Category Archives: General Archaeology

Sarclet Harbour, Caithness

by Anne Coombs

Figure 1: Looking out to sea

Caithness at the end of the 18th century was an exciting place to be.  While maybe not the centre of the world, it was home to some of the big names of the time.  Sir John Sinclair, ‘Agricultural’ Sir John, of Ulbster is a name we should all know.  He instigated the Old Statistical Accounts of Scotland, an amazing resource which is often the first place we look for details of life in the 1780s and 90s.  His name appears in many of the forward-thinking documents of the time, not just the OSA, he was author of the General View of the Agriculture of the Northern Counties.  He was a member of the British Fisheries Society and a Trustee of the Board for the Improvement of Fisheries and Manufactures along with his near neighbours in Sutherland, George Dempster of Dunnichen, founder of Spinningdale mill, and Lord Gower, later the Marquise of Stafford and then the Duke of Sutherland. 

This group instigated several moneymaking (Improvement) schemes, one of the most successful was the development of the herring fishing industry off the coast of Caithness during the 19th century.  The British Fisheries Society was responsible for building Pultneytown immediately south of the Wick River.  It was laid out by Thomas Telford in 1786 and was so successful it became known as ‘Herringopolis’ with the harbour so full of fishing boats which meant you could walk across it without touching water.  But Pultneytown was just one of many harbours developed along the coast of Caithness during this period.

Figure 2: Storehouse, well and track to top of cliff

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Etching and engraving Pictish symbols and figures on to wood

by John Wombell

The Conan Stone on wood by John Wombell see A Newly Discovered Pictish Stone for Easter Ross

First the excuse.  I tried this in the Autumn of 2019 to boost entries for the Tarradale Through Time art competition with a new interpretation of Balblair man, on a panel long since removed from a position beside Kilmorack School to Moniack Castle.  Despite being a Mercian through and through I have lived and worked in the land of the Picts for over half a century. This, as well as being married to someone with Pictish genes for sure, has led one to develop an ongoing interest in the mysterious Picts.   Living not far away, we visited the Sueno’s stone in Forres more than once with the children many years ago.

For a decade plus I had responsibility for a number of burial grounds in Kincardine and Deeside with fine Pictish stones in them (Fordoun, Tullich and Migvie). Then came one of those special moments in archaeology; when digging at Birnie I discovered the Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble and that  kept my interest going.  Stories of discovery are rarely told unless it is the likes of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and the story of the discovery of the Birnie pebble has never been told so why not now?

I had been patted on the head and set to cleaning and defining an area within what was thought to be a small Pictish house built in the ruins of a roundhouse.  What was revealed was a small setting of smooth cobbles looking like it might have been a crafting workplace.  When I first encountered the pebble it was tilted slightly on its long axis.  Fortunately that day I was in ‘careful mode’ and as soon as the top edge of the pebble was revealed it was clearly quite different and it looked like quartz or quartzite.  I left it firmly in place and carefully cleaned away another cm or so of sand from round about it. It continued to look interesting so I called over Alan Braby, who’s trench I was in, for a look see.   Alan came over, peered at the pebble, plucked it out of the sand and asked me if I had a wee brush of some kind, which I had.  Then he cleaned the pebble off and said ‘have you any idea what this is?’  ‘Haven’t a clue,’ I replied, ‘other than a finishing stone for some kind of craft work maybe’.   So then he showed me the feint decoration on the stone that was becoming clearer as the pebble dried out.  Well Alan says, ‘it is a Painted Pictish Pebble and the first to be discovered on the South side of the Moray Firth.’ Then we realised that it was decorated on both sides.   It was most exciting day.

Birnie Painted Pictish Pebble

Painted Pictish Pebbles are rare artefacts and most have been found at Caithness and Shetland broch sites.  They are at the very bottom of the Pictish art spectrum and I remain convinced that the designs on them reflect the Picts knowledge of cup and ring marked rocks, which in Pictish times would have been far more numerous than today.  Since then I have never stopped looking for blanks of the same size and shape and they are as rare as hen’s teeth.  Beach pebbles of quartz tend to be rounded and if oval they tend to be too large and too heavy.  The nearest I have found are quartzite and the replica I made of the Birnie pebble is on such a blank.  There is plenty of information on Painted Pictish Pebbles free online.

Selection of painted pictish pebbles from Shetland.

