Category Archives: Excavations

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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Tarradale Through Time: 2018 Excavations

by Eric Grant

In September 2018 two sites were investigated by TARRADALE THROUGH TIME near Muir of Ord. These were a fortified enclosure just west of Gilchrist church and a rather enigmatic and possibly ritual site south of Gilchrist church, but located on Balvattie Farm.

Gilchrist Promontory Fort

The Gilchrist fort is a rather unusual monument  and walking past it gives no clue to its existence, size or age. Canmore describes it as a promontory fort based on their interpretation of crop marks as the arcs of three concentric ditches “Apparently designed to cut off approach to a tongue of low-lying and comparatively level ground running NW into marshland, they are in effect part of the defensive system of a promontory fort measuring about 85 m by 30 m”.

In addition to the black-and-white photographs on the Canmore database, the late Jim bone, who was an enthusiastic archaeologist and also a pilot, took some good colour photographs of the site. Jim’s aerial photograph shows three dark green curved features representing the fort’s ditches on the east side of the promontory. The ditches are now under cultivation and have been filled in and ploughed flat so there is nothing to see above ground; it is only the aerial photographs that have encouraged archaeologists to see this as a fortified promontory. It is unusual to find a promontory fort inland unless it is in a situation like this where it is surrounded by water or marshland. Most hill and promontory forts in Scotland appear to have been constructed during the late Bronze Age and Iron Age and the latest ones were built or reoccupied in Pictish times.

Aerial photograph of Gilchrist showing ditches as dark green curves (JS Bone Collection)

Our research agenda sought to identify and characterise the ditches, and to ascertain when the fort was constructed, how long it was occupied and what activities may have taken place there. Three large trenches were initially opened, one running at right angles across the defensive ditches, a second running from the long side of the fort down into the bog and a third on the highest part of the interior of the fort. We were very quickly able to establish that the three ditches seen on aerial photographs did exist, with a hint of a fourth ditch closer into the fort. The outermost ditch was reasonably shallow but the second ditch was a massive construction 5-6 m wide at the top and sloping steeply to about 1.5 m below the plough soil though we consider that the upper part of the ditches have been lost due to ploughing and the intervening banks of excavated material flattened. The third innermost ditch was not quite so deep, but right on the edge of the actual fort area we found what may be an inner ditch that might have continued round the fort perimeter as a wall and perhaps with a timber fence palisade on top or just in front.

Plan of Gilchrist excavations showing crop marks and trenches (HAS)

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Rosemarkie Caves Excavations: Interpreting the results of three years of excavations – 2016 to 2018

by Steven Birch

This article is a repost from the Rosemarkie Caves Website – see original here.

June 2018 saw a strong team from the Rosemarkie Caves Project carry out a third consecutive season of excavation in a group of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. The fieldwork took place in two of the Learnie Caves, continuing the excavations to investigate cave function in Learnie 1A and Learnie 1B (Dead Horse Cave). The caves are located in the same headland below Learnie Farm, which also houses Smelter’s Cave (Learnie 2B), where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made in 2016 (see previous blog posts here and here), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metalworking.

As in previous excavations, some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th to early 20th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, sherds of window glass and worked bone/horn. The excellent preservation found in many of these caves also produced other organic remains including worked wood in Dead Horse Cave. Some of the more recognisable wood elements comprised fragments of roundwood around 6-8mm in diameter, some of which had trimmed ends. Further analysis of these finds is required, but it is possible that some of this material derives from the manufacture of baskets or fish traps. Other artefacts associated with this period of use included ceramics, bottle glass, a metal spoon, knife blades and handles, the remains of a small penknife including a part of the finely decorated bone handle, iron fittings, bone and mother of pearl buttons, several potential stone tools, and the ubiquitous clay pipe fragments. Several objects manufactured from copper alloy were also recovered including studs, pins, three low-denomination coins and fragments from an oil or paraffin lamp. In the upper levels of Learnie 1A, we recovered a large number of old shotgun cartridges, which may have been used to shoot rabbits and birds (the recent analysis of the animal bones from previous year’s excavations by Karen Kennedy has indicated high numbers of rabbit bones in the faunal assemblage from this period).

Composite pipe fragment from Learnie 1B.

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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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TARRADALE THROUGH TIME: community engagement with archaeology in the Highlands

by Dr Eric Grant (NOSAS)

Trench 2B at Tarradale during excavations in October 2017.

Background to Tarradale through time

This blog sets out some of the recent developments in the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project (see website), a NOSAS led project that commenced in 2017 and is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Environment Scotland and private donors. TARRADALE THROUGH TIME grew out of the earlier Tarradale Archaeological Project which is still ongoing as a mainly field walking and data gathering exercise – see Tarradale Archaeological Project blog . Field walking over the last few years has produced a great deal of data which has been recorded and mapped and the patterns emerging from mapping and analysis suggest that there were several important archaeological sites within the Tarradale study area that merited further investigation. A detailed research project was drawn up as a multiperiod investigation and given the name of TARRADALE THROUGH TIME. The sub title of the project is community engagement with archaeology in the Highlands, as one of the aims of TARRADALE THROUGH TIME is to engage with the local community in order to widen access to heritage through research and understanding and to underline the premise that archaeology belongs to the community and not just to the archaeologists who explore it. The Tarradale Through Time website can be found at www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk.

Community volunteers at the Tarradale castle site excavations, September 2017.

The Heritage Lottery Fund awarded the project a grant in 2017 and additional funding for specific aspects of the project was sought from Historic Environment Scotland. TARRADALE THROUGH TIME is focusing on five specific subproject areas for excavation and one subproject for detailed surface survey. These were chosen to give as wide a chronological range as possible in order to investigate the relationship between the inhabitants of the Tarradale area with their environment and landscape through time. The currently formulated subprojects are

  • investigating through test pitting and larger scale excavation Mesolithic (and potentially later) shell middens
  • a large barrow cemetery potentially dating from Bronze Age to Pictish
  • a large ditched enclosure with internal structures also likely to date from Bronze Age to Pictish
  • a small Inland promontory fort of unknown age
  • a ditch defended enclosed settlement of possible medieval date
  • the site of the historically recorded Tarradale Castle but whose exact location is unknown
  • surface survey and investigation of deserted postmediaeval agricultural townships or settlement clusters.

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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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