Crannogs in north-east Scotland: Ballater to Banchory

The Society grant-aided a small excavation into a suspected crannog

The Houff excavation trench

Figure 1 – The Houff excavation trench showing the sterile sand below the anthropogenic material making up the mound. Photograph, M Stratigos

For the first time since the 19th century, crannogs in north-east Scotland have been subject to a targeted programme of research with support from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This project has examined known and possible crannogs in Deeside, expanding our understanding of the artificial island dwelling tradition in Scotland. Previous research on crannogs in this region of eastern Scotland has been limited to antiquarian notes and two excavations, with much of the modern work focused on south-west Scotland and Perthshire. Our subsequent understanding of crannogs has been limited geographically, which makes this project an important step in adding detail to our understanding of this relatively under-studied, but important site type.

The first major discovery during this project was the confirmation of a new crannog site near Lumphanan, Aberdeenshire. This site, called ‘the Houff’, is a mound that sits in a large basin formerly occupied by Loch Auchlossan. Historical evidence for the extent of this loch suggests that the Houff would have been a small island, and on this basis it was suggested to be a possible crannog (Stratigos forthcoming). The SoAS grant allowed for a small excavation to take place here which revealed that the mound is definitely not a natural deposit, nor is the material re-deposited natural material. Rather the whole mound is made up of a charcoal-rich anthropogenic soil with stones throughout (see Figure 1). Given its likely location in a former loch and the discovery of this anthropogenic deposit, the site can firmly be re-considered as a crannog. Although, the preservation of organic material is poor at this site (in contrast to the majority of crannog sites), the confirmation of the site is an important proof-of-concept for the idea that crannogs were present in eastern Scotland in greater numbers than previously considered. This has implications for our understanding of the site-type more broadly, and adds an important further strand of evidence to our understanding of settlement from the periods from which these sites date.

This project has not been confined to examining crannogs in drained lochs. Underwater survey has been undertaken at Loch Kinord, which examined Castle and Prison Islands. These two islands had been inspected underwater before, and were assumed to both be mostly or wholly artificial (Stratigos & Noble 2014). Prison Island is a classic ‘highland-type’ crannog with a rocky mound that rises from about 2.5m of water and rising about 1m above the surface of the loch. Timbers and piles have been observed underwater on and around the rocky mound – one of these timbers was sampled for C14 dating as part of this project and returned a date of cal AD 1026-1170 (95.4% probability; Poz – 72879). This date can now be added to a previous C14 date from a vertical pile just off of the rocky mound which returned a date of cal AD 766-896 (95.4% probability: SUERC-36811[GU25717]) (see Stratigos & Noble 2014).

Castle Island during excavation

Figure 2 – Castle Island during excavation. Photograph, J Mitchell

Submerged survey of Castle Island again revealed that the majority of the island below water appears to be artificial. All of the timbers identified in the 2011 survey were rediscovered, as were five additional timbers. Six vertical piles have been identified around the west side of Castle Island. These features suggest some kind of pier or catwalk structure extending west of the island, but these few piles and timbers do not yet form a coherent plan. It can be assumed that there are substantial timber features surviving in the loch mud in this area, having been eroded to just below the loch bed. Sub-bottom imaging may be one way short of excavation for mapping these features in the future.

Excavation at Castle Island was also undertaken in October that aimed to uncover well-contextualised archaeological material from the site. To date the site has been dated by historical references and a single radiocarbon date from a timber possibly associated with the historically attested causeway out to the island (Stratigos & Noble 2014). That date is cal AD 880-1020 (95.4% probablilty, SUERC-36811). It had been assumed to this point that the island was wholly or mostly artificial on the observations of the island below water, however, the excavation revealed that the island is mainly a natural feature that has been substantially enlarged. The sides of the island have been scarped, which was indicated in a 1x1m trench which was located approximately where the former water level of the loch would have met the island (the water was lowered through successive phases in the middle of the 19th century, see Michie 1910). A 3×2 m trench on top of Castle Island, on the north side, revealed substantial in situ archaeology including postholes/pits and possible traces of enclosing works (Figure 2). Samples from these features were retained for dating.  Few artefacts were discovered during the excavation, and only one was recovered from a stratified context. This artefact was a vitrified ceramic, it is probably a fragment of a crucible and may date to the Early Medieval period (Ewan Campbell pers.comm) (Figure 3).

Crucible fragment

Figure 3 – Crucible fragment recovered from Castle Island excavation. Photograph, W. Ritchie

The results of the Castle Island excavation again have provided evidence for Medieval activity at Loch Kinord. With the presence of the Kinord Cross and the other C14 dates from material from Loch Kinord, a case is being made for this landscape being significant in the early medieval and later medieval period. The use of crannogs in eastern Scotland is attested in the historic record, and the results of this project has begun to push the use of these islands in the region back somewhat. Earlier use of crannogs in north-east Scotland remains stubbornly absent, and it may be that the construction and occupation of crannogs is only adopted later in the region. However, the project still looks forward to further C14 results that will throw more light on the crannog dwelling phenomenon in north-east Scotland.

Michael J. Stratigos and also here
Gordon Noble
University of Aberdeen

Stratigos, M J & Noble, G 2014. ‘Crannogs, castles and lordly residences: new research and dating of crannogs in north-east Scotland’. Proc Soc Antiq Scot 144, pp. 205-22.

Stratigos, M J forthcoming ‘A reconsideration of the distribution of crannogs in Scotland’ in Erskine, Jacobsson, Miller, Stetkiewicz (eds) forthcoming Proceedings of the 14th Iron Age Research Student Symposium. Oxford: Archaeopress.

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