Neolithic heritage trail

Our aim in developing the heritage trails is to create a multi-layered approach to interpreting the landscape, not only combining different bodies of knowledge, like geology, archaeology and ecology, but really exploring the connections between rocks, climate, soils, plants, animals and people. We want to understand how the social history of Assynt’s land use by people emerges out of, indeed is part of, the natural history of this land.

The Neolithic heritage trail focuses on the people who were living here 5 or 6 thousand years ago, and who built the many chambered cairns along the T-shaped corridor from Loch Borralan to Loch Assynt, and down to Knockan. This is the greatest concentration of chambered cairns in mainland Scotland, and this trail explores how its location is no mere accident, but is intimately connected to the rocks on which they stand, and out of which they are built.

To bring this story alive, we had Bill Ritchie and Gordon Sleight, both passionate and knowledgeable about their fields. Bill tells the story of the land from the rocks up. Gordon starts from the archaeological monuments and works out from them into the landscape. Together they conjured the world of the neolithic cairn builders, the choices they had to make and the decisions they settled on.

With a lively bunch of 22 people, we spent five hours looking intently at four cairns, two beside Loch Borralan and two behind Ledbeg house. We noticed the choices of stones and imagined their forms, newly built, standing out in the landscape, and how they would have glittered and sparkled by lamp-light inside. We learned how the syanite, limestone, quartzite, sandstone and gneiss from which they were built formed, and how these different rocks have influenced how the land looks and has functioned ever since.

From time to time we fell to speculating on what beliefs the people who built the cairns might have had – whether such wondering is geo-archeo-theology or whether it’s just fiction, coming up with stories about what the neolithic people got up to in their cairns is a pleasing way to spend a Sunday.

What’s in no doubt is that those stone age people are well-named. They sure knew their stones.

Music Through Time

At least 70 people came to the dig on Saturday to listen to music through the ages, and imagine what people who have lived at Stronechrubie may have played, sung, listened and danced to over the years. From prehistoric sticks, stones and drums right through to the songs and tunes of the clearance period, a fantastic programme of musicians entertained us all day long. Thanks to everyone who was involved, especially Henry Fosbrooke, Bob Pegg, Anne Woods, Jorine van Delft, Eddie Strachan, Maggie Graham and Helen Steven.

And thanks also to the AOC archaeology team who demonstrated how the burnt mound was formed to the fascinated crowd.

Kirkton heritage trail

Kirkton is a spooky place. Climb up from Loch Assynt through the ruins of a village where nearly 30 families were cleared two hundred years ago, trying not to get lost among the weird, lumpy limestone rocks, which form ridges that occlude and baffle, even when you think you know the way. Work your way up, and eventually you find yourself in a boggy glen, where springs gush out of the rock as if from nowhere.

Here there are strange mounds. Humps, like pelvic bones of a buried giant. Bumps, like breasts. What are they?

The archaeologists say they are burnt mounds. There are an indeterminate number of them, seven according to the first record, four or maybe five according to a more recent archaeological survey. But this ground seems to shift as you pass – when you look behind you it’s no longer the same as it was on the way in. Some of the lumps may be formed by humans, others have more ‘natural’ causes. But what is natural and what is unnatural? It’s hard to say.

At Stronechrubie the archaeologists are digging a burnt mound, as we walk among these smaller, more mysterious features, but even down there, close to the road, in the open valley, the burnt mounds ask more questions than they answer. What were they for? Cooking? Brewing? Tanning? Bathing?

Here, in this glen of shifting springs, we wonder about magical rituals and secret birthing rites. We imagine the smell of woodsmoke and the cries of a woman in labour. Romany and Jorine our guides point out medicinal herbs in the grass, and we can almost hear the chanting of the shaman as she sits beside her steaming water vat, gesturing cures out of the haze, invoking the temperamental spirit that sends sweet clear water out of the earth into these shifting, variable springs.

As if joining the incantation, a stag roars and his harem of five hinds gallop away towards the valley of the trolls, the Trallygill, up there in the mountains. We have no difficulty believing in the trolls.

