3 major discoveries

Find out more about some of our favourite recent discoveries – from unearthing medieval history near Loch Tay to digging up 18th-century gardens in Musselburgh, and breakthroughs on the battlefield at Culloden.

Ben Lawers

Travelling through the Scottish Highlands, by foot or by car, you’ll see lots of ruined stone houses and farmsteads – all that remains after decades of rural depopulation.

The National Trust for Scotland undertook a landmark research project at Ben Lawers on North Loch Tayside, with the aim of understanding more about these post-medieval landscapes and how they changed over time. It was one of the biggest projects of its type in Scotland and volunteers, supervised by professional archaeologists, carried out over 22 weeks’ worth of excavation over four seasons. We excavated 80 trenches, with input from landscape surveyors, geophysicists, historians, place-name experts and soil scientists from various universities.

The Ben Lawers Historic Landscape Project made the property one of the most intensively investigated landscapes in Scotland. Among other things, the uncovering of faint traces of turf-built structures from the 11th to 13th centuries was a major discovery for upland Perthshire. A detailed mapping survey of the mountain revealed over 2,000 individual structures and 185 miles of stone dykes, earth banks and trackways.

The Ben Lawers team were able to tie many of these excavated sites to specific historical references in the archives of the Breadalbane Estate. The published report then became the touchstone for all medieval and post-medieval landscapes in the Highlands.

Archaeologists excavating the byre dwelling at Kiltyrie
Archaeologists excavating the byre dwelling at Kiltyrie


In 1709 Sir David Dalrymple bought what was once the Whitehill Estate and renamed it ‘Newhailes’ after Hailes Castle, the family’s original estate in East Lothian. The house and its extensive grounds sit to the west of Musselburgh, around half a mile from the Firth of Forth.

It was in the 18th century that the Dalrymple family began to transform the estate into the landscape we see today. Using the small stream (or burn) as the central feature of the estate, the design includes a shell house, Palladian tea house and numerous cascades. All these features came to light as part of the Trust’s archaeological work on the estate, with various community digs and projects helping to reveal more of this important historical designed landscape.

And as well as the Picturesque features, the estate also has all the elements of a functioning (and wealthy) 17th- and 18th-century mansion, including a kitchen garden, curling pond, flower garden and grazing land. Our discoveries at Newhailes are remarkable for having remained so undisturbed, and it’s still one of the Trust’s most significant archaeological sites.

The Trust’s archaeological work at Newhailes
The Trust’s archaeological work at Newhailes

The tea house elevation showing architectural elements and surviving features.


When the new visitor centre at Culloden was being built, the Trust commissioned Professor Tony Pollard and his team at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Battlefield Archaeology to investigate the battlefield. We wanted to ensure that no historical evidence would be destroyed, but it also gave us a better understanding of the battle. Many objects were discovered that could be displayed – pistol and musket shot, cannon balls, buckles, buttons and personal ornaments.

The work led to plenty of revelations. Thanks to the combination of archaeologists and metal detectors, we were able to redraw the battle lines of Culloden with more accuracy. In addition, we found a wealth of artefacts and personal effects that would bring visitors closer to the gruesome effects of 18th-century warfare. We learned more, too, about the tactics and ferocity of the Jacobite army, as well as locating long-demolished structures on the battlefield.

The work at Culloden was not without its hurdles: the sheer size and extent of the battlefield; the large number of visitors; and the never-ending battle between grounds staff and regenerating bushes. The success of the new visitor centre, and the vivid story we’re now able to tell of this famous battle, shows that a little bit of digging goes a long way … but there is still much more to do.

Archaeological finds from Culloden on display
Archaeological finds from Culloden on display