Tag Archives: North of Scotland Archaeological Society

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

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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.

Continue reading

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.

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.

Continue reading

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

Tanera Mor and Isle Martin: Community Projects and Private Ownership

by Cathy Dagg

Over the years NOSAS members have done a huge amount of important work finding and researching the archaeological evidence for the herring fishing industry in Loch Hourn in the 18th-19th century. This included looking at the remains of herring curing stations on the west coast, and some NOSAS members will remember going over to Tanera Mor, off Coigach in Wester Ross, to carry out a measured survey of the substantial standing ruins of the curing station, built in 1784 (read the report).Isle Martin in the 1750s and Tanera Mor in 1785  from maps held in Castle Leod. Thanks to Steve Husband and Meryl Marshall for the copies.

Tanera Mor is one of the earliest herring curing stations in Wester Ross. The first was Isle Martin, in 1775 with Culag at Lochinver in Sutherland established a short while later, then Tanera in 1785 and eventually the fishing village of Ullapool in 1788. The greater part of the Isle Martin buildings were converted to a flour mill in 1937 then completely demolished. Culag fishing station lies under the Culag Hotel. The great red herring curing house in Ullapool was truncated by about 1/3 to broaden the entrance to the ferry car park and converted to Calmac offices in the 1970s, without any building survey or photographic record. Tanera Mor, although roofless and much reduced after Frank Fraser Darling’s demolitions in 1939, remains as the last curing station in the Lochbroom area which might give archaeological evidence for the curing industry. This flourished only briefly but was enormously significant on a local level and also for the role it played in international affairs.

Ullapool: red herring curing house in 1970s

This Spring, the Isle Martin Trust received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for a community heritage project. Volunteers have been researching the history of the island, creating a space in one of the old buildings for a micro museum, devising fictional narratives based on real events and characters, designing a heritage trail around the island and much more. You may have caught a short piece about the project on BBC Alba. Check out the website: islemartinprojects.org. Continue reading

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

Continue reading