Category Archives: Loch Ness, Aird and Inverness

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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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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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

Buntait, Glenurquhart: A Bronze Age Landscape?

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The larger barrow at Buntait – feature ‘X’ on the map below.

Although I have lived in Glen Urquhart for some years, it was only comparatively recently that I first visited Buntait, a hamlet just to the north of the Clava type chambered cairn at Corrimony. This was despite me hearing from a number of local people about the amount of upstanding archaeology that was there. I think I must have presumed that because there are no scheduled monuments there it could not be that interesting – an assumption I will not be making in the future. Later research confirmed that Buntait is in fact full of prehistoric (and post medieval) features – including hut circles, field systems, burnt mounds and rock art. Not only are the field systems extensive and some of the hut circles very well preserved, but also there are a couple of ditched barrow features. Locally, only Garbeg is comparable in terms of prehistoric remains.

GIS map of Buntait annotated with huts, barrows, cairn fields, dykes and other archaeological features.

Consequently Buntait became the subject of three archaeological field trips in 2017; two led by NOSAS, and one as part of the Archaeology Scotland Summer School planned with the assistance of NOSAS. There were also numerous smaller sorties for quadcopter flying, polecam photogrammetry, rock art recording (for SCRAP) and general investigation.

OS map of Buntait annotated with huts, barrows and buildings in red, cairns in green and dykes in brown. Blue dots show the location of records on Canmore. BM = burnt mound.

NOSAS field visit to Buntait January 2017

“The Glenurqhuart Story” by Alistair Mackell published in 1982, provides a useful if perhaps now outdated introduction:

Not far from the Corrimony Burial Cairn, on Buntait lands, was a settlement of some considerable size where clearly marked hut circles and cairns suggest a community practising primitive agriculture and a boundary wall, which can still be traced, may have served to protect domestic animals from prowling wolves or other marauding wild animals. Some of these circles are 30 feet in diameter and in the centre of at least one, is a depression which may have been a fireplace. These circles are low banks of stones covered with grass or heather about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide at the base. It is difficult to imagine one large roof covering such an expanse, but if so, it would probably have been formed of wattles and thatched with heather or turf, giving, when complete, a dome – shaped appearance. In each case there is a break in the circle at the south east which indicates the entrance. In other parts of Scotland where these structures have been carefully examined, hearth paving stones have been discovered, but we are unable to reconstruct much of the everyday life of the people of these long bygone days, and we can merely conjecture that they combined hunting with their primitive agriculture, for the Highlands were rich in wildlife.

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