New Radiocarbon Date from Castle Island, Loch Kinord

The underwater survey carried out at Castle Island in autumn 2015 continues to turn up fascinating new information. During the survey, seven vertical piles were identified, you can read more about the underwater survey HERE. One of these piles has now returned a radiocarbon date of cal AD 585-663. This is the first radiocarbon date from a crannog in eastern Scotland that sits within the middle of the first millennium AD. For Castle Island, this adds to the previously identified phases of use in the Early Iron Age and from the 10th-17th centuries AD.

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Calibrated date from the pile.

Of the seven piles, the radiocarbon dated example comes from a group of six that seem to be part of a coherent structure, sitting a consistent distance away from the artificial mound of Castle Island and all sloping in a northerly direction. Precisely what this structure is remains unclear, but some kind of outer palisade is one possibility. It also seems likely that further piles survive under the sediment having been eroded to that level. The sampled pile was oak, and this might explain why it and only a handful of others survived, as other species are not as resistant to decay. However, this does mean that the radiocarbon result should be treated as the earliest possible date for the pile.

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The dated pile, looking north.

Excitingly, the radiocarbon date falls around the same period as the ‘Royal Yacht’, one of the four logboats found in Loch Kinord in the 19th century, and may suggest that Castle Island was in use as a crannog at the same time as the Royal Yacht. You can read more about the ‘Royal Yacht’ HERE.

Perhaps more importantly though, the new radiocarbon date from Castle Island sits within the Pictish period. Until as recently as a decade ago, settlement archaeology from the mid- to later 1st millennium AD in north-east Scotland had been rarely identified. However, recent excavations over the past few years at a range of sites across the north-east have identified mid- to late first millennium AD phases, notably at Portmohomack, Rhynie and a number of hill forts in Aberdeenshire and Moray. Castle Island, Loch Kinord now stands among these sites as a settlement that was very likely in use in this period.

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Castle Island looking north-west.

The settlement archaeology to date from the Pictish period in north-east Scotland has been dominated by higher status dwellings, but until now, crannogs had not been positively identified among the hill fort and palisaded enclosure sites confirmed as dating from this period. Crannogs display a command and control of resources while also creating physical separation in the landscape – things that Pictish period high-status settlement appear to emphasise. It seems likely therefore that further Pictish phases of crannog use in north-east Scotland will be identified as further work is carried out in this region.

This new radiocarbon date from the pile on the west side of Castle Island represents a new phase of construction. This adds yet another example of a crannog with multiple periods of use separated many centuries. This typically comes from just a few radiocarbon determinations of varying contextual security. With only a handful of crannogs having seen extensive excavation and suites of radiocarbon dates from highly secure contexts, this has meant that the narratives for the use of crannogs often is limited to simply acknowledging likely phases of use. This is the situation as it stands at Castle Island. While not necessarily a problem in it self, the next steps needed to gain a better understanding of how people used Castle Island would be more extensive excavation, ideally underwater to target better preserved contexts.

Sadly, there are currently no plans for further extensive excavations at Castle Island, Loch Kinord. Given the wide range of use at Castle Island, extending from the Early Iron Age to the 17th century, the potential has been established here for important and exciting insights into the island dwelling phenomenon through time in Scotland.

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New Islet Broch (possible) Discovered at Holms of Hogaland, Whiteness, Shetland

New Islet Broch (possible) Discovered at Holms of Hogaland, Whiteness, Shetland

A new monumental drystone roundhouse was discovered while conducting underwater and terrestrial archaeological survey in Strom Loch, Whiteness, Shetland. The site is the central of three islets, called the Holms of Hogaland. This site has not been identified to date, and will be a new entry into a long list of brochs and possible brochs known in Shetland.

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First views of the possible broch.

In conducting survey at Castle Holm, Strom Loch, Shetland the opportunity was taken to investigate a small islet across the loch at the Holms of Hogaland. I was tipped off by Claire Christie, who is working at the Shetland Amenity Trust using high resolution aerial photographs to map Shetland’s Sites and Monuments Record, that there may be a causeway out to the island. Upon inspection, myself and Sally Evans (an intrepid volunteer) were amazed by what we saw.

