As Anne MacInnes conducts an archaeological survey in the grounds of an old church, she notices something concealed in the undergrowth. Taking a closer look, she can’t believe what she’s seeing: a carved slab that looks particularly out of place. As it turns out, what she’s stumbled upon is one of only 50 known in existence. Furthermore, it was carved by the hands of ancient tribespeople.
So more archaeologists make their way to the site, which is situated close to the town of Dingwall. And there, in the Scottish Highlands, they conduct their own analyses of MacInnes’ find. Ultimately, they confirm her initial inkling had been spot on. Yes, the stone is indeed a substantial treasure of historic importance.
Crucially, the slab is covered in carvings – shapes and figures which have faded but can still be made out. And it measures up at a little less than 5 feet in height, though it may once have been larger. But considering it’s thought to have been carved more than a 1,000 years ago, it’s current condition isn’t too bad.
Shortly after the discovery, experts got to work in removing the stone from the site. And they managed to raise the slab from the ground, exposing its other side for the first time. With that, they realized that it was even more unique than they’d initially suspected. Remarkably, the other side was adorned with the image of two large beasts.
Now, the Scottish Highlands have an extremely rich history, stretching back millennia. Nowadays, though, the region has a population considered to be among the most sparse in all of Europe. Yet this is a relatively recent development, with emigration over the last 160 years or so having a huge impact.
But towards the end of Britain’s Iron Age, and the beginning of Medieval times, the Highlands were inhabited by the Picts. Essentially, the Picts were a collection of different tribes who spoke a Celtic language. And their existence is documented in Latin accounts from the tenth century. Intriguingly, though, much of what we know about the Picts comes from their stone engravings.
Furthermore, it’s believed that the various groups which made up the Picts consisted of members who were close to one another. And they apparently constructed wooden dwellings to live in, but were also notably adept at working with stone. Indeed, many of their carvings are today publicly displayed in Scottish museums.
What’s more, Pict communities would consist of families who, in turn, were members of an individual clan, ruled by a chief. And each clan would have set out to serve its own members, thereby occasionally falling into conflict with rival factions. For instance, one group might have stolen livestock which belonged to another. But that didn’t mean they lived entirely separately.
No, because these competing clans did come together when it was necessary. For example, if they were under threat by an external foe, they’d unify in order to fight them off. And an overall head of the collective was decided upon, with all individual chiefs answering to the figurehead.
In their book The History of Scotland, Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry elaborated on the status of a Pict leader. “The head of the kin was a very powerful man,” they wrote. “He was looked upon as father of everyone in the kin [ an individual clan], even though he might only be a distant cousin to most. He commanded their loyalty.”
During times of conflict, all Pict men were expected to fight. However, in times of peace, they farmed and fished – as did the women who also reared the kids. Despite squabbles between Pict groups, they generally existed in a state of calm – from what we know, anyway. But eventually, their way of life came to be threatened by foreign forces.
For in 55 and 54 B.C. Roman emperor Julius Caesar sent forces to Great Britain to invade. However, Roman rule was only really established later in 43 B.C. Having said that, the Romans hadn’t managed to take Scotland. And so eventually, the Roman governor of Britain decided to act.
That’s right, the governor – Julius Agricola – organized an invasion of Scotland, taking its southern end by 82 A.D. But the following year, he tried to move further north – but was met by the Picts, led by Calgacus. Interestingly, a Roman historian called Tacitus took note of these events, ultimately providing the first ever writings of Scotland’s history.
In fact, Tacitus recognized that Calgacus was not the ultimate leader of the Picts, but rather one of several. Nonetheless, he suggested that some 30,000 fighters answered to the man. And he also wrote of a stirring speech which Calgacus supposedly delivered before his men battled with the Romans.
In spite of the speech, however, the Romans heavily defeated Calgacus’ forces, with huge Pict losses inflicted. Apparently, around a third of the Picts were killed in the battle. Yet still, the Romans could not build on their triumph. Yes, despite their resounding success, they were nonetheless unable to take control of the northern lands of Britain. So why was this?
Well, over time, the Romans would try to take control of Scotland – yet all of their attempts failed. And this can at least partly be attributed to the nature of the Picts. For these people didn’t live in cities that the Romans could simply take over, with infrastructure already in place. Indeed, they moved around, living by simpler means.
So later on, the Romans left Scotland – and its Pictish inhabitants – alone. And in 122 A.D. Hadrian’s Wall was raised, ultimately separating Roman Britain from the Pictish lands of Scotland. Two decades later, the Antonine Wall was built a little more to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, sections of both of these fortifications can still be seen today.
