'ROSEMARKIE MAN & THE ROSEMARKIE CAVES PROJECT’ (08/10/2018)
On 8th August we welcomed Simon Gunn the founder and leader of the Rosemarkie Caves Project which is a volunteer-led project assisted and advised by professional archaeologists. Till recently the project was part of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) but is now an independent organisation.
Since 2006 the project has been studying 19 caves on a 2.5 mile stretch of coast north of Rosemarkie in an effort to discover how they have been used over the millennia. The caves are now well above high water mark as the land has risen since the last Ice Age and are all accesible to visitors.
Early work established that one of the caves had been excavated previously as was suspected in the early 1900s by a local doctor Dr William MacLean. Unfortunately none of his notes remain today though some finds of worked bone are held by the National Museum of Scotland.
Between 2011 and 2015 test pits were dug and the use of carbon dating provided evidence for occupation during the 7th-9th centuries AD, with evidence for 2nd-4th century occupation in one cave and evidence for 11th-12th century occupation in another. Evidence of later occupation during the late 18th-20th century most likely by travellers was shown in several of the caves.
However the major discovery occurred in 2016 when human remains were found. These were subsequently carbon dated to c. 430 – 630 AD during the Pictish period. The burial was that of a young male who had died as a result of mutiple head injuries. The skeleton was forensically analysed and facially reonstructed by Dame Sue Black and her team at the Centre for Anatomy and Human IDentification (CAHID) at Dundee University. Although Rosemarkie Man had met an extremely violent death he appeared to have been buried with some compassion in the manner the body was laid out.
Whether he died as a sacrifice or was killed for some other reason is not known. It is also not evident he that was killed in the cave or elsewhere and brought there for burial. Scientific testing of his teeth confirmed he had spent his developing years in the area of the east coast but his diet was peculiar in that it was high protein e.g. suckling pigs as opposed to perhaps that for a coastal dweller. His upper body development suggested heavy manual labour but nothing else from the period of his death was found in the cave to suggest his occupation.
All in all the excavations have still left a lot of questions unanswered but hopefully further planned digs might well reveal more. We look forward to having Simon back with us in the future to update us on this fascinating topic.
For more information please visit the Rosemarkie Caves Project website.
HIGHLAND ARCHAEOLOGY FESTIVAL - GUIDED WALKS TO COMAR WOOD DUN (29/09/2018 & 15/10/2018)
SHA provided two walks to Comar Wood Dun as part of HAF 2018 led by our archaeoligist Marjorie Wilson. Marjorie discussed aspects of the excavation carried out in 2013 and pointed out the key features of the structure.
Unfortunately despite numerous failed requests to Forestry Commission Scotland throughout the year to clear some of the vegetation some features were partially obscured. Despite this comments from attendees were very favourable.
Afterwards walkers were invited to Marydale for light refreshments and the chance to view our Heritage Trail Exhibition.
STRATHGLASS HERITAGE TRAIL EXHIBITION (25/08/2018 - 02/09/2018)
The exhibition based on our planned Strathglass Heritage Trail was held at Marydale over 8 days from 25th August. Information and photographs of the proposed sites for inclusion were available to the local community and as it turned out also for vistors from much farther afield!
We provided a visitors book and a short questionnaire inviting comments as to whether a heritage trail would benefit the local community and the wider public - results were extremely positive on both counts.
Our visitors from abroad included couples from Holland, Germany and Tasmania. Nice to meet Kim Polley who is Secretary of Clan Chisholm Society Australia - Clan history being a major feature of the heritage trail.
We also had a visit from the teachers and pupils of Cannich Bridge Primary with whom we have also been working on a forestry project. They were invited to take part in a written quiz about the exhibition which they enjoyed and all scored well!
'A POSTCARD FROM STRATHGLASS’ (30/07/2018)
On July 30th Richard Wood presented us with a sample of his extensive postcard collection that he has put together over many years. Richard has acquired postcards from all over the UK and beyond but for this talk a trip down memory lane extending from Beauly to Glenurquhart was the subject.
It was interesting to see how the villages and landscapes in general en route had changed over the years as a number of photos could be dated to the last decade of the 19th Century or perhaps even earlier. Some of the subjects also had changed for the worse e.g. Guisachan House and the Glen Affric Hotel while others such as Beauly Priory had benefited from careful restoration. A number of the cards depicted the Glens prior to the hydro schemes showing some of the settlements that are now under water.
Richard asked the audience to feel free to comment on the images and as always Lilian was a great source of information amd had little trouble identifying people and places. At the end of the presentation those everyone had the opportunity to view some of his albums.
EXCURSION TO EASTER ROSS PICTISH SITES (18/07/2018)
On 18th. July, 18 members and friends enjoyed an excursion to view some of the major Pictish sites in Easter Ross. After a coffee break at the Storehouse of Foulis, our first stop was Nigg Old Church. Here our archaeologist Marjorie Wilson gave a brief introduction to the history and archaeology of the Picts, describing the Pictish symbols which occur on the earliest stones and which continue to be found on the later cross slabs, erected after the Picts became Christian.
