Monday, 29 April 2013

Crannogs – the amazing artificial islands that abound in Perthshire’s many Lochs

The Reconstructed Crannog On Loch Tay Near Kenmore

 Over the last year in these “blogs “ we have  looked at many of the older historical aspects of Perthshire and indeed Strathearn in particular . The Strath  was a haven for the wandering tribes of the Neolithic period that were spreading out over Western  Europe . Spreading out and into a Scotland that was not to emerge as a nation for nearly four and half thousand years .

The ubiquitous standing stones that still stare down upon us from the farm fields all a round are a remnant of the ancient past . Recent archaeological investigations have thrown   light upon the hitherto unknown Neolithic Cursus that bisects the ground that is the new Strathearn Campus . Diggings at Forteviot , some ten miles  east of Crieff , have  turned up numerous finds of this period .A Bronze age grave  was unearthed  complete with a gold – banded dagger still wrapped  in its

4 000 year old  sheath . The significance  of this became  quite clear when the grave  was identified . It had  been sealed  by an enormous  4 ton cap stone  which required a giant crane  to lift clear . This  was the last resting place  not of a simple tribesman  but in all probability  of an important chief , prince or perhaps  even a king . The dig  also turned up something that surprised the archaeologists . Organic  materials had  been preserved in the sealed grave .These included  a wooden bowl , what appeared to have been a leather bag and numerous plant fragments and some tree bark .When one puts these finds into an historical time scale , it is even more amazing . The grave  dates back to a period  when the Egyptian Pyramids were  being constructed all of 5 000 years ago !

Perthshire and Strathearn have more than just a few ancient sites such as Forteviot and the Cursus of Crieff . Our ancient fore bearers created numerous artificial islands on the multitude of lochs that abound in these airts. These are called crannogs and are artificial or natural modified islands constructed  by the people as far back as the Early Iron Age of 2500 BC . Strangely enough they are found scattered throughout Scotland  and Ireland  but with only one example in Wales and none in England . Crannogs  were constructed as defended  settlements usually by peace loving farmers who could  feel safe on their island homes surrounded  by  family , neighbours and of  course their precious animals .

Crannogs  although not entirely a Perthshire phenomenon are  very  much part and parcel of our ancient heritage . Research is still progressing mainly under the auspices of the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology based at the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay . The Centre is a wonderful  day out for the family and is located near Kenmore at the eastern end of the Loch not far from Kenmore . Full details  can be obtained  by logging into their web site . I quote from an excellent brochure produced  by the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust:

The results of underwater excavation at Oakbank Crannog , namely the mass of detailed information about the structure and the way of life of the inhabitants eventually led to the decision to reconstruct a full sized crannog near Kenmore on Loch Tay as an archaeological experiment. The crannog consists of a free standing timber platform supported by alder and oak piles , joined to the shore by a 16 metre long timber walk way .On the platform there is a round house with wattle walls and internal partitions surrounding a central hearth .The floors are made from small alder trees laid parallel to each other, like those discovered at Oakbank and they are covered with bracken from the hillside nearby . In everyway great efforts have been made to create a site as much as possible like an Iron Age crannog .The reconstructed crannog  is the core of the Scottish Crannog Centre comprising an exhibition centre to explain the work of the underwater archaeologists in Loch Tay over the years ; the reconstruction itself to show what a crannog would have been like ; and a demonstration area on shore where different aspects of ancient technologies are demonstrated and where the public can try their hand . In addition , regular  special events provide visitors with opportunities to learn more about Iron Age craft skills and to experiment with ancient methods of cooking , wood working and working with fibres .

 Loch Tay is indeed  the epicentre of the crannog discoveries  with over 18 revealed in a detailed survey of the loch carried out in 1979 .Their preservation can be attributed  to the  nature of the cold  peaty waters of Loch Tay The underwater survey and excavation at Oakbank and the subsequent reconstruction nearby has provided us with a unique example of living history . It should  be  made clear that this is not a new discovery – the presence of crannogs  has  been known for over 300 years and  the history of the area  first published in 1938  by  W Gillies – “ In Famed Breadalbane  “ mentioned and identified  some 13 sites .

