There is a small, unprepossessing island in Loch Migdale, close to its western shore. In January the dead sticks of some bushes poke out of the yellowed remains of last year’s grass, and the whole is encircled by a clatter of grey rocks. This is not the type of island which draws the eye, which makes a pretty photo, or which induces you to find a canoe and paddle out to it. As unremarkable as it is aesthetically, it is a window into the Iron Age in East Sutherland. This is because the island is not just an island, it is a crannog.
The remains of some crannogs are visible, like this one. Others have been detected by underwater archaeologists who have excavated stones and wood close to loch shores. Whether built on pre-existing islands; on artificial islands, such as I expect this one is; or whether on stilts; what all crannogs have in common is that they were large houses protected by the water.
On the shores of Loch Tay in Perthshire, a crannog has been reconstructed. Made of wattle and daub, the circular walls are topped by a high pointed roof. It sits on a wooden platform some ten or fifteen feet above the water. From the shore you venture out onto a wooden walkway, just like the one that the Loch Migdale crannog would have had. The walkway continues around the hut, providing a view of every part of the shore, and up the long miles of the loch. Once inside the building your eyes quickly adjust to the dimness. Smoke filters through the thatched roof from a fire in the centre of the floor. Around the perimeter are beds heaped up with blankets, covering the straw or heather base. They could be used as seats during the day and slept in at night. It is surprisingly spacious. There is plenty of room for children to play; perhaps for dogs or cats or chickens; for women to cook and spin; and for men to carve tools or plait heather ropes. Perhaps an extended family would have lived here.
The Loch Migdale Crannog Photograph from collection of Elizabeth Ritchie
It is a lot of effort to go to: making a house perched above the water, or building an artificial island to live on. There must have been pressing reasons to go to the effort. Perhaps there were wild animals. We know that the last wolf in Scotland was not killed until the eighteenth century. There were still bears in the medieval period, and perhaps lynx or other predators also. Neighbours may not have been friendly. In years of poor harvests when there were food shortages, people and their supplies were at risk from raiding parties from hungry communities in other glens. There may have been political rivalries of neighbouring kings or chiefs which were fought out between their followers, armed men not scrupling about stealing and burning property or capturing, killing or raping enemies. There may have been external invaders as a tribe, people group or kingdom expanded its borders, or appropriated farming and hunting territory at the point of the sword, just as the Norse did many centuries later. Whoever or whatever the threat was, it was possible to retreat onto a crannog with neighbours, friends, and supplies, and fight off an attack. It seems that the crannog dwellers lived in an era of danger. At the same time, at least for those who did live in crannogs, Iron Age homes do appear to have been spacious and comfortable.
The Loch Migdale crannog was built about 2000 years ago. The island was probably larger at the time, perhaps having a wooden palisade round it, enclosing some garden, with the hut in the middle. Nearby, on the shore, were found traces of iron working. It is possible that this activity was connected with the crannog. Someone with the wealth and authority to build a crannog would be a man with some local power – perhaps a well-to-do farmer who made his own metal tools or who employed someone to do it for him. There is evidence that the island was re-used as late as 1630, possibly again as a living space or possibly for protection.
In 2003 Time Team came to investigate the crannog. At the same time they investigated a nearby enclosure which might well date from the same period. It seems likely that in such an area, with fertile soil and beside a freshwater loch, there could have been quite a community of people, several with the wealth to build spacious, well protected houses that we can still get a glimpse of today.
This is the Time Team episode. The picture quality is variable, but the programme is well worth watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqetgtbOlbE&list=PLiw5X7jx1CEMl85aS6HhQqKarb5jPbCWz&index=4
Key information was taken from an interpretation panel on the north side of Loch Migdale, designed by the Kyle of Sutherland Initiative by the National Museums of Scotland, 2005.
Comments below from archaeologists would be most welcome!