Marjorie mentioned the connections between the intricate carved decoration of the stones and the illuminated Gospel manuscripts being produced at this time (8th and 9th centuries AD), and explained the techniques used to make the carvings. We then looked at the cross slab preserved in the church, although originally found outside it, with its cross face decorated with an interlace of intertwining animals, and the reverse with eagle and Pictish Beast symbols and scenes from the story of the Biblical king David.
Our next stop was Shandwick, where the cross slab is in its original position in a field overlooking the sea (originally beside a chapel and burial ground of which there is now no trace), but is now preserved from erosion in a glass shelter. The cross face bears a cross decorated with bosses with a background of angels and animals including a boar and a lion, while the reverse has Pictish symbols above a hunting scene, with other scenes of animals and warriors and panels of decoration (spiralwork, interlace and key pattern).
We then went on to Hilton of Cadboll, where the massive cross slab, 3.5 metres high, stands near the remains of a mediaeval chapel. It is actually a replica, the original now being in the National Museum of Scotland. The cross face was sadly largely obliterated when it was reworked as a memorial stone in the 17th. century, but the reverse bears three panels of impressive carvings, including the Pictish symbols of double disc and Z-rod and a hunting scene, and an intricate inhabited vinescroll with birds and animals.
After a break in Tain for lunch, we went on to the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Portmahomack, a museum housed in the old parish church, which stands on the site of a Pictish monastery. Excavations have shown the various types of work which were carried on by the monks, including the production of vellum for making the beautifully illustrated gospels of the time, and metal-working to produce vessels for use in church services. The museum also has several fragments of cross slabs on display; several cross slabs had stood in the grounds of the monastery, but were broken when the monastery was sacked by the Vikings.
Many thanks are due to Marjorie, Liz McAuley (who organized the excursion), and to our bus driver, Bill Ross.
'CROMARTY - EXPLORING THE ORIGINS OF A ROYAL MEDIAEVAL BURGH’ (28/05/2018)
On 28th May we enjoyed a very interesting talk by archaeologist Steve Birch of West Coast Archaeology about recent excavations in Cromarty which have thrown light on the development of the little town in the mediaeval and post-mediaeval periods. The excavations were inspired partly by geophysical survey, and partly discoveries of building remains revealed by coastal erosion after a severe storm.
Cromarty’s importance in the mediaeval period was due in part to its location on a pilgrims’ trail. Pilgrims would have crossed the Cromarty Firth from Cromarty to Nigg before continuing to the shrine of St. Duthac in Tain. The centre of mediaeval Cromarty had lain east of the present town centre, and near the site of the castle. Several houses were excavated, in Reeds Park and along a road known as Thief’s Row. A 16th. or 17th. century merchant’s house was discovered, and at a lower level a succession of houses of mediaeval and early mediaeval date. Later houses were built parallel to the road, while earlier they had been built gable end on, but earlier still they had been parallel. A very complicated building succession was uncovered, with stone walls, wooden beam slots and wattle used in construction, along with several hearths. A number of rotary querns were found, including three together and overlapping which had been used as hearth stones. A burning horizon over much of the site was evidence of a destructive fire.
One unusual feature was a well, with stone steps descending to it. There were no finds from it except the complete and articulated skeleton of a small horse.
Finds from the excavations included fish hooks and fish bones, showing that there had been a flourishing fishing industry, based mainly on cod. Finds of mediaeval pottery, mainly 13th. and 14th. century, included sherds of Scarborough Ware, pottery from the Low Countries, Scottish East Coast Gritty Ware, and a redware probably manufactured locally.
One very interesting find was a bone tuning peg from a musical instrument, possibly a harp. Less easily identifiable are a large number of rough stone discs of varying sizes. These may have been pot lids or net weights, but they have not been found in such quantities elsewhere so their use is not certain.
It was fascinating to hear about the structures and finds uncovered by the excavations and we are indebted to Steven for giving us this glimpse into the history and the past way of life of Cromarty.
'ST. KILDA - ISLANDS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD’ (30/04/2018)
On 30th April local archaeologist and SHA member Marjorie Wilson gave a talk on St. Kilda, which she had visited last summer. She began by pointing out the remote location of the island group, 40 miles west of the other Outer Hebrides islands, although she went on to explain that St. Kilda had not been totally isolated from the rest of the Western Isles, having been part of the estates of the MacLeods of Harris since the early Middle Ages.
She explained the probable origin of the name St. Kilda: there was never a saint called Kilda, and the name is most likely to have come from a series of misreadings by mapmakers copying earlier maps, whereby Skildar (from an Old Icelandic name) was misread as S. Kilda. The Gaelic name is Hiort, from which comes the English name Hirta for the main island in the group.
The islands are the remains of an extinct ring volcano. Hirta has the highest cliffs in the British Isles (427 meters), closely followed by the other islands, Soay and Boreray, while the sea stacs round the islands are also the highest in Britain (Stac an Armin, 196 meters). The climate is rather cool and wet, and above all windy, with storms creating very high seas. There are no trees at all. Yet people managed to survive here since Neolithic times.
