Digging the Largest Pictish Fort in Scotland.



My childhood was spent in Lossiemouth, a mere 8 miles from Burghead. Then, my knowledge of Burghead was a jumbled mix of Druidism, a Roman Well, the burning of the Clavie and the harbour my father’s fishing boat used when the wind was in the wrong direction to get into Lossiemouth harbour. As a child I felt it was definitely a place of history and mystery, but I can’t remember any real historical importance being given to it – well not in Lossiemouth circles anyway! Roll on half a century and Dr. Gordon Noble’s Northern Picts Project and Burghead has become the focus of some recent

The original fort occupied over 7acres but, sadly, much of this was destroyed with the building of the town and the re-building of the harbour in the early 19th century. The remaining area of the fort, with the exception of the Coastguard houses and their gardens are scheduled. This means that an excavation in the Coastguard house gardens could be undertaken with only the permission of the owners. Unfortunately, I was unable to take part in these earlier digs when some interesting occupation layers and a coin from the reign of Alfred the Great were uncovered.
However, the word went out on the Northern Picts Facebook page that Gordon and his team from Aberdeen University were returning to dig again. This time permission from Historic Environment Scotland had been received to dig a specified number of test pits and two explorations into the fort wall. Fortunately, Paul and I were able to join the dig for 3 days.

What remains of Burghead fort is sited on 2 levels- the upper and lower enclosures. The upper enclosure is believed to have been for the hierarchy of the community and the lower level for the habitation of the lower classes.

As befitting our lowly status we spent 2 days cleaning, trowelling, deturfing, shovelling and mattocking in the test pits on the lower level. Only one test pit revealed anything of interest in the way of structure. The others bottomed out with a layer of stones. Initially, there were high hopes this might be a deliberate layer of cobbles, but realistically, it was decided that so close to the sea, and with the history of coastal change that has happened in this area, it was more likely to be a natural layer. A visit from a couple of people with geology knowledge confirmed this.

IMG_0313         Paul cleaning back a layer of ‘cobblestones’ Photo Anji Hancock

One inner wall exploration was on this lower level and the other on the upper level. Cathy McIver from AOC was contracted to work on the lower level wall. For days she seemed to be moving large rocks and images of my time at Clachtoll came back to me! As she went further into the debris which had been piled up against the lower-fort rampart great care had to be taken to keep the area stable and safe. Her toil was rewarded with a layer of black claggy mud which was believed to be contempory with the occupation of the fort.

Cathy’s sharp eyes and years of experience spotted 2 special finds in amongst the midden debris of bones, shells and clag- a simple bronze finger ring and a bone pin with a head decorated with cross-hatching.

30706153_10160134400775648_3327102922721853440_n-2       The bone pin found by Cathy. Photo Northern Picts

Later, another volunteer found a second bone pin whilst sieving Cathy’s spoil.


                      The second bone pin. Photo Northern Picts

The second excavation into the rampart wall was on the upper level overlooking the sea. The grassy bank is all that is visible of the previously 8m thick wall. Now the shoreline is directly below this and it’s amazing to think how much the coastline has changed since the time of occupation.
We had barely been aware of the two diggers who seemed to keep themselves isolated in their lofty, upper level until they announced they’d found a dog skeleton. Intrigued we clambered up to take a look.

Sticking out from the trench wall was the front of the dog’s head with all its teeth bared. A bit grisly looking, our bone expert was very confident it was a recent addition to the headland. For a novice digger like me it was interesting to identify the cut of the pit in the section which someone had dug in order to bury poor, deceased ‘Fido’.



Trench wall with dog skull in situ. Photo-Anji Hancock

This trench became more interesting as it went down. Stonework and burnt timber was uncovered. Excitement grew that an undamaged section of the inner wall might be found. In order to safely deepen the
trench it also needed to be
widened. Enter team Hancock.

We were to be ‘promoted’ to the upper level! I might have felt more privileged if there hadn’t been a strong wind blowing from the west which was resulting in sandstorm-type conditions I was a bit more familiar with in my previous life in Saudi Arabia. In true Middle East style I wrapped my head up in a scarf and begun to attack the tumble of stones and rubble. The layer of sand that was building up on the tarpaulin for our spoil made sense of the layers of sandy soil we had dug through in the trenches on the lower level. Looking across the bay to Findhorn we were reminded of the 2 previous villages which had to be abandoned because of severe sandstorms which had buried them. Had the previous occupants of the fort also had to suffer the unpleasantness and inconvenience of sandstorms? I always find when digging I begin not just to try to make sense of what I see before me but to wonder about exactly what the landscape was like and how this would impact on the inhabitants of the time.



