Secrets of the Black Isle

17 mins read

Tracing Tarradale through 10,000 years

Excavations at six sites in the Tarradale area, near Inverness, have uncovered archaeology spanning 10,000 years. This trench explored burnt layers within a ring-ditch enclosure identified at Balvattie; the line of the ditch is just in front of the distant ranging pole. CREDIT: Eric Grant

Excavations on a Highland peninsula have uncovered a rich archaeological landscape spanning thousands of years. From a possible Mesolithic structure and an enigmatic ‘promontory fort’ to a monumental Pictish barrow cemetery, Eric Grant takes us through some of the highlights.

Just north of Inverness lies a fertile peninsula known as the Black Isle. Located between the inner Moray/ Beauly Firths and the Cromarty Firth, this area’s rich natural resources have attracted settlers for thousands of years – something attested by several years of winter fieldwalking, which explored soil ploughed by rather more recent inhabitants. It yielded a wide range of stone tools spanning the early Mesolithic to the early Bronze Age, as well as pottery fragments suggesting occupation in the prehistoric, medieval, and post-medieval periods. Unfortunately, intensive agricultural activity in the area had also erased most surface features, but aerial photographs pointed to potentially good archaeological survival beneath the topsoil.

In order to explore these possibilities further, in 2017 we established the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME community archaeology project – an ambitious undertaking investigating some 750ha at the western end of the Black Isle. Most of the excavation programme (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, the North of Scotland Archaeological Society – the project’s sponsors – and some private support) has now been completed, and with post-excavation analysis currently under way, our findings are proving truly exciting. Here we will discuss four of the six areas explored during our investigations, travelling back into the Black Isle’s past over 10,000 years.

The TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project investigated six sites covering the Mesolithic to post-medieval periods; four are discussed in this article. CREDIT: compiled by Bob Jones

As mentioned above, our project was sparked by the discovery of numerous stone tools during fieldwalking. Made principally from flint and quartz, these artefacts have since been geolocated and their distribution mapped; while they were found throughout the study area, there was a clear concentration along the coast – and particularly along a degraded slope a short distance inland that represents where the coastline lay thousands of years ago. Torben Ballin, one of Scotland’s leading lithics specialists, has been carrying out analysis of these finds, confirming that many are Mesolithic in date – mainly later Mesolithic, but the presence of tiny microliths shaped like isosceles triangles suggest that the area was also inhabited during the early Mesolithic period, before 8400 BC.

There were further clues to early activity: during fieldwalking we saw that recent ploughing had brought quantities of shells to the surface. One scatter was so dense that we put a number of test-pits through the topsoil, revealing an extensive midden lying just above the degraded ancient shoreline (Site 2D). These shells were a fascinating find in their own right, but also had a serendipitous effect on the surrounding ploughsoil. Typically the local soil is slightly acidic, which means that organic remains do not generally survive well in the area, but thanks to the shell-induced alkalinity within the sealed midden, both antler and charcoal had survived within its contents: invaluable aids to dating the mound.

Although worked-stone tools were found throughout the area of investigation, there was a notable concentration along the route of an ancient coastline. This plan shows the distribution of lithic finds, as well as shell middens identified during the project. CREDIT: compiled by Bob Jones

One sample of charcoal was radiocarbon dated to c.6632-6480 cal BC, and a cut-off antler tine yielded a date of c.6204-6005 cal BC (both at 95.4% probability). The 500-year difference between the two samples may be significant, as the midden was clearly stratified with deposits of shells interleaved with carbon-rich layers. The excavated portion probably represents only a fragment of what was once a huge shell midden, but at present we are unable to say if the site was continually occupied or was simply a favoured seasonal camping ground. Either way, though, these are highly significant results, the earliest radiocarbon dates yet obtained for the whole of the Black Isle, and they helped to inform the rest of the strategy for our excavations.

In fact, fieldwalking had identified the presence of six or seven shell middens, and in 2017 two were excavated. The first (Site 2B) lay at the foot of the former shoreline, less than 100m from the current highwater mark. A happy accident of topography made it inaccessible to modern ploughing and – in contrast to the field immediately adjacent, where agricultural activity had completely destroyed the midden (only a few scattered shells survived in the topsoil) – here auguring and limited test-pitting indicated that 2B had considerable archaeological potential.