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The internal depression.

The majority of this islet was covered in a large mound around three metres high and about 16x14m across. There were obvious structural features, including coursed stonework and potentially the remains of orthostats or piers (ie. internal divisions within the former structure). In the middle of the island is small circular depression about four metres across that presumably represents internal space within this large structure. On the west side of the island, and most exposed to the weather, there appears to be some active erosion, although the rate and extent of this is difficult to know as there is no baseline of information with which to compare.

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Possible orthostats or piers.

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Exposed walling in the interior depression.

Bedrock can be seen at the edges of island, so it is clear that this islet is not completely artificial, however, it seems likely that a significant portion of the current islet underwater is composed of material transported to the site. While not a crannog in the classic sense, it may well prove that sites like this newly discovered site are assuming similar roles as crannogs in Iron Age Scotland.

The monumental architectural forms of Iron Age Scotland (crannogs, brochs, wheelhouses and duns) are frequently conceived and discussed as self-evident categories of settlement types. However, any close inspection of how these archaeological terms are defined reveals that these units are not so clear cut – a topic that has been the subject of large tomes of published literature. It seems clear, though, that we are instead looking at a spectrum of round (mostly domestic) architecture where the lines between broch and dun, crannog and an occupied natural islet remain blurred. When considering crannogs and islet settlement, Shetland presents a wide array of different types ranging from completely artificial occupied islands to natural islands with monumental roundhouses placed on top. For this reason, it represents a foil to studies of mainland crannogs (such as the main focus of my PhD research), and hopefully will help break down our archaeological terminology and definitions and peer into an understanding of what monumental domestic architecture meant to the people of Iron Age Scotland.

Stay tuned for further updates on islet brochs and duns in Shetland!

Thank you to Sally Evans, it would not have been possible to do this work without her help!  Thank you to Esther Renwick and family for use of the small dinghy, it worked brilliantly. Thanks also to Claire Christie for the tip-off on the presence of the causeway. And finally thank you to Val Turner for her support.

Romans and Vikings – Iron Age and Early Medieval dates from the Loch of Leys Crannog, Aberdeenshire

Romans and Vikings – Iron Age and Early Medieval dates from the Loch of Leys Crannog, Aberdeenshire

The radiocarbon dates from the Loch of Leys excavation have been returned. The dates indicate evidence for occupation in the 1st-2nd centuries AD and in the 9th-10th centuries AD. Multiple phases of occupation on crannogs is absolutely the norm with these sites being abandoned and then re-occupied two or more times. There is good evidence for use of crannogs in the 1st-2nd centuries AD across Scotland, although this the first evidence for that period in north-east Scotland. In the 9th-10th centuries, there is far less evidence for use of crannogs in Scotland, but the evidence is growing with five sites now have radiocarbon dates from the period, three of those through this project (Loch of Leys, Prison and Castle Islands, Loch Kinord).

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Radiocarbon dates from the Loch of Leys Crannog

This list continues to grow as crannogs in eastern Scotland have been investigated, but for what purpose crannogs are put to in this period remains in question. The excavation of Loch Glashan crannog in south-west Scotland has a hint of occupation in the 9th century in the form of a leather book satchel, possibly indicating use by Christian clergy or monks, but most of the evidence from this site dates from earlier centuries. Crannogs in Ireland have been excavated that date to this period as does the Welsh crannog at Llangorse, and these are normally associated with high status dwellings, although exceptions to this have been highlighted by Christina Fredengren. An intriguing possibility lies in the use of crannogs at this time as assembly sites. Although not a crannog proper (ie. it is a natural islet), the Law Ting Holm in Shetland is used from the 9th century AD as a Viking period assembly site, and excavation there demonstrated evidence for use as a domestic dwelling in the Iron Age and Pictish periods. Archaeological evidence for any site’s use as an assembly site is scant and ephemeral (how to you show archaeologically that people simply gathered somewhere?), but it is a tempting interpretation of crannogs in this early medieval context.