By now I was so sandy it wasn’t bothering me anymore. As we dug down we created our own sheltered space out of the wind and we begun to find bones- lots of them. They appeared this time to be more in keeping with the occupation and as far as we could tell they were cattle. Although, the important focus of this trench was to find the inner wall of the rampart I got far more excited by my bone discoveries! Clearly, I haven’t quite moved on from an amateur ‘it’s all about the finds’ mentality!

 A bag of cattle bones. Photo Anji Hancock

By the end of the day the ‘real’ archaeologists were rewarded with uncovering the intact inner wall face.

I will not attempt to explain it but instead include the link to this fantastic 3D graphic by James of Aberdeen University.






(Taken from Northern Picts Facebook Page)
This is the remarkably intact upper citadel rampart with burnt horizontal wall timber preserved in situ in the wallface of the Pictish fort.

So, after my 3 days of ‘scratching below the surface’ of Burghead I was certainly right in thinking there was more to Burghead than fishing and a good harbour. As the site of the largest known Pictish Fort in Scotland it must have once been a place of great importance.



Canmore, Burghead:



3D model of wall excavation:

Northern Picts Facebook Page:

What did you find today?

I haven’t been on many archaeology digs but I suppose it’s to be expected when you tell someone what you’re doing they invariably ask- What did you find? or Did you find anything? Rarely, have I unearthed anything of great importance but often I’ve been given a tray to put in assorted finds which might include charcoal, bone or pottery depending on the era of the excavation. But what happens to these trays after they are handed in at the end of the day? Since I couldn’t join the trowellers in the trenches, due to a hand operation a few weeks ago, I had opted to help with the finds so I was going to find out.

This week at Tarradale the focus is shell middens from the Mesolithic. Being the Mesolithic there is an expectation to find lithics i.e. pieces of flint or quartz that have been worked in order to be used as tools. Lithics can be very small so easily missed by the troweller in the trench so all their excess trowel material needs to be sieved and in order to make it easier to spot -wet sieved! Sounds fun eh? Donning my waterproof everything I headed to the wet sieving station situated away from the driveway amongst some shrubs and trees.


I am beginning to realise that archaeologists and their volunteers are nothing if not resourceful and my sieving machine proved this once again. Holes had been drilled in a discarded fish box which had then been mounted on a wooden stand. Inside a piece of fine mesh netting held in place with 6 large clips did the job of allowing the water and soil to pass through but to trap the bigger pieces, hopefully including lithics. I emptied half a bag of trowelled material from Mary’s area and set to work with my high powered hose. Although, a few shiny things caught my eye and I stopped the hose to investigate further they were only fragments of shell with jagged edges. Oyster shells, cockle shells, mussels and winkles filled the bottom of the sieve but no lithics or any other proof of Mesolithic people having created the abundance of shell material being investigated on site. I tipped the washed material onto a tray lined with old newspaper and wrote the information about which trench it was from on a white garden label. On to the next batch, and then the next and the next – still nothing exciting. However, just like trowelling there is always the thought that a find will turn up in the next section. From time to time I wandered up to the polytent for more trays to put the washed material in and to have a chat with Linda, who was painstakingly going through some dry shell material looking for lithics and charcoal.


Lunch came and we all gathered under the gazebo in the garden to catch up with what we’d all been dong and to ask- have you found anything? This lunchtime also included a wee talk from Steve mainly about how antlers and bone were used to make a variety of tools. This was extremely interesting and fascinating as Steve had created a few of the tools he was showing us using the type of flint tools that have been found from Mesolithic times. Jonie’s husband Richard had made a wooden replica of the impressive antler mattock uncovered last week. Seeing this and hearing Steve describe how it may have been made certainly helped give it life and a small glimpse into the skills of Mesolithic people.


Lunch over it was back to washing my shell midden material. Still nothing to report. Before long Anne came to get me to work in the gatehouse and record the finds some people had been lucky enough to find. Now I was to find out what happens to that mixed back of finds I have handed in at the end of the day. Each tray was gone through, sorting the contents by material and discarding any that, like my shiny shell, had tricked the troweller into thinking it was something more important. A bag for each material is labelled with the information about it, entered on a card in the dig folder and a smaller duplicate card put inside the bag. Now the bag is ready to be sent for the relevant analysis.