Among the finds from Site 2B were rare antler artefacts dating to the Mesolithic period, including this harpoon. CREDIT: Michael Sharpe

We were not disappointed: removal of the thin topsoil quickly exposed a relatively deep shell midden that was carefully excavated by metre squares. Analysis of the shellfish species provides a pleasing link with the present: they are mainly oysters, mussels, cockles, and periwinkles, all found in the Beauly Firth today. Shell dumps like these are thought to represent food waste discarded close to where the hunter-gatherers were living. Other refuse of this kind included the bones of mammals, birds, and fish – but the star find among the midden’s contents was a piece of worked antler. Excavation of the shell mound had hardly begun when this large fragment began to appear, to great excitement, and there was even more excitement when it was realised that it had a hole drilled through it.

The object was carefully extracted, revealing that it was a largely intact antler tool known as a ‘T-axe’: a mid-cut of a deer antler, drilled through the thickest part after a tine is removed, and with an axe-shaped edge. Three days later, there were further rare finds: a second, similar (though in less good condition) T-axe, closely followed by part of a biserial barbed point (a kind of antler harpoon with barbs on each side). These artefacts were uncovered by amateur volunteers supervised by AOC Archaeology, and research has demonstrated that no examples of antler T-axes or antler harpoons had previously been recorded from the north of Scotland. Indeed, only three antler T-axes of this type have been found in the whole of Scotland (all in central or western Scotland; a possible fourth is lost), the best known being the Meiklewood antler axe from near Stirling. The biserial barbed point is another very uncommon find in Scotland, with only one other attested example, again from west central Scotland. These antler finds literally put Tarradale on the map of Mesolithic Scotland, bringing the north of the country into the known sphere of Mesolithic antler-working.

And this T-axe. CREDIT: Michael Sharpe

As we explored the area of the midden, it became apparent that there was an island of buff-coloured silt approximately 6m in diameter that seemed to be completely surrounded by shells, as well as a number of stone settings, but the silt did not contain any shells. What did this gap in the shells represent? We suggest that it might be interpreted as a possible Mesolithic hut or tent structure that was encircled by midden that had built up above the level of the structure’s interior.

It appears that, after the site was abandoned, the depression left by the decayed hut filled up with silt washed down from the steep bank immediately above. If this is indeed a hut or some similar structure (and potentially another one lies partly underneath the bank), it would be another first for the north of Scotland. A series of radiocarbon dates from the shell midden fell within the bracket of 4782-3643 cal BC (at 95.4% probability) – a range of more than 1,000 years, suggesting that the site had been occupied, if not continuously, at least regularly and potentially continuing into the early Neolithic period.

A few hundred metres further east was Site 2A, another surviving part of the former raised coastline forming a promontory. There, shell midden deposits interbedded with charcoal were found at the bottom of the slope at the same height as Site 2B (8-9m above sea level), with further shell midden layers at the slope’s summit, about 8m higher. Charcoal recovered from a test-pit dug at this higher point provided a date of 4352-4261 cal BC, while a piece of bone from a trench at the foot of the slope was dated to 4225- 3961 cal BC. Interestingly, although topographically Sites 2A and 2B are very similar, there was a much wider spread of dates at 2A than 2B, and at the former site charcoal excavated at the foot of the slope gave a date of 3012-2895 cal BC. This is well into the Neolithic period, again raising the question of whether the people living there were leading a Neolithic lifestyle or whether they were still essentially hunters and gatherers.

Excavation at Site 2B revealed the well-preserved remains of a Mesolithic shell midden, in the heart of which was an enigmatic void surrounded by possible stone settings. The team suggests this might represent the remains of a Mesolithic structure. CREDIT: Eric Grant

One more significant date came from a test-pit on the top of the promontory, where a piece of bone was dated to 6071-5925 cal BC – a particularly early result, comparable with the late 7th-millennium date that was recovered from Site 2D, a kilometre to the west, which was excavated in 2011. A clear pattern is beginning to emerge of two major phases of Mesolithic settlement at Tarradale, one that can be dated to the 7th millennium BC, with shell middens located on top of the old shoreline at circa 17m above sea level, and a later phase of Mesolithic occupation on a raised beach or terrace developed at the foot of the old shoreline at around 8-9m above sea level.