We leave the secret glen and return to the modern world, still partly entranced, still full of wondering…

Cnoc nan Each heritage trail

It was a lovely afternoon for a walk, and nine of us set off in sunshine to the woods on Cnoc nan Each, the hill of the horses, in search of the signs of human habitation of this area. This was the first of our five heritage trails and the guides, Claire Belshaw and Sharon Bartram, did a great job of taking us back in time.

The signs of past occupation are many, once you start looking – from a dyke through the woods, to the abandoned shepherds house, to the village cleared to make way for sheep, right back to bronze age round houses overlooking an ancient water meadow. What appears at first glance like a wild and empty glen has clearly been home to people for thousands of years.

From the bronze age house we looked out over the spectacular landscape, bronzed with autumn. A rainbow rose nearby, curved over us and down again on the slope, suggesting that we were standing on buried treasure – who knows what archaeologists might find if they dug into the footings of the circular building?

Inevitably the walk raised more questions than it answered. We’ll never really know what life was like for the inhabitants of Cnoc nan Each back when the houses were lived in, or even what those houses would have really looked like. But it is fascinating to imagine a time, slightly warmer and dryer than now, the glen filled with the voices of perhaps 50 people, children, cattle, the scent of birchwood smoke, the crunch of a barley bannock ground on a stone quern, maybe a whistle or the beat of a drum.

On Saturday we’re going to be playing music from all the ages from the past, out at the Stronechrubie dig site, and experimenting with some food – more fuel for our historical imaginations. And tomorrow we’ll go to Kirkton, once again passing through the ruins of a village cleared for sheep, then into a valley of burnt mounds, another bronze age round house and a neolithic chambered cairn. Walking back in time…

Digging underway

During the day the archaeological team have skimmed the turf off the top of the burnt mound, and already discovered some fire-split stones. This at least proves that it is not a geological phenomenon, just a load of stones dumped out of the pockets of a departing ice sheet a few thousand years back. Instead it looks likely to be the debris from human activity involving fire and water, which is what we were hoping.

Some test pits have been dug, and immediately filled up with water, showing that the water table on much of the site is at floor height. Channels, dams and pumps have been mentioned. Water is, as expected, not going to be in short supply.

We have also brought in some wood and a bucket of local clay, to line a water tank for the experimental archaeology work. And the digging of the burnt mound will now begin in earnest, looking to see if there are signs of a water tank in the crotch of the crescent.

At 5pm in Lochinver Hall, Graeme Cavers, lead archaeologist, officially launched the project with a talk to a small but appreciative audience. His pictures included some intriguing drawings from burnt mound digs in Shetland and the Uists, which have uncovered really quite complex multi-celled structures. Although other digs have revealed no more than a heap of split stones, this left us excited that under the Stronechrubie mound there may be something really interesting. All power to the diggers! Let’s find out what’s in there.

No fire without firewood

This is the fire and water project, and as this image illustrates, we have got our priorities right. The invisible burnt mound is at the far end of this flat bit of ground, at Stronechrubie, and the firewood has arrived bang on time. We shall have fire!

As for the water, since we now have a team of AOC archaeologists in Assynt, we will no doubt have plenty of it cascading down from the heavens for the next couple of weeks. John Barber demonstrated this conclusively last week, bringing with him his own private cloud to drench us all whenever he was around.

We have therefore taken the prudent step of organising a tent, in the hope that a good stretched canvas will keep the latter away from the former. More of which anon.

Music Through Time

Saturday 6 October is going to be a special day – while the archaeologists dig, we are going to imagine what people have been listening to here in Assynt for the past several thousand years, with the help of some fabulous musicians. See more by clicking on the link below.

music through time poster hi res

Five new heritage trails in Assynt

The second day of heritage trail guide training was long but satisfying, and our five trails are now ready to be piloted next week. The full programme is as follows, and our guides are going to be wonderful. It’s a delight to see how many of us here have such a passion for this land!

Cnoc nan Each (Wednesday 3 October 2-4pm)

Meet at Glencanisp Road Car Park

A 2 hour guided walk through the woods, via the old croft and cleared township, to the recently discovered Bronze Age round house and other ruins. Splendid views of Suilven and Loch Druim Suardhalain.

