Tag Archives: archaeology highlands

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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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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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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Buntait, Glenurquhart: A Bronze Age Landscape?

by James McComas (NOSAS)

The larger barrow at Buntait – feature ‘X’ on the map below.

Although I have lived in Glen Urquhart for some years, it was only comparatively recently that I first visited Buntait, a hamlet just to the north of the Clava type chambered cairn at Corrimony. This was despite me hearing from a number of local people about the amount of upstanding archaeology that was there. I think I must have presumed that because there are no scheduled monuments there it could not be that interesting – an assumption I will not be making in the future. Later research confirmed that Buntait is in fact full of prehistoric (and post medieval) features – including hut circles, field systems, burnt mounds and rock art. Not only are the field systems extensive and some of the hut circles very well preserved, but also there are a couple of ditched barrow features. Locally, only Garbeg is comparable in terms of prehistoric remains.

GIS map of Buntait annotated with huts, barrows, cairn fields, dykes and other archaeological features.

Consequently Buntait became the subject of three archaeological field trips in 2017; two led by NOSAS, and one as part of the Archaeology Scotland Summer School planned with the assistance of NOSAS. There were also numerous smaller sorties for quadcopter flying, polecam photogrammetry, rock art recording (for SCRAP) and general investigation.

OS map of Buntait annotated with huts, barrows and buildings in red, cairns in green and dykes in brown. Blue dots show the location of records on Canmore. BM = burnt mound.

NOSAS field visit to Buntait January 2017

“The Glenurqhuart Story” by Alistair Mackell published in 1982, provides a useful if perhaps now outdated introduction:

Not far from the Corrimony Burial Cairn, on Buntait lands, was a settlement of some considerable size where clearly marked hut circles and cairns suggest a community practising primitive agriculture and a boundary wall, which can still be traced, may have served to protect domestic animals from prowling wolves or other marauding wild animals. Some of these circles are 30 feet in diameter and in the centre of at least one, is a depression which may have been a fireplace. These circles are low banks of stones covered with grass or heather about 2 feet high and 4 feet wide at the base. It is difficult to imagine one large roof covering such an expanse, but if so, it would probably have been formed of wattles and thatched with heather or turf, giving, when complete, a dome – shaped appearance. In each case there is a break in the circle at the south east which indicates the entrance. In other parts of Scotland where these structures have been carefully examined, hearth paving stones have been discovered, but we are unable to reconstruct much of the everyday life of the people of these long bygone days, and we can merely conjecture that they combined hunting with their primitive agriculture, for the Highlands were rich in wildlife.

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Surveying Isle Ewe, Wester Ross

by Anne MacInnes (NOSAS)

Aerial of Isle Ewe from Canmore

Isle Ewe is centred on NG 85046 88444 and lies within Loch Ewe just off the coast at Aultbea.

It was surveyed as part of an ongoing project to survey islands in the Gairloch parish area that have been inhabited. It is the largest of these islands comprising 764 acres and stretching roughly two miles from NW to SE. It is an island of two halves due to the geology. The NW consisting of Torridonian sandstone is higher, rockier with rough uncultivated grazing, whereas the SE consisting of deposited New Red sandstone has gentler contours with  improved arable pasture. The SE is also sheltered from the prevailing NW winds.

The earliest reference that I could find about the island was from 1583 when Nicolay refers to Loch Ew and the island. There are various references after this with differing spellings and Roy’s map of 1747 shows two settlements on the island. The island has been settled since the bronze/iron age as I found 5 roundhouses on the island and there could be more as the N end of the island is covered with rank heather overlying deep moss. At times it felt like I was swimming across the landscape, about to disappear never to be found.

Roy Map Isle Ewe

The island is still inhabited by the Grant family without whose help the survey would not have happened.

The full report on the survey can be found on the NOSAS website under ‘past surveys and reports’ so rather than repeat everything I will highlight some of my favourite moments.

The logistics of getting to the island involved constant communication with the Grants about the weather and once on the island a watchful eye was kept on the conditions. They picked me up from Aultbea and ferried me across to various landing points depending on where I was surveying which eventually took about ten trips. I find myself still going back as various queries crop up about more sites as they notice the island through different eyes.

Footings of building at N. settlement marked on Roy’s map

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Rosemarkie Caves Excavations 2017

by Steve Birch

2017 saw a second consecutive season of excavation by the Rosemarkie Caves Project in the series of coastal caves between Rosemarkie and Eathie. Four caves were chosen for targeted excavation by the team. This included further work in Smelter’s Cave (2B) where the Rosemarkie Man discovery was made last year (see blog post), along with substantial evidence for early medieval metal working .

Some of the best evidence for the use and function of the caves to emerge this year related to the 19th century, including the usual leather shoe soles and leather off-cuts, snips of metal, and working in bone/horn. We also recovered good economic evidence for the use of the caves during this period, which once analysed, will provide some detail with regards to how the people lived and what they ate!

Above: A child’s leather boot in situ. Below: A 3 holed bone button. Probable 19th C. artefacts from Cave 1B.

Unfortunately, the hard work to uncover further evidence of the metalworking activity outside 2B failed to materialise…..here, we found evidence for the deposition from material generated within the caves through time such as fire-cracked stones, charcoal and ash, shellfish, animal bone (cattle, sheep and pig) and some large fish (including cod and ling). This area, below the drip-line of the cave, was also probably quite a dangerous place to carry out any activities. A number of large rocks were uncovered here that had fallen from the cliff above. We did recover some metalworking residues including a hearth base, three pieces of iron slag, and one fragment of vitrified furnace wall.

The trench outside Cave 2B, aka Smelter’s Cave

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Walking the old “Fish Road”: Aultguish Inn to Little Garve Bridge

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

The road on the higher ground looking west.

This field visit on 25th June 2017 was by way of a “reccy”; the intention was to prospect the route with a view to including it in the proposed publication “Old Routes in the Highlands”, part of the NOSAS 20 year celebrations. What we know as the “Fish road” was constructed between 1792 and 1797 to provide a land link for the newly established settlement of Ullapool to the “outside” world; it was funded by the British Fisheries Society . The road is known as the “Fish road” but whether or not fish were transported along it is debatable , however in 1794 the Old Statistical Account of Loch Boom Parish reports; “there is an excellent road betwixt Ullapool and the town of Dingwall and it is now nearly finished, where lately nothing could be carried but in creels on horseback, carts and carriages can now travel with the greatest of ease.”

Brief History

A route between Contin and Ullapool has almost certainly been in existence since prehistoric times. In the 17th and 18th century the route was one of the drove routes from the west to the markets in the east and south. ARB Haldane, in “The Drove Roads of Scotland” has:

Pennant in 1772 noted that in the Loch Broom district the sale of black cattle to drovers from as far south as Craven in Yorkshire was the chief support of the people. For these the only practicable route to the south was by Strath Garve to Muir of Ord.
……to Poolewe or to points on the nearby coast came the cattle of Lewis……many of these landed at Aultbea and Gruinard went up the valley of the Gruinard River ….and so by hill tracks to join either the road from Ullapool to Dingwall or that from Achnasheen to Garve…. From Braemore the beasts were driven east to Garve and Dingwall but two deviations from the main road were used by the drovers……one of these turned due south from the main road near Altguish and crossed the forest of Corriemoillie to Garve so shortening the distance and keeping the beasts on the soft ground where grazing was available. The other short cut left the Ullapool Garve road near Inchbae Lodge and crossing the saddle between Ben Wyvis and Little Wyvis re-joined the road to Dingwall at Achterneed.

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