Category Archives: Medieval

Cromarty Medieval Burgh Excavations 2013-2016: An Overview

by Mary Peteranna and Steve Birch.

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Aerial view of Reeds Park during excavation 2015, looking towards the modern town and the Cromarty Firth (Garry MacKay).

The Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project, which has been investigating the lost remnants of Cromarty’s historic medieval centre, has uncovered evidence of a catastrophic burning event along with a wealth of information about the development of a small Scottish burgh. The archaeological site in Reeds Park, Cromarty had been buried below a farmer’s field for over 120 years, before began investigations in 2013 after coastal erosion revealed hints of settlement. The project, which has attracted over 700 volunteers and thousands of visitors, has been dubbed by medieval specialists ‘one of the most important medieval excavations happening in Scotland.’

Although the core of the medieval burgh of Cromarty was thought to have been located at the base of the castle brae, to the southeast of the present town, the presence of any surviving remains of the settlement were completely unknown before digging began. Now, working with a range of specialists, including historians and artefact experts the archaeologists are piecing together the exciting archaeological results spanning periods of settlement between the 13th to 19th centuries. In 2015-2016, after several seasons of digging, the excavation has come down to the earliest layers and provided a detailed look at the layout of the medieval town

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Two corrected aerial photographs of the Cromarty excavation site by Alan Thompson. Above is the view towards the end of excavations in 2015.

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…and this image shows the substantial progress made by the end of the 2016 season.

The burgh of Cromarty was set in a strategically important location, controlling the entrance to the Cromarty Firth and the ferry crossing on the coastal route north of Inverness via Nigg, the most direct route to the medieval shrine of St Duthac’s in Tain. Cromarty was a natural location for a medieval power centre, with good coastal access and rich agricultural hinterland, strategically located on a key frontier zone in Northern Scotland. Unlike other areas of the north and Highland regions that were under clan control, Cromarty fell under the feudal authority of the Scottish crown. Although there is little documentary evidence for the town’s medieval history, it has been suggested that it was the logical location for a thanage in the 11th/12th centuries. A castle situated at Cromarty would have been a sensible location to establish royal authority on this borderland. While it was documented that the town’s sheriffdom had been established by 1266, little was known about the early history and layout of medieval Cromarty.

The archaeologists’ work from 2013-2016 has provided a detailed picture of the transitioning burgh, showing the buildings, property boundaries and zones of activity within an area focused on a former road alignment, referred to mysteriously as Thief’s Row in the 18th century. The latest buildings recorded on the site, dating to the 19th century  were located on the north side of the road; rectangular stone-built structures running parallel to Thief’s Row and set within plots of land demarcated by single coursed stone boundaries. The foundations of earlier buildings, most likely constructed during the closing stages of the 17th century mirrored the footprints of those latest buildings, displaying multiple phases of restructuring within these centuries. Artefacts associated from this period consist of low status ceramics and glass, and personal objects representing general subsistence living. Continue reading

Focus on Ormond Castle, Avoch, Ross-shire

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

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3D model of Ormond Castle (Alan Thompson)

The North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) and Avoch Community Archaeology (ACA) group joined forces in March 2016 to survey and photograph Ormond Castle, GR NH 6963 5358 (HER ID: MHG8226, Canmore ID: 13572). The castle overlooks the village of Avoch on the Black Isle and commands good views across the Moray Firth to the south and the former ferry crossing between Chanonry and Ardersier in the east.

To date Ormond castle has not received the attention it deserves. It is traditionally associated with William the Lion (1143 – 1214). He built two castles on the Black Isle in 1179, one at Redcastle and a second which is thought to be this one. Andrew de Moray was owner of the castle in the 13th century and principal commander of Scottish forces in the north during the Wars of Independence in the late 13th Century, but was mortally wounded fighting alongside William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. In 1455, after being in the hands of the de Moray family and the earls of Ross, the castle passed to royal control and in 1481 James III granted it to his son, the Marquis of Ormond, from whom the present name derives. The castle was destroyed by Cromwell’s forces in 1650 and the stones were transported over the firth to build the Citadel in Inverness.

