Category Archives: Archaeology by Location

Achnasoul and Medieval Earthwork Castles in Ross Revisited

by Meryl Marshall

The moated homestead in Achnasoul Wood (NGR NH 48808 51821 Canmore ID: 274702 Highland Council (HC) HER MHG29192) 4kms west of Muir of Ord was visited by NOSAS members on a winter walk in February 2020 just before “lockdown”. The visit renewed my interest in the medieval period in this area and I began some research into the two homesteads of Davids Fort and Achnasoul with the intention of producing a blog for the NOSAS website. It wasn’t long before I realized what a complex topic I had taken on so I decided to split it into two; the first part, on Davids Fort, appeared on the NOSAS website in May 2020, this piece, focusing on Achnasoul, is part two.

The eastern half of the site showing the ditch and double banks with the mound on the right – looking SE

The Achnasoul site is a ringed earthwork with a central mound which was originally interpreted as a “moated homestead” but recently confirmed (on Canmore) as a motte and bailey. It is remarkably well preserved and has been one of my favourite local sites for many years. NOSAS carried out a planetable survey on a cold, wintery day in 2005 (report on NOSAS website at: www.nosas.co.uk/siterecords.asp.) The site remains something of a mystery and seems out of place; clearly it is fortified as it has substantial double banks enclosing a ditch but yet it is situated in low lying ground with higher knolls surrounding it – not a particularly defendable position!

In 2017 the site was scheduled by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) – SM13629. The description in the scheduling document says:               

The monument is a large earthwork enclosure comprising a ditch and two concentric banks which enclose a sub-circular area measuring around 43m northwest-southeast by 39m northeast-southwest within which is a raised mound. The ditch defining the enclosure measures 4m to 5m in width and 1.5m in depth and is broken by two causeways on the northwest and southeast. The outer bank of the ditch is complete and varies in height, reaching a maximum of 2m… Internally, the raised mound lies in the northern part of the enclosed area and is c25m diameter at its base, reaching a maximum height of 2m. The summit is encircled by a fragmentary bank, which encloses an area of around 11m diameter.

The size and form of the visible remains… represents a rare survival of a moated homestead of medieval date.

A processed image of the Achnasoul site from a lidar survey (contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licinse v3.0)
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Castle Hill “Henge” at Muir of Ord – A Controversial Structure

by Roland Spencer-Jones

Muir of Ord Golf Club may be unique in having a green on top of a scheduled ancient monument. Castle Hill, the 13th green, is an artificially modified mound, standing at the north end of a ridge, proud of the surrounding flat ground. Its perimeter is delimited by a raised bank inside of which is a circular ditch, with two gaps at NW and SE. This bank and ditch enclose an oval flat area approximately 28 m by 21 m. The ridge probably represents an alluvial glacial moraine before the end of it was subsequently modified.

There has been considerable discussion and debate in the archaeological literature over the last 350 years as to the nature of this feature, when it was created, and for what purpose. However, whatever its nature, it is special, recognised as such by being included in the list of ancient monuments in Section 12 of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendments Act 1913. This important act of scheduling was reported to the Right Honourable Lord Lovat in a registered letter dated 11th April 1957. In the scheduling documentation[1] it was called Castle Hill Fort or Henge. Scheduling is the process that “identifies, designates and provides statutory protection for monuments and archaeological sites of national importance”, with damage to a scheduled site potentially incurring criminal charges. This became relevant in the early 1980’s, see later.

Castle Hill in 1972 © Historic Environment Scotland: John Dewar Collection

Early Descriptions of Castle Hill

The first historical mention of this prominent feature was towards the end of the 17th century in a massive volume of archaeological recording, the Monumenta Britannica, written by probably Britain’s first archaeologist, John Aubrey (Aubrey, 1665-93). In it, Aubrey records part of a letter he received in 1692 from a Dr James Garden, Professor of Theology in the King’s College at Aberdeen. Aubrey had written to many local dignitaries and antiquarians throughout Northern Britain asking for information about stone monuments. He was delighted to receive this full response from Dr Garden in which the latter refers to a sacred grove thus: “I … have gotten information of two groves yet standing which are reputed sacred. One of them (which stands near to a place called Taradale in the parish of Killernen and shire of Nairn) is enclosed with a trench or dry ditch having two entries to it where the ditch is filled up or rather the ground has never been broken: all that live near it hold it as sacred, and will not cut so much as a rod out of it: my informer adds that, hard by, there is a cornfield where he conjectures there has been one of the Monuments, because in it there are several big stones such as those Monu­ments use to consist of, fallen down and out of order.” Taradale, now Tarradale, is the name given to the settlement that later came to be called Muir of Ord once the railway arrived in 1862. Garden’s description of the “sacred grove” fits nicely with the structure now called Castle Hill. Also note the description of standing stones in the vicinity, which we will come on to later.

