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Issue 12 - A special kind of tree house

Scotland Magazine Issue 12
January 2004

 

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A special kind of tree house

The Scottish Crannog centre brings history to life in spectacular fashion. Joyce Bram went to visit it.

I must confess I’m a bit of a Philistine when it comes to history. Museums make me morose and castles leave me cold. But even I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the Scottish Crannog Centre, near Kenmore, on the shores of Loch Tay in Perthshire.

The reconstruction of a round home on stilts over a loch, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Scotland since 500BC, was an ambitious project undertaken by underwater archaeologists, Ms Barrie Andrian, managing director of the centre, and Dr Nicholas Dixon, from Edinburgh University, the instigator of crannog research.

They set up The Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology about 11 years ago, and since then have made some amazing and significant discoveries.

“Crannog is a term derived from a Gaelic word meaning young wood or tree,” Barrie told me.

“The earliest crannogs date as far back as 5,000 years. There are at least 400 or 500 sites all over the country, and it’s believed they were in use until the 17th century.

“There were different types of crannog, all imposing structures which required large amounts of resources to build and maintain.”

The idea of living on a natural, or man made, island was an attractive one for several reasons; a crannog was probably a status home for an important member of the community and his extended family, possibly housing 15 to 25 people at a time.

Being surrounded by water would have been an effective form of defence against, what were in those days, common animals such as; wolves, bear, lynx and most vicious of all, wild boar.

Even the midges don’t go further than half way along the walkway. There’s no evidence to suggest the crannog people were under threat from war-like rivals or marauders.

On Loch Tay there are the remains of 18 crannogs, although it’s difficult to say how many of these would have been occupied at any particular time.

One of them, Oak Bank at Fearnan, on the north side of the loch, is where the archaeologists concentrated their excavations.

They found well-preserved timber, plant and food remains, insulation, utensils and cloth. They discovered so much information about the construction of the house itself, they took the bold decision to reconstruct one similar.

It was done as an archaeological experiment,taking two and a half years to build, using the labour of a handful of volunteers. It was finished and opened to the public in 1997.

The Exhibition and Visitor Centre opened three years later, and last year they welcomed about 23,000 people to the site.

After visitors have viewed the recovered artefacts in the exhibition and acquired some background to the subject of underwater archaeology, they can be taken along the walkway, to see inside a crannog for themselves.

Scotty, the new boy on the Crannog Centre team, a large affable Scotsman dressed in clothes fitting for the period was my tour leader.

He describes the logistical problems involved with crannog reconstruction, and also what life would have been like as an inhabitant. Twentieth century man used 2,000 bunches of Tay reed and two miles of rope to construct the conical roof, weighing between four and five tons.

Sitting on a crude wooden bench in the dim light it isn’t hard to imagine the daily hustle and bustle of crannog life. In the centre, the metaphorical ‘hub of the crannog wheel,’ someone would have stirred the contents of the large stockpot simmering on the open fire.

Cooking smells would have mingled with smoke from the fire as it rose to the top of the crannog’s pointed roof, but as there wasn’t a chimney it backed down to the first set of ring beams, and seeped out through the reeds, leaving behind a sooty residue which helped to preserve the roof.

The crannog walls were made of woven hazel hurdles. For extra warmth two hurdles could have been fastened together with a layer of insulation, such as bracken and wool, between them.

As with the original, the bracken-covered floor of the reproduction crannog is made from alder, a wood also commonly used for the piles, or stilts. As the bracken gets worn away underfoot it falls through the gaps between the alder into the loch below, someone would have been given the job of regularly renewing the bracken layer; housework 500BC style.

Other family members would have been kept busy, tending the animals or spinning wool, dropped spindle weights have been found, and weaving cloth on a loom very similar to the working model in the crannog.

All the evidence points towards the ancient communities having a healthy, mixed diet. Remains of wheat, barley (some of which was also fed to their livestock), fruit, such as wild cherries and cloudberries, hazelnuts and poppy seeds have all been found on site.

The discovery of the low-gluten spelt wheat at Oakbank Crannog also disproved the previously held theory that it was the Romans who had introduced that type of grain to Britain some 500 years later.

It is believed that milk and meat played a part in their diet too, as animals such as cattle, sheep, pigs and goats were kept in the crannog, probably to shelter them during the winter months.

“No human remains have been discovered. If, or when, they are, forensic archaeologists would be able to tell us a lot more about the crannog people, and maybe what eventually happened to these peace loving communities. They just seem to have disappeared.

“There is nothing to indicate they left in a hurry. One theory is that as they got more efficient at farming, they just moved onto the land.

One thing’s for sure; it takes a phenomenal amount of timber to maintain the crannog. Maybe they had to keep going further afield to get supplies they needed. ”

The Scottish Crannog Centre is always seeking help with funding the project for the exhibition and for continuing the underwater research and training.

“There are more than 30,000 lochs in Scotland, hiding the remains of perhaps thousands of crannogs from all time periods. It is an ongoing challenge for us and for future generations to understand the people who created them.”