In April 2015, NOSAS was approached by the development officer of Aigas Community Forest to see if we could undertake an survey of this newly acquired 285-hectare forest. The local community had completed the purchase of the forest from the Forestry Commission that month. Part of the sale conditions were that an archaeological survey would be required. After some discussion, mainly centred on the size of the task ahead, NOSAS said yes, and the two co-leaders of the survey – Roland Spencer-Jones (RSJ) and Anne Coombs (AC) – got into planning mode.
RSJ undertook a desk-based assessment of the history and known archaeology of the forest. This included searching the maps on the digital map resource of National Library of Scotland, the Canmore archive of Historic Environment Scotland, the local Highland Council’s Historic Environment Record and maps from the previous Lovat Estate archive. In addition he had conversations with local landowners and local community members who had either had personal experience of the forest and its history or had undertaken some research of their own. Two of these local landowners were able to provide old photographs that complemented the historical record.
This desk-based assessment concluded that:
There was little forest cover in the area now covered by the forest in the mid-18th century when historical records first began. Much of land was covered in moor and moss, and was “good hill pasture” for grazing animals.
Planting of the forest began in the mid-19th century at a time when part of the Aigas Estate was enclosed to both contain stock and to prevent grazing damage. This work was first developed by rich landowners from further south in the UK, as was happening with many other parts of Scotland at that time. A network of paths through the forest was started at this time.
These three photographs demonstrate clearly the successive cropping of the Aigas Forest. The building is Aigas Mains farmhouse, on the southern border of the forest. The photographs are taken in 1933 (above left), 1960 (above right) and 1992 (right)
From 1877 until the early 20th century the estate was further developed as a sporting estate, with further afforestation and further enclosure of the land. At this time many of the settlements bordering the forest were cleared, and consolidated in houses built in the Crask of Aigas village at the heart of the forest. The path network was expanded, and a road was constructed through the forest to reach the moor above it.
The forest was progressively consolidated during the 20th century with successive cycles of planting and cropping. A significant harvest of the trees in the forest occurred in the early 1950’s, which means that it survived the felling that occurred in other Scottish forests during the two World Wars.
The current forest cover represents a major planting of mixed conifer trees in the early 1960’s.
Archaeological sites connected with the production of illicit whisky in Strathconon
by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)
The following notes were produced for a NOSAS field trip to Allt Dubh, Scatwell during the Highland Archaeological Festival, October 2016.
Landseer sketch, 1827
In 2006 NOSAS embarked on a project to explore Strathconon and record its archaeology. One of the many highlights was the discovery of over 50 illicit still bothies. Quite clearly the glen was a hot-bed for the illegal activity. Many of the stills are in remote mountainous terrain but within the small wooded glen of Allt Dubh in Strathconon there is a discrete landscape which appears to be devoted almost entirely to the production of illicit whisky. In an area of roughly half a square kilometre there are 4 still sites, 10 small farmsteads, 2 kilns and a further site which as yet remains a mystery! In a wider area of 2 square kilometres a further 8 still bothies have been identified. Most of the sites are not impressive in themselves, they were never substantial in the first place and after 200 years they are in a pretty wasted state and, in the summertime, they are covered by bracken or heather.
Historical Background – There was a tradition in the Highlands of household distillation of whisky on a small scale for family and local consumption, but in 1780 the government made small stills illegal in the Highlands and increased the tax on the malt used. The quality of whisky became inferior but yet it was more costly. The production of whisky went underground and illicit distillation flourished from 1780 to 1823. Highland whisky was in great demand and satisfying this demand provided an important source of revenue for a burgeoning population. In 1782 over 1000 illicit stills were seized in the Highland zone – a figure that represented only a fraction of the total number in operation. The area at Scatwell gives us an impression of the illegal activities of a certain section of a population in the glen which at that time was very numerous.
The following notes were provided for a NOSAS field trip in December 2015. Photographs from the day have been included.
