The archaeology of Loch Migdale

A Bronze Age treasure, an Iron Age crannog, a small henge, a hut circle, cairns… There is evidence of human habitation in the shores of Loch Migdale for more than 4,000 years.

Aerial view. Crannogs typically appear as small, circular islets, often 10 to 30 metres in diameter, covered in dense vegetation. Loch Migdale crannog is now completely underwater, as a 20th century hydro-electric scheme in the loch raised the water level by 2m. / © Gregor Laing
Close-up of the submerged crannog. / © Gregor Laing
Clearance cairns in Tulloch Hill, where the Migdale Hoard was found. / © Donald Bain
View of the loch from Tulloch Hill. © Donald Bain
The Migdale henge had an external bank and internal ditch, and a single east-facing entrance. © Donald Bain
Crannog reconstruction, a 1990s archaeological experiment in Loch Tay led by Dr Nicholas Dixon and Ms Barrie Andrian, now the Scottish Crannog Centre. © Lensman300 / AdobeStock

In May 1900, while placing explosives to blast a granite knoll to the west of Loch Migdale, a group of workers found a series of metal artifacts, ornaments and buttons concealed in a crevice on the knoll. The land was part of Skibo estate, and its owner at the time, Mr Andrew Carnegie, who was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, exhibited the findings the following year.

The Migdale Hoard –as it became known– was a very influential discovery, as some of the objects were exceedingly rare. It was believed initially that the treasure may have belonged to one wealthy individual who tucked it away in time of trouble and never recovered it. Other theories point to a sacrificial offering to the gods.

As reported in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 35 (1901), the hoard consists of “two flat bronze axes; three pairs of plain solid rings or armlets of bronze; a pair of flat ornamented armlets, and a portion of another; a necklace of forty (or thereby) cylindrical beads of thin bronze; one (or probably two) ear pendants of bronze; portions, more or less complete, of four (or possibly five) conical hollow bosses of thin bronze, and six buttons of jet of the usual more or less conical form”.

The objects are all typical from the Bronze Age, and thanks to the carbon dating of a piece of willow found inside one of the beads, we now know it was buried between 2250 and 1950 BC.

The Migdale hoard demonstrates that the elite in north-East Scotland between 2250 and 1950 BC had important contacts across the North Sea

The axehead had been coated with tin to enhance its appearance, a technique used by the early metalworkers of north-east Scotland. The armlets, made of solid bronze, were worn in sets of three to resemble spiral armrings, evocating Bavarian fashion of the era. There were two flat bronze bangles or anklets, with mouldings around their exterior and decorated with vertical lines. The collection of buttons is particularly interesting, as one is made of jet, imported from Yorkshire, while the other five are made of local cannel coal. These kind of buttons with V-shaped holes were a widespread early Bronze Age fashion across much of Europe.

The rest of the hoard consists of a series of sheet bronze ornaments and beads with wooden cores that may have been part of an elaborate woman’s headdress of central-north European style (Bavaria). The copper used to make these objects was imported from South West Ireland.

The exact place of the discovery was unclear during many decades, until in March 2003, Chanel 4 Time Team archaeologists, who came to investigate Loch Migdale’s crannog, henge and hut circle, interviewed some locals, including Marion Fraser, who remembered being shown as a child where the hoard had been discovered in Tulloch Hill, and was able to point the team in the right direction.

The Migdale Hoard was donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1964-5 by Mrs M Carnegie Miller, descendant of Mr Andrew Carnegie.

Time Team’s excavation

In 2003, Videotext Communications carried out an archaeological evaluation as part of the Time Team television series on the shore of Loch Migdale. The work comprised a geophysical survey and trial trenches, which were located across a crannog, a henge and a hut circle.

The crannog had not been investigated before, so one of the first jobs for the team was to ascertain that the islet was man-made. Crannogs are artificial islands built mainly in lochs –although there are a few recorded cases in rivers (Loch Brora) and at sea (Redcastle, Beauly Firth). Crannog remains are distributed from Shetland accross to County Cork in Ireland, with the Highland region at its centre. There are hundreds of recognised crannogs and probably many more to be explored and officially recorded. The oldest ones date back to the Neolithic (4000-2500 BC) and have only been found in Lewis, Uists and Islay. The majority of the crannogs in Scotland date from the Iron Age period (800 BC-300 AD). We don’t know why the ancient people chose to live surrounded by water, and why they went through all the effort of building an artificial island when in some cases natural islets were available nearby. Some crannogs were used all throughout the middle ages, even appearing as inhabited on maps as late as the 1600s.

The crannog at Migdale was examined by a team of underwater archaeologists led by Dr Nicholas Dixon. They found fragments of charcoal on the top, a series of oak timbers and stakes below the water, as well as organic matter such as bracken, which was used to cover the floor. Carbon dating gave two different periods: one reading is dated around 800-420 BC, and the second 100 BC to 150 AD, which means there was activity at the site at least 300 and maybe 650 years later. The team concluded that there was no doubt that the remains are those of a crannog connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway.

The henge and cairn

The team also excavated a mini-henge of just 12m diameter situated 250m east of the crannog. A previous excavation had taken place in 1970 by Dr Anthony Woodham. Henges were closely related to the spiritual world, perhaps for astronomical observation or ritual burials. The team looked for significant alignements within the henge, and Dr Alison Sheridon found that a wooden post in the centre would have been aligned with a standing stone at the entrance and the rising sun during the equinox.

The henge, hut circle and the cairn are all likely from the late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, although no dating evidence was recovered.

The area also features a number of clearance cairns, these are irregular piles of stones which have been removed for improving arable land or pasture. The practice originated in the Bronze Age and continues today. In some areas, they are the only evidence of past agricultural activity.

Four millennia ago, people cultivated the land around Loch Migdale, leaving behind clearance cairns. Some of them were wealthy enough to be in possession of a treasure consisting of metalworks and ornaments made with imported materials. They also performed rituals involving astronomical alignments. A few centuries later, they built and lived in a small artificial island in the loch, perhaps for protection.

The Time Team (Channel 4) investigation –lasting only three days– produced important information on the prehistory of the area. The episode is available online. The Migdale Hoard is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. To know more about crannogs, watch the recent lecture by Michael Stratigos in the ARCH Youtube channel.

by Silvia Muras

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