Iron Age hillforts to 18th century graves: Archaeologists reveal discoveries in Scotland

By Ben Miller | 16 June 2014

As an exhibition on some of the incredible finds in Scotland's national forests opens, Forestry Commission Archaeologist Matthew Richie reveals some of the survey secrets behind the discoveries

A photo of a hole in the ground full of rocks
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Torwood Broch

These ruinous drystone towers were built in the later first millennium BC and the first millennium AD on the Atlantic coast of Scotland, the Highlands and the Northern Isles.

They display “startling” architectural complexity, rising high from solid footings by employing a series of weight-saving and load-bearing galleries, stairways and passages within their double-skinned walls.

There are a small number of very unusual outliers in the Scottish lowlands and borders, constructed by specialists from the north working for a local tribal chief.

This broch, at Falkirk, was laser scanned in a joint project between community groups, conservation bodies and government agencies.

A photographic panorama revealed stonework, scarcement, recesses, lintels and an entrance passage, among other features.

“Brochs are truly unique to Scotland,” says Ritchie.

“They are impressive Iron Age drystone towers – perhaps 20 metres across and around nine metres high.”

A photo of an archaeological dome of stones as seen in colour and black and white
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Bucharn Cairn

With wide views over the Water of Feugh in Aberdeenshire, this round cairn is an imposing, largely undisturbed 3,500-year-old monument, made up of a mass of stone thought to cover a central stone cist and burial.

A hill-shaded terrain model helped to interpret its form and shape. The foundation is likely to have been an original feature rather than simply an apron of later field clearance.

“The massive Bronze Age burial cairn at Bucharn is about 30 metres in diameter and stands five metres in height,” says Ritchie.

“It is at least 3,000 years old. It retains the original domed profile because it was built on an unusual foundation platform, identified during the modern laser scan.

“This image captures the profile of the cairn at sunset and in the pointcloud created during the survey.”

A photo of a large green archaeological circular mound as seem from an overhead view
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Castle O’er

Several phases of occupation are revealed in the White Esk Valley.

The later inner enclosure was built within and upon an earlier series of ramparts, while there are traces of roundhouses dating from the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD.

Several satellite forts, enclosures, ring grooves and intercutting timber footprints evidence the scale of the occupation.

“The impressive Iron Age hillfort in the Scottish Borders has been recorded by low altitude aerial photography, using a remote controlled microcopter,” says Ritchie.

“It is presented as a traditional archaeological plan, showing details like the roundhouse foundation grooves in the interior, draped over a hillshaded contour terrain model giving it a great 3D perspective.

“The terrain model was surveyed by taking thousands of individual measurements.”

A photo of a diagram showing the plains of a highlands archaeological site
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Wallace’s House

The promontory fort of Wallace’s House, in Dumfriesshire, had not been surveyed since the Ordnance Survey first edition map in 1857.

“It is defined by a massive ditch and rampart and is set above the confluence of two burns,” observes Ritchie.

“The original Ordnance Survey first edition map has been draped over a modern hill shaded terrain model – the perfect blend of old and new.

“It helps illustrate the impressive defensive position and retains the original attractive OS survey from over 150 years previously.”

A photo of a large black brick mound of archaeological imprints
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Ormaig, Argyll

The spectacular prehistoric cup-and-ring markings at Ormaig in Argyll have been recorded by high resolution sub-millimetre terrestrial laser scanning in 2007 and in 2014.

“This pioneering programme will allow stone weathering and erosion to be accurately monitored over time,” explains Ritchie.

“In this detailed hill-shaded surface model, two of the main ‘rosette’ motifs are shown using a combination of real colour texture - recording lichen growth - and greyscale depiction, allowing accurate measurement.

“The larger motif is perhaps the size of a dinner plate.”

A photo of a heat map in multiple colours
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Kraiknish Dun

This unusual late prehistoric dun sits on a prominent coastal rocky boss at the mouth of Loch Eynort on Skye.

Low altitude vertical and oblique aerial photos were taken with a remote controlled microcopter as part of a detailed archaeological investigation.

The dun is rougly triangular on plan with a level interious, and the massive drystone wall only survives around the landward-facing part.

An unusual outer wall is visible below the dun, with an inwardly curving entrance passage choked with rubble.

An orthographic plan used colour to depict changes in height at the important site.

“These extracts from the low altitude aerial photography and terrestrial laser scan surveys help illustrate the difficulty in seeing the walls remaining within the rubble.

“The site is situated on a rocky boss on the coast – a truly spectacular location.”

A large ancient brick bridge as seen in a greyscale scan
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Achlain Bridges

General George Wade began constructing the military road network in the highlands between 1725 and 1733, building more than 400 kilometres of roads and around 40 bridges to link the barracks of Fort William, Fort Augustus, Inverness and Ruthven.

Major William Caulfeild expanded the network between 1740 and 1767 – an achievement Thomas Pennant credited with allowing the Scottish soldiery to breach rocks “supposed to be unconquerable”.

Once used by troops, supply carts and artillery, the three small bridges on the national forest estate in Glen Moriston are part of a surviving section of road which is now a scheduled monument.

Laser scan surveys informed a plan to record archaeological deposits and structural features during conservation work.

Lime mortar was used to consolidate the humped-back bridges. Steel frames, timbers and sandbags were also used in a project which concluded with a celebratory patrol by a small company of redcoats.

“The bridges should now stand for another 250 years,” reckons Ritchie.

A photo of two light yellow and grey tombstones with words on them and grass stains
© Forestry Commission Scotland
St Bride’s Church

According to the Revered Francis Adam – the site’s last minister, who wrote a report at the end of the 18th century – this Aberdeenshire church and churchyard was built in 1637 and roofed with heather.

The roll of ministers, though, stretches back to 1567, and it was depicted as unroofed on the Ordnance Survey First Edition map of 1869.

The walls have largely been reduced to their footings, although the east gable survives. The building is described as “ruinous and collapsing”.

Exterior and interior elevations of the south wall depicted several construction phases and features, including a displaced headstone with the mortal emblems of an hourglass, skull and coffin, inscribed “...tear...wel liked...of Immanuel...Meek...this life...May M Kean 1696”.

Rectified photography allowed 45 individual gravestones to be examined, with a man and a woman, both of whom died aged 63, in 1722 and 1765, honoured with stones.

“The historic churchyard survey included a measured topographic survey alongside a photographic record and memorial transcription of the 18th and 19th century gravestones,” says Ritchie.

“Both surveys have enhanced the regional and national historic environment records and will inform conservation management.”

A photo of a scan showing a circular archaeological site on a map and through lasers
© Forestry Commission Scotland
Caisteal Grugaig

This Iron Age broch has a huge triangular lintel over a low entrance passage and a well-preserved scarcement within a court which would have supported an upper floor, as well as chambers, stairways and passages within a thick, circular drystone wall.

Sir Henry Dryden made several “very attractive” (yet unpublished) drawings of the site in 1871 and 1872.

The broch was also recorded in a written description in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries for 1948-49.

A door check, barhole and guard chamber can be seen through elevation and laser scanning techniques, with those original descriptions proving as informative as the latest scanning techniques.

“The broch of Caisteal Grugaig overlooks Loch Alsh on the steep slopes of Faire-an-Dun – the ‘watching place’ of the tower,” says Ritchie.

“Few archaeological sites have such an illustrious history.

“This image contrasts the antiquarian plan drawn by Sir Henry Dryden in the 1870s with the modern terrestrial laser scan, colored by elevation.”


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Truely fantastic work tells a wondrful story of intrinsiclly unique scottish archaeology.
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