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Was there mineral extraction in the Highlands in prehistoric times?

by Jonathan Wordsworth

The recent Zoom lecture by Matthew Knight on the Late Bronze Age Hoard found in a peat cutting behind Poolewe in 1877  (the talk can be viewed on the Gairloch Museum Youtube channel at Poolewe: The last Bronze Age hoard in Scotland? by Dr Matthew Knight) and the recent Feats of Clay project (http://archhighland.org.uk/feats-of-clay.asp) led by ARCH relating to a metal-working site with rare clay mould fragments found during excavations at Bellfield, North Kessock, demonstrate bronze casting was occurring in the Highlands.  Together with the Stittenham Axe Mould these are important finds for Late Bronze Age Scotland.

Stittenham Axe Mould © ARCH

But this is a speculative blog examining the possibility that there might have been copper and other ores extracted in the Highlands during the Bronze Age and is meant to stimulate research by NOSAS members on some of the ore sources.  While current research has not identified any prehistoric mining in Scotland, except possibly in South West Scotland, there is certainly nothing on the scale of the Great Orme mine in North Wales. The received wisdom is that the copper and other metals alloyed with it such as tin, zinc and to a lesser extent lead, were brought into the area as ingots from metal extracted from elsewhere in the British Isles or from further afield in continental Europe.  Recent metallurgical analyses have shown very mixed compositions for the metal tools and the recent work on the Poolewe Hoard shows at least 5 different mixes of metals to produce the surviving material (see the research results at https://www.academia.edu/44587605/Poolewe_The_last_Bronze_Age_hoard_in_Scotland).

Certainly by the end of the Bronze Age it is likely that a variety of broken or discarded objects would be thrown into the mix for melting down, making it difficult to identify the original ore source from trace element analysis.

Copper Ore in the Highlands

However research over a number of years by the British Geological Survey has mapped extensive copper ore sources in Wester Ross and some of these have even been looked at commercially (e.g. https://resources.bgs.ac.uk/meiga_reports/meiga/ae173.txt) and the ‘gossan’ at Gairloch is even used as the frontispiece for the British Geological Survey report Minerals in Britain – Copper (which can be viewed online at https://www2.bgs.ac.uk/downloads/start.cfm?id=1324)

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The Demolition of a Cruck-Framed Building near Beauly

by Roland Spencer-Jones

Fig 1: Removing the corrugated iron reveals a modern timber roof and a cruck-frame

In early June 2020, I became aware that a neighbour on the braes below me was doing up an old cottage, with a 1970’s extension, that he had inherited from his father. He was one of four children brought up in the old cottage in the 1960’s. Once he had removed the corrugated iron roof from the cottage, a peat and heather roof was revealed. When that was removed a wooden cruck-frame appeared. I showed a photo (fig 1) to colleagues who immediately suggested that I should survey and record it. Cruck-framed buildings are not so common these days. There was additional interest in that the cruck-frame had been overlaid by a more modern roof and that the building is likely to be demolished.

Extract of 1:250000 OS map showing location of Ruisaurie crofting settlement. ©Ordnance Survey

How old is it? The online Lovat Estate maps show that the braes above, ie W of, Beauly were increasingly brought into crofting, gradually extending into moorland, between the mid-18th century and the early part of the 19th century. According to those maps, one of the crofts, Ruisaurie, had two croft numbers in 1757, eight numbers in 1798-1800, seventeen in 1823 and twenty-four in 1839. The crofts increased by both being sub-divided, and by new croft settlements being established on the higher ground. Confusingly, the numbering of the crofts changed over time, although by 1876 the croft numbering had become established to reflect the croft numbering now.

Fig 3: Extract of 1876 map showing extent of the Ruisaurie 11A croft © Lovat Highland Estates Ltd.

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Peter May, the Commissioners, NOSAS and the National Library of Scotland – a story of discovery

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

“Coigach is a very large country”

In 1756 a young man was sent by his employers to Coigach, the rough open wild country west of Ullapool. His job was to measure and survey the land. But he wasn’t altogether happy in his task. He wrote to his employers on 21st July:

The estate of Coigach is a very large country, and the subject difficult and tedious to measure, being little else but high mountains with scattered woods, steep rocky places, and a number of lochs in the valleys, which with the great distance there is between houses makes me obliged to sleep in the open fields for several nights together, which is dangerous in a climate where so much rain falls. I wish (you) would condescend to allow me a tent or otherwise I’ll have great difficulty to go through. There is no such thing as sleeping in their houses in the summer time, they are so full of vermin. Everything is scarce and dear, my living costs me more here than it does in Aberdeen although I can scarcely get bear bannocks.

