Cycling regularly along the north shore of the Beauly Firth from North Kessock to Tarradale, I have noted just past Coulmore Point a small patch of woodland with a collection of twisted multi-stemmed trees. Consisting predominantly of oak but with a mixture of species including ash and beech, the trees are widely spaced and used as shelter by stock grazing the field above. As a result the wood has an open and sparse aspect.
The curving and multiple stems of the trees in the woodland show that this is a rare survival for this area of a former coppiced woodland, where the stems were cut down to supply timber on a regular cycle of 15-20 years.
Coulmore and the woodland copse shown on current Bing aerial photography. Note the caravan park at bottom right of photograph to help locate the woodland site.
Earlier maps show it was one of two similar sized copses set beside the road and on the edge of the raised beach. They are both shown as wooded on the land utilisation survey of the 1930s shown below, though the western copse has now disappeared.
NOSAS members carried out a measured survey of a site at Kinbeachie on the Black Isle using planetables at the beginning of March, the project also included photographing the site using an aerial drone fly-over. The site is known as “Kinbeachie Castle”; it includes not only the amorphous linear banks thought to be the castle but also a farmstead of 4 buildings and a horse-gang. The remains of the farmstead were obvious, but our initial investigations of Canmore and the HC Historic Environment Record indicated that there was also a typical 18th century “lairds house” there; see photo below, taken in 1959. So was there a castle or a house at the site?
The small estate of Kinbeachie, amounting to “a half davoch”, is located in the northwest part of the Black Isle overlooking the Cromarty Firth. Today it is productive arable land but in the 16th century there are references to “the King (James IV) hunting in the woodland along the Kinbeakie Burn”. The area of Kinbeachie has almost certainly been associated with the Urquhart family of Cromarty from this time and the family of Urquhart of Kinbeachie itself from the mid-17th century. Research into this family was to be part of the project.
Brief Description of the site
The site covers an area, 70m x 50m, of rough grassland in the corner of a field. It comprises 2 parts;
The central part thought to be the site of the castle; the remains here are most substantial in the NW part where the footings of two walls up to 1m in height are at right angles to one another. To the SE there are two indistinct parallel banks which terminate in linear stone settings
The farmstead comprises the footings of 4 (possibly 5) rectangular buildings, a horse gang and a semi-circular yard. The buildings have turf covered stone walls up to 0.5-0.7m height and measure between 10-14m x 4m internally. The horse gang platform is 11.5m diameter. The semi-circular yard is 50m NW-SE x 25m NE-SW and bounded on its curving SW side by a discontinuous sloping retaining wall which has stone facing in places and is generally 0.7m in height.
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.