Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
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With a surname like Selkirk, it is perhaps unsurprising that CA’s founders Andrew and Wendy made regular forays to Scotland to report on its archaeology from the earliest days of the magazine. The wealth of archaeology across Scotland, the often stunning locations of sites, and the long history of antiquarian and archaeological endeavour in the country all make it an especially appealing and rewarding place to study and appreciate the past. This latest column excavating the CA archive as part of the magazine’s 50th anniversary celebrations is thus devoted to all things Scottish featured over the years.
Scotland gets a flying mention in CA 1, but the first proper site report comes in CA 2 (May 1967) about Dun Ardtreck. As CA describes it, ‘Dun Ardtreck is situated on the west coast of the Isle of Skye, opposite Bracadale. The fort is on the top of an isolated rocky knoll, one edge of which is a cliff which falls precipitously 75ft into the sea’. In the summer of 1966, the Selkirks visited the research excavations then under way: Euan MacKie was investigating the relationship and development of duns and brochs in the Western Isles. MacKie, for anyone unfamiliar with his work, is a distinguished Scottish archaeologist with a long history of work at the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow, where in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s he was in charge of prehistoric collections.
CA 3 (July 1967) gave CA’s readers the chance to distract themselves from lurid newspaper stories chronicling the ‘Summer of Love’ with a special report on early Christianity in Britain. This included a detailed article by the archaeologist Charles Thomas (best known for his work in Cornwall) on ‘How Christianity Came to Northern Britain’ that mentions a number of major Scottish Christian sites, alongside others in Cumberland (now Cumbria) and Northumberland. It was only in CA 34 (September 1972), however, that a whole issue was devoted to Scotland. CA 34’s backcover map demonstrates the number of locations visited (and related mileage driven) by the Selkirks the previous year. Intriguingly, rather than exploring sites of different periods, CA 34 focused solely on Neolithic chambered tombs, reflecting the intensity of research in Scotland on these structures in the 1960s and early 1970s. CA 90 (January 1984) includes two stunning Scottish case-studies. The first of these is a bittersweet review of the Mesolithic archaeology of the island of Jura, one of the Inner Hebrides. The report acts as a memorial to the archaeologist John Mercer, who died unexpectedly in July 1982, robbing Scottish prehistory of one of its most dedicated workers. The article, written not by the Selkirks but by Mercer’s colleague Susan Seawright, is a wonderful overview of the complex prehistory of the island. More happily, CA 90 also has a detailed account of one of the most comprehensive excavations of a distinctive Scottish site-type: Oakbank Iron Age crannog on Loch Tay, where excavations led by Nicholas Dixon investigated the site both above and below water in the early 1980s.
The contents of CA 127 (December 1991) came courtesy of a special invitation to boost the magazine’s Scottish coverage. As the editorial explains: ‘When David Breeze became Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Scotland he soon approached us with a request: Current Archaeology had not been devoting enough space to Scotland, so how about a special Scottish issue? He therefore invited me up to Edinburgh, where I spent a delightful week staying with his family, and then went on to visit Glasgow, Aberdeen, and as far north as Lairg. The result was an embarrassment of riches…’. Little wonder, then, that ever since, Scottish special editions have been a regular feature, with numerous follow-ups, as well as single-site reports over the years.
A wide range of places are explored in CA 127, and the Selkirks also managed to fit in one of their periodic interviews, appropriately with the man who encouraged them northwards, David Breeze. The 1991 special edition is also particularly pleasing as it includes some colour photographs, which by this period in CA’s history were coming into regular use as printing technologies advanced. Most notable is a fine cover photograph of Sueno’s Stone, a standing stone of the 9th-10th century AD. This lies on the north-easterly edge of Forres, and the cover photograph shows the largest Pictish stone of its type in Scotland in all its glory. Its most recent appearance in the media has been for more depressing reasons, after vandals caused £10,000-worth of damage to the glass panels protecting the monument in December 2016. Mercifully, the stone itself does not seem to have been damaged.
Later Scottish special editions include CA 131 (October 1992), with another wonderful cover and related story, this time of a whalebone plaque from the 6th-7th century AD Viking boat burial at Scar, Orkney. The Selkirks were back again in CA 147 (April 1996). This issue focused especially on Hebridean archaeology from all ages, including the extraordinarily long-lived multiperiod (Neolithic to modern) settlement of Udal on North Uist, the prehistoric standing stones of Druim Dubh on the island of Lewis & Harris, and the Callanish Project and Valtos Peninsula, also on Lewis, a Neolithic and Bronze Age ritual site. More recently, CA 228 (March 2009) features a celebration of 100 years of the Scottish and Welsh Royal Commissions, which is particularly worth mentioning for the range of sites – from prehistory to present – that it discusses. It also contains an article on the dramatic Viking Age settlement on the Brough of Deerness, a sea-stack on the east coast of Mainland Orkney.
OVER IN ORKNEY
Indeed, Orkney has done particularly well over the more recent years of CA, with further appearances in CA 253 (April 2011, which also includes a report on the archaeology of Stirling Castle), CA 268 (July 2012), and the Orkney special in CA 275 (February 2013). This special edition offers focused site reports on the Links of Noltland (a Neolithic and later Bronze Age settlement in north Westray) and South Howe (part of the larger Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site), and a series of interlinked site reports on the Orcadian island of Rousay.
More sites from across Scotland have been reported on over the years than I have room to mention here. It truly is, as Andrew Selkirk wrote, ‘an embarrassment of riches’. Do write in with suggestions for other places that I have not mentioned, or begin your own excavations into the CA archive, as well as into your own records – memories or photos of sites CA has visited over the years are always welcome.
Discover old issues
Read the articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. The articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 1 February. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI324’.