In contrast to the 9th-10th centuries, evidence for the use of crannogs in the 1st-2nd centuries AD is much greater. Most of this evidence comes from south-west Scotland, and not least from Robert Munro. Munro’s 19th century excavations revealed Samian Ware from at least two crannog sites. More recent sampling and excavation has radiocarbon dated phases to the 1st-2nd centuries AD at Barlockhart, Buiston, Loch Glashan, Erskine Bridge, and Dumbuck crannogs. Sites outside of the south-west dated to the period include, Morenish and Tombreck crannogs in Loch Tay, Loch Migdale crannog, Sutherland and Redcastle and Phopachy in the Beauly Firth. Interestingly, these sites span areas that were within regions of high Roman influence in this period (in the south-west) and areas that saw significantly less, such as at Loch Migdale, Sutherland. The Loch of Leys sits between the two. There is the Raedykes Roman camp a few miles down the Dee from the Loch of Leys, but this part of Scotland was never an established part of the Roman empire like parts of south-west Scotland were. This might suggest that building crannogs was not simply or only a direct response to Roman occupation.

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Nearly always with crannogs, the history of use is multi-phase, multi-period and difficult to untangle. The Loch of Leys crannog is no exception to this. The aim of the excavation at the Loch of Leys was to establish if there was activity pre-dating the known medieval occupation of the island. That has clearly been answered, and we can confidently say that there were at least three phases of occupation at the Loch of Leys; 1st or 2nd century AD, in the late 9th or 10th century AD, and from the historic sources, occupation in the 13th-14th centuries AD. However, the relatively poor state of preservation on the site means that the stratigraphic relationship between the two radiocarbon dates remains unclear. Further excavation and dating might resolve this question, and better preserved parts of the site may yet be discovered that would yield even better chronological resolution.

Thanks again to those that helped with the excavation – Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble. Funding was provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Archaeology Service for Aberdeenshire. Thanks to Thys Simpson and the Leys Estate for allowing and arranging access to site.

Palaeoenvironmental work at the Loch of Leys is ongoing, so stay tuned for more information on the history of the Loch of Leys.

 

Further Reading –

Llangorse Crannog, Wales

Campbell, E. and Lane, A., 1989. Llangorse: a 10th-century royal crannog in Wales. Antiquity, 63(241), pp.675-681.

Law Ting Holm, Shetland

Coolen, J. , and N. Mehler . 2014. Excavations and Surveys at the Law Ting Holm, Tingwall, Shetland: An Iron Age Settlement and Medieval Assembly Site. BAR British Series 592. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Loch Glashan Crannog

Crone, A. & Campbell, E. 2005 A crannog of the 1st millennium AD; excavations by Jack Scott at Loch Glashan, Argyll, 1960. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Irish Crannogs

Fredengren, C. 2002. Crannogs. A study of people’s interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland. Dublin: Wordwell.

Radiocarbon Dating Scottish Crannogs

Crone, A. 2012. December. Forging a chronological framework for Scottish crannogs; the radiocarbon and dendrochronological evidence. In Lake Dwellings After Robert Munro: Proceedings from the Munro International Seminar: the Lake Dwellings of Europe 22nd and 23rd October 2010, University of Edinburgh. Sidestone Press.

https://www.sidestone.com/books/lake-dwellings-after-robert-munro

A flight over Loch Kinord

I recently was very lucky to be a guest of the Deeside Gliding Club and had the opportunity to experience Loch Kinord from the air. Below are some highlights and a short video.

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The perspective available here is really incredible. You can get a map view from above but you also get to be in the landscape rather than looking at it on paper or on a computer monitor.

VIDEO HERE

More updates on the Loch Kinord crannogs and other crannogs around north-east Scotland will be posted here in due course.

Thank you to John Dransfield who was pilot for the flight.