Eventually, of course, Roman rule came to an end in Britain. By the time this occurred in the year 410, the Pictish way of life had seemingly remained in tact. While this can’t be known for sure, artifacts discovered from around this period don’t suggest any major changes in lifestyle.
Having said that, the Romans had brought Christianity to Britain – which proved consequential. Over time, the new religion started to seep into Pictish life. As expert Stuart McHardy put it in his book A New History of the Picts, “Where the Roman Empire failed to conquer the Picts, the Christian Church succeeded.”
Before the arrival of Christianity, the Picts lived by a type of paganism which exhibited a particular focus on nature. Furthermore, they worshipped a goddess, for whom they showed signs of great reverence. For instance, they seemed to value areas in which this deity was thought to have once visited. Almost sounds familiar, doesn’t it.
Well, this dedication to a goddess was seemingly reflected in their gender politics before Christianity arrived. For it’s understood that Pictish women were considered to be men’s equals, and leadership was actually bestowed on matrilineal lines. In other words, the people’s superiors were chosen on the basis of a mother’s family line.
But the Pictish way of life was ultimately altered with the spread of Christianity. After all, the exclusive worship of a male deity brought with it a series of implications for everyday life. For instance, the notion of ‘sin’ cropped up for the first time, with females especially being thought of in this regard.
By the end of the sixth century, Christian values appear to have largely usurped those traditionally associated with Picts. And though the process was rather slow, eventually their way of life was lost to history. By around the 11th century, Pictish culture and customs had totally ceased to be.
Overall, evidence of the Picts comes largely from archaeological stones littered around Scotland, and limited accounts from the Romans and others. So when Anne MacInnes made her discovery at the old church grounds in the Highlands, it was a momentous occasion. For she had, after all, just come across an extremely rare Pictish artifact.
Now, MacInnes is an active member of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS). And Established in 1998, it concerns itself with conducting archaeological works in Scotland’s northern areas. Of course, if it manages to make an interesting discovery, the group is sure to inform the public of the matter.
Furthermore, NOSAS runs various events during the course of a year, as well as organizing field trips and excavations. And members can make use of the group’s library, not to mention its array of tools and supplies. But it was during a lone survey which MacInnes ultimately did towards the end of summer 2019 that yielded a result.
Yes, close to the town of Dingwall, MacInnes got to work on the remnant grounds of an old Christian church. And it was here that she ended up making the find – a large slab covered in Pictish engravings. She told the BBC of her discovery, “I was clearing vegetation when I spotted the carving. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
So other archaeologists made their way to the site in order to take a look at the slab for themselves. And upon doing so, these experts proclaimed the find as vital. After all, stones adorned with Pictish engravings are extremely rare. Including this latest one, there are only around 50 such artifacts known about today.
Astonishingly, according to experts, the Picts first engraved the slab around 1,200 years ago. And although it now measures less than 5 feet in height, it’s believed to have initially been more than 6 feet. Therefore, a significant portion of it was lost over the centuries since its creation. So what about the illustrations?
Well, the shapes etched into the slab are varied and intricate. On the one hand, there are depictions of various creatures, both real and imaginary. And there’s also the outline of a fighter with the head of an animal. But in addition to these illustrations, symbols known as a z rod and a double disc can be seen.
Such a rare find represents a significant boost for historians attempting to better understand the Picts. And this, in essence, is a point which has been stressed by the Pictish Arts Society. For its president, John Borland, also of Historic Environment Scotland – told the BBC that the find “is of national importance.”
As Borland went on to explain, “The find spot – an early Christian site in [the Scottish Highland area of] Easter Ross – is a new location for such sculpture. So [it] adds significant information to our knowledge of the Pictish church and its distribution. This new discovery will continue to stimulate debate and new research.”
Meanwhile, archaeologist Kirsty Cameron from the local authority, The Highland Council, was also ecstatic at the news. In fact, she told the BBC the stone was a “once-in-a-lifetime find.” Speaking in the wake of its discovery, she said, “All credit goes to the local archaeologists for immediately recognizing the importance of the stone.”
All of this praise, however, actually came before the entire slab had been seen by archaeologists. After all, it’d been found flat on the ground – meaning the underside was initially concealed. But when experts eventually got to see the back of the slab, what they’d expected went out of the window.
As the NOSAS explained on its Facebook page, the slab was carefully extracted from the ground on August 22, 2019. Now, they’d expected to find a cross on the back, because the stone had been reused as a burial post. Instead, archaeologists were faced with a series of carvings unlike anything they’d ever seen.
Yes, because the etchings on this face of the slab appeared to depict a pair of large creatures beside a cross. And these were entirely different to any of the images carved onto the other side. As a matter of fact, they were distinct from all other known Pict designs, according to Borland.
