Category Archives: Wester Ross

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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Isle Martin Burial Ground: An Investigation

By Cathy Dagg

Back on a lovely sunny weekend in May, which many of you will remember, NoSAS came over to Isle Martin to do some fossicking and recording in the burial ground, of which more later.

For those of you who didn’t get to visit, Isle Martin is a small island in community ownership just north of Ullapool, with a rich history associated with curing of herring in the 18th century. The island’s name suggests a dedication to St Martin, but it is more likely to be an anglicisation of the Gaelic Eilean Martaich: ‘island of the pine marten’. Locals refer to ‘the Isle of Martin’ but never to ‘St Martin’s Isle’. But there is a small burial ground, with a couple of early cross-carved stones, a burial aisle on or near the probable remains of a chapel.

When I started writing this blog about what we discovered, I thought I’d start by chasing up all the previous references to the burial ground and the carved stones. Casual mentions in old guide books of stones covered in hieroglyphics, memories of being shown ‘the other carved stone’….. obviously there was a lot more to the burial ground than what was now visible.

The story so far

1. 1775. The earliest reference to the burial round on Isle Martin is in the instrument of sasine granting the ten scots acres to John Woodhouse of Liverpool and ensuring ‘liberty to those having right of burying within the spot of ground marked B on said plan (drawn by William Morrison surveyor of land, in National Archive but not yet seen)

2. 1886. Ordnance Survey Name Book gives: Clach Fear Eillean Mhartain – Applies to a stone situated on Isle Martin about quarter of a mile westward of Rhuda Beag about quarter of a mile east of Camus a’ Bhuaibidh. The name means “Stone of the Man of Isle Martin” on account of an owner or inhabitant of the Island at a remote period having been buried under it.

3.1875 and 1902 1st and 2nd edition OS map show:

4. 1913. James Caird, architect: Note of an incised cross stone near the burying ground, Isle Martin, one of the Summer Isles, Wester Ross-shire PSAS 1913:

The burying ground is quite near the shore of a little bay at the south east corner of the island. The ancient stone, standing about four feet in height, with the cross carved on it, adjoins the burying ground.

Note that Caird mentions “near the burying ground and “adjoins the burying ground rather than within.

5. Early 20th century. Mrs Mitford, writing about the island in 1936 quotes one Major RS Hutchison:

At the dawn of the Christian era St Martin came on a pilgrimage to the Highlands to propagate the Gospel. He erected chapels in every place he travelled. It was on the Summer Isles that he breathed his last and over his dust lies a large stone on which the Cross is seen, covered with hieroglyphics. […]

The ruins of St Martin’s chapel are on the west corner of the isle, close by the grave of his followers and among them his own grave, surmounted by a high headstone carved with the cross and an unusual cross with double arms.

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Initiating CAERoS: Coastal Archaeology and Erosion in Wester Ross

by Stephanie Piper, Newcastle University (stephanie.piper@newcastle.ac.uk)

In April 2019 myself, two Master’s students from Newcastle University – Callum Hardman and Holly Holmes, and Paco Martínez-Sevilla, a colleague from Durham University, based ourselves in Poolewe to begin a week-long walk-over survey of the coastline around Loch Ewe. The aims of the survey were to:

  1. Establish the potential of eroding coastlines to yield early prehistoric sites in the north-west Highlands.
  2. Contribute to active monitoring of archaeological sites at risk of erosion.

Why were we drawn to this remote part of the Scottish Highlands? Precisely because it is remote! The evidence for early prehistoric occupation is sparse across much of the Highland region. For example, there is no evidence for Mesolithic occupation along the coast between Redpoint, in Gairloch parish, and Smoo Cave, Durness parish (although this has not been fully confirmed). By contrast, the coasts around the Inner Sound of Skye and Applecross were intensively surveyed by the Scotland’s First Settlers project from 1998. The project identified over 130 new archaeological sites, including the Mesolithic rockshelter site at Sand, Applecross. We felt sure that the absence of sites to the north was due to a lack of research, primarily because of the remoteness of the region and lack of ‘visible’ archaeology, rather than an absence of people in the past. CAERoS was therefore initiated to investigate the next stretch of coastline, north of where Scotland’s First Settlers had finished and with the hope of finding further evidence for Mesolithic coastal occupation.

