Jill Harden is an archaeologist for RSPB Scotland. She is busy gathering historic environment information on our reserves. She’ll be providing updates regularly so watch this space for info on fascinating historical links.
Exploring history at Inversnaid
A day out on an RSPB reserve is always an eye-opener, even if it is dreich and damp. And my recent visit to Inversnaid was no exception. It’s a landscape that is full of history, even without its links to Rob Roy.
Parking by the ruins of an 18th century garrison block, with low cloud threatening rain, the atmosphere of the place was almost reminiscent of the dark days of military occupation following the Jacobite Rising of 1715. The aftermath of that campaign had a significant impact on travel in the highlands. Government troops were ordered to construct roads so that the army could react speedily to problems in the north. One was routed from Stirling through to Loch Lomond where a garrison presence was established. The populace were to be watched and controlled.
View of the garrison site at Inversnaid.
Comparing it with a garrison that was built at Ruthven, close to the RSPB Scotland reserve at Insh Marshes, gives us an idea of what the buildings originally looked like. The garrison accommodated around 60 soldiers, some on foot, a few with their horses, as well as their rations.
The soldiers were not coming into an empty glen, so they would have acquired at least some of their food and supplies from the farmed land round about. There are still traces of contemporary fields close to the garrison, although the homes of those who worked the land are long gone. However, their summer shieling huts are still to be seen, hidden away on small patches of green hill grazings and in sheltered spots by running water. It was to these that the younger folk decamped from May to September, to keep cattle and sheep away from growing crops and winter grasslands. There was no schooling to get in the way of everyday life then.
This line drawing by Denny Derbyshire gives an idea of what such shieling huts may have looked like.
A rapid archaeological assessment of the reserve was undertaken in 2003, recording various 19th and 20th century structures, but archaeologists never claimed to have found everything. Inversnaid proves this point. Fraser Lamont, the site manager, took me to an area where he was sure that there was history to be found. And he was right. Rob Coleman, the area manager was well impressed. Situated high above Loch Lomond, with what should have been great views of the hills to the west, was a group of shielings by a rushing burn. I took notes about the location and the structures as well as record photographs. This isn’t the first shieling area to be found on the reserve, but it is probably the most scenic.
Rob Coleman looking impressed (and cold) after finding shieling sites.
And on our way back hundreds of fieldfares passed over our heads- what more could we ask for?
So the next step will be to write a wee history of the reserve, from an archaeological perspective, for staff to use and share with members and visitors. A positive step forward.
Conservation Manager, Stuart Benn, tells us why he thinks golden eagles should be Scotland's national bird.
Scotland’s national bird
Winter has really hit with a vengeance here in the Highlands – storm force winds, blizzards, trains and ferries cancelled, and the mountain hares are turning white. But golden eagles are already thinking about next spring.
I was up the glen the other day in perfect weather for spotting eagles – showers scudding in on a fresh breeze giving the birds plenty of lift and concentrating their activity into the dry spells. And sure enough, I was only 15 minutes from the car when I saw my first eagle of the day – a bit distant but still unmistakable with those big straight wings and splayed ‘fingers’. It hung over a herd of deer for a few moments sizing them up for any signs of weakness but seeing none drifted off and took three steep dives – eagle display!
Eagles won’t lay their eggs until late March but now is the time for the serious business of ensuring that they still have a mate and territory when that time comes. So, whilst other wildlife is battening down the hatches for the winter, adult eagles are patrolling their bit of hill seeing off intruders.
They are hardy birds, but it’s a tough world out there for eagles to survive – the weather is something they’re adapted to cope with but dealing with unfriendly humans is more of a challenge. The latest statistics paint a depressing picture but eagles deserve much more respect and the law-abiding majority of us will prevail.
Please show your support by adding your name to those asking for golden eagles to be named as Scotland’s national bird – petition closes on Friday 6 December so you’ll need to be quick!!
Jill Harden is an archaeologist with RSPB Scotland. She's been out exploring archaeological sites on our reserves...
Broubster – an archaeological haven
One of the standing stones overlooking Lochan Ealach and the Broubster reserve.
Having explored various parts of Caithness in the past, Wednesday’s visit to Broubster was one that I had been particularly looking forward to. And I wasn’t disappointed. What a fantastic reserve!
The signs were good as we arrived – first one and then a second kestrel flew over the open ground, repeatedly hovering and then moving on. Their review of the landscape proved to be similar to the approach that site manager Dave Jones and I took during our tramp across the waterlogged land. We found ourselves splashing to a historic site, stopping, exploring and considering, making notes and taking record photos, and then moving on. Time after time. We went from the long, low, stone farmsteads that were probably used until the 1960s, back through the millennia to the 2,000 to3,000 year-old remains of round houses and their field systems of the Iron Age or Bronze Age. We then passed even deeper into the past, visiting prehistoric standing stones and the remains of a stone circle that must be at least 4,000 years old.
The stones were the reason for the visit – assessing the site conditions as part of an RSPB historic environment project which is grant-aided by Historic Scotland. These monuments are amongst the list of Scheduled Ancient Monuments on RSPB reserves, and require particular consideration when developing site management plans or doing work. Here at Broubster they appear to be fine, although the area immediately around the site of the stone circle is now particularly wet.
While the area where the stones are is one of heather moorland today, it would have been an area of open grassland in later Neolithic times when they were erected. Perhaps there were areas of scrub and small patches of woodland nearby too. But it isn’t only the habitats that have changed through time. There is also no obvious evidence of the later-neolithic settlements associated with the farming communities who set the stones up. They must be buried under today’s farmsteads just to the west, or perhaps they’re under the peat closer by.
The flagstone stalls of the byre, part of the longhouse close to Torr a Chaise.
It isn’t just these scheduled sites that are of archaeological significance at Broubster. There are at least a couple of other areas that would seem to be worthy of recognition as nationally important monuments. Towards the north end of the reserve is a palimpsest of visible remains. On the heather moorland there are prehistoric round houses, a burnt mound (a prehistoric cooking site, although some interpret mounds like this as saunas!) and traces of fields. And close by, on the improved grassland, is a historic abandoned farmstead.
However, from a vernacular building perspective it is the farmstead by Torr a Chaise that is probably of greatest value. It is a classic Caithness longhouse, some 45m long and 4m wide. It is single storey, with a barn at the south end, living quarters in the middle and byres at the north end. There is a parallel range of buildings just to the east: storage sheds, I presume. Today none of the roofs survive – the Caithness flags have either fallen in or been removed. A quick glimpse at the outside of the longhouse suggests that the walls are of drystone construction, but they clearly aren’t. In places inside the clay bonding is still visible, holding the walls together. In the barn the slots for the timber crucks that held the roof in place can be seen. And an even closer look reveals that the farmstead has been altered over time, including adding extra spaces for stalling cows, and inserting dividing walls. And all of this just by casting a rapid eye over the place.
So much could be done to bring this small part of Broubster to life. Recording it accurately, speaking to local people and researching the archives to learn about the families that worked the farm back to the mid-18th century, seeing how the landscape looked before the river was re-routed. The wallheads could also be conserved so that the longhouse survives as both a useful habitat for nature and a vernacular highlight. Just because it is no longer roofed doesn’t mean it is of little significance. I feel that it is a gem that deserves our care.