Moving south  into Strathearn we can locate several crannogs  similar to those found in Loch Tay . Loch Earn at its St Fillan’s ( east ) end has one of the most notable and indeed  historically renowned “ islands “ . Neish Island is  well documented in local history being the base of the Clan Neish complete  with castle and small harbour . The Neishes  were natural enemies of the  adjoining Clan MacNab from over the hills in Killin . The story goes that a party of Neishes waylaid  a number of MacNabs returning with purchases from the Crieff market . Revenge  was swift  when the chief of the MacNabs  sent his oldest son “Smooth “ John MacNab and a number of his brothers  over the hills  to Neish Island  .They had  brought with them a  large boat  which they used to row over to the island and attacked the unfortunate inhabitants  .It was a massacre  with the only survivors  being reputed to have  been a young boy and his dog . The head of the chief  of Clan Neish  was taken as a trophy and thrown by Smooth John  at the feet of his father on their return to Killin !  

If  we proceed  east wards from Loch Earn and Neish Island  towards Crieff  we come  across  perhaps one of the most fascinating of  Perthshire’s crannogs . Loch Monzievaird ( pronounced mon –ee- vaird )  nestles in a picturesque setting below the country mansion house of Ochtertyre  once home of the Murray family and  now  owned  by Sir Brian Souter of Stagecoach bus fame . On the northern shore of the little loch lies a decaying pile of rubble – still easily discernible as a castle but somewhat spoilt by a multitude of warning signs and protective fencing advising of the dangers of falling masonry . Castle Cluggie was once the stronghold of the Comyn family – the Red Comyn in particular had a running feud with Robert King of Bruce and the sovereign was certainly no stranger to this part of the Strath . The castle is located on a piece of  land  jutting into the loch and  just to the west of it lies a small crannog known as Prison Island . The archaeology of this particular location has  been recorded in detail by the Perth& Kinross Heritage Trust and reveals an interesting  occupational pattern of the small island . The investigation  carried out by the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology revealed that an oak pile  projecting through the loch bed near the surface  was carbon dated as  sometime after 1660 .This contrasted dramatically with a piece of softwood projecting from a deep vertical section and carbon dated to a period  of between 800 and  480 BC . Expert conclusions state that this  is clear evidence of a settlement constructed in the Early Iron Age and reused very much later.

A lot of  fascinating  information concerning Perthshire’s crannogs has been published by the Perth & Kinross Heritage Trust in association with The Scottish Crannog Centre. Further details and purchase of booklets look up their web site

Visitors  and locals alike can enjoy a great day out at the Crannog Centre Check out their web site on

Kenmore is on the Perthshire Tourist Trail and accessible from all main centres .

2013 Main Season: Open daily from 29th March to 31st October. Opening times: 29th March to 30 October from 10am to 5:30pm; 31st Oct 10-4:00pm. In all cases, last full tours are one hour before closing. Other off-season group bookings welcome by appointment.

Standard admissions are

Adults: £8.00; Seniors:£7.50; Children £6.00; Families from £21 (2+1). Event day admissions are slightly higher.

All tickets are valid throughout the day of purchase.














Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The Stayt of Crieff - Site of the Court of the Earls of Strathearn

The Stayt of Crieff

Site of the Court of the Earls of Strathearn

The Old Coat of Arms of Crieff

Site of the historic Stayt of Crieff 2013 - a ploughed field !

In  just over a year  of “ blogging ” our local history here in Strathearn , we have covered a multitude of topics regarding  people , places and “ things ” !  What is  clear that this , one of the most  beautiful parts of  Perthshire – nay Scotland – has an incredible and special heritage  that must  be protected and projected to a wider  audience  than just those who dwell  by the banks of the Earn !

Sadly much of the recorded history of the area has now  been lost by the removal of the detailed  information  from official maps . Regrettably present day searchers scouring the well detailed Ordnance Survey maps in both the Landranger ( 1: 50 000 ) or the Pathfinder ( 1: 25 000 ) will do so in vain if they are looking for the historic Stayt of Crieff or indeed Fowlis Castle – ancient home of the Celtic Earls of Strathearn .