And Borland elaborated on what these designs tell us about the Picts. He told the BBC, “The two massive beasts that flank and surmount the cross are quite unlike anything found on any other Pictish stone,” he said. “These two unique creatures serve to remind us that Pictish sculptors had a remarkable capacity for creativity and individuality.”
What’s more, the study of these carvings may enable historians to better understand the artistic practices of the Picts. And this is something which Borland has recognized. As he went on to explain to the BBC, “Careful assessment of this remarkable monument will be able to tell us much about the production of Pictish sculpture that we could never have guessed at.”
So with the stone removed from the old church grounds, efforts are now being made to have it cleaned and preserved. After that, there are plans to show the artifact off at the Dingwall Museum. However, doing all of this is expensive, so NOSAS and the Pictish Arts Society are drumming up support.
That’s correct, for the two groups are now attempting to raise around $25,500 in funds from the public. And once they’re successful, people will be able to come from all over to see the Pictish stone for themselves. Furthermore, given how rare these finds are, that would be quite an opportunity.
But of course, this is far from the only incredible historical discovery that has taken place within Scottish borders. The small country is home to a whole host of archaeological marvels, in fact. One particularly impressive find, for instance, concerns a group of mysterious artificial islands. And the story behind them is truly fascinating.
After making his way through the cold waters of Loch Arnish, Chris Murray finds exactly what he is looking for. On this lake on Lewis off the west coast of Scotland, the diver is examining a mysterious man-made island known as a crannog. And, incredibly, the secrets that Murray discovers deep below the water’s surface will change everything that experts know about these strange, prehistoric landmasses.
These crannogs – which can be wholly or partially man-made – are found in lochs, rivers and estuaries. And for many years, it’s been believed that these mysterious entities date back to the Iron Age – so, about 2,800 years from the present day. This school of thought claims that ancient people constructed the crannogs with either stone, timber or a combination of the two. Humans are then thought to have erected buildings on the artificial islands – again using wood or stone.
And, altogether, Scotland has some 570 crannogs, which are sometimes also known as island duns. Around 170 of these Scottish examples are located on the islands of the Outer Hebrides, including Lewis. Ireland, too, has roughly 2,000 crannogs, while just one is to be found in Wales – the third Celtic part of Britain.
As far as the Scottish crannogs are concerned, meanwhile, historians have previously believed that they were used from around 800 B.C. right up until around 1700 A.D. However, as we’ll see, it’s that earlier date that has been challenged – all because of the extraordinary artifacts Murray found at the bottom of Loch Arnish.
But before we discover exactly what the diver managed to unearth, let’s investigate crannogs themselves. Generally speaking, archaeologists use the term “crannog” to describe the small man-made islands that can be found in both Ireland and Scotland. Yet that doesn’t mean all crannogs are from the same era or culture, nor do they all look identical.
Some crannogs, for instance, are built entirely from timber. In those cases, ancient people constructed wooden buildings atop piles driven into the bed of a loch. And examples of these crannogs can be found at Loch Tay, which is almost 15 miles long and set within the majestic central Highlands countryside.
In fact, Loch Tay boasts in excess of 20 crannogs – all of which are thought to date back to the Iron Age – although the timber remains of those islands now lie beneath the water. These particular wood-built crannogs featured roundhouses with thatched roofing that were supported on a series of timber piles. The roundhouses made for easily defensible dwellings, too, as the loch itself acted as a natural moat.
In 1980, however, archaeologists began working to discover the crannogs of Loch Tay. Fortunately, they found one such example at a place on the loch called Oakbank, which is adjacent to the crofters’ village of Fearnan on the loch’s northern shore. Crofters, in case you didn’t know, are farmers who work smallholdings in the Highlands. And as it happens, the Oakbank site yielded some extraordinary Iron Age artifacts.
You see, the experts didn’t just uncover the timbers with which the crannog had been built, but they also turned up clothing and tools from 2,600 years ago. A butter dish was even found that still had traces of the foodstuff encrusted on its surface. And these valuable discoveries would ultimately act as the catalyst for an amazing project that was carried out by some experimental archaeologists in 1994.
Experimental archaeologists aim to learn more about ancient peoples by attempting to replicate things that they once did. Sometimes, that even involves reconstructing whole buildings or edifices, and that was certainly the case with the 1994 plan. You see, the specialists decided to create their own Iron Age crannog on Loch Tay near the village of Kenmore. Here, they would build a modern crannog using the same materials and methods that had been used 2,600 years ago.