Likely Iron Age Origin for Castle Island: Radiocarbon results from Loch Kinord

Likely Iron Age Origin for Castle Island: Radiocarbon results from Loch Kinord

An Iron Age phase of construction at Castle Island, Loch Kinord has been identified through radiocarbon dating. The date comes from a submerged timber on the west side of the island, which lies horizontally protruding from the underwater portion of the island. This is the first evidence for Iron Age activity from the occupied islands in Loch Kinord as they previously had radiocarbon dates from the 9th century AD onwards. The other significant evidence this radiocarbon date provides is that it may suggest that Castle Island is more artificial than the excavation in October seemed to suggest, and therefore takes us back to our original interpretation that Castle Island is wholly or mostly artificial as opposed to natural with significant modification.

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Submerged horizontal timber from Castle Island, Loch Kinord. This timber was sampled and radiocarbon dated to the Early Iron Age. Approximately 1.6m of the timber is exposed.

This is the first Iron Age crannog confirmed in north-east Scotland. The result puts Castle Island (and perhaps all of the crannogs of north-east Scotland) much more in phase with other radiocarbon dated crannogs throughout Scotland. The majority of radiocarbon dated crannogs have initial phases of construction and occupation in the Iron Age with periodic re-use through the early medieval and medieval periods (There is a book chapter available HERE by Anne Crone on this subject; the chapter begins on pg. 139). The Iron Age phase at Loch Kinord is very exciting as it opens up the crannog history of Loch Kinord (and arguably the region) by over 1500 years. Furthermore, the outstanding preservation of the landscape around Loch Kinord means that good contextualisation of the crannog occupation is possible within a range of settlement archaeology that includes houses, souterrains and field systems. These likely Iron Age structures may date to the same period of construction indicated by the Castle Island radiocarbon date. The group of roundhouses at Old Kinord was recently investigated by Tanja Romankiewicz and Richard Bradley which will be the first modern investigation of this remarkable survival of domestic architecture, and will undoubtedly add to our overall understanding of the Loch Kinord landscape.

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Radiocarbon dates from Castle Island.

As it stands, Castle Island is unique for having an Early Iron Age phase as well as 10th-12th century AD phases indicated by radiocarbon dating. The two radiocarbon dates from the terrestrially excavated contexts on Castle Island are virtually of the same 11th or 12th century AD determination. At this time, it seems that Castle Island is enlarged with a large quantity of earth brought to site, and in many ways this phase of use at the site might be characterised as the development of an insular island motte. This almost certainly relates to this site being put into use as a castle residence for incoming elites as Scotland coalesced into a feudal medieval kingdom in part through the import of loyal nobility. There is also the possibility that the people responsible for commissioning and building this and other elaborate island residences were native elites emulating styles associated with new hierarchies of power but within a familiar vernacular of important residences that had been around since the Early Iron Age. There are a growing number of crannogs in eastern Scotland which are demonstrating use from the 10th-12th centuries AD. Notably, at Lochore Castle in Fife, excavations directed by Dr Oliver O’Grady have revealed 10th-11th century AD occupation with later elaboration in the form of a surviving stone tower house. You can read more about the Lochore Castle project HERE. The question that remains is whether all or only some of these medieval crannogs have phases of earlier use.

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Radiocarbon dates from Prison Island.

In addition to the radiocarbon date from Castle Island, a third radiocarbon date from Prison Island has been recovered, and for the first time at Prison Island, this sample comes from an excavated context. The date is further strong evidence that Prison Island was in use at the same time as Castle Island. The material radiocarbon dated probably relates to some hearth waste. The previous two radiocarbon dates, which bracket this one, came from structural material (an upright pile and a horizontal timber). Why Prison Island and Castle Island were in use at the same time is probably, although not necessarily, more nuanced than their names imply. Importantly, Prison Island is referred to in the Old Statistical Account and labelled on the First Edition of the Six Inch Ordnance Survey as ‘Tolbooth’. Tolbooths performed a range of functions in medieval Scotland, including being used as prisons, but also as town council chambers and court rooms. Whatever their purpose, it is now very likely that Castle and Prison Islands were in contemporary use. The implication is a more complex dynamic of island occupation than previously considered, perhaps with further controls on access and division of functions during medieval re-use of crannogs.