It is  something of a concern when one  finds  that new editions  from the OS seem  to have removed  important  local references which are so important  when trying  to follow a heritage trail . With the arrival on the Royal scene of the Earl and Countess of Strathearn aka Duke and Duchess of Cambridge , more people  world  wide  are going to want to know more about the Strath. The ignoring  of  these two historical sites  on current OS maps is more than regrettable – it  is  something  that must be remedied .Fowlis Castle – the traditional power base of the Celtic  Earls of Strathearn and  dramatically visited  by King Robert the Bruce in the 14th century and the “ Stayt ” or Court  of the Earls located  to the south of  Crieff adjacent to the new Strathearn Campus and the site of the newly rediscovered Neolithic Cursus !

We have looked at Fowlis Castle in a previous blog  so let us examine the historic site of the “ Stayt “ – a mediaeval Court  or Parliament of the ancient Earls . It  was  shown a way back on the OS map of the 1860s which you can check out on :

The map can  be enlarged  by clicking on it as appropriate . The Stayt is located just above Broich House to the south of Crieff itself .

What is so incredible  about that  site is that there  was a Neolithic burial chamber lying  below the site of the ancient  Stayt of the Earls of Strathearn. It  was only when the mound of the Stayt was removed in the 19th century that the ancient secrets  were revealed .

The coat of arms  of Crieff  depicted above is a reproduction of an old picture post card . Although somewhat tarted up with pseudo heraldic foliage , it depicts nevertheless an important part of Strathearn heritage . The man holding the scales of justice is the Steward of Strathearn who administered justice on a regular basis to all and sundry . He is perched on top of a mound of earth sitting on the throne of justice , At his feet are the
“ jougs “ or stocks where the miscreants were tethered to submit to there prescribed punishment .

Name and meaning. The Stayt or Stait of Crieff  is found in a wide variance of spellings over the centuries . Stayt = Stede , Steid meaning a place .

“ Then aucht the clerk to title the court , mak and mention of the day , yeir and steid quhan and quhair the court is haldin  ( Balfour ) . The word is rendered “stayt” from a notorial instrument expede in 1475 ( Hist .MSS.Commission , 3rd Report , p. xxiv , and App.p.418), but other renderings have been given , e.g. Scait , Skait , Skath ( ibid 7th Report , App. Pp.711-715 ).

The above is transcribed from a paper by Mungo Headrick entitled “ The Stayt of Crieff – a Bronze Age Burial Site ” circa 1860 .

: Regrettably present day searchers scouring the well detailed Ordnance Survey maps in both the Landranger ( 1: 50 000 ) or the Pathfinder ( 1: 25 000 ) will do so in vain . The Stayt of Crieff has according to the cartographers of that well respected organisation vanished ! The 1932 edition as well as earlier versions , showed the locus of this historic site as well as the closely linked , but now vanished , standing stone in the adjoining field . The OS reference is NN 866 207 . In practical terms it is on the south side of Broich Road (after Duchlage Farm ) some 100 yards before the road leading to the High School and Recreation Centre .

The History of the Stayt : The most accurate account historically and archeologically is that written by Mungo Headrick away back in 1the 1860s . It has been largely forgotten so I reproduce it in entirety for the sake of future searchers of the truth ! Incidently Mungo was an ancestor of an old  friend of mine  and well known Crieff worthy the late Fraser Neil .