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Kinellan Crannog, Strathpeffer

by John Wombell

Loch Kinellan, Google Earth 2015.

A few notes on Kinellan Crannog for crannog enthusiasts.  We are fortunate to live at Kinellan, about 400m away from the crannog as the crow flies.  In February this year Kinellan Loch froze over to a depth of 10” and we had days of glorious sunshine when local families were taking their lockdown exercise out on the ice, and we spent an afternoon on the crannog taking photos and  chatting to neighbours and their children. About 15 years ago I remember leading a NOSAS visit out to the island during another big freeze.

Kinellan Crannog taken from the south shore looking north, February 2021.

Some years ago 4 NOSAS members obtained permission from Historic Scotland and the owner to remove some fallen willow that had tumbled into the loch on the south side, in order that locals and visitors could see from the shore track the Medieval stone work surrounding most of the artificial island.  That was two days of very hard work, hand winching fallen trees back out of the loch then cutting them up.   Seeing young children exploring the island this February made me wonder whether the crannog was ever a family home with children playing or had it always been a male dominated stronghold.

Fraser’s 1916/17 report of the 1914/15 and 16 excavations was published in the PSAS and is available online. It is compulsive reading and I shall not spoil it for you by delving too far into the report.  Mr Fraser was a teacher in Dingwall and was only able to supervise the excavations part time and during school holidays.  With WW1 raging he had difficulty finding workmen but he eventually found two local men and all work appears to have been done with spades.  There is no mention of trowels.  He did however engage a Dingwall architect to make measured drawings and another teacher to make sketches.   A third person undertook the photography.  Fraser was as thorough as he could be at that time and he records a lot of detail.  I do not know whether there is an official archive stored away somewhere but a century on I think an updated expert re-interpretation of Fraser’s work would be a good starting point for new research.

The last known use of the crannog was as a kitchen garden and orchard by the tenant of Kinellan Home Farm in the late 19th and early 20th C.  A thicket of old fruit tree rootstock scrub still survives and few tangled gooseberry bushes.  Today though the crannog is dominated by dense mature ash and willow trees, an occasional gnarled Hawthorn and two very fine birch trees.  Many of the willows have fallen down, most are dead and rotting away but a good number, especially those that have tumbled into the loch remain alive and have produced masses of new stem growth called Phoenix growth – raised from the dead!

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Sarclet Harbour, Caithness

by Anne Coombs

Figure 1: Looking out to sea

Caithness at the end of the 18th century was an exciting place to be.  While maybe not the centre of the world, it was home to some of the big names of the time.  Sir John Sinclair, ‘Agricultural’ Sir John, of Ulbster is a name we should all know.  He instigated the Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland, an amazing resource which is often the first place we look for details of life in the 1780s and 90s.  His name appears in many of the forward-thinking documents of the time, not just the OSA, he was author of the General View of the Agriculture of the Northern Counties.  He was a member of the British Fisheries Society and a Trustee of the Board for the Improvement of Fisheries and Manufactures along with his near neighbours in Sutherland, George Dempster of Dunnichen, founder of Spinningdale mill, and Lord Gower, later the Marquise of Stafford and then the Duke of Sutherland. 

This group instigated several moneymaking (Improvement) schemes, one of the most successful was the development of the herring fishing industry off the coast of Caithness during the 19th century.  The British Fisheries Society was responsible for building Pultneytown immediately south of the Wick River.  It was laid out by Thomas Telford in 1786 and was so successful it became known as ‘Herringopolis’ with the harbour so full of fishing boats which meant you could walk across it without touching water.  But Pultneytown was just one of many harbours developed along the coast of Caithness during this period.

Figure 2: Storehouse, well and track to top of cliff

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Was there mineral extraction in the Highlands in prehistoric times?

by Jonathan Wordsworth

The recent Zoom lecture by Matthew Knight on the Late Bronze Age Hoard found in a peat cutting behind Poolewe in 1877  (the talk can be viewed on the Gairloch Museum Youtube channel at Poolewe: The last Bronze Age hoard in Scotland? by Dr Matthew Knight) and the recent Feats of Clay project (http://archhighland.org.uk/feats-of-clay.asp) led by ARCH relating to a metal-working site with rare clay mould fragments found during excavations at Bellfield, North Kessock, demonstrate bronze casting was occurring in the Highlands.  Together with the Stittenham Axe Mould these are important finds for Late Bronze Age Scotland.

