Category Archives: Surveying and Recording

My Highland Adventure: Diving Loch Achilty Crannog and HMS Natal

by Duncan Ross

During lockdown, apart from eating too many pancakes, NASAC (Nautical Archaeology Society affiliated diving club) member Duncan Ross set himself a grand future task of visiting different kinds of underwater archaeological sites around Britain. This summer he managed to add a couple of unique Scottish sites to his gradually-expanding list.

After around two years of communication, in August 2022 I was invited to help out on a crannog investigation in the fairly anonymous Loch Achilty, just a little north of Inverness city. Assisting North of Scotland Archaeology Society (NOSAS) member Richard Guest and his intrepid team, I spent two days at a most-tranquil setting scuba diving, investigating, recording and taking photos and film of a site that could be anything from a couple of hundred years to a couple of thousand years old. 

Richard Guest explores mysterious timber and rocks around the Loch Achilty crannog: Image: Duncan Ross

Crannogs are a fairly unchartered area in the field of archaeology, and most questions about their creation and the purpose of their locations within lochs remain unanswered and open to speculation. All that usually remains is an artificial island of stones piled on top of one another – artefacts and human traces are frustratingly rare, as are diagnostic patterns that could lead to a method of classification. The crannog centre at Loch Tay focuses on the iron age roundhouse model that was discovered there, but little proof exists that others were constructed and utilised in the same way. The depth of the Loch Achilty crannog, previously unrecorded, is an ultra-accessible 2.5 metres. Needless to say, dive times were extremely long for Richard and myself.

Richard Guest and Duncan Ross prepare to place garden canes around the crannog to aid with measurements. Image: Elizabeth Blackburn
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A Coastal Walk on the Moray Firth: Castle Stuart and Alturlie

by Anne Coombs

I don’t like the A96.  It’s a very busy road and the archaeology is not particularly exciting; crop marks and just the occasional cairn.  But here I was driving along from Inverness to Castle Stuart to meet the people from ScAPE, beginning their new recording project along the northeast coast.  The plan was to walk from Castle Stuart round towards Ardersier, with expectations of good company and a nice day out with a little bit of archaeology.

Aerial photo of the tide mill near Castle Stuart.

We walked past the old church and motte of Castle Stuart to the outfall of the Rough Burn where it flows into the Moray Firth.  It is a cliché to say it felt like we were stepping back in time, but looking out across to the Black Isle we could have been in a medieval landscape.  Salt marsh, an occasional seabird and nothing else.  Apart from, of course, a large bank across the edge of the salt marsh.  Not just any bank but one belonging to a tide mill (HER MHG36425).

So, let’s go back to the scene…… salt marshes, a substantial burn, an old church, motte and later castle.  Obviously, there must be a mill somewhere as part of this old settlement.  Tide mills don’t immediately come to mind in the Highlands, however if you have read Marion’s blog on Petty parish you would be expecting it.  They work on the same basic principle as any mill. A head of water drives a wheel, which turns the mill stones and grinds the corn.  A tide mill uses the sea water as its water source, as the tide comes in it fills the area behind the bank and once the tide turns, the water is kept behind the bank by the bank and a sluice gate until it is needed.  The site was duly recorded and on we went to a small wooden jetty, in disrepair but possibly not very old.  Next, we found a boat…..or rather the remains of a boat barely visible in the silt but definitely there.  Then out to the edge of the bay where the stones of a fish trap were being revealed by the outgoing tide. 

Fish Traps near Alturlie Point
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The NOSAS Crannogs Project

by Richard Guest

I have long been fascinated by crannogs. These are articial island dwellings such as the one in Loch Achilty, pictured above (see Canmore).  I remember back in the 80’s tiptoeing across a partly submerged causeway to visit one in a Shetland lochan.  Then, later, visiting the reconstruction in Loch Tay and seeing a TV programme about it.  Later still, whilst on a Nautical Archaeology Society training course I met one of the divers who had been on the Loch Tay project and heard first hand what it was like to make such amazing discoveries.