Funding for this work has been provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Aberdeen Humanities Fund and Aberdeenshire Council. I must thank everyone who has helped carry out this work, Dimitris Papakonstantis, Tim Stephen, Ailidh Brown, Julia Scheel, Seòna Wells, Duncan MacGregor, Ross Cairnduff, Euan MacKenzie, Claire Christie, Carly Ameen, John Witold, Juliette Mitchell, Tessa Poller and my supervisor Gordon Noble. Permission for this work has been kindly granted by Catriona Reid, Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve Manager.

The Castle of the isle of Banchory

The Castle of the isle of Banchory

This post is to follow on from the excavation report post a last week which can be read HERE. The excavation was primarily interested in what (if any) phases of activity could be identified that pre-dated the medieval tower house that sits atop the Loch of Leys Crannog. However, the tower house itself has a fascinating history. Remains of this structure are still visible on the this inaccessible island.

We don’t know precisely when the stone foundations of the castle or tower house were laid. It is clear from a charter dated 28 March 1324 that the ‘Castle of the Isle of Banchory’ was present on the former Loch of Leys from this time. In this charter, the island and the estate that belonged to it was taken from the Wauchope family and given to Alexander de Burnard (later Burnett) by Robert the Bruce for support in recent conflict. An earlier charter (1/7/326[RRS, iii, no. 319]) records King Alexander II giving Robert of Wauchope lands of Culter and Arbeck in 1247 which might include the Loch of Leys, but no specific mention of the Loch of Leys is made here, perhaps suggesting that the castle was yet to be built. If this is the case, then the initial construction of the stone tower house would be from the second half of the 13th century or the early part of the 14th century.

In any case, the Wauchopes were probably not in residence at the Loch of Leys for very long (from 1247-1323). It is clear that they had expended some considerable effort to build a castle on an artificial island and to lose it and the estate that went with it must have been a devastating event (perhaps doubly if they had to build the island in the first place, although radiocarbon dating samples from the excavation should reveal if this is the case). From the charter dated 1324 onwards, there is no recorded history of activity on the island in the Loch of Leys. It must be assumed though that the Burnetts continued to live there.

In the 1550s, another Alexander Burnett breaks ground on Crathes Castle, and this becomes the main residence of the Burnett family into the 20th century. What became of the former crannog castle in the 16th century is difficult to say. It is within the oral history of the Burnett family that stone from the crannog castle was used in the construction of the new Crathes Castle. This might suggest that the island residence was immediately abandoned more or less wholesale rather than used as something other than a primary residence for a time after Crathes was completed in 1596.

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All that is left today are 20-50cm high stone foundations. In 1850, the Loch of Leys was drained, and James H Burnett excavated the crannog. He made a plan of the stone foundations of the tower house, and these largely are still present today (see below). It also appears that in 1850, James H Burnett dug around the walls, chasing them to determine their full extent. This is indicated by the presence of two mounds of earth, which are probably the spoil heaps from these excavations.

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The Loch of Leys Crannog is now a scheduled monument protected by Historic Environment Scotland, and is difficult or dangerous to access with deep water and uneven boggy ground conditions. Access for the excavation was only possible by building a palette bridge which has since been removed. It was clear from the excavation that the organic preservation on the site is not as it was recorded 1850, but wood and other organic material is likely to survive buried in the mound.

If you wish to know more about the Burnetts and their history please see Bailey, E.A., Bryce, I.B., Burnett, C.J. and Burnett, J.C., 2000. Crannog to Castle: A History of the Burnett Family in Scotland. Banchory: Leys Publishing.

Further results from the excavation of the Loch of Leys Crannog will be published here in due course, please check back soon.