(Adams, 1979, pp10-11).

The man was Peter May, his employers were the Commissioners of the Board for the Forfeited Annexed Estates.

The battlefield of Culloden saw the demise of more than the men who fought there. The clan chiefs who “came out” had their land appropriated by the Crown. Much of it was then ravaged, particularly those estates nearest Culloden. The Lovat estate at that time centred on the seat of the Fraser clan, Castle Dounie, at the head of the Beauly Firth. Castle Dounie was burnt following the battle. The estate comprised the parishes of Kiltarlity, Kirkhill and Kilmorack, near Beauly, the lands of Stratherrick on the south side of Loch Ness and a small section of land on the north side of that Loch at Dalcattick and Portclair. The Mackenzie estate of Cromartie consisted of land around Cromarty on the Black Isle, New Tarbat on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, parcels of land on the Tarbat peninsula, Castle Leod (near Strathpeffer), and the lands of Coigach on the west coast. Castle Leod was the ancestral seat, New Tarbat became the seat in the late 17th century, and the lands of Coigach were obtained in the dowry of Margaret Macleod of Lewis in 1606 (Clough, 1990, p3).

New Tarbat House in the late 17th century ©Canmore

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Circles on the Photographs – Cataloguing the J S Bone Collection of Aerial Photography

by Jonathan Wordsworth

As part of the cataloguing the JSBone aerial photographs (see earlier blog post) donated to North of Scotland Archaeological Society, a team of NoSAS members have been identifying the sites revealed on these images.  Occasionally some intriguing queries arise. One such site came up recently and was from a photograph taken near Braelangwell on the Black Isle.  Here on an image from 2012, a series of small circular mounds were revealed.  Initial thoughts were that these might be the remains of an unknown barrow cemetery similar to that excavated at Tarradale.  While the density and similar size of the circles did cause some scepticism on their origin, searching on earlier Google Earth satellite views showed similar features were visible at least as far back as 2004.

JSBone P100014  Centred at NH68652 64114 and taken on the 14th January 2012. The low mounds highlighted by the winter sunlight are glacial moraines but in the field below are an intriguing set of circular and possibly square barrows.

Andy Hickie of Avoch Heritage was sufficiently intrigued by these, as he had previously identified a site of interest nearby the year before, that he agreed to fly his drone over these features, before processing to enhance the images through RTF software.  His results can be seen below.

Images processed by Andy Hickie from his drone photographs and which he describes as ‘photogrammerty-derived false colour images’.

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Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

NOSAS regularly make field visits to the Tarbat Ness area. When browsing through my archives recently I came across a review for a book “Tain, Tarbat Ness and the Duke 1833” by Hamish Mackenzie, which I had written for the Clan Mackenzie Magazine in October 2012. The review includes some lovely descriptions of the people and the settlements of Tarbat Ness two centuries ago; I make no excuse for quoting them in the review.  Apparently the book is still available from the Clan Mackenzie Society and the Amazon website but promoting it is not my primary intention here!

 

“Tain, Tarbet Ness and the Duke 1833” by Hamish Mackenzie

Book review, October 2012

The author of this book is to be congratulated on a fine piece of work, which, for anyone interested in the history of Ross-shire during the upheavals of the 19th Century, is essential reading. The book is very readable and has involved some original documentary research; it reveals an intriguing story. The tale emanates from a desire of the Duke of Sutherland to acquire lands in Ross-shire. Much of the original material was discovered in the Cromartie Muniments at Castle Leod and it is these papers which Hamish Mackenzie has so painstakingly studied – a labour of love indeed

By 1833 the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were the richest couple in Britain, owning estates in Staffordshire, Shropshire and Yorkshire, as well as the most part of Sutherland in Scotland. They were able to draw on the revenues of the coal and canal investments of their estates in the south and pour significant amounts of money into “improving” their Sutherland estates. Hamish Mackenzies book tells us: “the coastal strip along the east coast was occupied by a neat orderly landscape of 36 single tenant farms each with its courtyard of buildings set amongst squared fields”. The Duke was also responsible for building roads, bridges and harbours in the county. Not satisfied with this, in 1833 at the age of 75, he looked to acquiring more territory and his eye fell on Tain and the Tarbetness peninsular across the water from Dunrobin Castle. In the event the Dukes plans for the purchase of these lands did not come to fruition because he died later that year; but the legacy of the plan, that of the documents at Castle Leod, give a remarkable description of the landscape on the Tarbatness peninsular at that time.

