Why are there so few crannogs in northeast Scotland?

Previously the answer to this question was something along the lines of ‘just because’. It had been observed (correctly) that there were relatively few crannogs in the eastern half of Scotland, but there had not been any deliberate attempts to explain why this is the case. To my mind, this was problematic, but also an opportunity. This question was at the heart of my MA dissertation, and led me to several conclusions.

The first conclusion is that the present landscape of northeast Scotland has gone through an incredible transformation over the past 300 years. This transformation centred around shifting agricultural practices beginning in the 18th century, and as part of this transformation, there has been a steady trend to drain lochs and other wetlands. This drainage was done to create more arable land and to access the loch sediments for use as fertiliser. The amount of drainage can be seen through a close analysis of the Roy Military Map of Scotland (the map is an incredible achievement in itself, and a future post will discuss it in more detail). The Roy Map (1747-1755) was made just as the ‘Improvements’ were getting underway, and the map shows many more lochs and wetlands in northeast Scotland than there are now (an example here). After assessing each loch depicted on the Roy Map, I found that over 70% had been drained or significantly lowered. When looking at lochs below 200m above sea level (where most crannogs can be found), that percentage creeps up close to 90%. The landscape of northeast Scotland is far drier now, than it was 300 years ago.

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Can you spot the possible crannog from within this drained loch?

The impact on crannogs in the region was likely to have been similarly dramatic (up to 90% fewer crannog sites!). Crucially, this is where the timing of all this loch drainage comes into play. Most of the drainage that took place in northeast Scotland, occurred during the 18th century and the first few decades of the 19th century. This was before widespread interest in antiquities and the past (particularly the past relating to Britain, as opposed to Ancient Rome or Greece). It is safe to assume then that most crannogs uncovered through drainage in the area were simply removed. But there is some reason to be hopeful for northeast crannogs, as upon further investigation of the areas of drainage, there appears to be handful of sites recorded within these former lochs that bear resemblances to a crannog. For various reasons they have not been recorded as crannogs, but they definitely deserve to be re-assessed in light of their likely former situation within a loch, and some of them may turn out to be crannogs.

So why are there so few crannogs in northeast Scotland? – the answer is mostly drainage. It is reasonable to assume that owing to naturally fewer lochs in the region prior to drainage, there have always been fewer crannogs, but the relatively early and intense levels of drainage in the northeast has vastly exacerbated the disparity in numbers. This significantly changes the distribution of crannogs throughout the country. Exploring how this impacts our understanding of crannogs as a site type in Scotland is forming an integral part of my PhD research and should influence how research on crannogs is viewed going forward.

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Diving fieldwork on 9 March

This past Sunday (9 March), myself and three other members of the Aberdeen University Sub-Aqua Club went to the Muir of Dinnet National Nature Reserve to attempt to identify and locate a crannog in Loch Davan, Aberdeenshire. The possible crannog was observed in aerial photographs taken in 1995, which suggested that the site lay near the western shore of the loch.

In March 2012 I attempted to locate this site but was unsuccessful. This was the first time I managed to get back and I was very hopeful that we would be able to locate the site and take a sample for radiocarbon dating. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the site. I suspect there are two possibilities. The first is that I am simply looking in the wrong place and the second is that there simply is no crannog to be found. It remains to be seen which proves to be true, but that this site has remained elusive for so long now is frustrating.

The day was not a total failure though. We took the opportunity to get back into Loch Kinord to go find the possible logboat which was first identified back in 2011. We got into position thinking that the possible logboat would be 5-10 metres in front of us. However, we ended up coming down almost right on top of it. Sadly, the result was that we kicked up loads of silt before getting a good look at it. We returned to the spot 30 minutes later to see if things had settled down, but they had not, so we gave up on getting good photos of the logboat.

Some rubble/debris on the crannog mound. Visibility was around 3 metres, by far the best I have experienced in Loch Kinord.

Some rubble/debris on the crannog mound. Visibility was around 3 metres, by far the best I have experienced in Loch Kinord.

We were very pleasantly surprised by the relatively good visibility. So we took the opportunity to swim around the crannog and see what there was to see. We located a pile, and we also got some good looks at some of the rubble which makes up the mound of Castle Island. But the highlight was the best look yet at the timber which was radiocarbon dated to the 10th century AD. It is an intriguing find, not least because the mystery of what the timber might have been used for. It is located just off the artificial mound which makes up the crannog.

A newly found pile just to the west of Castle Island

A newly found pile just to the west of Castle Island

The 10th century AD timber.

The 10th century AD timber.

All in all, it was a day of mixed results at best. I doubt now that there will be another chance to get into Loch Davan or Loch Kinord until after bird breeding season which ends 30 July. But this time will offer a chance to really think about the possible Loch Davan crannog and dream about the enormous potential of further work at Castle Island. I will be linking a short video clip of the dive from last Sunday, so check back soon.

p.s. I must thank Kelsey Padgett, Seòna Wells, and Tim Stephen for coming along and making the dives possible.