                    The Stayt of Crieff – A Bronze Age Burial Site


                                          Mungo Headrick

                                               ( 1860 )

Quite recently there came into the possession of The National Museum of Antiquities , Edinburgh , an urn of dark colour . The urn is of the food vessel type ( see page 1 ) , stands 4 5/8 inches in height , expands from a width of 5 ¼ inches at the moth to a width of 5 ¾ inches at the shoulder , and thence contracts to base of about 3 inches in diameter . Three slightly raised mouldings encircle it : at the lip . at the shoulder and midway between . The shoulder moulding is ornamented by a double row of triangular punctulations and the other two by a single row of similar markings . The vessel is encircled between the central moulding and that on the shoulder , as well as on the inward sloping rim , by two transverse lines formed by the imprint of a twisted cord of two strands of clay when soft . The transverse lines are not continuous
Being interrupted in three places by a number of vertical lines formed in the same way as the transverse lines . Hanging from the shoulder is a series of impinging and inverted chevrons each filled in with like markings , drawn on the clay with a pointed tool . The urn , it is stated , had been found in a cist near Crieff in 1860 . No more definite indication of the locality of the find is given and the purpose of this paper is ( first ) to identify the mound in which the cist was exposed , and ( second ) to show that the mound had been in use as a place of justice when courts were held in the open air . , down to a date near the end of the seventeenth century .

Prior to the year 1860 there stood on the lands of Broich , near Crieff , a low mound some 12 yards in diameter , which had at one time been surrounded by a wall of earth and stone . The site is indicated on the O.S . map at a point some 330 yards to the east of the entrance to Broich , on the south side of the road leading from Crieff to Highlandman , and on the field side of the narrow belting of wood which skirts the road at that part . In the month of November 1860 the mound was levelled and ploughed over , and in the course of the operations two cists containing human remains were exposed , along with an urn of clay the measurement of which is given as 5 inches in height by 5 inches across the mouth . The finds were duly recorded at the time in the local press ** , from which the following particulars are taken : -

17th November 1860 : “ One of the urns ( cists ? ) was simply composed of blue whinstone sides , the ends of red sandstone . These were laid roughly together . The bones deposited were very much decomposed and broken , so much so that , had it not been for the presence of a pretty complete heel bone , ulna , , rib etc ., it would have been difficult to determine whether they were human remains or not . Some of these are crumbled to an almost impalpable white powder , and others are appear to have been subjected to the action of fire …… The second deposit of bones was less formal – resting in the solid soil , and covered over with three rough slabs of no great size ….There is an immense boulder , weighing over a ton , which has not yet been displaced , but which is supposed to cover the upper slab of a cist .

24th November 1860 : “ The huge stone , weighing close on two tons being removed , disclosed a sandstone slab 5 feet 3 inches by 2 feet 2 inches , and about a 1 ( foot ?) thick . Beneath this slab was another of those little cists or cinerary boxes measuring 2 feet 6 inches by 1 foot 6 inches , and about 10 inches deep , and composed of rough slabs . The bones found in this were in that abnormal pulverised state which we discussed last week …. An interesting vase , somewhat in the style of an Etrurian vessel , has been found in that last discovered grave .It is globular; stands 5 inches high , with a mouth about 5 inches across and is made of clay hardened by fire . There are rude attempts at floriated decoration round the vase , somewhat in a “ herring
bone “ pattern , and evidently done by pats of a trowel or what served the maker for one . This relic is now in the possession of A. Monteith Esq ., of Broich . ”

8th December 1860 : “ We will now take a glance at the interior of the quasi** tomb before it was touched by the intruder’s feet . The surface of the bottom was smoothly laid with clay …. An urn lay on its side ….and beside it lay a small heap of ( it is supposed ) cremated human bones . The moulds was of a dark brown colour , and had a rich , soft , velvety feel . “

It will be seen that the urn now in the National Museum corresponds with that taken out of this mound ; and as there is no record of any other urn having been found in a cist near Crieff in 1860 , the conclusion is irresistible that it is the same .

It was on this mound that the court of the Earls of Strathearn and the stewards or seneschals was held , when such courts were held in the open . from the Statistical Accounts we learn that the old Tolbooth in Crieff was erected in 1665 for the accommodation of the steward’s court , “ which from this period ceased to be held in the open air . “ It is known that some forty volumes of records of the steward’s court were stored in the Tolbooth , and that they were ruthlessly destroyed by soldiery quartered there in 1798 , who used the tomes for fuel !

** Strathearn Herald , 17th and 24th November and 8th December 1860