As this was just the start, our methodology was simple: walk, and look. I spent several years during my postgraduate degrees working on a project in the Western Isles with Durham University. During the field seasons, we identified a number of Mesolithic sites exposed by coastal erosion (two on Harris, and three around the Bhaltos peninsula in Lewis). Because early prehistoric sites are often deeply buried under peat or machair, they are invisible to traditional means of initial identification such as a field-walking, and are so ephemeral they rarely respond to geophysics. The destruction caused by erosive processes therefore provides opportunities to investigate hidden archaeology, including early buried landscapes. This then, was to be our ‘window’ to the past, and we struck out across the headlands to observe and record any archaeology within c.50m of the coastline using the ShoreUpdate App, developed by the Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk project (SCHARP).

Fig.1 Exploring the circular stone structures and raised beach deposits at An Sean Inbhir

On the first day, we walked west, covering the stretch from Cove Battery to Camas Mor. We noted several sites along the way, including circular stone structures and modern fisherman’s bothies at An Sean Inbhir (Fig.1), a turf-covered wall at NG763921, which is probably associated with the abandoned township and head dyke at Camustrolvaig, and a sheepfold built against a rocky outcrop at NG805925. The building recorded at Camas A’Chall wasn’t identified, nor does it appear on the current OS map. By far the most interesting aspect of this stretch was the World War II memorial and three abandoned lifeboats (centred on the memorial at NG796926, Fig. 2). The memorial is in commemoration of those who lost their lives after the American Liberty Ship USS William H. Welch ran aground at Foura Island, on 26th February 1944. The plaque is also dedicated to local community members who were involved in the rescue efforts. The plaque does not appear in the HER and the abandoned lifeboats are at serious risk, situated in the intertidal zone. These have been logged with SCHARP who are very interested in incorporating them into a future project. If anyone happens to be in the area and visit them, it would be worthwhile continuing to take photographs of their condition.

Fig.2 The memorial at Cove, and barely-surviving lifeboats (midground, left)

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Surveying Isle Ewe, Wester Ross

by Anne MacInnes (NOSAS)

Aerial of Isle Ewe from Canmore

Isle Ewe is centred on NG 85046 88444 and lies within Loch Ewe just off the coast at Aultbea.

It was surveyed as part of an ongoing project to survey islands in the Gairloch parish area that have been inhabited. It is the largest of these islands comprising 764 acres and stretching roughly two miles from NW to SE. It is an island of two halves due to the geology. The NW consisting of Torridonian sandstone is higher, rockier with rough uncultivated grazing, whereas the SE consisting of deposited New Red sandstone has gentler contours with  improved arable pasture. The SE is also sheltered from the prevailing NW winds.

The earliest reference that I could find about the island was from 1583 when Nicolay refers to Loch Ew and the island. There are various references after this with differing spellings and Roy’s map of 1747 shows two settlements on the island. The island has been settled since the bronze/iron age as I found 5 roundhouses on the island and there could be more as the N end of the island is covered with rank heather overlying deep moss. At times it felt like I was swimming across the landscape, about to disappear never to be found.

Roy Map Isle Ewe

The island is still inhabited by the Grant family without whose help the survey would not have happened.

The full report on the survey can be found on the NOSAS website under ‘past surveys and reports’ so rather than repeat everything I will highlight some of my favourite moments.

The logistics of getting to the island involved constant communication with the Grants about the weather and once on the island a watchful eye was kept on the conditions. They picked me up from Aultbea and ferried me across to various landing points depending on where I was surveying which eventually took about ten trips. I find myself still going back as various queries crop up about more sites as they notice the island through different eyes.

