Tag Archives: North of Scotland Archaeological Society

A Year of Highland Archaeology

by James McComas (NOSAS)

A Year of Highland Archaeology book cover, showing Tarradale Through Time excavation trench with the settings of a possible stone hut. The same trench yielded several rare antler tools.

NOSAS has just published A Year of Highland Archaeology: A Collection of the Projects and Activities of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society . This new book includes 10 articles which explore some of the diverse recent projects that we has been involved with. These range from large scale funded excavations through to group surveys and small scale research projects. They highlight Highland locations from the west to the east coast, from Speyside to Sutherland.

Projects featured include the lottery funded Tarradale Through Time Project, which in 2017 saw 6000 year old antler tools uncovered near Muir of Ord on the Black Isle.  These very rare finds included the remains of a harpoon point and two “T axes” left behind by hunter gatherers on the shores of the Beauly Firth. The T axes are two of only five examples so far known in the whole of Scotland. The trench where these were found also tantalisingly revealed the possible stone setting of a Mesolithic hut. Tarradale Through Time continues in Autumn 2019 with the excavation of potentially one of the largest barrow cemeteries in Scotland (further information at www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk).

One of rare antler “T axes” found during Tarradale Through Time’s 2017 excavations.

Another chapter focuses on Torvean Hillfort, a neglected structure on the edge of Inverness. Torvean was perhaps constructed more than 2000 years ago, but it is today sadly under threat from persistent trail bike damage. A different chapter tells the much more positive story of how a collection of 400 historic maps relating to the Lovat Highland Estates, covering extensive areas west of Inverness, have now been scanned and made available online.

Map of Torvean Hillfort, Inverness showing destructive trail bike tracks

A different chapter still focuses on the NOSAS’s work with Scotland’s Rock Art Project. ScRAP aims to log as many as possible of the mysterious carved “cup marks” which appear on Scotland’s boulders and rock faces over a 5 year project. The precise date of these carvings, of which there are many good examples in the Highlands, is unknown but they are thought to have been mainly created in the Neolithic period around 6,000 to 4,000 years ago. Other archaeological locations explored in the book include Ormond Castle in Avoch, a prehistoric roundhouse landscape in Glen Urquhart, and Gruinard Island in Wester Ross.

3D Photogrammetry model of cup marked stone at Kinmylies, Inverness

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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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The Lovat Estate Map Project

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

©Colin Prior

In 1756 a young man had been sent by his employers to Coigach, a rough, remote area on the west coast of Scotland, just north of Ullapool. He wrote to those employers on 21st July:

The estate of Coigach is a very large country, and the subject difficult and tedious to measure, being little else but high mountains with scattered woods, steep rocky places, and a number of lochs in the valleys, which with the great distance there is between houses makes me obliged to sleep in the open fields for several nights together, which is dangerous in a climate where so much rain falls. I wish (you)  would condescend to allow me a tent or otherwise I’ll have great difficulty to go through. There is no such thing as sleeping in their houses in the summer time, they are so full of vermin[1].

The man was Peter May, an Aberdeenshire land surveyor, and his employers were the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates. After Culloden the British (London!) government forfeited, and therefore took possession of, the estates that had “come out” in the 1745 rebellion. Six years later an annexing Act was passed, in 1752, and three years later the Commissioners for the Forfeited Estates finally met. They wanted to know what lands they now administered, and also wanted to improve the economic performance of those lands. They therefore appointed land surveyors for the main 13 estates that were their responsibility, including the estates of Cromartie (the Mackenzie Estate, and hence Coigach) and Lovat. Peter May was appointed to these two estates, and produced a series of maps, surveying the entirety of the estate ground.

The archaeology of Urchany.

Urchany on the 1757 Peter May map.

I had seen a hand-drawn copy of one of these Peter May maps, pertaining to the Barony of Kilmorack, when NOSAS had undertaken a survey of the lands of Urchany, a multi-period deserted settlement west of Beauly. I was keen to see and study the original, which was said to be in the Lovat Estate offices in Beauly. After a little persistence, I was allowed to look at the map, which was a valuable experience. I then realised that the office contained many more maps that could also be relevant to the survey. Not all of the maps were known, even to the estate manager. I asked him if I could  catalogue and therefore research the whole map archive. He said yes! Continue reading

Stony Testaments – Gravestone Recording and Surveying in Kiltearn Ancient Kirkyard

by Karen Clarke ( NOSAS)

Standing Building Survey of E Wall Showing Remains of Curved Window to Left.  (K. Clarke).