Finally, thanks again to the Leys Estate for permission to excavate, and many thanks to Thys Simpson the Leys Estate Ranger for help organising the palettes. I must thank the excavation team, Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble. Funding for the excavation was provided by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Loch of Leys Crannog Excavation

Loch of Leys Crannog Excavation

Between 29 February and 4 March, myself and a team of volunteers from Aberdeen University were at the Loch of Leys crannog just north of Banchory in Aberdeenshire. The goal was to excavate a small trench on this crannog to see what was left of this medieval crannog site 165 years on from when the loch was drained. The excavation showed that organic preservation on this wet site is good, but not like what James H Burnett describes in 1850 immediately following the drainage of the loch. Regardless, good material suitable for radiocarbon dating has been recovered, and this will answer a major question surrounding this site – is the medieval occupation of this site sitting atop an earlier occupation of the crannog?

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In 1850, the Loch of Leys was drained through a remarkable stone lined and hand cut ditch that runs for c.250m. James H Burnett took the opportunity when the loch was drained to investigate his family’s former residence on the crannog. In 1323, Robert the Bruce dispossessed the Wauchope family of the ‘isle of Banchory’ and the estate that went with it giving it to the Burnett’s as reward for their support in a recent conflict. What James Burnett found in 1850 went on to become some of the defining features of crannogs in Scotland – vertical wooden piles driven into the loch bed with horizontal timbers (he identifies as oak and birch) that make up the inner part of the crannog. Additionally, the antiquarian excavation found several bronze jugs, a quern stone for milling grain, coins (but the one of the workmen ran off with them) and a logboat about 50m away from the crannog. This was the first recorded excavation of a crannog in Scotland, but work at the Loch of Leys crannog ended there, until now.

This crannog sits within the former Loch of Leys. The bog is very wet and accessing the site is dangerous and only possible during very dry summers. We had hoped for such a summer last year where we might simply walk to site, however, that was not to be the case and Aberdeenshire saw one of the wettest summers in living memory. It was decided that the best option would be to construct a bridge made of wooden palettes during the winter when the vegetation had died back. With the very kind assistance of the Leys Estate and especially Thys Simpson, the Leys Estate Ranger, about 40 palettes were sourced to build a bridge out to the island.

With access to the site arranged, the digging could begin. We first encountered a large amount of stone. This is typical of Highland crannog sites where a capping of large (20-50cm wide) stones is encountered. The soil on the crannog is unsurprisingly very peaty. Once through the peaty soil we found well-laid stonework that was sitting atop a very dark organic rich material. When towelling through this dark black layer very small flakes of wood were encountered. Under this layer was clean lake peats and mud. The working hypothesis is that the dark black layer with flakes of wood represents the compressed remains of what Burnett described in 1850, a mass of interwoven timbers. At the very bottom of the dark black layer we found the best evidence to support this idea, the 10x15cm fragment of very degraded wood. This has probably come from a substantial piece of timber given its dimensions and very poor state of survival (smaller pieces of wood have clearly disappeared all together).

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The partial survival of this organic rich layer shows how 165 years of being drained has severely impacted the survival of wooden remains. When Burnett excavated the timbers were fresh and whole, and today they are not more than unidentifiable fragments within a decomposed mass. It is clear that there is significant further potential at the Loch of Leys Crannog, but it has been much reduced since the 19th century.

The samples taken from this excavation are being processed now and will return radiocarbon and pollen analysis results in due course. Those dates will be reported here, so check back soon.

For further reading about the Loch of Leys crannog see James H Burnett’s account of his 1850 excavation. Also see:

Bailey, E.A., Bryce, I.B., Burnett, C.J. and Burnett, J.C., 2000. Crannog to Castle: A History of the Burnett Family in Scotland. Banchory: Leys Publishing.

Thanks go to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for funding this excavation. Thanks also to the Leys Estate for permission, and many thanks to Thys Simpson for help organising the palettes. Finally, I must thank the excavation team who worked through very wet and cold conditions; Carly Ameen, Claire Christie, Margherita Zona, Lindsey Paskulin, Peter Lamont, and Gordon Noble.

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