Stittenham Axe Mould © ARCH

But this is a speculative blog examining the possibility that there might have been copper and other ores extracted in the Highlands during the Bronze Age and is meant to stimulate research by NOSAS members on some of the ore sources.  While current research has not identified any prehistoric mining in Scotland, except possibly in South West Scotland, there is certainly nothing on the scale of the Great Orme mine in North Wales. The received wisdom is that the copper and other metals alloyed with it such as tin, zinc and to a lesser extent lead, were brought into the area as ingots from metal extracted from elsewhere in the British Isles or from further afield in continental Europe.  Recent metallurgical analyses have shown very mixed compositions for the metal tools and the recent work on the Poolewe Hoard shows at least 5 different mixes of metals to produce the surviving material (see the research results at https://www.academia.edu/44587605/Poolewe_The_last_Bronze_Age_hoard_in_Scotland).

Certainly by the end of the Bronze Age it is likely that a variety of broken or discarded objects would be thrown into the mix for melting down, making it difficult to identify the original ore source from trace element analysis.

Copper Ore in the Highlands

However research over a number of years by the British Geological Survey has mapped extensive copper ore sources in Wester Ross and some of these have even been looked at commercially (e.g. https://resources.bgs.ac.uk/meiga_reports/meiga/ae173.txt) and the ‘gossan’ at Gairloch is even used as the frontispiece for the British Geological Survey report Minerals in Britain – Copper (which can be viewed online at https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/downloads/start.cfm?id=1324)

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The Demolition of a Cruck-Framed Building near Beauly

by Roland Spencer-Jones

Fig 1: Removing the corrugated iron reveals a modern timber roof and a cruck-frame

In early June 2020, I became aware that a neighbour on the braes below me was doing up an old cottage, with a 1970’s extension, that he had inherited from his father. He was one of four children brought up in the old cottage in the 1960’s. Once he had removed the corrugated iron roof from the cottage, a peat and heather roof was revealed. When that was removed a wooden cruck-frame appeared. I showed a photo (fig 1) to colleagues who immediately suggested that I should survey and record it. Cruck-framed buildings are not so common these days. There was additional interest in that the cruck-frame had been overlaid by a more modern roof and that the building is likely to be demolished.

Extract of 1:250000 OS map showing location of Ruisaurie crofting settlement. ©Ordnance Survey

How old is it? The online Lovat Estate maps show that the braes above, ie W of, Beauly were increasingly brought into crofting, gradually extending into moorland, between the mid-18th century and the early part of the 19th century. According to those maps, one of the crofts, Ruisaurie, had two croft numbers in 1757, eight numbers in 1798-1800, seventeen in 1823 and twenty-four in 1839. The crofts increased by both being sub-divided, and by new croft settlements being established on the higher ground. Confusingly, the numbering of the crofts changed over time, although by 1876 the croft numbering had become established to reflect the croft numbering now.

Fig 3: Extract of 1876 map showing extent of the Ruisaurie 11A croft © Lovat Highland Estates Ltd.

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Raigmore Hospital, Inverness: From EMS to NHS

by Marion Ruscoe

Raigmore Hospital, 1948 © HES (Aerofilms Collection)

Raigmore Hospital was erected as part of the Emergency Medical Scheme (EMS) on part of  the Raigmore estate and opened in 1941.  The Emergency Medical Scheme was established to provide adequate medical facilities for expected wartime casualties and Raigmore was one of seven new hospitals built during the war.  They were all built to a standard design, but because of restrictions in the use of timber and steel, the buildings at Raigmore were brick, single storey and flat roofed.  An aerial photograph, taken in 1948, of the new hospital shows the layout to the south of Raigmore House on the east side of Inverness.   There were 16 individual wards and an isolation unit providing about 670 beds.  Staff accommodation was provided at the north-west corner of the site and a further collection of individual blocks between the staff accommodation and the wards housed administration, kitchens, dining rooms, laboratories and other services.

After the war, Raigmore continued to provide hospital services to Inverness and the surrounding area along with, principally, the R.N.I., Culduthel Hospital and Hilton Hospital but by the 1960s the facilities in Inverness were not meeting modern needs and in 1962 plans for a new general hospital to serve Inverness were put in place.   As an EMS hospital Raigmore was never designed to last for ever.  By 1966 work had begun on the new hospital for the Highlands and it was decided that it had to be at Raigmore, because that was where there was enough space to develop the facilities.  Phase 1 of the development was opened in 1970.  It incorporated the Outpatients Department, laboratories, pharmacy, physiotherapy and records.  Dr. James Bruce, who in 1947 was appointed consultant biochemist, finally got the new laboratory that he was promised at interview.