There are few prehistoric remains to see, since the small area suitable for settlement has been used again and again, with later structures obliterating earlier ones. The only permanent settlement was at Village Bay on Hirta. Here the houses of the village street were built in the 19th. century, amongst the earlier blackhouses which survived as byres. These houses had each their own parcel of croft land, replacing an earlier land system of plots reallocated regularly. The subsistence agriculture practised was similar to other parts of the Highlands and Islands, with crops of barley and potatoes grown in stone-walled fields, and cattle and sheep kept in the settlement in the winter, and moved to pastures on the north side of the island in summer. The most conspicuous feature of the landscape is the stone cleits, of which there are 1337 on Hirta alone. These are small stone, turf-roofed storage structures, used for storing grain and peat but also birds and feathers. The subsistence farming of St. Kilda was augmented by the taking of huge numbers of sea birds - gannets, puffins and fulmars, which abound around the islands and nest on the cliffs and sea stacs. These were used for food and as the surplus with which the islanders paid much of their rent, the factor taking feathers and bird oil as well as wool, cheese and grain. Marjorie showed slides of a boat trip round the stacs and outer islands; the cliffs look unclimbable and it is hard to believe that the St. Kildans were able to land on these rocks and harvest vast quantities of birds.
Contact with the outside world was sporadic, consisting mainly of an annual visit by the factor to collect rent, until the mid 19th. century, when tourists arrived on steamers, and trawlers also put in to the bay. Church ministers were of great importance; some tried to improve the islanders’ living conditions, while one interfered with their economy and culture by insisting on long prayer meetings which prevented them from going about their work and forbidding children to play. Illnesses brought by visitors afflicted the St. Kildans, particularly infant tetanus, which caused abnormally high infant mortality for several years. A fall in population especially after the First World War meant that the islanders’ old way of life was no longer economically viable, and the island was evacuated in 1930.
St. Kilda is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Visiting on a trip from Harris as Marjorie did, you can see the abandoned houses, some of which have been restored as accommodation for research workers, one as a museum. The native Soay sheep now roam wild over the croft land which the islanders once cultivated.
It was sad to see the deserted village, but Marjorie pointed out that St. Kilda was never a victim of the Clearances; it survived for thousands of years with its own special economy, uniquely adapted to enable people to exist in this harsh environment, but such a way of life could not withstand the pressures of the cash economy and the modern state.
'The Clan Chisholm and Highland Dress’ (26/10/2017)
On 26th October 2017 we enjoyed a talk by Duncan Chisholm of Duncan Chisholm Kiltmakers, Inverness. He told us about the history of his business, which had been founded by his father in 1956, in a historic building in Castle Street, Inverness. They supplied entertainers who make up a ''who's who'' of Scottish showbusiness, including Jimmy Logan, the Alexander Brothers, Calum Kennedy, and Andy Stewart.
Duncan explained the development of the present-day kilt as we know it from the much larger plaid, which was a large sheet of material, belted at the waist, with the rest of the cloth thrown over one or both shoulders and fastened with a penannular pin. He told us also about the different types of sporran, from the everyday leather one to the silver-mounted goats’ hair sporran; the various types of jacket and waistcoat; and the correct type of tartan hose. He had brought with him examples of several different types of Highland dress, and also illustrated his talk with slides.
With regard to the Clan Chisholm (he is a former president of the Clan Chisholm Society), he noted how few Chisholms remain in the area, compared to the large number in Nova Scotia. He told a story of one Hugh Chisholm, a merchant in Inverness, who was helped to escape from jail in the Tolbooth in Inverness and, with the help of his family in Strathglass, found his way to Loch Broom, where he was able to board a ship to America, where he started a successful business.
He mentioned how Erchless Castle, a seat of the Chisholm chiefs, was bought by the Stachelbergs and then by the Robsons. He also showed us examples of the various versions of the Chisholm tartan. Duncan had brought with him several old books pertaining to the Clan Chisholm, notably an 18th. century rentals book, and 19th. century books of letters from the estate factor to the absent Chief, and we were able to look at these fascinating documents at the end of his talk.
Duncan then showed us a series of slides illustrating the process of making a kilt, from the first laying out of the fabric (about eight yards) and bunching it together into pleats, through the cutting of the pleats at the top, the sewing in of the linings and the attachment of buckles and straps, to the last stage of trying it on the customer for final adjustments, all the sewing being done by hand except the attachment of the waistband.
As members of the Kiltmakers Association, Duncan Chisholm’s business produces work of the best quality, with one person being responsible for making the whole kilt from start to finish, a process which takes several days. You can find more information on the company website.