My day working on the finds came to an end. I’ve certainly learned a lot and am I dispondant at not finding anything sieving? – not at all. I’m back there tomorrow and who knows what’s waiting in those unopened bags.

One Weekend- Two Festivals!

Having lived in Saudi for 28 years and missed out on the opportunity to enjoy lots of events I feel we are well and truly making up for lost time! This weekend was certainly an example of this. Having read about the  Inverness Lochness International Knit Festival  way back in spring I made it a definite must do on the calendar. I decided to go for the day on Friday and also take in Ruth Black’s presentation – Pictish Designs in Feltmaking.


Nessie welcome at Eden Court.

It was so inspiring looking around the Crafting area and Marketplace.



2 of Di Gilpin‘s knits.


Danish designer Christel Seyfarth‘s beautiful, colourful wrap. Her knit fest in Denmark had been the inspiration for this one.


Newcomer to the scene and their first ever showing- North Child.


Meeting Philip Paris the author of the new novel ‘Casting Off’.

But one knitted item took me by surprise.


My paternal grandmother’s gansey, knitted for my uncle James.
Moray Firth Gansey Project had a stand and I was instantly drawn to this gansey. The label was tucked behind so it was only when I pulled it forward that I realised it was one of my grandmother’s!
So all in all I had a really good time.
Leaving Inverness behind it was an hour’s drive to Ullapool to go to the Loopallu Music Festival. We had heard a lot about it but hadn’t expected to get there this year until a week ago our usual B&B phoned to say they had a vacancy. Luckily, we were able to get Festival tickets so suddenly we were to be festival goers!!

The setting and the weather were terrific.


The campsite was mobbed!


An excellent 12 year old drummer standing in for the usual drummer who was ill. The group were Davy and the Hosebeast!

Other bands that were a bit more familiar to me were- The Stranglers, The Wonder Stuff, Hunter and the Bear, The Selecter, Rhythm’n’Reel and Manran. As well as playing in the main tent and the ceilidh tent/beer tent there were band in 6 of the pubs in the village. A really good mix of genres too- with the Ullapool Pipe Band kicking off the whole proceedings on Friday afternoon.


Blessed with a lovely evening.

However, I was still on the lookout for colourful knitwear!



The village of Ullapool.

I have visited Ullapool many times and it always seems to come up with one more reason to make it one of my favourite places. This weekend certainly confirmed it.

Machine Felting.


I’m no expert but I have made a few things using the hand felting technique but had never given machine felting much thought. That was until I was visiting one of my favourite wool shops Karelia House near Aberfeldy. There I fell in love with a felted bag I just had to make. It was made using Colinette Hullabaloo 100% wool. Choosing 2 colours for the stripes was easy- nice bright and contrasting; pink and turquoise.


Having bought my wool I was entitled to a free pattern for the bag so I was all set to get knitting. It was an easy knit and I was soon finished with that part of the process.


Next a bit of stitching up. The pattern suggested mattress stitch. I wasn’t sure what that was so a visit to YouTube soon enlightened me. Mattress stitch certainly made the seams nice and snug and I’ll be using it again for suitable projects in the future.


And now for the scary/exciting bit- the machine wash! Tossing my nurtured project into the washing machine and leaving it to the mercy of the 40 degree C wash cycle I went off to work on another project. When the machine wash finished I was right there, holding my breath to see the results……..and I wasn’t disappointed.

Once dry I had fun adding a fun way to fasten my bag using pom poms and a wooden embellishment bought at Hobbycraft.

Here is how it looks.image

Our local Flower Show was yesterday so I bravely entered it in the felted design class.image

What a lovely surprise awaited me after the judges had finished!

Knitted Jumper.

August was Archaeology month for me. I spent most of it digging- but that’s not what I wanted to share today!

However, it was at one of the digs that I met a Finnish student. One day she appeared wearing this stunning jumper.


When I asked her about it she told me someone had knitted it for her mother a long time ago. I’m assuming it’s an Icelandic Lopi style pattern. Lovely to see it is still being loved by the next generation.


I love the way the knitter has also added the colours used for the yoke as dots throughout the rest of the jumper. I have no idea if this was part of the pattern being followed or a creative innovation of their own. I remember these Icelandic jumpers being very popular in the 70’s and a few of my friends knitted them but never in such a colourful, individual way!