And what of the Neolithic? The presence of a chambered cairn on the higher boulder clay that overlooks the fertile lands of Tarradale testifies to occupation during this period, but no Neolithic settlement site has yet been located in the area. It is likely that ploughing has destroyed anything whose remains were no deeper than the topsoil, but fieldwalking found plentiful evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age activity in the area, such as classic leaf-shaped and tanged and barbed arrowheads, while controlled metal-detecting discovered a beautiful tinned bronze flat axe and part of a bronze socketed axe.

Aerial photographs add to this picture, revealing a tantalising pattern of circular, semi-circular, and linear features at Balvattie Farm, which excavations in 2018 revealed to be a complex landscape of ditches and pits. One feature in particular caught the eye during our investigations: a flat-bottomed ring ditch forming a circle 26m in diameter. From the air it looked superficially like the footprint of a roundhouse, but it was surely too big to have been a structure of this kind. We hoped that excavation would shed more light on its purpose. The enclosing ditch proved to be about 2m wide, and while its surviving depth was relatively shallow, about 1m, it was possibly originally twice as deep before being truncated by ploughing. At the centre of this circuit was a spread of baked silty soil, intermixed with very fine charcoal, testifying to intense burning on one or more occasions – though this area had been swept clean, with only tiny fragments of bone and charcoal lodged in the burnt surface, and no further clues to what this burning had been for were found.

At Balvattie, cropmarks represent the remains of a complex scatter of pits and ditches. The bottom image picks out some of these lines, and the trenches that were opened over a large ring ditch, a possible palisaded enclosure, and a particularly large pit. CREDIT: Historic Environment Scotland

Further traces of human activity lay outside the ring ditch, in the form of several pits about 1m in diameter and up to 1m deep. Traces of possible posts and packing stones were found within them, as well as small pieces of prehistoric pottery. Close by, a prominent cropmark hinted at another, larger pit, which proved on excavation to be several metres wide and steeply shelved to a depth of up to 2m. In stark contrast to its smaller neighbours, this pit’s fills comprised a very complex pattern of deposits, the topmost of which was cut with a second, smaller pit, sitting on top of a layer of cobbles. This latter pit was filled with reddish-pink (heat-affected) silt overlain by a rich deposit of charred wood – all clues to it being a fire pit. Together, the two features create something of an enigma – the purpose of the main pit remains obscure, and we are also faced with the interesting question of whether the fire pit’s co-location is coincidental, or whether it was cut into its larger predecessor because the original pit had survived as a feature in the landscape or in folk memory.

Our final trench in this area investigated one of the curved ditches that lay a short distance from the ring ditch. It was a well-constructed, narrow feature with steep, near-vertical sides, interrupted by what appeared to be an entrance with a distinctive, carefully squared terminal and a post-hole. We suggest that this could have been a ditch or slot supporting a wooden palisade, and that the gap represents where an entrance or gateway may have stood, allowing access for a path leading to the enclosure beyond. It is difficult to understand what the pattern of ditches and pits at Balvattie may originally have signified, and they may not all be the same date – apart from a few pieces of pottery in some of the smaller pits, there was an almost total dearth of artefacts – but they are thought to be most likely Bronze Age or Neolithic. It could be that we are looking at the remains of an enclosed gathering area for people and animals, who came together for seasonal activities accompanied by feasting and ritual depositing in pits. Forthcoming radiocarbon dates will be crucial in trying to understand the sequencing, and we look forward to seeing what light they shed on this complex site.

Projecting into a peat-filled ‘kettle hole’ (the dark areas), a spit of land is cut off by arcs of ditches, safeguarding what is today known as Gilchrist promontory fort. CREDIT: Historic Environment Scotland

Almost at the centre of the old Tarradale estate, close to the original medieval church, lies an intriguing series of cropmarks delineating Gilchrist promontory fort. Visible only from the air, they form three concentric arcs of ditches and banks, cutting off a small spit of land that once projected into what is known as a ‘kettle hole’ – a depression left behind by retreating glaciers, which may have once been filled with water. In Scotland, sites like these are typically associated with the Bronze and Iron Ages (although some were built or reoccupied by the Picts), and in 2018 we set out to see what could be learned from the Gilchrist site.