'Gaelic Placenames In Strathglass’ (02/10/2017)
On Monday 2nd. October we welcomed Morag MacDonald from Struy, who told us about the origin and meaning of a number of Gaelic place-names in Strathglass. She began by giving an overview of the most common Gaelic place-name elements which are preserved in a more or less recognisable form in English. Achadh, for example, a field, often features as Ach-, while tigh, a house, can be transformed into tay, ty or tea. Others have moved further from the Gaelic, e.g. Crelevan, from craobh leamhan (elm tree). Morag then went on to give the origin and meaning of the best known local place names, e.g. Cannich, from canach, meaning bog cotton, Tomich, from tom, a mound or hillock, Comar, the confluence of two rivers, and Struy, the places of streams (sruth = a stream).
We were delighted to be treated next to a musical interlude, when Morag sang a Gaelic song, accompanied by her friend Rachel Butterworth, who played the fiddle.
Morag continued her talk with examples of the different categories of place-name elements, which show the things which featured in the daily life of the Gaels and influenced their naming of the features of their landscape. There are agricultural place-names, which show ancient land divisions and the work which was carried on, e.g. Lochan Amair: the small loch of the mill lade. Townships frequently include the element bal, from baile, a settlement, e.g. Balnahaun, from baile na h-aibhne, the settlement of (by) the river.
The names of many animals, both wild and domestic, occur in place-names, e.g. Carn na h-Earbaige Bige, the cairn of the small roe, and Carn a’Mhuilt, the cairn of the wedder. Birds are commemorated in names such as Leac nam Buidheag, the stone of the yellow-hammer, and Bad a’ Chlamhain, the thicket of the buzzard or kite.
The names for geographical features show the nature of the Highland landscape, e.g. the various words associated with mountains such as beinn (mountain), sgurr (peak), maol (a rounded hill), gleann (glen), feith (bog). Care must be taken when translating colour words, which can have different meanings: glas, as in Strathglass, can be grey or green, while liath also means grey, and gorm, meaning blue, can be used for the colour of grass! Personal names, descriptive names and names derived from occupations also occur.
Morag explained the names of some of the mountains in the area. Sgurr na Lapaich, apparently the peak of the faint-hearted, may owe its name to some event no longer remembered. Others are easier to understand, referring to the shape of the mountain, e.g. An Socach, the snout, or Sgurr na Diollaid, the peak of the saddle.
Morag’s talk finished with place-names which derive their meaning from stories of events which happened there. To mention only a few, Crunaglac is Craobh na clag, the tree of the bells, where the early Christian Saint Curitan miraculously found three bells buried; Innis nan Ceann at Mauld, the meadow of the heads, recalls an old clan battle; Athnamullach is actually Ath na Muileach, the ford of the men from Mull; and Tom a’ Chaillich commemorates the meeting of two old women to define the marches of two estates.
Morag made it easy for her audience to understand the Gaelic words by showing slides with them in writing, and many of the places mentioned were also illustrated with pictures. Practically all the place-names she dealt with are in Strathglass, so that the talk was really relevant and of great interest to all of us, as well as giving us a glimpse into the lives of the people who named the features of their environment and the events long-past which still live on in some place-names.
Talk by Dennis Ross: Return of the Metal Detective (29/05/2017)
On 29th May a large audience turned out to hear a talk by Dennis Ross, our local metal detectorist, and to see his latest finds. Dennis has worked extensively in the local area, and also further afield in the Highlands; it was particularly exciting to see what he has turned up practically on our doorsteps.
Together with his fellow detectorist, Freya Strachan, Dennis showed us various models of metal detectors and explained the method of working. He then talked about the different kinds of objects he has found, in a talk illustrated by slides. He has found silver and copper coins from as far back as the 13th. century; some foreign coins, e.g. one from Louis XVI of France, make you wonder how they ended up here! Some coins have been deliberately worn smooth and made into love tokens.
Jewellery is represented in the form of rings, some of them mediaeval, and brooches and pins from the fastening of plaids. There is a large number of shoe and belt buckles, and some cap badges and tunic buttons of military origin. Military activity in the area is also attested by large quantities of musket balls and bullets.
Many iron objects relate to past domestic or agricultural activity and can be hard to identify. Dennis and Freya presented us with one “mystery object” in particular, a ring with a hole in it. No-one managed to guess correctly what it was, and we were all surprised to learn that it was part of a dog chain.
Dennis and Freya had brought with them a large selection of their finds, and these were laid out for us to see and examine. It was quite thrilling to be able to see and touch these things from long ago which have survived just a few inches below the ground surface, and to speculate about the people who used them or wore them.
Finding the objects is only the first part of the process; there then follows much painstaking research, in books and online, to discover their identity, origin and significance. Large numbers of coins in a field near Guisachan, for example, suggest that it may have been the site of a fair which was known to have been held in the area. Dennis also made good use of old maps, to locate the many settlements which have now vanished, and where one might expect some traces to remain in the form of metal artefacts below ground.
Dennis and Freya have built up a marvellous collection of finds, and Dennis’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for his subject made his talk very interesting; we shall look forward to hearing about new discoveries again in the future.