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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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David’s Fort: a Medieval Motte?

by Marion Ruscoe (NOSAS)

In around 2000 Janet Hooper, Allan MacKenzie and I undertook a survey of David’s Fort, a rather enigmatic site in Balavil Wood, near Conon Bridge.  Our intention was to survey the site, clarify its purpose and investigate the related documentary and contextual information.  We did arrange a geophysical survey which was cancelled due to Foot and Mouth, and that was replaced with a later walkover of Balavil Wood.  David’s Fort itself is scheduled, but there are other features in the immediate area which may be related and which are worthy of notice.

David's Fort aerial photograph by Jim Bone

David’s Fort aerial photograph by Jim Bone

David’s Fort (NH5394 5328; HER MHG8986) is essentially a large earth mound surrounded by a ditch, surrounded by an embankment.  The mound and embankment were created by digging out the ditch.  It’s trapezoidal in shape, and the top of the mound measures approximately 80 x 85 feet.  The moat is around 15 feet deep and is partially filled with water.  There’s no sign of any structures on the top of the mound, but these would probably have been wooden and evidence would not have survived the trees and bracken which have invaded the site.

There is a dip on the west end and a corresponding dip in the embankment with a track running down to the mediaeval road which runs from Tarradale on the Beauly Firth to the ford over the River Conon.  It’s been assumed that this is where the entrance was, though, since the embankment is considerably lower than the top of the mound, any bridge would either be very sloped, or mounted on a framework which raises the question “why the dip in the embankment and the very obvious path leading from that dip?”  The embankment surrounding the mound has been extended for a short distance at three of the corners.  The purpose of this is not clear.  Water was fed into the moat via a channel leading from a lochan to the east of the site and controlled by a sluice but this channel has been damaged by the embankment which carries the power lines.

Dip in embankment, indicating possible original entry. 1998

Dip in embankment, indicating possible original entry. 1998

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Tarradale Archaeological Project – Findings to Date

by Dr. Eric Grant (NOSAS)

Background to the project. The Tarradale Archaeological Project started as a private initiative around 2008 and was incorporated as an approved NOSAS research project in 2011. The Tarradale archaeological project aims to investigate and record the surviving archaeological evidence of the multi-period archaeological landscape of the Tarradale area and to interpret the chronological development of settlement and resource utilisation in the study area. The main activity of the project so far has been field walking which has been very successful and as data has been collected and analysed the parameters of the project have moved and the aims extended.

Aerial photo of Tarradale area with Tarradale house in the foreground. Tarradale Castle (destroyed 1308) was probably located above and below the steep bank in the field immediately below Tarradale House. ). (Picture by courtesy of Jim bone).

Aerial photo of Tarradale area with Tarradale house in the foreground. Tarradale Castle (destroyed 1308) was probably located above and below the steep bank in the field immediately below Tarradale House. (Picture by courtesy of Jim Bone).

1. Location and extent of the Tarradale study area. The study area comprises about 750 hectares of mainly agricultural land at the eastern end of the parish of Urray on the northern side of the inner Beauly Firth in Ross-shire. Historically the area was co-terminous with the old landholding unit of Tarradale  estate and the ecclesiastical parish of Gilchrist or Tarradale, which was a separate parish until becoming amalgamated with the parish of Urray in the late 16th The historical centre of Tarradale was the old parish church, now surviving only as a mausoleum at Gilchrist. Following the building (or rebuilding) of Tarradale House in the 17th century, Tarradale House became the administrative centre (caput) of the estate.

