Living History from Underwater
















Most people’s idea of an archaeologist is unlikely to have them wearing diving gear, but Dr Nicholas “Nick” Dixon OBE would beg to disagree. “Scotland has an immensely rich underwater heritage,” he insists. “It is often with regret that I have concentrated my efforts in the dark and peaty waters of Scotland’s fresh waters and have had few opportunities to dive in the clear waters around the coast, but the richness of the lochs is a constant draw.”

First introduced to underwater archaeology while at the University of St Andrews, that “richness” has long-since inspired Nick’s life-long work, as well as that of his wife, Barrie Andrian—the research and exploration of the ancient dwellings, built on artificial islands, called crannogs.

Found primarily across Scotland and Ireland, crannogs vary in size, shape and construction—from the timber crannogs of the wooded southern half of Scotland to the stony island duns of the Outer Hebridies—but they all offer fascinating glimpses of Scotland in prehistoric times. Most of their remains, however, can only now be found underwater, where they’ve often been remarkably well preserved.

Not that you need access to either a Tardis, or a diving suit, to see a crannog in all its glory; instead, you can head for the Scottish Crannog Centre by Kenmore, Loch Tay in Perthshire, which Nick and Barrie established 20 years ago. At the same time they also set up the charity which runs it, the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology.

“We created the Trust late in 1988 to promote and progress studies in underwater archaeology in Scotland, with a particular focus on crannogs,” says Nick. “Since then, STUA surveys, excavations and student training projects have been carried out across Scotland, looking at crannogs, duns and coastal areas in the Western Isles, Orkney and southwest Scotland with interim reports published in relevant bulletins and journals.

“Primarily, however, our work has focused in Perthshire, contributing an underwater and shoreline element to the Ben Lawers Historic Landscape Survey and a crannog rangefinder dating project, Underwater Perthshire. funded by Historic Scotland. Exceptional discoveries in Loch Tay included a submerged woodland with dates ranging from about 8,000 to 1,500 years ago and the submerged remains of a beaver lodge dating to 4,100 years ago.”

Their principal focus, however, was on the Oakbank Crannog, at Fearnan, Loch Tay. “Excavation revealed the remarkable state of well-preserved structural remains and organic material, vibrant colours, textures and tangible layers of floor covering and other deposited material,” the couple explain. “The superb preservation of structural, diet and lifestyle remains inspired us to build a life-size crannog roundhouse using the same type of timber and materials.”

Work began in 1994, and took two years to complete. “With a handful of volunteers and very little funding, we ambitiously set out to answer many structural questions, to rediscover ancient technology and ultimately to provide an educational resource and platform for public archaeology.”

Opened to the public in 1997, the crannog continues to provide useful information on a crannog’s longterm structural performance and longevity. A neighbouring Visitor Centre, opened three years later, display some of the objects found in the original Oakbank Crannog, including a foot plough, butter dish, two canoe paddles and a swan neck-shaped pin.

“The Scottish Crannog Centre has welcomed some 500,000 visitors with a ‘hands-on’ living history approach,” the couple explain. “Balancing archaeology with education and tourism, we collaborate with heritage and other organisations to promote Scotland’s past, embracing initiatives such as ‘Dig It!’ and Archaeology Scotland’s ‘Heritage Heroes’ programme.”
Visitors to the Centre can also try their hand at a range of prehistoric crafts and technologies, through a programme of hands-on demonstrations; the aim is to bring history and archaeology to life.

A more recent project is the Historic Environment Scotland-funded ‘Living On Water’, in conjunction with the Scottish Universities Environment Research Council and other partners. This will develop a social history for Loch Tay, focusing on the crannog dwellers living there more than 2,500 years ago. “To achieve this, it will combine state-of-the-art scientific techniques—radiocarbon dating, stable isotope analysis and Bayesian statistical modelling—with more traditional archaeological practices such as underwater excavation and environmental analysis.”

The Centre has also had a wider environmental impact. “We initiated a woodland management programme to coppice hazel—to cut back to stimulate growth—in 2011-2013 to help sustain the authentically recreated Crannog,” Nick and Barrie point out. “At that time, funding grants were provided by the (then) Rural Tayside Leader Programme in support of rural craft skills and rural tourism. The project continues on an ad hoc basis for the much needed hazel.

“Our long term vision is to create a new purpose-built museum and field centre on the opposite side of the loch where we have been renting a storage facility for many years, located adjacent to one of the 18 crannogs preserved in Loch Tay. The relocation will enable us to expand all aspects of our work and to continue leading in best practice in heritage interpretation and cultural tourism.”

For more information on the Trust and Centre, visit:
See also:

Box-out: What is a Crannog?

Given that Scotland has some 30,000 lochs, 10,000 river and stream systems, and more than two thirds of the British coastline, it’s hardly surprising that, since the Early Iron Age, many inhabitants chose to live “on” water.
Crannogs are ancient loch-dwellings built on man-made islands, and can vary in shape and size enormously. For example, there are at least 18 crannogs around Loch Tay, ranging from 8 metres (26 feet) to 80 metres (262 feet) in diameter—suggesting either specialist functions or social structures. Numerous sites across Scotland called Eilean Nan Con, “Dog Island”, may have been kennels for hunting dogs.

Many crannogs were built from wood; further north and west, however, where trees were rarer, they were made wholly of stone. Today crannogs are either tree-covered islands or still-submerged stony mounds. While several hundred have been discovered across Scotland, only a few have been investigated.

First published in The Scots Magazine, December 2017.