Footings of building at N. settlement marked on Roy’s map

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Tanera Mor and Isle Martin: Community Projects and Private Ownership

by Cathy Dagg

Over the years NOSAS members have done a huge amount of important work finding and researching the archaeological evidence for the herring fishing industry in Loch Hourn in the 18th-19th century. This included looking at the remains of herring curing stations on the west coast, and some NOSAS members will remember going over to Tanera Mor, off Coigach in Wester Ross, to carry out a measured survey of the substantial standing ruins of the curing station, built in 1784 (read the report).Isle Martin in the 1750s and Tanera Mor in 1785  from maps held in Castle Leod. Thanks to Steve Husband and Meryl Marshall for the copies.

Tanera Mor is one of the earliest herring curing stations in Wester Ross. The first was Isle Martin, in 1775 with Culag at Lochinver in Sutherland established a short while later, then Tanera in 1785 and eventually the fishing village of Ullapool in 1788. The greater part of the Isle Martin buildings were converted to a flour mill in 1937 then completely demolished. Culag fishing station lies under the Culag Hotel. The great red herring curing house in Ullapool was truncated by about 1/3 to broaden the entrance to the ferry car park and converted to Calmac offices in the 1970s, without any building survey or photographic record. Tanera Mor, although roofless and much reduced after Frank Fraser Darling’s demolitions in 1939, remains as the last curing station in the Lochbroom area which might give archaeological evidence for the curing industry. This flourished only briefly but was enormously significant on a local level and also for the role it played in international affairs.

Ullapool: red herring curing house in 1970s

This Spring, the Isle Martin Trust received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a community heritage project. Volunteers have been researching the history of the island, creating a space in one of the old buildings for a micro museum, devising fictional narratives based on real events and characters, designing a heritage trail around the island and much more. You may have caught a short piece about the project on BBC Alba. Check out the website: islemartinprojects.org. Continue reading

A Survey of Kildonan, Wester Ross

by Anne MacInnes (NOSAS)

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The township of Kildonan (NH07829097) lies on a SW facing slope overlooking Little Loch Broom, and was described by Jonathan Wordsworth as one of the most important post medieval settlements in Wester Ross. It has remained undisturbed by later developments so its field system remains largely intact. It is shown on Roy’s map of 1750 with lazy beds marked.

In late 2010 three members of the Western group of NOSAS decided to survey the township. Jim and Mary Buchanan and Anne MacInnes. Most of the survey was complete by the end of 2011,but for personal reasons the results have only just been written up. The survey can now be downloaded here.

I don’t want to repeat what is in the survey, so will pick out a few things that we came across.
The township itself can still be clearly seen.

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We mapped out what we found and it was interesting to note the phasing of the township with two different head dykes.

kildonan-plan

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Elusive Wartime Remains in Loch Ewe

Jonie and Richard Guest search for underwater remains from the last war – by Richard Guest (NOSAS).

Capture (1)We had it on good authority – a record of an eye witness – that at the end of the last war the 6” artillery which had been positioned at Rubha nan Sasan on the west side of the entrance to Loch Ewe was dumped over the cliffs.  We had also variously heard that it had been seen previously by divers but also that it may have been salvaged.  We decided to look for ourselves.

We launched our Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) from the community slip at Inverasdale and headed out to the mouth of the Loch in good weather and calm sea.  The gun emplacements are easy to see on shore and were visible from the boat so there was no problem in deciding where to dive.

The first dive was made from a point just North of the northern gun emplacement, with the intention of working south past it.  Immediately on descending it was obvious that there was a serious obstacle to the search – dense kelp!  The seabed was not visible from above the kelp and could only be seen by putting your head into the seaweed, which allowed you to see about one square metre at a time.  Even vertical surfaces were kelp-covered so even if the guns stood proud of the seabed they would themselves be covered in kelp.  You could only see whether the kelp was attached to archaeology or bedrock from within touching distance.

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The orange floating blob marks where Richard is underwater.

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