Slochd Pass accommodates several routes both old and new; 4 roads and a railway jostle for position through the narrow defile. We are all familiar with the current A9 and the old A9, a Telford or “Parliamentary road, constructed in 1834. This walk follows sections of the 2 earlier roads
The Military road of 1803(shown below on the plan of the proposed line of the 1834 road) was built by James Donaldson in order to avoid some of the steeper sections of the original Wade military road. The road descends into the glen from our starting point at Slochd Cottages (Stagehouse on this map) and crosses the Allt Slochd Muick at “Donaldsons Bridge” GR NH 843241. This bridge survived intact until the 1960s and has now been replaced by a wooden structure; a further bridge 200m to the north crosses a side burn and is in a better state. Of this road Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus in Memoirs of a Highland Lady Volume 1 (p346) writes (in 1814) “a new road has been engineered along the sides of this “pass of wild boars”, Slough Mouich, thought a wonder of skill when viewed beside the frightful narrow precipitous pathway tracked out by General Wade, up and down which one could scarcely be made to believe a carriage with people sitting in it! had ever attempted to pass. My mother had always walked those 2 or 3 miles, the new route not having been completed until some years after…….”
General Wade’s Military road constructed in 1728-29 is joined after 1km at one of its better preserved sections. To the north the feint remains of an earlier road can be seen taking a direct line over a hill, while to the south the line of the road has been interrupted by the later railway constructed in 1897. The Wade Bridge at Ortunan was reconstructed relatively recently and that at Insharn built of dressed stone may not be the original. From Insharn southwards the Wade road is part of the National Cycle route. The first 1.5kms has seen severe estate use and nothing remains of the original road; however after the junction with the track to Inverlaidnan it improves and a possible five-mile marker stone is seen at NH 8553 2181 Canmore ID139468“This stone, on the S side of the track, is possibly that mentioned (Salmond 1938) at the top of the ascent as being one of those marking a 5 mile stretch. However, that marker stone is more likely to be the one visible 118m further W”.Continue reading →
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.
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.
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.
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 (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
The Pictish people of the mid to late first millenium AD once inhabited what is now northern and eastern Scotland. They left very little written record and the evidence of buildings so far identified are sparse. Perhaps their most obvious remains in the landscape are the enigmatic symbol stones and the imprints of their burial sites.
Although modern Angus and Perthshire have traditionally been seen as the Pictish heartland, in recent years new research is reveavaluating the importance of the northern picts, north of the Mounth. Two highland burial sites which feature impressive upstanding remains are to be found on opposite sides of Loch Ness; at Garbeg near Drumnadrochit, and at Whitebridge in Stratherrick. Pictish funerary practices appear to have been diverse (see our earlier blog post), however barrow* cemeteries have been identified as one recognisable form. Round and square type ditched barrows appear alongside each other at both Garbeg and Whitebridge – a feature thought to be unique to the Pictish cemetery.
Side by side comparison of a plan of part of the Garbeg cemetery and a quadcopter aerial photo by Alan Thompson. (The brown patches on the photo are the result of recent gorse clearance, and dark green areas are piles of cut vegetation.) The barrows excavated by Wedderburn and Grime on this plan are nos 1,2,3 and 8.
Garbeg and Whitebridge were visited by NOSAS field trips in 2014/ 2015 and Garbeg has also been the subject of gorse clearance, quadcopter photography (blog post section 4) and QGIS survey by the group. Subsequently in 2015 many NOSAS members were involved with survey and excavation by the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Picts Project on possibly contemporaneous building remains at Garbeg (see project update – a NOSAS Blog post on the dig is forthcoming).
The cemetery at Garbeg (Canmore ID 12281, HER MHG3361) consists of 23 square and round barrows with surrounding ditches. The barrows are thought to cover single long cist burials. They are situated on a natural plateau at an altitude of some 300m on open moorland used for rough grazing. The immediately surrounding landscape is one rich in archaeological remains, including prehistoric field systems, groups of hut circles and a series of burnt mounds which are largely thought to predate the Pictish period.
Members of NOSAS at a field visit to Garbeg, November 2014