Thursday, 26 July 2012


I drove up to work from Dunoon this trip. On the rare occasions that I go this way, I like to drive up through the countryside rather than the recommended route of catching the ferry and going via the motorway and Glasgow. It really is the most uninspiring journey - I would go as far to say it's horrible. I had a look at my road map and picked out a couple of tasty looking National Trust for Scotland properties en routish. I'm a member, so I might as well get my money's worth. Day's don't always turn out as planned so the visits were never made.

I got as far as driving up the side of Loch Tay and reached the Village of Kenmore where I reckoned it was teatime and I had a look around their wee church - very nice and more about that in my July catch up blog. Kenmore stands at the head of Loch Tay and this is the view looking out over the loch from the village.

Even on a gloomy day, Scotland looks good. But there's something odd out there on the loch. If I zoom in a bit you can see for yourself. The odd looking building is a crannog, an ancient type of lake dwelling, which were built in Scotland and Ireland. In Scotland we don't of course have lakes (there is one, one natural body of water anyway, the Lake of Menteith) - we have lochs. In Ireland they call them loughs. This crannog was built by the Scottish Crannog Centre and well worth a visit I thought - I was right.

The exact definition of a crannog is a little variable and seems to cover just about any Scottish, artificially built, island dwelling from prehistory. Sometimes islands were made by building up the loch surface with rocks but others, like this one, were built by driving piles into the loch bed. There are around 350 to 500 known crannog sites in Scotland depending on what you care to call one.

These type of dwelling dates around late bronze age and early iron age, being most common in the period from about 800BC to 200BC. The sites of 18 crannogs have been found along the 14 miles of Loch Tay.

[Update: Through facebook the Scottish Crannog Centre have informed me that from multiple carbon datings of Scottish crannogs that they date back to 600 to 500 BC.] 

This crannog has, as far as possible, been built by studying the archaeological evidence gathered from the excavations of crannog sites. Much of the wood, tools, clothing and even food remains of the original loch dwellers has been preserved in the mud of the loch. The building of the crannog is in itself a piece of experimental archaeology in that much can be learned by trying to do things as our ancestors would have had to have done. The best example we were told about was in trying to get the piles into the loch bed in the first place. They archaeologists had told them what size the piles should be (they were basically sharpened tree trunks) but no amount of walloping could get them into the loch bed. They then discovered that by sitting the point of the pile in the mud and twisting it, it would end up embedded in the loch fairly quickly and with the minimum of hard work.

A walkway round the crannog.

Inside the crannog it was remarkable spacious and quite cosy at the same time. Evidence does seem to suggest that they shared it with some domestic animals. Whether you still regard it as cosy if you add a flock of sheep is all a matter of opinion (I should hope they smelt better than the flock of sheep at Arisaig a few weeks ago - phworr! they needed a bath). Evidence from the excavations tells that they had quite a balanced diet of both cultivated and foraged foods. Strangely for people living on a loch, there is no evidence of them eating any fish. Nor, incidentally, is there evidence of weapons primarily used for fighting or defending from other people - perhaps Scotland was a nice peaceful place at the time. My camera didn't do to well inside the crannog and this it the only picture even approaching focused.

The little island you see here is the site of a former crannog too. It was built up into what you see today in 1842 so that Queen Victoria, who was staying near by, and Albert might have a nice peaceful place to have a picnic. Good story but not great for archaeology.

I must give credit to our guide, Simon, who gave us an interesting, fact based tour. He said what was known, was quite candid about what wasn't know and was able to answer a range of varied questions. I'm sure the other guides are just the same.

After the crannog there was a small demonstration on ancient technology. Below we have a lathe which uses two green branches and a footpeddle to produce the energy to turn it.

There is only one green branch used as the spring for this lathe but how much greener than this could it be - it's still on the tree. We were allowed to have a shot at it after the talk - it really does work rather well.

A drill for drilling holes in a piece of rock. To be used in conjunction with some grit and a great deal of patience.

Simon demonstrated spinning some wool.

All these different colours of wool were dyed using natural substances found in the area near by. Quite an impressive range of colours in my opinion.

Grinding some flour and separating out the flour from the chaff.

Considering the dampness of the day, starting a fire without matches or a lighter or even a piece of flint seemed like quite a challenge.

Certain sorts of fungus, generally found growing on trees, when lit will smoulder for a very long time and can be used to carry an ember in them, making it possible to have your fire already with you when you stop after a days hunting, without the palaver of trying to produce an ember for yourself. The 5300 year of mummified body that was found in the alps in 1991 was carrying a piece of it, so it's been known about for some time. 

A quick look at the crannog from the loch's edge before you go, which gives a good idea how high off the water it was.


Shundo said...

Another gem, Sandy. I hope that made up for the dull roads.
You have to hand it to our ancestors, they were pretty damned crafty, but I do wonder why you would build on a lake if you weren't going to catch fish. Isn't it damp enough already without living on the water? I guess the sheep would have kept everybody warm, and people had different sensitivities about smells in those days.

Sinbad and I on the Loose said...

Very interesting to say the least. We fail to give our prehistory ancestors any consideration for the creative intelligence they had. That rock drilling device was very impressive along with that lathe. Great post!

John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

There's the remains of a crannog in Wales too, at Llangorse Lake, near Brecon. An intersting post, especially those devillish bits of early technology!

The Glebe Blog said...

Fascinating Sandy, aren't Crannogs amazing.
There's the left overs of two crannogs in Wigtownshire. They excavated the one on Cults Loch at Castle Kennedy a couple of years ago.

The other one at Dowalton Loch near Sorbie seems to be inaccessible these days (It was when I went to look three years ago). It's first excavation in 1863 threw up some amazing items.

Sandy's witterings said...

Shundo. The fish thing is surprising - they don't have proof they didn't mind but they have a deal of proof about them eating all sorts of other things, so it would seem likely fish would show up if they regularly ate them. Maybe they didn't like the smell.

Our attitudes to smell must certainly have changed - these days we (me included) can't even be doing with another human if they haven't washed the human smell of them for a while (goodness knows how we'd cope if we were landed back inthe middle ages).

John (of the USA) Those prehistoric power tools certainly were impressive. Mind you, they did have the same size of brains as ourselves but used less of it up on soap operas and Facebook.

John (of the UK) Very interesting about the Llangorse Lake Crannog. I see it's the only one in England and Wales (according to their own publicity ). As with many of these ancient things there seems to be the odd stray as people travel about and share ideas - it's a bit like the Pictish carvings I saw at Gatehouse of Fleet a few months ago - probably several days travelling on foot outside Pictland.

Shundo - just as well there's only one of you as you could make a claim to be of the USA and the UK.

Sandy's witterings said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sandy's witterings said...

Jim, your message appeared while I was typing out the other replies.

Your right about the crannogs though, that bottom left hand corner of Scotland was a bit of a crannog hotspot. You'd have had no bother getting a lakehouse berth in D&G 2500 years ago. The island in the middle of Carlingwark Loch in Castle Douglas is a crannog.

There's a reason those local cheese makers at Loch Arthur call one of their cheeses Crannog

Crafty Green Poet said...

how interesting, so much history there! I would guess that back in the day people were smellier themselves and didn't notice the smell of the sheep as much as we might.

Sandy's witterings said...

Thanks Juliet.