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.
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.
With movements restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic it was inevitable that I would find myself at David’s Fort, near Conan House, just 2kms from my home. This impressive earthwork, variously interpreted as a “motte”, a “moated homestead” (OS map) and a “moated site” has received lots of attention from NOSAS in the past, see Marion Ruscoe’s blog of 2016, but the site remains as mysterious as ever. I was pleased to see that the area is much more open than it used to be, but the surrounds are rapidly becoming overgrown with scrubby brambles, broom and whins. The visit set me thinking once again about the origins and history of the site, with more time at home I set about some online investigations.
David’s Fort (Canmore ID: 12866, Highland Council HER: MHG8986) is at NGR NH 5394 5328 and consists of an impressive wet ditch 4m deep enclosing a trapezoidal area measuring 25m from N to S and 26m to 32m transversely. The ditch is enclosed by an external bank standing up to 3m height but 1.5m externally. Internally the only feature visible is a circular depression 7m in diameter and 1m in depth in the western half; traces of what may have been a bridge spanning the ditch on the west side have also been reported (June 1979) The moat still contains water and was originally fed by a waterway running from an artificially constructed pond possibly of more recent origin 100.0m to the east, to a cut in the bank at the NE corner.
The site is located on the forested slope above the River Conon 1km to the east of Conan House. It is close to what, in the Medieval period, was a crossing of the River Conon. Here too was the old church of Logiebride (or Logie Wester), and the site of the Battle of Lagabraad in 1481. This area, at the “neck” of the Black Isle, will almost certainly have been a meeting point of routeways for centuries, if not millennia.
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