'Creative archaeological visualisation on Scotland’s national forest estate’ (03/04/2017)
On 3rd April we welcomed Matt Ritchie, the archaeologist for Forest Enterprise Scotland. His talk was entitled Creative archaeological visualisation on Scotland’s national forest estate, and he introduced us to an aspect of archaeology of which most people have no idea, namely the planning of sites by means of new, very advanced techniques, which produce images of an accuracy which could never be attained by conventional drawing, as well as amazing realistic pictures.
The most revolutionary technique is laser scanning. Matt illustrated this with examples of high resolution terrestrial laser scanning of a rock surface at Ormaig in Argyll (image top left) which bears many Late Neolithic cup marks and similar incised symbols.
The laser scanning produces a series of vertices which, joined together in polygons, produce a mesh which reproduces the actual rock face with sub-millimetre accuracy. This can be presented in various ways, from real colour, showing even the lichen on the rock, to greyscale which enables the most accurate measurement. Repetition of the scanning after some years shows the extent to which there has been any weathering or erosion of the rock art.
A similar laser scanning technique can be applied to sites from the air, using a drone; this produces a points cloud which can then be translated into a 3D representation of the site. This was demonstrated by drawings obtained of the Iron Age dun at Kraiknish on Skye (image bottom left). Other techniques used for planning include photogrammetry and low altitude aerial photography using drones. Matt illustrated the use of these innovative techniques with examples from several sites on Forestry ground, including Castle O’er Iron Age hillfort in Dumfriesshire, Neolithic chambered tombs on Arran, and Caisteal Grugaig broch on Loch Alsh.
The purpose of using advanced techniques, particularly laser scanning, is not just to record sites much more quickly and accurately than can be done by conventional archaeological survey methods.
Matt stressed that the visualisations made possible by the new techniques are also a creative response and are almost works of art in their own right. Moreover, the representations thus obtained, which can be viewed from any angle, enable reconstruction drawings to be made, which can bring a site to life and show people what it would have looked like.
The underlying aim is to encourage an interest in archaeology by focusing on sites which can be presented in an interesting and stimulating way. There is a particular emphasis on involving school pupils, and Matt showed us a picture of schoolchildren who had been brought to watch a solar eclipse at Whitehill recumbent stone circle in Aberdeenshire, to show them the connection between recumbent stone circles and astronomy.
‘The Prehistory of Skye’ (28/11/2016)
On 28th November we welcomed back Steve Birch of West Coast Archaeological Services, who gave us a talk last winter about Comar Wood Dun. This time he told us about the prehistory of Skye, based mainly on recent archaeological excavations, including many in which he was personally involved.
He gave a brief overview of earlier antiquarian activity, which concentrated on the easily visible standing monuments such as brochs and chambered tombs, before moving on to more recent work, which has been able by the use of modern archaeological techniques to discover and explore less obvious sites. He gave us an oversight of prehistory on Skye ranging from Early Mesolithic sites dating to around 9000 BC through to protohistoric Dark Age / Early Mediaeval discoveries.
The Mesolithic period was characterized by coastal-dwelling communities of hunter-gatherers, with particularly interesting sites being found at a harbour on Raasay (the large island off the east coast of Skye), Camas Daraich on the Sleat peninsula, and a rock-shelter at An Corran in Staffin. Along with narrow and broad blade lithic assemblages and microliths, a number of so-called limpet scoops were found; Steve’s own research discovered that these were not used for gathering or eating limpets, as had previously been thought, but were used for grinding mineral pigments and possibly plant material!
The account of the prehistory of Skye continued through the ages, with a number of unusual and sometimes multi-period sites being mentioned. These included the Broadford Health Centre site, which featured a cist containing an All Over Cord Beaker, a cairn, a grain-drying kiln, and an Iron Age souterrain. Interestingly, some of the earliest Beaker sites in Scotland are in Skye and on the mainland opposite the island.
At Home Farm, Portree, an Iron Age site, two timber roundhouses were uncovered, together with a probably ritual circular enclosure, consisting of a large, deep ditch, with no entrance. At Fiskavaig on the Minginish peninsula a rock shelter situated at the foot of a steep cliff, and noticed first from the sea, yielded many signs of occupation, with several hearths, evidence of metal-working, and many animal bones including primarily cattle which had been slaughtered there.
The most fascinating site was High Pasture Cave (Uamh an Ard Achadh), near Torrin, an apparently ritual site dating from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Iron Age. A passageway and steps led down into the cave, which contained fragments of human and animal bone and many aretefacts, most apparently deliberately broken. The human and animal remains consisted of an unusually high proportion of very young or newborn, and broken querns were also found in some numbers. The most interesting find was the partly burnt bridge of a stringed instrument, probably a lyre, carbon dated to about 300 BC; it is the earliest find of a stringed instrument in Western Europe.