About 10 years ago, my late wife Jonie and I decided to try and walk out to the Redcastle crannog in the Beauly Firth (see Canmore).  About twenty squelchy steps was enough to convince us that this was a BAD IDEA and we retreated to solid land.  And oh! The smell!  So the next expedition was by boat at high tide and we passed over Phopachy crannog (see Canmore), which we could see on the sounder but could make nothing out through the water.  Another trip at a lower state of tide, we could see the crannog but the water around it was too shallow to approach in the boat.  We didn’t try again.

What we did do was to dive around another crannog, the one in Loch Brora (see Canmore).  The water was so peaty we saw literally nothing.  We knew we had reached the bottom when we felt it beneath us.  I put my hand in front of my mask but couldn’t see it, even with a powerful torch.  I think I could feel some square timber but it might have been a modern fence post caught in weed.

More recently I became aware, through both diving and archaeology sources, of discoveries of Neolithic pottery found underwater around crannogs in the western isles (see Current Archaeology article).  This exploded the received wisdom that crannogs were of iron age to post medieval date.  Then in 2021 NOSAS were lucky enough to have a “Zoom” lecture about crannogs, by Michael Stratigos from the University of York, which is available on You Tube (below). This is when the idea for a NOSAS crannogs project was born.

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The Glencarron Lodge Stalkers’ Paths

By David Jarman

a Powerpoint/pdf slideset accompanies this blogpost, providing a preliminary photo-documentation of the paths, with background history.

The networks of stalkers’ paths created by the Highland sporting estates from their advent in the earlier 19th century and into the 20th century have received remarkably little attention from historians or archaeologists. Yet they transformed access into glens and hills where formerly no made roads or ways had existed, and left persistent marks on the landscape. A recent NOSAS Report (2021) summarises this ‘stalkerpath phenomenon’ and presents the findings of a map, satellite imagery, and field study of a large swathe of the Western Highlands between Glen Cannich and Glen Carron.  This study is being presented as a NOSAS Talk in March 2022.

In August 2021, a NOSAS field trip visited Glencarron Lodge to explore a pair of “stalkerpaths”. This novel and simplified term, which I have coined, distinguishes paths made for sporting estate purposes from traditional worn hill paths, and from tracks made for more general use (the NOSAS Report explains the thinking behind its adoption). This pair was chosen primarily for convenience of access, as the better-preserved cases now tend to be rather remote or difficult to embark upon. They are excellent if delicate examples of the classic ‘zig-zag’ design, and have a fascinating history, but unfortunately they display almost none of the typical artefacts.

Glencarron Lodge stalkerpaths locus

The paths ascend the steep, smooth north side of Glen Carron above the Lodge, and are visible as faint zig-zag traces from the A890, especially in low-angle light or thin snow.  They have long been abandoned and, unusually for paths close to base, bear no trace of mechanised improvement or vehicular use.  They ascend from 150m asl to terminate as the slope eases at ~500m asl, but well short of the broad 550m ridge labelled Coille Bhàn. They share a brief common start, with each branch only half a kilometre long (crow-flight up the hill).

Both paths are marked on OS 1:25000 maps, if not quite to their full extents, but only the western path is shown on the 1:50000. The original start from the Lodge is blocked by a treebelt. The displaced start shown by OS is now also barred, by rhododendron jungle. The path therefore has to be located by crossing footslopes from the lay-by on the main road west of the Lodge. It is reasonably visible near the treebelt, but the bifurcation is lost in thick bracken; even in winter, it is a jink-back that is hard to identify.

The present disuse (both for sporting purposes and by walkers) is a result of vicissitudes of estate history, which must first be addressed.