An aerial view of the hospital in 1972 shows Phase 1 at the bottom of the photo, but the original hospital buildings are still there and in use.  When comparing this view with the earlier view taken in 1948 the only other differences are that the walled garden has become part of the hospital car park, and the College of Nursing has been built to the right of the wards.

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Barrow-Loads of Barrows: Excavating a Monumental Pictish Cemetery at Tarradale on the Black Isle

by Eric Grant

Drone aerial photo showing barrows of different sizes and shapes (Drone photo: Andy Hickie)

In the first three weeks of September 2019 volunteers from the North of Scotland Archaeological Society supported by members of the local community excavated a suspected Pictish cemetery in a field near Tarradale House. Aerial photographs had previously shown the possible existence of a number of barrow graves in the area but there was little to see on the surface as the mounds had been almost totally ploughed away but their surrounding ditches appeared as ghostly outlines on the aerial photographs. A small, but growing, number of barrow cemeteries has been identified in Scotland but only a few excavated. Aerial photographs show the remains of at least 28 square and round barrows at Tarradale making it currently the second largest burial ground of this type in Scotland. The site could originally have been more extensive as parts of it have either been ploughed out or are too deeply buried to show in aerial photographs. Recent high-resolution photographs taken by drone have suggested the existence of more barrows towards the perimeter of the field and possibly into an adjacent field. Our excavations showed that Tarradale was a barrow cemetery of monumental proportions and potentially one of the most important in Scotland.

Although we are still waiting for radiocarbon dates from the Tarradale excavation, the presence of round and square barrows and their spacing and distribution leaves little doubt that we are dealing with a Pictish cemetery potentially from the 5th or 6th century AD, an important period in the formation of early kingdoms in northern Britain. Tarradale lies in the eastern side of Ross-shire on the Beauly Firth and only six miles from Craig Phadrig, an important stronghold and regional capital in the Kingdom of Fortriu. Part of this centralisation of power was reflected in the creation of monumental cemeteries and Tarradale may have been the burial place of the local elite. No Pictish symbol stones have been found at Tarradale, although symbol stones, including cross slabs with symbols on them have been found in adjacent parishes, the nearest being the recently discovered Conan stone three miles from Tarradale. However, in the same field as the barrow cemetery, a fortified settlement was excavated in the 1990’s; no primary dating evidence for the Picts was obtained but on stylistic grounds pottery from the fortified site has been dated to between AD 300-800 so this may well be the settlement focus of some of the people buried nearby.

Plan of barrow cemetery trenches (plan by Steve Birch)

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David’s Fort Revisited – and a Strange Coincidence?

By Meryl Marshall

With movements restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic it was inevitable that I would find myself at David’s Fort, near Conan House, just 2kms from my home. This impressive earthwork, variously interpreted as a “motte”, a “moated homestead” (OS map) and a “moated site” has received lots of attention from NOSAS in the past, see Marion Ruscoe’s blog of 2016, but the site remains as mysterious as ever. I was pleased to see that the area is much more open than it used to be, but the surrounds are rapidly becoming overgrown with scrubby brambles, broom and whins. The visit set me thinking once again about the origins and history of the site, with more time at home I set about some online investigations.

David’s Fort (Canmore ID: 12866, Highland Council HER: MHG8986) is at NGR NH 5394 5328 and consists of an impressive wet ditch 4m deep enclosing a trapezoidal area measuring 25m from N to S and 26m to 32m transversely. The ditch is enclosed by an external bank standing up to 3m height but 1.5m externally. Internally the only feature visible is a circular depression 7m in diameter and 1m in depth in the western half; traces of what may have been a bridge spanning the ditch on the west side have also been reported (June 1979) The moat still contains water and was originally fed by a waterway running from an artificially constructed pond possibly of more recent origin 100.0m to the east, to a cut in the bank at the NE corner.

The site is located on the forested slope above the River Conon 1km to the east of Conan House. It is close to what, in the Medieval period, was a crossing of the River Conon. Here too was the old church of Logiebride (or Logie Wester), and the site of the Battle of Lagabraad in 1481. This area, at the “neck” of the Black Isle, will almost certainly have been a meeting point of routeways for centuries, if not millennia.

David’s Fort looking SW

A processed image of Davids Fort from a lidar survey (contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0) © A Thompson. This model has also been uploaded to Sketchfab and can be seen in 3D at https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/davids-fort-d26cbff5d5184af18d157f7b6be94dad

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