Despite the considerable placename evidence for Norse occupation, there are practically no Viking settlement sites known in Skye, possibly because they are overlain by later Mediaeval buildings. The final area which Steve talked about brings us into the historical period. At Rubha an Dunain, an area abounding with archaeological remains from the Mesolithic onwards, including an Iron Age promontory fort, and remains of extensive pre-Clearance settlement, a canal links a small loch with the sea and boat noosts are also clearly visible. Known as the Viking Canal, it was used in the Middle Ages for galleys and birlinns to be safely laid up for the winter; but it may well date back to Viking times.
Steve’s talk left us with an impression of the vast amount of fascinating archaeological remains to be found on Skye. His passionate interest in his subject has probably inspired many of us to go and see some of these sites for ourselves, and has certainly kindled our enthusiasm to keep up to date with further discoveries.
‘Highland Archive Resources for Family Historians’ (17/10/2016)
On Monday 17th. October we welcomed Anne Fraser, the family historian from the Highland Archive Centre, to talk to us about Highland Archive Resources for Family Historians. Anne explained the structure of the Highland Archive Centre, with the main centre in Inverness and branches in Wick, Portree and Fort William. She went on to discuss the interest which many people have in tracing their ancestors, and how this can be done.
The main part of Anne’s talk was an account of the various different types of records which can be used in family research. There are an incredible number of these: census records; birth, marriage and death registrations both civil and from the various churches; school records; police records i.e. records of policemen employed and their reports; poor law records; criminal records from the courts; valuation rolls; estate records; personal papers and letters; and several others.
Anne explained how all of these can be accessed, and gave many fascinating and sometimes humorous examples of information found by research into them, including several involving her own ancestors. She also showed us a very extensive and impressive family tree which she had prepared. We were left with an impression of a vast array of resources available to the public both in the Archive Centre and on the internet, and the feeling that it is very fortunate that the Archive Centre has professional staff such as Anne available to guide people through the resources or to undertake research for them.
Anne’s talk was illustrated with slides, some summarizing the types of resources and others showing documents and transcripts, which showed us just what these records actually look like (and how much skill is involved in understanding the old handwriting and spelling!) We all enjoyed the talk, and I am sure several people may now be inspired to research their own family history.
Strathglass Gala (28/08/2016)
The Strathglass Gala was held on Sunday 28th August at Cannich Hall. Strathglass Heritage Association was invited to host a small exhibition in the Community Room and took the opportunity to display material on a range of topics including Clan Chisholm and the Hydro Schemes. We also had information on our recent fieldwork activities in relation to the Comar Wood Dun and the large enclosure at Cougie while our photo and document archive proved popular with visitors.
The exhibition was well attended and we were pleased to welcome a number of new members. We were especially pleased to welcome three ladies all the way from Australia!
Many thanks to the organisers for the excellent display area and also to our members who gathered the material and put the exhibition together. Dennis Ross's collection of items discovered by metal detector and Richard Wood's vintage postcards of the Strathglass area were very well received.
'The Drove Roads' (30/05/2016)
On 30th. May we enjoyed a talk by Iain Thomson on cattle droving. Iain is a well-known figure, who now lives locally, after a life spent pursuing many interests and occupations and travelling to many places. His connection with this area goes back many years. He is the author of several books, but is best known here for his first book, Isolation Shepherd, about his time in the 1950s as a shepherd at Pait at the top of Glen Strathfarrar.
In his talk, illustrated by slides of pictures of cattle and drovers in the Highlands, Iain explained how cattle were for centuries the mainstay of the Highland economy. The skills of driving cattle evolved out of the old pursuit by the Highland clans of cattle rieving! The gradual growth of a market economy led to crofters entrusting their beasts to professional drovers, who took them to the markets, called trysts, at Creiff and later Falkirk, where they were sold on to England. (They were not sold by auctioneers but simply by agreement between buyer and seller). Cattle were sent not just from the Highland mainland but also from Skye and the Western Isles, and Iain recounted the difficulties of loading cattle on to a boat, or of making them swim shorter distances, using his own experience at Pait and on Vatersay. The crossing of the Minch from Stornoway took 10 hours; to avoid harbour dues, the boats did not put in to Ullapool, but landed the cattle on nearby beaches.
The cattle, ancestors of our present Highland cattle, were small, taking three years to reach maturity, and weighing only three or four cwt. The drovers had to find good grazing and water for them on the weeks-long journey south. Several hundred head of cattle would form a drove, with one drover to about 50 cattle; each drover had two dogs to help to keep the drove together.
Iain told us many fascinating facts about droving. The name “drove roads” is actually a misnomer, since the cattle were not driven along narrow tracks, but were allowed to spread out to cover the whole width of a hillside or glen, to maximize their access to grazing. When metalled roads began to be built in the Highlands, cattle had to be shod - one shoe for each half of each cloven hoof, each shoe with four or six nails. Iain explained the complicated process of tying up a beast in such a way that its feet would be lifted up for shoeing!
The drovers who continued down into England with the cattle would sometimes take passage home on a ship from a port on the English east coast, and thus get to Aberdeen, Inverness or Beauly. They turned their dogs loose before boarding the ship, and the dogs found their own way home, often arriving before their masters!
