Category Archives: Moray

Digging the Pictish Fort at Burghead

by Anji Hancock (NOSAS)

My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent excavations.

The original fort occupied over 7 acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.

However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’  (Photo Anji Hancock)

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy MacIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy with the copper-alloy finger ring (photo Northern Picts).

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NOSAS in Forres: A Visit to the Medieval Burgh

by Dr John R Barrett

Forres folk are suspicious of strangers – and especially suspicious of foreign strangers who pretend to know something about Forres history. And I should know. Having worked as an archivist in the royal burgh for barely thirty years, and lacking at least three Forresian grandparents, I am still a couple of generations short of qualifying as any kind of expert on Forres history.

And Forres is suspicious of people from the North. Long local memories recall a time when Moray held the front line against the Vikings; and longer memories of local independence are now reinforced by academic research that places Pictish Fortriu in Moray (or Moray in Fortriu) – the Pictish kingdom persisting as the heartland of the Cenel Loarn branch of the Dalriadan Scots.

But, despite this history (and also because of it) I rashly accept an invitation to guide NOSAS around the royal burgh.

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We choose a day of icy wind and leaden skies. We gather in a draughty car park for the prelims (safety check, head count, toilet break). And then there are the necessary explanations: this will be a walk in feet and inches – a concession to my age, and also because (notwithstanding modern archaeological practice) the place was built to an older yardstick.

We note the regular snaking roods[i] of burgh biggid land that curve sinuously from high street frontage to head dyke (at the foot of the feu) with back passage beyond.  The linked head-dykes formed a continuous wall to define (if not effectively defend) the liberties of the burgh. Beyond extended unfenced commonfield arable, with pasture and peatbog to support the burgh community. On the north side the burgh was originally defined by the Mosset Burn. And even after the Burn abandoned its medieval course, cautious burgh notaries conservatively continued to draft sasines by reiterating the descriptions contained in older deeds – defining feus by the old run of the river.

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