The Initial Survey

For my undergraduate dissertation, I proposed to undertake an exploratory survey of Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire. After getting permission from my supervisor, Dr. Gordon Noble, and relevant land owners and cultural heritage administrators, I organised a group of volunteers from the Aberdeen University Sub-Aqua Club (AUSAC) to help out with the diving survey.

The goal of this survey was pretty straight forward. We were going to simply have a look around the submerged sections of the crannogs in Loch Kinord to assess what material survives on the loch bed. The two crannogs in question are called Castle Island and Prison Island, and they are very clearly seen from the north shore of loch should you ever visit.

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A view from Castle Island, looking West.

On the very first dive we came across the classic structural feature of crannogs – the driven wooden pile. Over the course of three days myself and the AUSAC volunteers identified over a dozen wooden structural features which were extant on the mound of the crannogs – that is to say we located the easily findable stuff that was just laying around each crannog. And that is a really great way to put it, as these archaeological features are so rich, that huge (up to 4m long) timber elements of the crannog are simply lying on the rocky mound which makes up the small islet.

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A section of a 3m long timber from Castle Island, radiocarbon dated to the 10th century AD.

Before the survey it was still unclear whether Castle Island was natural, partially artificial or totally artificial, but I am very confident that we were able to observe that Castle Island is at least partially artificial with striking similarities in the size of stones used to make up both of the islets. We also located what may be part of a logboat just to the west of Castle Island, but visibility conditions limited our ability to positively identify the possible wooden vessel.

Our dives ended here after three short days. It is needless to say that there is much more material simply lying around on the bed of Loch Kinord, not to mention what treasures are certain to be found within the structural mounds of Castle and Prison Islands.

This work was conducted in August and October 2011, and I am sorry to say that I have not managed to organise a return trip. However, getting back into Loch Kinord is a high priority for my PhD research, and I expect to be able to report here on these findings in the near future.

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Previous Crannog Research in Northeast Scotland

This will be a short post as there is not much to report here…I consider the northeast for this purpose to be the area made up of the modern council boundaries of Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City, Angus, Dundee City, Fife and Moray. The sum total of crannog excavations carried out in this region (a combined area of 12,189 km2) is two. The latest of these excavations took place in 1868 in Loch Forfar on St. Margaret’s Inch (John Stuart’s account of this excavation). The other took place in 1850 in the Loch of Leys near Banchory, Aberdeenshire. Both of these excavations were carried out by amateur antiquarians, and the results of which, while informative, are not up to modern standards. A good example of this is J. H. Burnett’s account of the Loch of Leys excavation where he laments that a worker ran off with some coins found on the site that day.

Loch of Leys Crannog, Aberdeenshire. Partially excavated in 1850.

Loch of Leys Crannog, Aberdeenshire. The extent of the site is indicated by the two taller trees in the centre of the photograph. The site was partially excavated in 1850.

The identification by sight of several other crannog and possible crannog sites and very minor pre-development excavation on St. Margaret’s Inch in 1995 (report, pg. 12) plus my initial investigations in Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire comprise all of the crannog research conducted to date in northeast Scotland. There are a number of reasons why so little research has been done, and a large part of my research has been dedicated to better explaining these reasons. But effectively it boils down to the widely accepted map of crannog distribution in Scotland which has considered the whole eastern half of Scotland to be a backwater of crannog construction. However, there definitely are crannogs (and perhaps many more than previously acknowledged) in this region and they deserve further attention.

In the next few posts I will detail the fieldwork I organised in Loch Kinord, Aberdeenshire and the other research I have conducted. Stay tuned!

What is a crannog?

What is a crannog? The simple definition would be that they are small artificial islets found in Scottish and Irish lochs (loughs) which were built mainly from the beginning of the Iron Age through the Early Medieval period (~800 BC-AD 800). From the few excavations which have been conducted on Scottish crannogs, there is a general consensus that people lived (at least part of the year) on these structures – a kind of island abode. They are commonly found now as rocky islets or fully submerged mounds, in fact, should you see a small island when passing a loch chances are very good that what you are looking at is a crannog. By some counts there are about 600 of these archaeological sites, but others have suggested the number is probably around 1000, many remaining undiscovered or unrecorded.

This is also where the above definition begins to break down, as most simple definitions do when examined in detail. First, there is one significant exception to the geographical spread of these sites as there is a crannog in Wales. There are also numerous examples of crannogs dating from beyond AD 800, with evidence for use on some crannogs right up until the 18th century. There is even a record of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert taking a picnic on Priory Island in Loch Tay during one of their early journeys to Balmoral. Going in the other direction, it has been suggested that crannogs (or at least building artificial islands) began in the Neolithic Period some 2000 years before the generally accepted Iron Age designation for crannogs begins (eg. Loch Olabhat, North Uist). Previous surveys of crannogs have also called for a more narrow definition of crannogs limiting it to artificial islands constructed primarily of wood. Such a definition would exclude many sites from the Western parts of Scotland and almost every identified crannog on the Western Isles. These stone islets are sometimes called rocky duns, and there are instances where other stone structures were built on them. All of this to say that crannogs represent a wide geographical and period range and therefore have an enormous amount of potential to inform on many aspects of Scotland’s history and prehistory. But it is not just their range that makes their potential so great.

Possibly the most significant characteristic of crannogs is their waterlogged condition. The cold dark water of Scottish lochs results in some of the most astounding preservation conditions in the British Isles and possibly the world. For example, at Oakbank, Loch Tay, underwater excavations there found a 2000 year old wooden butter dish. They knew it was a butter dish because there was butter still in it! Most crannog excavations have taken place on sites where the loch has been drained allowing archaeologists to excavate as if they were on a terrestrial site. Even in these cases the preservation has been outstanding with organic material surviving well beyond what is considered normal on other terrestrial sites of similar age.

Despite all this potential, you can count the number of crannog excavations since 1950 on your hands. There are a number of reasons for this, the biggest of which is the difficulty of excavating underwater or in waterlogged conditions. But, there have been huge excavations of waterlogged and submerged sites in other parts of Britain (egs. Star Carr, the Somerset Levels and the Mary Rose). It is time that crannogs get the recognition they deserve for being an archaeological resource in Scotland that is unmatched by any other site type in terms of artefactual potential, geographical range, and length of construction and use.

In attempting to explain what a crannog is, I hope that I have also laid out a good case for why we should study crannogs. This second question (why should we bother with crannogs?) is particularly important to me as I begin a PhD researching these infinitely fascinating archaeological sites. Over the next few posts I will describe my previous research on crannogs and where I think my PhD research will be going, please watch this space!