The team from the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology started by sinking 168 wooden piles into the bed of the north-eastern tip of the loch. After that, they built a 65-foot long causeway from the shore to the site of the crannog. Then, on top of the timber piles, the group laid a nearly 50-foot-wide platform on which they would ultimately erect a roundhouse with a thatched roof.
However, the key to successfully creating a crannog was – and still is – the right timber. The Iron Age builders may have been knowledgeable foresters, in fact, as they needed to ensure that the correct tree trunks were readily available for their constructions. And the 20th-century group also picked carefully, selecting alder trees for their piles.
Of course, Iron Age people would have used many types of timber for different purposes – from cooking utensils to structural supports. It seems probable, too, that some of the humans living during that era were highly skilled carpenters who would have had an acute understanding of the different properties of various types of wood.
It’s also likely that the Iron Age crannogs were attached to farms on the land by a loch’s edge. The ancient people would therefore have raised cattle and grown crops in fields on the lake’s shores, while sheep grazed on nearby hillsides. Nature would also have provided supplies such as wild fruit and nuts, game that could be hunted and herbal medicines.
Yet the archaeologists who reconstructed the crannog on Loch Tay soon discovered one of the most difficult parts of the process: the positioning and sinking of the piles into the bed of Loch Tay. The piles formed the structure’s foundation, too, so they were key to the success of the project. And it didn’t help, either, that the builders had to achieve their feat without the benefit of modern technology.
But how did Iron Age people manage to pull the process off? Well, in order to begin constructing the crannogs, humans living 2,600 years ago must naturally have used rafts or boats to get out onto the loch. After that, they would have erected some sort of wooden scaffolding so that they could set to work on driving the piles. The ancient Scots would have then transported the trunks of alder trees – which could each have been up to 30 feet long – out onto the water.
And since the tree trunks would have floated, builders at the time wouldn’t have struggled to get them positioned correctly on the loch. Getting the wood into the correct vertical position to start driving it into the lake’s bed would have been a lot trickier, however. Then, finally, when the trunks were right where they needed to be, the resulting pile would have been forced into the loch’s bed with the use of a cross pole.
The archaeologists reckoned that it would have taken 12 days of hard work to get the 168 piles necessary for the structure. These piles would have then been sunk to a depth of around six feet, after which the builders would have laid a platform. Then, following that part of the process, the Iron Age people would have started work on constructing a roundhouse.
The ancient builders would have fashioned joinery joints attached with pegs and secured with rope lashes to create the platform. Round timber beams were also utilized to make the floor of the house, while the roof would have been constructed from reeds from the loch itself. The walls, meanwhile, were made by weaving together thin sticks that had been cut from hazel trees.
And as we’ve noted, experts formerly believed that the crannogs in Scotland could be dated to around 800 B.C. In 1980, though, archaeologist Ian Armit made a discovery on the Outer Hebrides island of North Uist that challenged this assumption. You see, back then, Armit found that a crannog called Eilean Domhnuill was actually between 5,200 and 4,800 years old.
Of course, Armit gave a much earlier date than experts had previously recognized. And as a result, archaeologists began to wonder if crannogs may actually have been widespread during the Stone Age. Yet for many years, no further evidence was found to support this new idea. Perhaps, then, Eilean Domhnuill was an anomaly.
And although no more Stone Age crannogs were discovered after Armit’s find in 1980, it wasn’t for the want of searching. You see, specialists attempted to turn up other examples in 1986 and on a further two occasions in 2012; during all of these endeavors, though, they ultimately drew a blank.
And that brings us back to Chris Murray – the diver who was exploring the waters of Loch Arnish in 2012. What’s more, although Murray is not a professional archaeologist, it was his discoveries that changed the accepted dating of crannogs in the Scottish Highlands.
Still, while Murray may not be an archaeologist, he is most certainly a colorful character. Born William Iain Murray in London, the diver would go on to be raised in Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands county of Sutherland. Dornoch – which lies on the eastern coast of Scotland – is a pretty coastal town and resort that is known for its sandy beaches.
Murray was then educated at Dornoch Academy before joining the Royal Navy, where he served as a diver on special missions to disarm explosives. After that, he worked as a diver in the North Sea oilfields prior to becoming part of the British Coast Guard. And during his 22 years with the Coast Guard, Murray earned a reputation for outstanding bravery.
In 2001, for example, Murray took part in the highly perilous rescue of the crew of German fishing boat Hansa. At the time, the vessel was situated some 200 miles from the Outer Hebridean island of Benbecula and was in severe difficulties during a storm. And while, tragically, six of the crew would perish, a further nine ultimately escaped to a life raft. Murray brought all of these nine crew members safely aboard his helicopter and would go on to win the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for his courageous feat.