A crofter who entrusted his cattle to a drover would receive from him a promissory note, which he could use more or less like cash, to pay rent or buy goods. This is believed to be the origin of bank-notes, which still have the words “promise to pay the bearer on demand x pounds sterling”.
Cattle droving gradually declined, with the advent of modern transport methods, and with the clearances of the Highlands, replacing the crofters’ cattle with the landlords’ sheep. The tryst at Muir of Ord continued the longest, well through the 19th. century. We are grateful to Iain for giving us such an interesting insight into this very important aspect of our history.
'The Monster Canal' (22/04/2016)
On 21st. April we enjoyed a talk by Stephen Wiseman of the Scottish Waterways Trust. Stephen is the Heritage Officer responsible for the Caledonian Canal.
He told us how the canal came to be built - originally planned to facilitate the passage of naval frigates at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which led to the locks being built longer and wider than on many other canals, so that they can still be used by a relatively large ship like the Lord of the Glens. It was designed and supervised by Thomas Telford, following an Act of Parliament in 1803, and was opened in 1822. Stephen explained the construction methods used in building the Canal and its locks and bridges, which, originally manually operated, were mechanized in the 1960s.
We saw many pictures of the Canal, of which the most striking were the aerial photographs, which traced the course of the Canal from the Sea Lock on the Beauly Firth at Clachnaharry in the east to the western end where it enters Loch Linnhe at Corpach. Joining the various lochs along its 60-mile route, the Canal actually consists of several stretches, totalling 22 miles.
Stephen spoke of the present use of the Canal itself, mainly by pleasure craft, and the use of the tow-paths along the Canal for leisure and recreation. He told us how the Scottish Waterways Trust promotes the use of the tow-paths by the public, and also how it takes school-children and community groups on trips and organizes special event days. There are also plans for a new visitor centre at Fort Augustus, the hub of the Canal.
Although the Canal does not actually make a profit and is subsidized by the government, it nevertheless contributes considerably to the economy, with 14% of the total tourist spend in the Highlands coming from Canal-related activities.
Stephen stressed how the Canal, with its wildlife, gentle walks and easy access, offered a peaceful and relaxing experience to all. I am sure we will all take note of this reminder and revisit the Canal soon!
For more information about the Caledonian Canal and the other canals in Scotland please visit www.scottishcanals.co.uk.
'The Highland shieling: a tradition with a future?' (31/03/2016)
On 31st. March we enjoyed a talk by Dr. Sam Harrison, the leader of An Àirigh, the Sheiling Project, based in Glen Strathfarrar near Struy. Dr. Harrison explained the age-old process of transhumance, the movement of livestock in the summer months to upland pasture, in order to take advantage of the grazing available on higher ground in summer, at the same time keeping the beasts away from the growing crops round the main settlement. Young people went with the cattle and sheep to the summer grazing, living in sheiling huts built of stones and turf, milking the cows and ewes and making butter and cheese.
This way of life produced many legends and songs; life at the sheilings was seen as an escape into the outdoors in the better weather. Placenames in the mountains referring to stock also attest to the importance of the practice.
Dr. Harrison also spoke of the plans of the Project to enable young people to learn some of the skills which young Highlanders would have needed to live and work at the sheilings and showed us the prospective plan of the sheiling centre which he hopes to establish in Glen Strathfarrar.
Dr. Harrison believes he has identified a site of multiple sheilings by the Allt Moraig in Glen Strathfarrar; it has been surveyed by the AOC team of professional archaeologists, who will excavate some of the buildings later this month. The excavation will close with an Open Day on 30th. April.
For more information about the project please visit www.theshielingproject.org.
'Excavations at Comar Wood Dun' (25/02/2016)
On 25th. February we enjoyed a talk on Comar Wood Dun by Steve Birch of West Coast Archaeological Services. Some of us have already visited the Dun, which has a commanding position over a long sweep of Strathglass east and west of Cannich [link to article on dun in Research – Fieldwork], and it was fascinating to see Steve’s slides of the excavation which he directed.
We learned how the team coped with the horrendous problems posed by the tree trunks and roots which covered the site, obstructing features and interfering with stratigraphy. We saw how the excavators, by means of a series of keyhole trenches, explored the broad walls and gateway of the structure, (clearing large quantities of tumbled stones in the process), how they discovered the well-preserved hearth and how they worked out the archaeological sequence which saw the site built and occupied in the last few centuries BC (confirmed by radiocarbon dating), abandoned for a couple of hundred years, then reoccupied in the early centuries AD (again confirmed by a C14 date).
As well as showing us slides which showed the progress of the excavation and illustrated the main features of the dun, Steve put the site into its geographical context as one of a series of fortified structures along the north side of Strathglass, and discussed parallels with similar sites elsewhere in the Highlands.
The fieldwork group will organize another visit to the dun later in the spring, and it will be good to see how much better we can understand it now that we have heard all about the excavation!
