale Through Time excavation trench with the settings of a possible stone hut. The same trench yielded several rare antler tools.

NOSAS has just published A Year of Highland Archaeology: A Collection of the Projects and Activities of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society . This new book includes 10 articles which explore some of the diverse recent projects that we has been involved with. These range from large scale funded excavations through to group surveys and small scale research projects. They highlight Highland locations from the west to the east coast, from Speyside to Sutherland.

Projects featured include the lottery funded Tarradale Through Time Project, which in 2017 saw 6000 year old antler tools uncovered near Muir of Ord on the Black Isle.  These very rare finds included the remains of a harpoon point and two “T axes” left behind by hunter gatherers on the shores of the Beauly Firth. The T axes are two of only five examples so far known in the whole of Scotland. The trench where these were found also tantalisingly revealed the possible stone setting of a Mesolithic hut. Tarradale Through Time continues in Autumn 2019 with the excavation of potentially one of the largest barrow cemeteries in Scotland (further information at www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk).

One of rare antler “T axes” found during Tarradale Through Time’s 2017 excavations.

Another chapter focuses on Torvean Hillfort, a neglected structure on the edge of Inverness. Torvean was perhaps constructed more than 2000 years ago, but it is today sadly under threat from persistent trail bike damage. A different chapter tells the much more positive story of how a collection of 400 historic maps relating to the Lovat Highland Estates, covering extensive areas west of Inverness, have now been scanned and made available online.

Map of Torvean Hillfort, Inverness showing destructive trail bike tracks

A different chapter still focuses on the NOSAS’s work with Scotland’s Rock Art Project. ScRAP aims to log as many as possible of the mysterious carved “cup marks” which appear on Scotland’s boulders and rock faces over a 5 year project. The precise date of these carvings, of which there are many good examples in the Highlands, is unknown but they are thought to have been mainly created in the Neolithic period around 6,000 to 4,000 years ago. Other archaeological locations explored in the book include Ormond Castle in Avoch, a prehistoric roundhouse landscape in Glen Urquhart, and Gruinard Island in Wester Ross.

3D Photogrammetry model of cup marked stone at Kinmylies, Inverness

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