Jill Harden, RSPB Scotland's reserves archaeologist, has recently traveled north to Caithness & Sutherland to explore the peatland’s rich historic environment.
People have been living in Caithness & Sutherland for thousands of years, with many establishing communities along the coast and up the Straths (river valleys) that flow from the coast into the interior. Today this is a landscape that is more sparsely populated, but where you can still find traces of these settlements and the people who once lived there. RSPB Scotland's Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve is an amazing peatland landscape in Caithness & Sutherland with numerous pools systems and it is a unique breeding site for a suite of special and protected wildlife from black-throated divers to otters, and golden plover to hen harriers. However, what is less well known is that it also has a large number of archaeological sites from Bronze Age burial mounds to 19th century clearance settlements.
A trip to the Flows
Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve is an amazing area of open vistas across vast extents of peatland interspersed with non-native conifer plantations. But in this now remote and apparently empty quarter of the Caithness and Sutherland heartland there is evidence that even here people in the past used the resources of the land.
RSPB Scotland's Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve, Andy Hay (rspb-images.com).
The opportunity to visit the reserve to assess some of the archaeological sites and consider opportunities for community and volunteer engagement was not to be missed, and the range of sites to be seen really is fascinating.
Along the two main river straths that cross the area (the Halladale and the Thurso) there is a fertile, farmed landscape that dates back millennia. Largely cleared of small tenants in the 19th century, the slight ruins of their stone and turf built farmsteads can still be found if you look closely enough. And the place names survive, transferred to 20th-century farms and crofts at places like Braecrie, just north of Forsinain. The original fermtoun was known as Brawebry in the 1750's.
A grain-drying kiln and its barn in the southern group of buildings at Brawebry
Farming has a long history here, and some of the visible farm remains are ancient, dating back 2,000–3,000 years. These sites have survived because today the land is marginal and just used as rough grazing. Others have long-since disappeared, either under the more recent farmstead buildings or ploughed away.
Those that are still to be seen are circular in plan, some 10m in diameter over what is now a low thick wall, with a doorway facing the morning sun. Although usually marked on OS maps as hut circles, this is a misnomer. They are not just huts – they have the same floor area as a two-bedroomed home of today.
The heather-clad remains of a prehistoric roundhouse at Forsinain
Over time the prehistoric tradition of building round houses became more elaborate. It seems that each extended family group organised for a broch to be built. Such an iconic structure is presumed to reflect power and control in the Iron Age around 200BC–200AD. An example can be seen every couple of kilometres overlooking the river Halladale from Forsinain northwards to the sea.
Although they are ruinous today, there are examples elsewhere that still survive to two or three storeys high. So, were the brochs in this strath partially demolished so that the stone could be used elsewhere? Or did they just collapse?
The entrance passage at Borg broch, north of Forsinain
There is no reason to think that the Halladale and Thurso rivers weren’t also attractive to farmers at least 4,000 years ago. The climate was better then, so all the more reason for settlement in the Bronze Age or even earlier, in the Neolithic period. But you have to look carefully to find the evidence, the timber-built homes having completely disappeared. Instead, the sites of this period are associated with ‘ritual’ or burial.
Close to the River Halladale near Craggie is a slight mound that at first glance looks quite natural. A closer look shows that it is defined by a ring of boulders. Archaeologists suggested years ago that this is an ancient burial ground, only 4m in diameter. Elsewhere, similar sites have been excavated revealing individual cremations in small pits – perhaps it was only used for a generation or two.
The prehistoric burial site near Craggie
Above the River Thurso is an even more enigmatic site: a series of standing stones set in rows on sloping ground with a southerly and south-easterly aspect. But these are not great stones like those at the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney – an internationally renowned site on land owned by the RSPB. These standing stones in their linear settings are tiny. Only 10–15cm of each stone stands above the ground surface and now they are either being enveloped in peat or becoming masked by heather. Excavation at one of the other stone rows in the county reveal that the stones really are small; it’s not that the peat has covered larger stones.
The tiny stones of the rows at Dirlot – a similar but much easier to find site can be seen just off the A9 south of Wick; it is aptly known as ‘The Hilll o’ Many Stanes'
Why would people erect such a complex monument that seems so visually unimpressive? Why are multiple stone rows only found in Caithness? Their function is unknown, other than they must have been erected for use in ceremonies, possibly associated with the coming and going of the sun or moon at specific times of year. So it really is strange to stand there today, trying to understand the place and touch the past.
More details on the areas mentioned in this blog and other archaeological sites can be found on the website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (Also known as Canmore). You can find the website here: http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/
At the Forsinard reserve the team are also hoping to develop a guided heritage walk to enable visitors and local communities to learn more about these ancient settlements on the reserve and to explore the landscape that they would have lived in, so watch this space!
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, tells you about the some of the things we love and want to protect with the FTLO campaign we're a part of.
All you need is love
As the Beatles timeless classic said – all you need is love. Still true? It’s no longer the swinging 60s or the love generation but I think most people would say love makes the world go round (in a strictly metaphorical sense).
A love of peat being pinned to the 'love wall'
It makes us care for people, places and things, and want to protect them. That’s why the ‘For The Love Of...’ campaign (FTLO) asks us to think about what we love and then call for action to stop climate change so that what we love won’t be affected or disappear forever. You can write what you love at www.rspb.org.uk/fortheloveof
At RSPB Scotland we kicked off our FTLO campaigning last month, amongst our own staff when many of us got together at the staff conference. I wanted them to know what the FTLO campaign was all about and get them enthused about it. And what better way than to ask them to write what they love. To do this we erected a ‘Love Wall’ and asked everyone to write on a heart something they love.
For a bunch of RSPB Scotland staff it’s not surprising that nature featured strongly - there was a great ‘bio’-diversity in the love being shown: mountain hares, leatherback turtles, puffins, coral reefs, red-necked phalaropes, peatbogs, Boletus edulis (a fungi), to name but a few. There was some non-nature too, e.g. public transport, cotton vests, future children! And some downright wierd ones; Zumba, potoos (googly-eyed birds from S. America) and even a real banana stuck to the wall.
The 'love wall' at the RSPB Scotland staff conference
One thing I noticed was the number of hearts expressing love for our seas and their wildlife on the Love Wall. Certainly, people are seeing the impact of climate change right now on our seabird populations so perhaps it is in people’s minds. The truth is that with runaway climate change everything could be affected in some way, whether it is a species, habitat, our lifestyles, hobbies or families. That’s why we need action now and especially by world leaders in Paris next year. So go ahead, show your love too and do your bit for the campaign.