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.
Keppoch is a cleared village near Dundonnell in Wester Ross (NH 09519 88665). I have a visited a few such settlements before but it did not take long to realise that Keppoch was something special. This was partly the situation; overlooking as it does the wide valley floor of Strath Beag near the entrance to Little Loch Broom, with the snowy shoulders of An Teallach looming on the horizon. However the number and extent of the buildings easily identifiable was the real draw. Also poignancy was provided by the historical information we had, largely complied by Cathy Dagg, which showed that the settlement had been apparently cleared of its tenants between the 1820’s and 40’s. Only four households were listed as remaining in the 1841 census; a weaver, a carpenter, a fisher and a cotter.
Anne MacInnes (who originally suggested the site), Meryl Marshall and Beth Blackburn between them had organised a four day programme running across the last weekend of April. Friday and Saturday would be taken up with clearing the site, whilst Sunday would be the meat of recording and drawing the features. Monday was reserved for a trip out to another nearby cleared village at Glenarigolach.
I did not manage to make it down until Saturday lunchtime and by this point clearing operations were well under way with a few newly discovered buildings being added to Meryl’s original drawing. The afternoon was spent disposing of the remaining brambles and gorse, and was finished with a tour of the village during which each building had numbers attached for easy identification the following day. After this everybody was more than happy to get washed and changed before reconvening for a very pleasant meal at the Aultbea Hotel.
Meryl Marshall had prepared a fearsomely comprehensive information booklet for the weekend. This had been emailed to all the attendees with stern warnings to thoroughly digest the contents prior to Sunday. Meryl had actually done a fantastic job of producing a simple but effective guide to recording and surveying a township, including handy “top tips” (the whole manual can be accessed at http://s3.spanglefish.com/s/12654/documents/digs/keppoch/recording-keppoch-manual-april-2014.pdf and is well worth checking out). It informed us that standard of information to be collected could range from a “one star” up to a “five star” treatment. We were to give Keppoch a four star treatment, which would involve a full written description, photos and a dimensioned sketch of each building.