Friday, October 31, 2008
Reconstruction of the crannog on Milton Loch excavated in 1953. (Tracey Croft)
All over Scotland, but particularly in the west, are small, artificially constructed islands in lochs, marshes, rivers and estuaries known as crannogs. They were built of timber, brushwood or stones and often utilized natural features on the lake bed to give them greater stability. Many began as wooden platforms which were later reinforced with boulders and it is these which now appear as stone mounds protruding above the surface of a loch, or in reclaimed fields close to the water’s edge.
On the islands stood wooden buildings, usually circular huts, although rectangular ones are known. It is assumed that these were permanent dwellings which would also have served as refuges in times of emergency, providing safe store huts for food and livestock away from predators and vermin and also acting as fishing and fowling bases. Some were connected to the shore by stone or wooden causeways and it is likely that good farming land existed close by. From time to time log boats have been found offering an alternative means of access. Although excavated sites such as Milton Loch (Kirkcudbright) give dates in the fifth century BC, and Lochmaben (Dumfries) in the first century BC, it is very clear that crannogs were built over an excessively long period from early in the first millennium BC until at least the sixteenth century AD.
Mrs C.M.Piggot’s excavation of one of the crannogs in Milton Loch in 1953 is one of the best documented. An island constructed of timbers over clay lay some 35 m. (38 yd) from the present shoreline, to which it was connected by a wooden causeway. It had its own small wooden jetty and harbour leading out into deep water, which was partially supported by a rock outcrop. The island was mainly occupied by a round house with a conical reed-thatched roof. It was 12.8 m. (14 yd) in diameter, and had been partitioned into a series of rooms, one with a central hearth. Around the edge was a gangway 1.5m. (1.6 yd) wide supported on a framework of stout wooden piles.
The plough head and stilt of a wooden ard was uncovered beneath the foundations and was dated to 460–500 BC; an enamelled bronze dressfastener from within the house dated from the second century AD. These divergent dates suggest an intermittent use of the crannog over some seven centuries, and any attempt to interpret the excavation should bear in mind that all the features uncovered were not necessarily contemporary. Fragments of a quern and a spindle-whorl, together with the plough ard, suggest a simple economy of mixed farming on the loch shore, supplemented by fishing and fowling, during the late Iron Age.