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Achnasoul and Medieval Earthwork Castles in Ross Revisited

by Meryl Marshall

The moated homestead in Achnasoul Wood (NGR NH 48808 51821 Canmore ID: 274702 Highland Council (HC) HER MHG29192) 4kms west of Muir of Ord was visited by NOSAS members on a winter walk in February 2020 just before “lockdown”. The visit renewed my interest in the medieval period in this area and I began some research into the two homesteads of Davids Fort and Achnasoul with the intention of producing a blog for the NOSAS website. It wasn’t long before I realized what a complex topic I had taken on so I decided to split it into two; the first part, on Davids Fort, appeared on the NOSAS website in May 2020, this piece, focusing on Achnasoul, is part two.

The eastern half of the site showing the ditch and double banks with the mound on the right – looking SE

The Achnasoul site is a ringed earthwork with a central mound which was originally interpreted as a “moated homestead” but recently confirmed (on Canmore) as a motte and bailey. It is remarkably well preserved and has been one of my favourite local sites for many years. NOSAS carried out a planetable survey on a cold, wintery day in 2005 (report on NOSAS website at: www.nosas.co.uk/siterecords.asp.) The site remains something of a mystery and seems out of place; clearly it is fortified as it has substantial double banks enclosing a ditch but yet it is situated in low lying ground with higher knolls surrounding it – not a particularly defendable position!

In 2017 the site was scheduled by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) – SM13629. The description in the scheduling document says:               

The monument is a large earthwork enclosure comprising a ditch and two concentric banks which enclose a sub-circular area measuring around 43m northwest-southeast by 39m northeast-southwest within which is a raised mound. The ditch defining the enclosure measures 4m to 5m in width and 1.5m in depth and is broken by two causeways on the northwest and southeast. The outer bank of the ditch is complete and varies in height, reaching a maximum of 2m… Internally, the raised mound lies in the northern part of the enclosed area and is c25m diameter at its base, reaching a maximum height of 2m. The summit is encircled by a fragmentary bank, which encloses an area of around 11m diameter.

The size and form of the visible remains… represents a rare survival of a moated homestead of medieval date.

A processed image of the Achnasoul site from a lidar survey (contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licinse v3.0)
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Castle Hill “Henge” at Muir of Ord – A Controversial Structure

by Roland Spencer-Jones

Muir of Ord Golf Club may be unique in having a green on top of a scheduled ancient monument. Castle Hill, the 13th green, is an artificially modified mound, standing at the north end of a ridge, proud of the surrounding flat ground. Its perimeter is delimited by a raised bank inside of which is a circular ditch, with two gaps at NW and SE. This bank and ditch enclose an oval flat area approximately 28 m by 21 m. The ridge probably represents an alluvial glacial moraine before the end of it was subsequently modified.

There has been considerable discussion and debate in the archaeological literature over the last 350 years as to the nature of this feature, when it was created, and for what purpose. However, whatever its nature, it is special, recognised as such by being included in the list of ancient monuments in Section 12 of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendments Act 1913. This important act of scheduling was reported to the Right Honourable Lord Lovat in a registered letter dated 11th April 1957. In the scheduling documentation[1] it was called Castle Hill Fort or Henge. Scheduling is the process that “identifies, designates and provides statutory protection for monuments and archaeological sites of national importance”, with damage to a scheduled site potentially incurring criminal charges. This became relevant in the early 1980’s, see later.

Castle Hill in 1972 © Historic Environment Scotland: John Dewar Collection

Early Descriptions of Castle Hill

The first historical mention of this prominent feature was towards the end of the 17th century in a massive volume of archaeological recording, the Monumenta Britannica, written by probably Britain’s first archaeologist, John Aubrey (Aubrey, 1665-93). In it, Aubrey records part of a letter he received in 1692 from a Dr James Garden, Professor of Theology in the King’s College at Aberdeen. Aubrey had written to many local dignitaries and antiquarians throughout Northern Britain asking for information about stone monuments. He was delighted to receive this full response from Dr Garden in which the latter refers to a sacred grove thus: “I … have gotten information of two groves yet standing which are reputed sacred. One of them (which stands near to a place called Taradale in the parish of Killernen and shire of Nairn) is enclosed with a trench or dry ditch having two entries to it where the ditch is filled up or rather the ground has never been broken: all that live near it hold it as sacred, and will not cut so much as a rod out of it: my informer adds that, hard by, there is a cornfield where he conjectures there has been one of the Monuments, because in it there are several big stones such as those Monu­ments use to consist of, fallen down and out of order.” Taradale, now Tarradale, is the name given to the settlement that later came to be called Muir of Ord once the railway arrived in 1862. Garden’s description of the “sacred grove” fits nicely with the structure now called Castle Hill. Also note the description of standing stones in the vicinity, which we will come on to later.

