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14 Dec 2021

Archaeological research in the Highlands

Written by Derek Alexander and Daniel Rhodes
Archaeological fieldwork in Glencoe at Achtriachtan township
The National Trust for Scotland has 17 properties that fall within the Highland Council area and are therefore covered by the recently published Highland Archaeological Research Framework.

These properties form a microcosm of the Trust’s national portfolio and include battlefields, country house estates, gardens and designed landscapes, mountains, islands and coastline, beauty spots and vernacular architecture.

Some of the Trust’s Highland properties are very small, consisting of a single building, while others are entire islands or mountains and glens. In total, the area within the Highlands under Trust ownership is 28,188 hectares and includes over 1,850 archaeological sites and features. Of this total, 19 sites are designated as scheduled monuments and 17 are listed buildings.

Landscape survey

When the Trust employed its first archaeologists in 1993, one of the main tasks was to undertake walkover landscape surveys of the large countryside properties, in order to get a basic understanding of what types of field monuments and features there were and what they might be.

Many of the Highland properties were surveyed by Jill Harden and Jonathan Wordsworth and the results were presented in A4 ring binders with colour print photographs of individual sites. Glencoe was completed in 1996, then Kintail and West Affric in 1997, Inverewe in 1998 and finally Torridon between 1996 and 2002.

The data from all of these surveys fed into ‘Discovery and Excavation in Scotland’ on an annual basis, and then into the National Monuments Record of Scotland and the Canmore website. From 2014–16 the Trust employed a fixed term archaeology data officer post (filled by Stefan Sagrott) to review this data and to produce digitised polygons of the known extent of archaeological features to be used as a layer in our geographic information system (GIS).

Walkover survey of Kintail roundhouses at Morvich

Historic building survey

One of the key facets of the Trust’s portfolio has been the conservation of vernacular buildings. In the Highland Council area these include Hugh Miller’s Cottage in Cromarty, Beaton’s Croft House on Skye, and Balnain House and Abertarff House in the centre of Inverness. While some of these conservation projects were undertaken before the introduction of detailed archaeological building recording, increasingly major works are preceded by such survey work.

Particular examples to pick out would be Balmacara Square, which was recorded before it was converted into community housing, and numerous structures on the island of Canna including: Canna House, Coroghon and Change House Barns, Coroghon Castle, The Bothy, and Point House and St Edward’s Church. On Culloden battlefield historic building surveys have been completed for both King’s Stables Cottage and Old Leanach Cottage. Boath Doocot, which stands on top of a 12th-century motte at Auldearn, has also been recorded in detail and includes a lovely cross-section drawing showing all the stone-built bird boxes.

Balmacara Square was the subject of detailed building recording works

Detailed monument survey

Once the general distribution of archaeological sites on Trust properties in the Highlands was recorded, a number of specific sites were identified for more detailed mapping to help both with interpretation purposes and management.

On Canna for example, the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) undertook plans of the later prehistoric fort and dun sites, the souterrain, the monastic enclosure at Sgorr nam Ban-naomha (‘cliff of the holy women’), and the remains of the 18th-century township at Tarbert. RCAHMS also produced an incredible record of the carved early Christian cross which stands in the field at Keill on Canna, and another dozen or so carved stones that are located either in the current graveyard or have been moved to Canna House.

Subsequent work by the Trust on Canna has involved detailed measured survey of the current graveyard and photogrammetric model of the 17th-century burial slab, known locally as the Clanranald stone.

Condition monitoring

A major part of the Trust’s role to protect cultural heritage is through ownership, which means that generally our sites are protected from major development, although some have been the subject of visitor infrastructure improvements. There is also an ongoing need to monitor the condition of our archaeological resource, to identify sites at risk and to propose mitigation measures.

With the establishing of a baseline of data on the location and form of archaeological sites identified by landscape surveys, programmes of condition monitoring were implemented successfully at a number of places by Trust property staff – usually rangers. This worked well at Balmacara, Kintail and Glencoe where sites were visited and reported on over a number of years. At other properties condition monitoring was undertaken as part of the work of Trust working holidays – Thistle Camps – at Torridon and on Canna. A small group of volunteers, supervised by Trust archaeologists, visited and photographed known sites and input data using a tablet-based system ODKCollect. During these walk-over surveys the opportunity was also taken to conduct some more detailed mapping of specific sites and some kite photography, for example of the hut circles at the western end of Canna.

Three people stand on a hillside beside some stone remains in the ground. They hold charts and measuring tools.
Volunteers recording the condition of a shieling on Canna

Archaeological excavations

Perhaps unsurprisingly there were very few recorded archaeological excavations carried out on Trust properties in the Highlands prior to there being an in-house archaeologist on staff. Indeed the lack of in-house knowledge had been highlighted in the early 1990s and, coupled with the emergence of archaeology as part of the planning process, led to recruitment in 1993. Before then there had been some limited excavations of a cairn on Canna carried out by T C Lethbridge in the 1920s, and also some trial trenching at Balnain House and Abertarff House in Inverness as part of a programme of investigations across the historic burgh.

Many of the Trust properties in the Highlands have close connections with the Jacobite Risings, including Glencoe (1692), Glenshiel (1719), Glenfinnan (1745) and Culloden (1746). Over the last 20 years, Trust projects have targeted some of these locations for excavation. For example, excavation work was conducted in 2018–19 on the battlefield at Glenshiel which forms part of the Kintail estate. Excavation was carried out on Spanish Hill with one trench over a shieling structure and another across an entrenchment constructed by the Spanish troops. The latter appeared to show a stone-built terrace that must have been fronted by a drystone breastwork wall. The only significant metal detecting find from within the scheduled area was a flattened musket ball, found at the foot of a large bedrock outcrop below Spanish position. On the opposite side of the River Shiel, at the foot of the largest vertical cliff face, seven sherds of a Coehorn mortar shell were recovered.

Other archaeological excavations have included work on later prehistoric roundhouses at Inverewe, extensive trial trenching on Canna and Sanday, and work by Glasgow University on Strome Castle.

Drawing the excavation of the Spanish entrenchment at Glenshiel


The review of archaeological work at properties belonging to the National Trust for Scotland in the area of Highland Council has highlighted just how much has been done over the last 28 years. Over 50 reports have been completed but much of this work is not well-known. This is largely because these reports are unpublished grey literature reports, generally kept within the Trust offices. Another reason for the limited awareness of the Trust’s archaeological work is the fact that a lot of the work has built up over time, incrementally. It should be noted that the major elements of this work have made their way into Trust interpretation materials such as panels, leaflets and guidebooks. Some stories, often the fieldwork element, have featured in local and national media and social media.

The full report (with bibliographic references) is presented as a case study on the Highland Archaeological Research Framework website.

Read the full report