Soirbheas Clubs and Volunteering Fair (16/10/2015)
Strathglass Heritage Association were invited to take part in a Clubs and Volunteering Fair organized by Soirbheas, the local wind turbine charity, on Tuesday 6th October in the Craigmonie Centre in Glen Urquhart High School in Drumnadrochit. Four of our members attended and set up a stall and display boards to showcase the activities which we do. We had photographs of walks and meetings, posters and several of our Archive books. In addition we had a number of antique objects for people to guess what they were. We also had a display of finds made by Dennis Ross with his metal detector, and we were joined by a colleague of his from Drumnadrochit, with finds from Glen Urquhart.
The stall attracted a lot of people, and several expressed an interest in attending our future events. The Glen Urquhart Heritage Group was also represented at the fair, and we agreed with them to publicize each others’ events. Thanks to all members who helped us to put on such a good display.
Exhibition: '100 Years in Glen Affric' - The Life and Times of Duncan MacLennan 1914-2014 (12-15/08/2015)
The Association will be holding an exhibition based around the life of the late Duncan MacLennan who was born, brought up and worked all his days in Glen Affric. He was Head Stalker in the glen from 1942 till 1989 when he retired at the age of 75.
On display will be photographs, documents and other items of interest from the his hundred year lifetime.
We will also have the Association Archive available for perusal and a slideshow of images of Glen Affric
The exhibition will be in Marydale Hall, formerly the school Duncan attended as a boy, and will be on from Wednesday 12th till Saturday 15th August. Opening times are 10am till 12.30pm and 2pm till 4.30pm.
Admission is free but donations will be welcomed.
The Metal Detective (17/04/2015)
On Friday 17th April at Marydale we welcomed local 'Metal Detective' Denis Ross who gave an illustrated talk on the use of metal detectors and the various items he has unearthed at locations around Strathglass. Denis brought along the equipment he uses and also a selection of 'finds' including coins, musket balls and buckles.
Denis, a native of Tomich, has always been interested in local history and has found that since taking up metal detecting he has expanded his knowledge for example through the study of early maps of the area and the identification of old settlements that assist him in choosing locations where he might find something of interest.
In choosing the exact spots for detecting, Denis always looks for ground that has been cultivated in the past. He reckons areas such as fields that have been worked at some time are much more likely to yield items close to the surface due to being ploughed over a number of years. In fact he has made his best finds no more than 6 inches below ground level.
While most of the items he digs up are quite easily identified, there are always a number that require further research not only to establish their date of origin but sometimes to identify exactly what they are. There is now a wealth of information both off and online available for example to help date old coins but discovering more obscure items has led Denis to make a number of visits to Inverness Museum to seek expert advice.
Following his talk Denis invited members of the audience to examine the articles he had brought along including a number of coins including a silver penny dating from the reign of Edward I of England. His personal favourites are a collection of Old Scots Coins: Bawbees, Turners & Bodles
Denis has long been established as a top fishing ghillie in Strathglass and the patience, enthusiasm, skill and expertise he has shown in catching fish over the years is now being used to great effect in uncovering the secrets of the past.
We had our AGM on Friday 27th. March. Most of the existing committee were re-elected, namely Lilian Gordon, Liz MacAuley, Ishbel Strachan and Marjorie Wilson, and we welcomed Jan Rothe on to the committee. We discussed the draft constitution, which was adopted with a few amendments; it can be seen here.
Highland Archive Centre (27/05/2015)
On Wednesday 27th. May we organized a visit to the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. This was a private visit, just for Association members, and we saw some fascinating documents relating to past times in Strathglass, as well as learning something about the various documentary resources available for research and how to access them.
Bothy Ballads & Traditional Story-Telling - Lilian Ross (17/02/2015)
On Friday 17th February we welcomed Lilian Ross, our speaker for this month's meeting. Lilian is a story-teller and music tutor in schools within the Highland Region, mainly keeping alive the Doric language through recitations and singing bothy ballads.
Her childhood was spent on a farm in the Buchan area of Aberdeenshire - a happy life with none of the accepted essentials or luxuries of modern day farms. As a young girl he had to carry pails of water from the well to her home; feed and milk the cows; help at seed time and harvest time as well as doing her schoolwork.
It was while growing up in this environment that she absorbed the traditions, lifestyles of lairds and farmers and the superstitions which abounded in the fishing villages. Sitting at the feet of older neighbours she heard the tales of happiness and hardship. These tales were often related in song, always in the native Doric which has its roots in other languages. For more about the roots of Doric you can read this interesting article, What Is Doric?
Some of those in the audience were able to recite quietly, parts of the poems she read. The poem, 'The Whistle' by Charles Murray reminded us of having to learn by heart long poems. Sic a scunner!! She sang about the life of a ploughman. Songs about the laird and his attitude to those in desperate need. Social history came alive. Lilian's voice rang pure and true. Her strong commitment to preserving the Doric language for future generations could be felt by all present.
The evening ended with Lilian singing 'Freenships Name' in her own inimitable haunting style and she was warmly applauded.
For more about Lilian please visit her website at www.lilianross.comGo to top of page