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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