Category Archives: Black Isle

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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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 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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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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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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Rosemarkie Caves Excavations 2017

by Steve Birch

2017 saw a second consecutive season of excavation by the Rosemarkie Caves Project in the series of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. Four caves were chosen for targeted excavation by the team. This included further work in Smelter’s Cave (2B) where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made last year (see blog post), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metal working .

Some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, and working in bone/horn. We also recovered good economic evidence for the use of the caves during this period, which once analysed, will provide some detail with regards to how the people lived and what they ate!

Above: A child’s leather boot in situ. Below: A 3 holed bone button. Probable 19th C. artefacts from Cave 1B.

Unfortunately, the hard work to uncover further evidence of the metalworking activity outside 2B failed to materialise…..here, we found evidence for the deposition from material generated within the caves through time such as fire-cracked stones, charcoal and ash, shellfish, animal bone (cattle, sheep and pig) and some large fish (including cod and ling). This area, below the drip-line of the cave, was also probably quite a dangerous place to carry out any activities. A number of large rocks were uncovered here that had fallen from the cliff above. We did recover some metalworking residues including a hearth base, three pieces of iron slag, and one fragment of vitrified furnace wall.

The trench outside Cave 2B, aka Smelter’s Cave

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