Kirkton (Thurs 4 Oct 2-4pm)

Meet at the Old Kirk, Inchnadamph

A 2 hour guided walk through the remnants of a village cleared to make way for sheep two hundred years ago. Then back in time to a mysterious valley of springs and burnt mounds, on to a bronze age round house overlooking the home of the trolls.

Neolithic Corridor (Sun 7 Oct 10.30am-3.30pm)

Meet at the Loch Borralan layby, or car share at 10am at the Bayview Car Park, Lochinver

This day-long guided walk will explore how the unique geological features of Assynt have influenced how its inhabitants use the land, from the stone age to the present and into the future. The morning will be spent exploring the remnants of stone age habitation including some of the many chambered cairns in this area. Starting from Ledbeg House, the afternoon will be spent doing a circuit taking in the ‘Badger Stone’, more neolithic chambered cairns and traces of bronze age, mediaeval and more recent uses of the land.

Clachtoll (Monday 8 October 2-4pm)

Meet at Clachtoll Beach Car Park

A 2 hour guided walk across the beach to the split rock, with its vitrified walling. See the oldest rocks and the earliest lifeforms in the world. Imagine past inhabitants who lived from the sea – the people who built the old salmon bothy, the dragon’s teeth wall, the bronze age cist and the broch.

Eddrachalda (Tues 9 Oct 2-4pm)

Meet at the Ardvreck Castle Car Park

A 2 hour guided walk exploring the terrain inland from the castle and the ruined Calda house, from mediaeval ruins to the traces of much earlier habitation and right back to the geological formation of this land.

Trail guide training has begun

Part of this project is going to be the development of five new heritage trails in Assynt, drawing together knowledge and information from a huge range of different sources to interpret five fascinating routes through the landscape. To help us to do this, we are running a programme of training for a group of trail guides, and we will pilot the trails as part of the Assynt Festival (see www.assyntfestival.org.uk) during the next two weeks. After that we will put together interpretation material initially here on this website and later, well, we’ll see how it develops.

Today we began the guide training programme with brilliant guidance from Highland Council Senior Ranger Andy Summers, AOC archaeologist John Barber, local Gaelic teacher Claire Belshaw, and former ranger and geology buff Bill Ritchie, as well as our Historic Assynt project leader Gordon Sleight. We have a fantastic team of 9 trainees, who between them also have a huge range of knowledge and experience, so the training is really a rich process of knowledge sharing.

After an introduction at Stoer Hall, we set out into the rain and spent the morning walking around Clachtoll. The afternoon was spent at Cnoc nan Each. In between, we had lunch while Bill gave us 3 billion years of geology in 5 minutes, John summarised several thousand years of human habitation, and Claire gave us insights into Gaelic place names. Tomorrow, we will attempt three more walks.

The highlight of the day for me was John Barber’s outrageous burnt mound tale, but as this is just the start of the dig diary, I will hold off sharing it with you until the dig has actually begun. The perfect moment to reveal it will, I am sure, become clear, and until then, dear reader, you’ll have to watch this space…

Assynt prepares to set fire!

The Fire and Water project’s events next week are part of the Assynt Festival, which will feature flames from start to finish. See more about the festival’s fire theme here and the whole festival programme here.

Throughout the dig our archaeological team are planning to do experiments to work out how the mysterious bronze age burnt mound might have been made and what it might have been used for. Speculations on this theme will no doubt turn up in this dig diary from time to time in the next couple of weeks.

There will be cookery experiments, pottery experiments, stone-splitting experiments and apparantly they will even be digging a water tank, lining it with clay, so I’m guessing that’s for having a bath (Assynt digs occasionally being a tad muddy!)

We’ll have a tent up at the dig site, and we can have a wee fire in there if it’s rainy and cold outside – no comfort spared for archaeologists here in Assynt!

Our local firewood supplier, Charlie Russell has been forewarned and a big load of firewood is being delivered. We’re ready to burn – come along, take part and get your imagination sparking!