A large part of the area is raised estuarine beaches and that area today is flat or gently undulating high-quality agricultural land that is regularly ploughed. To the north of the former raised beaches the land rises towards the Mulbuie Ridge as undulating hillside mainly covered with boulder clay. Apart from Gilchrist Chapel and some standing stones probably erected in the Bronze Age, there are few visible archaeological monuments in the area that is intensively ploughed, although aerial photographs show cropmarks that can be interpreted as ring ditches, pits and enclosures. This contrasts with the more upland and less intensively cultivated area where there are standing monuments including Tarradale chambered cairn and an indeterminate feature which has been called a henge but is better referred to with the more general term of earthwork.

Tarradale chambered cairn

Tarradale chambered cairn

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Cromarty Medieval Burgh Excavations 2014

by Mary Peteranna (AOC)

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Excavations to the north of Thief’s Row 2014

Our excavations in 2014 produced more informative data to assist with our research into the history of the Burgh of Cromarty including a more detailed picture of the layout and phasing of the buildings along each side of Thief’s Row, where our main excavation site is located (see a history of Thief’s Row) This includes the footings of three buildings shown on the 1880 Ordnance Survey map sheet on the north side of Thief’s Row, under which we identified the remains of another earlier structure, dating to the 18th century. At our limit of excavations on the north side of the road we uncovered three medieval structures with associated cobbled vennels and boundary walls – these have produced ceramics of 14th to 15th century date. One of these structures had been re-used during the 16th to early 18th centuries and the thickness of the clay-bonded walls would suggest it was at least a two-storey high building – most likely a merchant’s house.

To the south side of Thief’s Row, our excavations uncovered extensive structures and deposits of medieval date (13th to 15th centuries) including stone buildings and more ephemeral wattle and daub structures, along with their associated boundary gullies, vennels and evidence for small-scale smithing, which will be investigated further in 2015. These areas of settlement and activity were abandoned relatively early in the settlement history of the burgh, the structures being landscaped over with spreads of ash, fish bone, animal bone and shellfish middens that were most likely generated from activities taking place on the north side of Thief’s Row and along the High Street to the west. In the latter stage of the 18th century, the south side of the road was then given over to small garden plots and eventually more open fields.

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A site tour at Cromarty 2014

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Rubh’ an Dunain, Skye: 8000 Years of History

by Martin Wildgoose

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Aerial view of the Rubh’ an Dunain peninsula

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Members of NOSAS walking towards the tackman’s house on Rubh’ an Dunain. Canna is on the skyline.

A warm sunny Sunday in early June saw NOSAS members gathering in the Glenbrittle campsite, at the foot of the Cuillin Mountains. The view south was spectacular, Canna seemed unusually close and South Uist and Barra lay in the haze on the horizon. Close at hand the Rubha an Dunain peninsular stretched out to the left of the bay with a ribbon of made-up path promising an easy walk to the point where 8000 years of Skye’s history lies exposed to view. Just an hour and a half later the group paused to enjoying a mid-morning coffee prior to crossing the Slochd Dubh (Black Hollow) where a late 18th century wall marks the boundary between Clan MacAskill and Clan MacLeod – but more of that later.

The first people to leave tangible evidence of their stay on the peninsula were Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who travelled throughout the islands off the west coast of Scotland on a seasonal round, in pursuit of food and tool resources. A site excavated at Kinloch on Rum (HER MHG 3987) between 1984 and 1986*, only a day’s boat journey away to the south west, may be the winter base for these pioneers. A small rock shelter (HER MHG4898) at Rubh an Dunain, partially excavated in 1932 by W Lindsay Scott**, contained many worked stone tools and the debris from their manufacture – evidence of repeated visits to the site during this period. Additionally a recently recorded lithic scatter on a terrace close to Loch na h-Airde shows that more sites of this period await discovery (the day in fact finished with NOSAS members happily picking fragments of worked bloodstone and mudstone out of a nearby burn).

Rock Shelter Rubh an Dunain James McComas

Martin points towards Loch na h-Airde from just outside the rock shelter.

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