Our first trench quickly confirmed the presence of the three ditches that show up in aerial photos. They varied greatly in scale – the outermost was broad, if relatively shallow (3.9m wide and 87cm deep), with a gently rounded base, but it was dwarfed by its neighbour, a massive construction some 6.5m across with a steep U-shaped profile. Moving inwards again, the third was narrower, about 2m across, but with a similar U-shaped design – and beyond this came a complete surprise: a fourth ditch, invisible from the air, running right round the perimeter of the fort. At 3m wide and measuring about 45cm from the surface to its flat base, it appears to represent a final defence or enclosure demarcating the fort, and we wonder if it might have been originally backed by some kind of wall or wooden palisade.

Just outside Gilchrist promontory fort, the team found evidence of possible defences. This image was taken looking from the peat bog towards the interior of the fort; a possible stake from a palisade barrier can be seen where the trench narrows, as well as the remains of what may be a degraded boundary wall at the break of the slope. CREDIT: Eric Grant

As for what lay within the fort’s bounds, a trench opened in the interior revealed only plough furrows etched into the natural substrate, suggesting that any earlier occupation deposits had been scoured away by modern agriculture. However, towards the western end of the promontory, another trench uncovered a well-constructed rammed clay surface, possibly the floor or a structure whose extent and date remain unknown.

Meanwhile, just outside the fort on the boundary between waterlogged peat and the higher ground of the promontory, we found further apparent defences: a concentration of small to large cobbles overlain by very dark soil that also contained fragments of very gritty pottery of possibly Iron Age date. We interpreted this as a boundary feature, perhaps the collapsed remains of a stone wall or the core of a stone-and-earth bank cresting the slope just below the fort. Immediately outside this, a waterlogged timber preserved in the peat could be a fallen stake or a pile from an enclosing palisade. These myriad features are still being unpicked, but this was clearly a major construction representing a vast amount of labour, highlighting the influence commanded by the local elite who had it built.


The last aspect of our project that we will explore here brings us forward to the 5th or 6th century AD, a momentous period in the formation of early kingdoms in northern Britain. Part of this centralisation of power is reflected in the creation of monumental cemeteries, and it had long been known from aerial photographs that Tarradale (which lies within what was the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu) was home to a significant Pictish barrow cemetery – in fact, the second-largest burial ground of this type known in Scotland.

Tarradale is home to the secondlargest Pictish barrow cemetery known in Scotland. This plan shows the outlines of ploughed-out burial mounds documented during the recent excavations. CREDIT: Lindsey Stirling and Steven Birch

Juliette Mitchell, a PhD student at the University of Aberdeen, used cropmarks to map the known extent of the cemetery, documenting at least 28 round and square barrows. It is thought that the site could have originally been more extensive, however, as parts of it have either been ploughed out or are too deeply buried to show in aerial photographs. In September 2019, we began a major research excavation to find out more, opening three large trenches (totalling almost half an acre) to explore the different patterns and sizes of the barrows.

It soon became clear that the cemetery had indeed been built on a vast scale. Our first trench, on the highest part of the site, revealed four large ditched barrows cut into the very stony soil. While aerial photographs had suggested some loss of barrow features in this area, owing to plough damage and natural soil erosion downhill, we found the ditches to be relatively well preserved. It was a promising start, and there were further exciting developments to come.

In Trenches 2a and 2b, we were working with a very different soil (a sandy substrate) and a very different pattern of barrows. Here we found a large segmented ring ditch some 30m in diameter, 1-1.5m deep, and steep-sided, and while there was no sign of a grave within it, the presence of two fragments of beaker pottery (one from the ditch, plus an earlier topsoil find) hints at a Bronze Age date for this barrow. If this is correct, we believe that this earlier feature was still a prominent landmark in the landscape around 2,000 years later, when a large Pictish square barrow (17m across with causewayed corners) was laid out nearby.

