For this third section of my Scottish travels on behalf of Current Archaeology, I head north and west – up and across into the Highlands. 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, who had a particular love of the Highlands and Islands. Indeed, to many, this part of the country is the ‘definitive’ Scottish landscape of their dreams, the stuff of countless movies and TV shows. To less romantically inclined archaeologists, it is a place forged by, on one hand, the environmental extremes experienced there and, on the other, by people’s responses to those extremes.
I will begin with a multi-period project that perfectly reflects the research interests of Scottish archaeology noted above, and another common feature of this place and time: community-led projects of the best type. CA 360 (March 2020) reported from the peninsula just north of Inverness known as the Black Isle. There, the Tarradale Through Time Project, which began in 2017, was in the process of concluding its main phase of fieldwork, having surveyed 750ha of the western end of the Isle through a community project involving multiple partners. Ten thousand years of history were uncovered, from the Mesolithic to the post-medieval; the work was undertaken by a diverse array of people, from volunteers to paid specialists from universities and commercial archaeology; and a range of techniques was deployed, from fieldwalking to radiocarbon dating. All in all, it was precisely the kind of project that Current Archaeology likes to champion, and rightly so. (I, for one, look forward to hearing news of the project’s post-excavation analyses in due course.)
Another multi-period, multi-disciplinary research project comes from the western side of the Highlands, the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, which includes the westernmost point of mainland Britain. Most famously, the Viking ship burial found there featured in CA 263 and 272 (February and November 2012) – as well as widely in the popular press – and reappeared in CA 280 (July 2013) in the wider context of the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, which uncovered a wealth of archaeological remains dating from the Neolithic to the 19th century. Again, this was interdisciplinary research of the best type, with project partners – ranging from the voluntary, academic, and commercial communities – examining long-term patterns of social change and continuity in a single landscape.
Those interested in these two case-studies will find much of merit, too, in the multi-period coastal surveys of the Highlands in CA 219, 258, and 259 (June 2008, September 2011, and October 2011).
Surviving and thriving in the prehistoric Highlands
Moving on to period-specific studies, three very different stories of the prehistoric communities of the Highlands caught my eye. The first of these could, in popular journalism, be told as ‘the biggest disaster that you’ve never heard of’. CA 179 (May 2002) reported on the impact on Mesolithic Inverness of the Storegga disaster, a tsunami caused by an underwater landslide off Norway 8,000 years ago that can be traced, geologically and archaeologically, around the coasts of the North Sea as well as further afield in Iceland and along the east coast of Scotland. CA 179 also includes a very different story of prehistoric endeavour, reporting on new finds of rock art found at this time around Blairbuie in Argyll.
More recently, CA 346 (January 2019) reported on a stunning 3rd millennium BC beaker burial found at Achavanich in the far north of Caithness. The site was first analysed after it was discovered during quarrying for stone back in 1987, only to be rediscovered in the archive in the 2010s. This led to a detailed scientific analysis of the find, especially of the human remains, revealing this to be the burial of a young local woman.
Iron Age endeavours
Following on from the pattern above, I will share three stories of Iron Age endeavour with you. The first of these falls back in time to the earliest days of Current Archaeology, when issues 5, 10, and 12 (November 1967, September 1968, and January 1969) reported on Dun Lagaidh in Ross and Cromarty. There, fieldwork was undertaken by Euan Mackie at the unusual combination of a broch built on top of an earlier fort; ongoing research then turned it into an even more interesting story – it was in fact a motte-and-bailey castle built on top of a broch, built on top of a vitrified fort!
In more recent times, CA 212 (November 2007) reported on a stunning Iron Age industrial settlement – the biggest such site known in Scotland – at Culduthel Farm on the southern outskirts of Inverness. And more recently still, CA 367 (October 2020) reported from a well-preserved Iron Age broch at Clachtoll, studied as part of the larger Historic Assynt Community Project, which included consolidation of the structure and analyses of its interior, providing a fascinating insight into the lives of its inhabitants.
I end this column on a sombre note. Nowadays the Highlands, while still often bleak and sometimes unforgiving in terms of their weather, offer a warm welcome to all, sharing a proud history and culture. But the recent past – the wars and clearances this area suffered – was not kind and is not forgotten. In my previous column, I mentioned the site of the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689), examined in CA 322 (January 2017); to this can be added examinations of post-medieval military roads designed to conquer and repress the Scots, as explored in CA 254 (May 2011). And, most recent and most tragic, the site of the Massacre of Glencoe (1692) – when members and associates of the Clan MacDonald were killed by Scottish government forces for failing to pledge allegiance to the new monarchs William III & II and Mary II – was examined in CA 378 (September 2021) in response to a project led by the National Trust for Scotland. Such analyses serve as a reminder that we, as archaeologists, have a duty to examine and to share all aspects of our past, including those that might make us or others uncomfortable.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of the articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive395. They will be available for one month from 5 January. 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 ‘DIGI395’.