Gravestones seem to speak to us.  Although they are not always an accurate historical record they provide valuable family, community, social and economic information.  There is merit in documenting them to form permanent archives for historical and ancestral research purposes especially as they are so vulnerable to damage from weather and desecration. Burial grounds are also of interest to visitors and tourists.

Recording within cemeteries can be a controversial activity. Institutions, communities and most importantly relatives and friends of the deceased may have strong views about what, if any, disturbance is appropriate especially when it involves moving memorials from their original site.  Exposing turf covered stones without due care, attempting to read lichen covered or laminated stones may damage them and lead to future harm from the elements and cemetery maintenance.  Others take the view that much archaeological investigation involves some disturbance and as memorial stones are supposed to be read and the grave occupants remembered if stones are carefully revealed by trained individuals using similar techniques to those employed to record rock art thousands of years old it is perhaps acceptable.  There is no doubt that a great many interesting memorials lie beneath the turf.  Discretion, respect and the approval of the community should be taken into consideration before embarking on any gravestone recording project.

Tranquil Kiltearn kirkyard was the scene of approved activity during 2017 to record memorials in the ancient burial ground and survey the ruined chapel.  This was organised by Evanton Community Trust (www.ect.scot).  They were joined by some of the Kiltearn Community, Friends of Arch (www.Arch.co.uk) and members of Nosas (www.Nosas.co.uk).

Table Tomb in Kiltearn Ancient Burial Ground Looking E to Cromarty Firth.  (K. Clarke).

During the 1970’s concern about the dereliction of London graveyards led to an interest in graveyard conservation.  Highgate Cemetery is a well-documented example.

Betty Willsher, an acknowledged authority on Scottish Cemeteries, conducted research, mainly in the South of Scotland whilst drawing attention to Highland Graveyards encouraging appreciation of their cultural significance and vulnerability and calling for greater community involvement in their preservation.

Whilst recording at Kiltearn we were approached by local people and visitors from England, America and South Africa seeking the graves of relatives or an ancestor of the 5th President of America.   We conducted many impromptu tours and received valuable information from visitors – it was truly a community project managed by Susan Kruse MBE of Arch and Nosas member. Continue reading

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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Jim Bone: Aerial Photography of Archaeological Sites

Jim was a founder member of NOSAS, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018. He was known in the Highlands for providing important aerial photos of numerous archaeological sites over many years. Sadly, Jim died on June 16th, after a long and wearisome illness. His extensive collection of aerial photographs has been gifted to NOSAS and will form the JS Bone Collection, in his memory. This is the story he wrote of himself, in the months before he died. (Introduction revised Sep 2018).

Aerial photograph of Mulchaich, Ross-shire. The settlement , distillery and chambered cairn at Mulchaich were the subject of NOSAS projects between 2009 and 2013. See the blog post.

It appears to me that people can be divided into two categories – those who love flying, and those who do not.  Brought up in close proximity to Prestwick Airport, I recall watching aircraft there, and determined that I would one day find out more about aviation.  Inspired by a selection of Biggles books, I joined the local ATC (Air Training Corps) squadron, enabling me to sample flight for the first time in 1950 in an elderly Anson.  Military aircraft have a distinctive odour of aluminium and oil, complemented in this case by an off-putting whiff of vomit, but I enjoyed this first ‘air experience’ flight along the Ayrshire coast.  For the next flight, I borrowed a folding camera, and tried a few shots through the rather scratched Perspex window.  Surprisingly, the results came out quite clearly, and another interest was born.

Going to University in Glasgow, I lost no time in finding the HQ of the University Air Squadron (GUAS), and was fortunate enough to be accepted as a Cadet Pilot in the RAFVR.  This offered a high standard of flying training, during 1953-7, provided by experienced RAF instructors at Scone Airfield outside Perth.  Our Chipmunk aircraft was state of the art at that time, but cameras were not encouraged on training sorties.  At the end of my four years, I asked if I could take a camera with me on a dual flight with my instructor, having noticed some archaeological sites which I wanted to photograph.  By opening the hood, I was able to take quite a good shot of a hill fort to the south of Perth, which presaged further attempts in later years.  The Squadron experience qualified me for a Preliminary Flying Badge – a sort of junior wings – and allowed me to apply for a Private Pilot’s Licence, costing a very reasonable ten shillings, when I left the unit. Continue reading