Following last month’s introduction to Current Archaeology’s broader surveys of Scotland, I will commence my detailed tour of the country in this column. As noted previously, these columns on Scotland are dedicated to the memory of Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022) – an old friend, outstanding archaeologist, and proud Scotswoman.
I will begin my travels in the centre, in Clackmannanshire, Fife, Perth and Kinross, and Stirlingshire, and then head east and north to Angus and Aberdeenshire, Dundee, and Moray.
In subsequent issues, I will move anti-clockwise into the Highlands and Islands, down the west coast, across the central belt, and finally south into Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders.
I will start with some stunning prehistoric sites. Alloa (on the Firth of Forth, east of Stirling) is one example, having starred in CA 191 (April 2004). This cemetery was originally thought to date purely to the Bronze Age, so the excavators were as surprised as they were pleased to find the remains of an Iron Age warrior, interred with a full complement of grave goods, including weaponry.
Heading east into Fife, Balfarg in Glenrothes is our next landing place. The Neolithic henge there first featured in CA 84 (October 1982) thanks to fieldwork at this time by the University of Edinburgh. That work revealed the complex history of the site, not a ‘normal’ circular henge monument but horseshoe-shaped due to the ditch in the south-west sector butting up against a deep natural gully.
CA 93 and 97 (August 1984 and July 1985) then tell the tale of other, equally important discoveries made there during preparatory works for new housing – including what was at first thought to be a highly unusual aisled hall of Neolithic date, but which was eventually determined to be a timber henge later superseded by two concentric stone circles. Together, these features comprise a sophisticated prehistoric ceremonial complex now buried beneath the centrepiece green space of the local community, with modern housing built in crescents around it, echoing the shape of these monuments.
Fragments of empire
Moving forward in time, I head further into Fife. At Dairsie (between Cupar and St Andrews), CA 335 (February 2018) reported on a rare Roman hoard from this area, important for being the earliest-known evidence discovered outside the empire of ‘hacksilver’ – items, mostly silver, that have been deliberately cut, chopped, and crushed into fragments. There are precious few other fragments of Roman contact in this part of Scotland, but two rare examples are those from East Coldoch in Stirlingshire in CA 206 (December 2006) and from Leckie (west of Stirling) in CA 329 (August 2017). Both these sites shed light on how the local elite communities engaged, often uneasily, with their powerful imperial neighbours.
The story of this region of Scotland, at least in terms of Current Archaeology’s coverage, then goes quiet for many centuries. To pick up the narrative, I head first to Meigle (near Dundee) in CA 273 (December 2012), where AOC Archaeology reported on a 4th- to 5th-century AD Pictish, possibly royal, burial site; then south to Forteviot (south-west of Perth) to the 9th-century royal site there that featured on the cover of CA 231 (June 2009); and finally east along the coast to Arbroath and the 8th- to 9th-century AD Pictish burial site at Redcastle that featured in CA 166 (December 1999). Together, these sites only provide a very fragmentary picture of life in the late Roman/early medieval periods there, so please readers do submit more articles on such sites in these locations.
Fit for a king
Before I head north to Aberdeen, Dundee, and Moray, let me turn briefly to later periods in the central region. Current Archaeology’s visits to this area have been modest, but include iconic sites. First off comes one of the most significant battlefields not just in Scotland, but in the entire UK: Bannockburn (1314), just south of Stirling. CA 303 (June 2015) went to meet a project working here in the run-up to the battle’s 700th anniversary, which sought to tell a fuller story of both the battle and its archaeological aftermath. Readers interested in this narrative should turn next to CA 352 (July 2019), which reported on the creation of a 3D reconstruction of the tomb of Robert the Bruce (died 1329) in Dunfermline Abbey, the original having been destroyed during the Reformation.
Maintaining a royal theme, we then head to Stirling Castle, which CA 253 (April 2011) visited after restorations were made between 2003 and 2005, especially to the 16th- century royal apartments associated with James V. The most recent in this royal run then comes in CA 322 (January 2017), which visited the site of the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689), the opening clash of the first Jacobite rising, which lies on the A9 between Pitlochry and Blair Atholl.
Pieces of prehistory
In this last section, I land briefly in Aberdeenshire and Moray. It is notable that Current Archaeology’s focus in this area has been almost exclusively prehistoric, and that Dundee is notable by its absence. Working chronologically through the archive, I arrive first at a fine Iron Age coastal promontory fort at Cullykhan (east of Banff) in CA 32 (May 1972), and then at a Bronze Age barrow at Fochabers (on the Spey) in CA 34 (September 1972). Next up is the Neolithic site at Balbridie, north-west of Aberdeen, which Current Archaeology visited on multiple occasions – first in issues 70 and 72 (January and March 1980), and more recently in CA 343 (October 2018). The hall there was originally thought to be of early medieval origin, but it was subsequently placed in the middle of the Neolithic period thanks to timely radiocarbon dating, providing a focus around 2967 BC. CA 343 is worth reading for the full story of this site and of similarly dated Doon Hill in East Lothian, to which I will return in a subsequent issue.
I turn last, but not least, to two extraordinary sites that seem to sing from the pages. First, CA 360 (March 2020) was at Deskford (south of Cullen), reporting on the reanalysis of an Iron Age carnyx (a type of horn) found in a bog there in 1816, one of the iconic finds on display in the National Museum. Second, CA 375 (June 2021) was at the Sculptor’s Cave, between Burghead and Lossiemouth. This stunning coastal location is better known for its Pictish carvings, but researchers have shown that it has a much longer, and more enigmatic, prehistoric pedigree, dating back at least as far as the Bronze Age. Such a picturesque location, and such a distinguished history, is the perfect place to end this column, providing themes that I will pick up in next month’s column on the Highlands.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of the articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive394. They will be available for one month from 1 December. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI394’.