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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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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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The Archaeology of the Findhorn Dunes

by Michael Sharpe

Findhorn Dunes Site from the NE. In the upper left is the caravan park, and beyond the Cromarty Sutors.

Introduction

This story begins back in 2002 or so, when during a conversation about local history and archaeology, a local farmer and digger driver I had worked with mentioned to me that he knew of a site in the dunes east of Findhorn Village, Moray, where people had found flint in the past (Figure 1). I decided to go and have a look, and before long was finding not only flint tools and debitage, but also pot sherds, beads, fragments of copper alloy, and the remains of a midden. It is likely that this is the site of a flint scatter and old land surface (OLS) reported by Ian Shepherd (1977) and recorded on the Moray Sites and Monuments Record (NJ06SE0010 – Findhorn), although there is a discrepancy of 0.5km as to location. He probably wouldn’t have had even a basic GPS unit at his disposal, and it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint locations among the dunes.

Fig. 1 Location map

What follows is summary of the results of 15 years of surface collecting of finds, and recent efforts to investigate the site more systematically: namely a few test pits in 2016, but mainly a weekend of work in 2017—an informal dig staffed mostly, if not entirely, by NOSAS members. Permission for the collecting and minimal digging was given early on by the Findhorn Dunes Trust, which has a duty of care for the land surrounding the site.

Shore section showing eroding old land surface. The figure is standing on top of the east dune.

The local archaeological context

I won’t attempt an exhaustive summary of the archaeology of the area, as there are many good publications that do that, including numerous papers in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Suffice it to say that broadly, within the coastal lowlands of the south Moray Firth coast, there is ample evidence of prehistoric occupation from the Mesolithic onwards. This ranges from Mesolithic and Neolithic arrowheads at Culbin; numerous Bronze Age (BA) cist burials, such as those at Burgie Lodge Farm near Rafford, one of which contained a jet necklace (Callander 1916); and larger BA burial monuments, such as the Clava Cairns near Culloden. As at Rosemarkie, there are numerous caves on the coast between Hopeman and Lossiemouth where excavations—most recently by Ian Armit—have found evidence of occupation from the Mesolithic onwards, including BA burials, and the remains of decapitated individuals from the IA. Excavations by Fraser Hunter at Birnie—south of Elgin—and at Clarkly Hill near Burghead revealed IA farming settlements on the productive farmland of the coastal lowlands, and also evidence of probable contact with the Romans.

Findhorn and its immediate surroundings have offered up: a BA hoard containing two spear-heads and a socketed axe (Callander 1920); a rich BA burial from Findhorn Village in which a large cinerary urn contained the cremated remains of a young woman and a neonate as well as a substantial number of faience beads, a rare find in the UK (Shepherd and Shepherd 2001); and the remains of two cremated individuals among the dunes east of the village (Black 1891).

Bradley et al. (2016) have proposed the new site type of Maritime Havens: areas which developed early on after the Pleistocene Ice Age, and which went on to become centres of trade and industry, with extensive links across both water and land. The exceptional quantity of artefacts found at Culbin Sands during the 17th to 19th centuries led him to propose that the Culbin Sands was one such haven. Due to its proximity, the people using the Findhorn Dunes Site were likely connected with this activity. The one artefact type which connects this dunes site, the Findhorn burial, and Culbin Sands also happens to be one of the rarest—faience beads. Continue reading