Excavation supervisor Steven Birch investigates the interior of a square barrow. CREDIT: Eric Grant

This latter monument was more than quadrupled in size when it was surrounded by a second square enclosure of truly impressive proportions (measuring 40m across, with ditches up to 7m wide and 2m deep). Whether this was constructed contemporaneously with the inner square or as a later enlargement and aggrandisement is not known, but the resulting double-ditched square is the largest of its kind known in Scotland. If it was a burial mound (though a shrine or some kind of funerary meeting place are other interesting possibilities), it hints at an occupant of the highest, possibly royal, social status.

Trench 3 was a massive undertaking, opening an area 40m long and up to 25m wide, and as the hundreds of tonnes of soil were scraped back, an amazing array of ditches and pits emerged. A round barrow 7m in diameter (containing a clear central grave cut) lay a short distance from a larger (17m-wide) round barrow, with another large example beyond. Close by, two neatly laid-out square barrows, c.8m wide with causewayed corners, were accompanied by a larger square (or, more correctly, diamond-shaped) barrow 13m across. Sections across the barrow ditches revealed them to be only 1-2m wide and fairly shallow, and both within and without the barrows we noted numerous pits and areas of burnt soil, as well as several unenclosed graves scattered between the monuments.

Trench 3 was a huge undertaking, covering almost 1,000mÇ. It uncovered the remains of barrows of dramatically different sizes and shapes, one of which (the diamond-shaped example at the top of the image) contained the only trace of human remains discovered on the site. CREDIT: Andy Hickie

Despite the presence of these graves, however, the acidic local soil meant that any human remains that they might have contained have not survived. We decided to investigate two graves more closely, the first being an unenclosed cut lying between two square barrows. Here, too, no human bone was found, but the outline of a log coffin was preserved as a dark stain in the soil, confirming that a burial had once been present. The second grave lay in an eccentric position, within but towards the side of the diamond-shaped barrow. It was initially difficult to discern if the bottom of the grave had been reached (indeed, many of the graves proved challenging to define, being cut into fairly homogeneous light-coloured sands and gravels, and backfilled with the same material), but we could see some intriguing blackened patches and – typically, on the final day of the 2019 excavation – some inspired trowel work by Steven Birch, the supervisor of the excavation, revealed the shadowy outline of a human skeleton.

The emergence of monumental cemeteries like these is seen as an important transition in the visibility of the dead in the archaeological record. The creation of larger barrows may be linked with the emergence of elites and kingship, and the aggrandisement of existing grave mounds with the increasing status of the deceased’s descendants. Yet this kind of monumentality begins to disappear in the region from the 7th century onwards, possibly owing to the evolution of overkingship based in southern Pictland and the growing influence of Christianity favouring simpler burials close to churches. Over the past three years, the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project has dramatically shown that, beneath the plough soil, lie a series of superimposed landscapes bearing witness to intensive settlement and exploitation of natural resources over a long period of time, as well as telling a potent story of emerging power.

Local soil conditions meant that human remains had generally not survived within the Tarradale barrows, but, on the final day of the 2019 excavation, the shadowy outline of a skeleton within a log coffin was discovered. CREDIT: James McComas/TARRADALE THROUGH TIME

No bony structures had survived – the shape was purely a chemical deposit from the complete deterioration of the skeleton – but it was remarkably detailed, with each vertebra of the spine and the shape of the upper arms and shoulders, legs, and feet visible. Interestingly, the lower limbs seem to have been bound together before burial, and the whole individual was surrounded by the faint outline of a coffin. The skull had survived slightly better, though it had collapsed in on itself, and we have been able to lift it for further investigation – it is hoped that if any teeth survive in the sand filling the cranium, we may be able to carry out isotope analysis to learn more about this individual’s life.

TEXT: Dr Eric Grant is project leader for TARRADALE THROUGH TIME.


B Elliott (2015) ‘Facing the Chop: Redefining British Antler Mattocks to Consider Larger-scale Maritime Networks in the Early Fifth Millennium Cal BC’, European Journal of Archaeology 18(2): 222-244.

Gordon Noble and Nicholas Evans (eds) (2019) The King in the North: the Pictish realms of Fortriu and Ce, Edinburgh: Birlinn.

For more information about the TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project, see

This article appeared in CA 360. Read more features the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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