Category Archives: Archaeology by Time Period

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.

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 the SCRAP project) 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“The Glenurqhuart Story” by Alistair Mackell published in 1982, provides a useful if perhaps now outdated introduction: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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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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Clachtoll Broch Excavations 2017: Part Two

by Dave McBain (Historic Assynt)

Image: AOC Archaeology.

Three months ago, I was asked to write a piece on the Clachtoll excavation (see the post here), and when I was asked to do a follow up, I thought it would be best to have a look back and see where to start from. That was a revelation. When I penned the last piece,  we were a month in, enjoying every minute and let’s be brutally honest – not finding too many artefacts.

As time went on, we dug deeper, the finds became more frequent – much more frequent and in amongst it all, a mini dig on top of the Split Rock and the creation of a corbelled cell (soon, we hope,  to be otter holt) made for a fantastic summer.

So much to share, so few words – so let’s not waste any more.

View of 3d model of the broch towards the end of excavation, Sep 2017.

I suggested that the occupants may have had sheep or goats in my last blog report – we can confirm those sheep, from some of the bones found. Curiously, if a good few years later, Ptolemy’s map of Scotland listed the people of the North West as Caereni – or “sheep people”. I can only wonder if it was those same Caereni who built the Broch?

There were also cattle, pig, deer, whale, seal and possibly boar bones recovered on the site. I am pleased however, to report that to the best of my knowledge, no human bones came from the site, so we can hope our Caereni survived the collapse.

Clachtoll has turned out to be something amazing. Although several hundred brochs were built around Scotland, most it seems, fell gradually out of use before being abandoned. Finding another that collapsed dramatically in the iron age is a bit like searching for hens’ teeth. What we uncovered this summer was a two thousand year old time capsule. One has to wonder if one of the thousand plus visitors to the site was H.G. Wells time traveller looking for an update?

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Digging in to digital – A summer of photogrammetry in Orkney

by Jim Bright

Standing in Structure 1 while undertaking photogrammetry

I have just completed undertaking an MSc in Archaeological Practice at the Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands. This entails completing a placement and as my specialisation and undergraduate dissertation has been researching the use of digital techniques to record and disseminate our heritage, the placement would offer an ideal opportunity to test some techniques in the field.

After discussions with site directors Martin Carruthers and Nick Card, I was offered the opportunity to work throughout the season at both The Cairns and Ness of Brodgar excavations. This would enable me to make 3D models of trenches and structures during different phases of excavation. I could also develop my skills with creating models of small finds, the idea being that there could be 3D models of items made just as they have been excavated, or while in-situ. I wanted to identify the value of having what could be termed as a ‘digital archaeologist’ on a site for the entire duration of an excavation, primarily using the photogrammetry technique, and working on these sites throughout the summer would provide the opportunity to do this.

Before I go in to detail about how I undertook the digital work at both sites, I’ll give a little bit of background information into the excavations. The Cairns was the first excavation where I was to undertake digital work. These excavations overlook Windwick Bay in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, and were undertaken from 12th June to 7th July 2017 with previous excavations having taken place from 2006-2010 and 2012-2015.

View from inside the broch during excavation season 2017 at The Cairns

Initially, excavations took place in order to confirm the presence of a souterrain which had been described in a 1903 text, and during the 2006 excavation season, evidence of what is described as a ‘massive roundhouse’ was uncovered, which today is considered to be a broch or broch like building. The excavation is primarily concerned with the Iron Age period, however evidence of Neolithic activity is also present.

The second excavation where digital recording took place was at The Ness of Brodgar, situated on an isthmus between the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar, in Stenness, Orkney. This site is positioned between the lochs of Stenness and Harray and lies within the inner buffer zone of the World Heritage Site known as the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’. I expect many will be familiar with this site due to its numerous appearances on the television, most recently on the BBC documentary, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney. Excavations have taken place here since 2003, after geophysical surveys in 2002 revealed the extent of a large structure and areas of interest. Today the Ness of Brodgar is arguably the most significant Neolithic site in Britain. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

Monuments of Remembrance: Inverness War Memorial, Cavell Gardens

by Marion Ruscoe (NOSAS)

In November public focus is on remembrance as we commemorate the dead from conflicts of WW1 onwards and that focus centres on the many war memorials scattered throughout the country.

Inverness War memorial (NH66481 44506; HER MHG15630) is sited at Cavell Gardens on the River Ness and at the east end of the Infirmary Bridge. It consists of a red sandstone Celtic cross on a stepped plinth with two walls extending to either side with panels containing plaques with the names of the dead of conflicts from WW1. The wings have terminal pillars surmounted by lamps. The memorial was designed by J. Hinton Gall and carved by D & A Davidson of Academy Street.

The best view of the memorial is from the opposite bank of the river

The Burgh Coat of Arms is carved on the front of the plinth below the shaft of the cross, and below that is the inscription:


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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…, 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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