George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland by Thomas Phillips

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A Metal Detecting Survey of Beauly Fields

By Eric Soane

Eric is a local metal detectorist whose exploits include discovering the Belladrum hoard of Roman coins, among other finds. He has put his email address at the end in case you want to contact him directly. This article is the report of a recent survey in the fields at the back of Beauly, in the angle between Station Road and Croyard Road. It appears to have identified a military firing range, in use throughout the 19th Century, which was previously unknown.

A and B on the map below identify the fields where the finds were made and the red arrow shows an approximate direction of fire on the range throughout its use as explained in the following report:

Musket balls

The image above right shows the musket balls found, the main group top left are all for the Brown Bess calibre of musket, about l l bore or 0. 75 inch. This was in use up to the middle of the 1800s and gives us  the early date for the military use of the land. There is no evidence of the earliest date, but it is reasonable to suppose that it began as training for the defence of the realm in the time of the Napoleonic wars, which could place the start just back into the 1700s.  The group of balls bottom right are smaller and may be pistol shot, or more likely from officers’ privately owned muskets. The two folded pieces of lead are almost certainly home made flint holders to clamp the flint into the musket securely. The majority  of these items were found on field “A”  and as they are relatively short range, being quite inaccurate due to the smooth bore and loose fit of shot in that bore, it points to this being the firing point of all the weapons.

Minie bullets.

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Highland Regional ScARF: Highland archaeology from the earliest settlers through to the 20th century

by Susan Kruse (ARCH and NOSAS)

The ScARF (Scottish Archaeology Research Framework) project assessed what the current state of archaeology in Scotland was in the early 2010s, looking at what we know, where we have gaps in the knowledge and suggesting research areas for future work. This has been set up as a wiki-based publication on the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland website.

The Scottish Archaeology Strategy recommended that this be extended to focus on regions, recognising that many regional differences are not catered for in the national ScARF. For example, the situation in the Highlands during the medieval period is very different from the south. ARCH is leading a 3 year project looking at Highland archaeology from the earliest settlers through to the 20th century, with funding from Historic Environment Scotland and support from Highland Council.

The SCARF symposium in Inverness, 2018

The focus is fairly simple but ambitious and exciting: assessing what the state of knowledge is at the moment, how we differ from national ScARF, what regional differences exist within the Highlands, and suggesting research areas for future work. At the end we will have a valuable snapshot of Highland archaeology, which can be compared to the national picture, and also added to. The structure will mirror that of national ScARF to allow comparisons.

We started with a symposium on 2nd / 3rd June 2018 at Council Headquarters in Inverness where an impressive lineup of speakers provided a brief overview of what is known at present and what we need to know. The programme is available from the Library, in the Highland Regional ScARF folder.

The SCARF symposium in Inverness, 2018

We are now starting the work to flesh out this picture and are actively inviting contributions, large and small. Our first year will be devoted to trying to get our data as full and accurate as possible. We are building on the Highland Historic Environment Record (HER), Highland Council’s database of all known heritage, which will in turn link to Scottish Canmore. Grace Woolmer has been appointed Project Officer, and is based at the Council. She has been investigating various sources and is adding and revising records in the HER.

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Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past

by Susan Kruse (ARCH and NOSAS)

Thanks to funding from Historic Environment Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, ARCH launched an exciting project ‘Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past’ in October 2017. The project had three main strands. In the first year, 13 experimental archaeology days and 10 school visits took place where craftspeople demonstrated and explained different technologies used in the past. The workshops were filmed and the edited videos and blogs for each workshop can be accessed on the ARCH website.

Jim Glazzard at the Viking ring silver workshop

In the second year, the objects resulting from these workshops will then be used to create loans boxes which will be freely available to borrow. Our workshop leaders often generously provided more than one object. An archaeologist and teacher will now work together to create learning materials, so that the loans box and videos of the experimental sessions can be used in schools and other groups. The project already has attracted a wide and diverse audience, and we hope that the loans boxes will also contribute to this legacy.

The idea for the project emerged from North Kessock & District Local History Society’s Feats of Clay project, where ARCH helped facilitate a visit by Neil Burridge who demonstrated Bronze Age metalworking. Everyone in the audience was caught up in the excitement of the day, and learned so much about how objects were made, what raw materials were needed, and how craftsmen in the past managed without gauges and modern equipment.

Neil Burridge at the Bronze Metaworking workshop

In the first year 13 workshops took place, one a month, each showcasing a skill from the past, spanning from earliest settlers to more recent times. The workshops were exciting to attend, but were also filmed. Continue reading