But, now in his sixties, Murray was pursuing the gentler activity of diving around that crannog in Loch Arnish. And what the diver found in the water there would not only surprise him, but also astonish and delight archaeologists. Lying around the underwater edges of the crannog, you see, there was a treasure trove of Stone Age pottery.
Specifically, Murray uncovered two distinct varieties of ceramics: one known as Hebridean Neolithic and the other as Unstan. Then, after having made his fateful find, the former serviceman teamed up with Mark Elliot – a conservation officer with the Museum nan Eilean in Stornaway – to explore other crannogs on Lewis.
And while investigating these sites – which had been identified using Google Earth – Elliot and Murray turned up even more examples of well-preserved Stone Age pottery in the waters around them. It seemed, then, that the Stone Age crannog on North Uist was not unique, and that such structures had indeed been in use around the Outer Hebrides during the Stone Age.
Yet Murray and Elliot’s findings gave rise to a whole new set of questions. Why were Stone Age people hurling their crockery into the lochs around their crannogs, for example? Well, the University of Reading’s Duncan Garrow attempted to clear some of these matters up when he spoke to National Geographic in June 2019. And the interview came just after he and a colleague had published a paper that revealed the truth about the Stone Age crannogs.
When talking to the magazine, Garrow – an associate professor of archaeology – called the discovery of these ceramic vessels “amazing.” He added, “I’ve never seen anything like it in British archaeology. People seem to have been chucking this stuff in the water.” But why on Earth would they do that in the first place?
Well, Garrow and his fellow archaeologists said that perhaps the pots were hurled from crannogs into lochs as part of some kind of festival. This celebration may have itself been related to religious rituals or social ceremonies – or perhaps a mix of the two. Since the Stone Age people did not leave written records, however, we may never know for sure.
Fellow archaeologist Vicki Cummings – who works at the U.K.’s University of Central Lancashire – also highlighted how baffling this practice of throwing the pots into the lochs was. By way of an example, she pointed out to National Geographic that these particular crannogs seemed to be far from any Stone Age villages. The structures are also nowhere near any signs of human burial, which are often connected with ritual ceremonies. This made whatever rites may have been observed at the crannogs all the more mysterious.
There’s no doubt, either, that Stone Age people in Britain had a habit of building monumental structures from rock. You need look no further than Stonehenge – arguably the most famous British structure of that period – for evidence of this. Even so, these crannogs reveal yet more about Stone Age dwellers’ apparent penchant for construction with the material.
You see, these Stone Age crannogs were built in a different way to any of the Iron Age examples – such as the one reconstructed by experimental archaeologists at Loch Tay. Yes, while the Iron Age varieties were entirely made of timber – up to and including the piles used to support the roundhouses – their older counterparts on Lewis and North Uist were created using an alternative method.
In particular, the Stone Age crannogs utilized massive boulders as foundations rather than wood. It seems, in fact, that their builders hauled rocks weighing up to 550 pounds onto the lochs before dumping them into the water. And maneuvering these huge lumps of stone into position must have taken a substantial amount of extremely hard human labor.
Cummings observed to National Geographic, “Who would want to spend all of their time putting stones in a loch? It’s a crazy thing to spend your time doing.” Nonetheless, the archaeologist went on to speculate about what these ancient Britons may have been doing all those thousands of years ago.
Cummings claimed, for instance, that the fact that the sites were distant from everyday human habitation suggests they were used for special celebrations – such as those marking the change from childhood to adult life. She added, “Clearly it was not appropriate to take the pottery [brought to the Neolithic crannogs] home.”
But just how many of the 570 or so crannogs in Scotland are actually much older than originally thought? Well, the truth is that we don’t yet know the answer to that puzzle. Up until now, scientists have only subjected around 20 percent of the country’s crannogs to radiocarbon dating.
So can we assume that there may be Stone Age crannogs all over Scotland and maybe even in Ireland? Perhaps, but one expert has sounded a note of caution. Cole Henley – who is a specialist on structures on the Outer Hebrides archipelago from that period – told National Geographic, “Extrapolating is dangerous. It’s like trying to do a jigsaw when you’ve only got five pieces and you’ve lost the box and don’t know what the picture looks like.”
In any case, we can be fairly sure that crannogs were a feature of Stone Age life on the lochs of the Outer Hebrides islands. And as Garrow actually plans to conduct further research using advanced techniques such as side-scan sonar, perhaps he’ll unearth yet more examples from the same era. Given the number of crannogs we already know about, though, the archaeologist and his colleagues will have many years of work ahead of them.