A celebration of antiquarian Joseph Anderson and a Prehistoric Festival at The Yarrows, Caithness.
This project was a chance to celebrate the eminent antiquarian Joseph Anderson and the 150th anniversary of the start of his archaeological investigation of the Yarrows landscape.
In 1865, Joseph Anderson carried out a marathon season of excavation, investigating several of the Neolithic chambered tombs around the Loch of Yarrows as well as the Battle Moss stone row. He went on to investigate the Iron Age Broch and a number of the Bronze Age cairns, as well as numerous other monuments across the county.
Anderson’s excavations were the first and only time that most of the monuments at Yarrows have been investigated (with the exception of the recent excavations at Warehouse South chambered cairn and Battle Moss stone row). His findings continue to influence our understanding of this unique and exceptionally preserved monumental landscape. The significance of Anderson’s work to the archaeology of Caithness cannot be understated.
This project was a collaboration between Cardiff University, the University of Glasgow, the Yarrows Heritage Trust and Northshore Pottery. The aim was to raise awareness of Joseph Anderson and the archaeology of Yarrows, and elsewhere in Caithness, through a series of fun and engaging events held across the summers of 2015 and 2016.
Yarrows Prehistoric Festival
One of these events was the Yarrows Prehistoric Festival which took place on Saturday 27 August 2016 at North Yarrows, on the northern side of the Loch of Yarrows and in the centre of the Yarrows Prehistoric Landscape.
The Festival was a showcase of traditional skills and techniques with skilled craftspeople giving demonstrations and workshops for anyone interested in trying their hand at something new. James Dilley of Ancient Craft, showed us flint knapping and copper smelting. Other demonstrations included pottery, spinning and dyeing, and wicker basketry. There was also a display of experimental archaeology and experimental ceramic sculpture.
Activities and entertainment at the Festival
Storyteller Bob Pegg entertained both children and adults with tales of mysterious creatures and prehistoric lives, accompanied by the sounds of traditional musical instruments. Find out more about Bob's work.
Food was foraged from the local landscape and cooked in a traditional way by Rosie from Wild Rose Escapes.
A reconstructed Bronze Age stone row and sculpture kiln cairn provided the focus for the festival. The stone row was built by the excavators of nearby Battle Moss stone row and they tried to replicate construction techniques not tried in 3,000 years.
The culmination of the Festival was a nighttime spectacular that focused on the firing of the kiln cairn and a performance of a traditional story by Bob Pegg and the children of Thrumster Primary School.
Catering for the Festival was provided by the Whaligoe Steps Cafe, and there was space for visitors to sit and enjoy the delicious food and soak up the prehistoric atmosphere.
Figure one: Joseph Anderson among the displays in the Royal Institution, Edinburgh, 1890. Source: Clarke 2002.
Figure two: South Yarrows North chambered cairn looking towards the Loch.
Figure three: a view looking along the chambered cairn at South Yarrows South.
Figure four: the Battle Moss stone rows during their excavation in 2003.
Figure five: a map showing the location of archaeological sites around Yarrows.
Figure six: experimental sculpture kiln built by Jenny Mackenzie Ross at the Yarrows Prehistoric Festival in 2016.
Figure seven: a banner image commissioned for the Yarrows Prehistoric Festival and Joseph Anderson 150 project web site.
It would be fair to say that Joseph Anderson (1832-1916) was one of the most important figures in the development of archaeology as a discipline in Scotland. He straddled the worlds of antiquarianism and scientific rigour with authority and imagination.
Anderson cut his teeth as a field archaeologist in Caithness. His excavations in the Yarrows Basin in the 1860s were a particular watershed in his career to the extent that this work featured heavily in his seminal Rhind Lecture series of the 1880s. His ability to combine scientific analysis with imagination, and his awareness of developments in European archaeology, made him an ideal person to sketch out the shape of Scottish prehistory in a fashion not previously attempted.
In 1935, Gordon Childe was to write that with the publication of Scotland in Pagan Times in 1886 Anderson "had sketched the essential outlines of Scottish prehistory in a comprehensive and scientific survey such as then existed in no other country".
Early life and career
Joseph Anderson was born in Angus in 1832, the son of an agricultural labourer, and during his childhood lived in St Vigeans where he apparently developed a deep interest in the collection of Pictish stones. After a period as a Latin and English teacher in Scotland he worked, between 1856 and 1859, in an English school in Constantinople, Turkey, a remarkable experience for this young Scot. For reasons that remain unknown, he soon moved back to Scotland, and to a very different kind of career.
Anderson moved to Caithness and became editor of the John O’ Groat journal in 1860, a role he served until 1869.
His digging career in Caithness began in earnest in this period. Anderson worked, for the most part, with Robert Shearer who was factor at Thrumster Estate and was to become a noted naturalist in his own right.
Over the course of two busy seasons of work in 1865 and 1866, Anderson excavated at the multiple stone rows at Battle Moss on the bank of the Loch of Yarrows. He also worked at the small cairn at the focal point of the Garrywhin stone rows in the valley to the south of Yarrows. The ‘laying bare’ of the latter was to reveal a Bronze Age pot, some human teeth and two lithics. This was to strongly inform Anderson’s view of the enigmatic stone rows as decorative additions to existing Bronze Age burials in small cairns or cists.
He worked on other monuments too including a Neolithic long cairns such as South Yarrows South and Kenny’s Cairn, and even the Yarrows Broch, a partially waterlogged and ruinous Iron Age structure. This work was funded by the Anthropological Society of London, and it was to them that Anderson sent a series of illuminating reports and letters reporting on his work, as well as regularly publishing in the pages of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Anderson’s career in archaeology took off in earnest when he moved to settle in the heart of the archaeological establishment in Edinburgh. There, he was Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland for 43 years, and long-term editor of the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. But all of this only became possible because of his dedicated and high quality work in Caithness, and in particular the Yarrows Basin.
Archaeology in The Loch of Yarrows
The Loch of Yarrows area is one of the best preserved and most significant prehistoric monumental landscapes in northern Scotland. It lies 4km inland from the eastern coast of Caithness, on the edge of the cultivated coastal strip and the inland expanses of peat and heather moorland. At the centre of the landscape is a large distinctively shaped loch, which is encircled on three sides by steep hills which are a prominent landscape feature in Caithness. They are distinctively craggy and visible from as far south as Dunbeath and from many areas in the north and the west of the county.
The Loch and the surrounding hills are home to a complex of prehistoric monuments including the remains of burial monuments dating from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, monumental Iron Age and Pictish settlement structures, several stone rows and a pair of massive standing stones.
A map showing the location of archaeological sites around Yarrows is available by expanding the thumbnail figures on this page.
Neolithic chambered tombs
The ruins of eight Neolithic chambered tombs can be found on the hills and lowlying land around the Loch, with the site of a ninth cairn recorded on the north-eastern corner of the Loch. The most spectacular of these monuments, South Yarrows South and North, and Warehouse North and South, can be accessed from the Yarrows Trail.
These four monuments were excavated by Joseph Anderson in 1865. He found that in all cases the central chamber contained fragments of human bone, shards of pottery and pieces of worked flint. The pottery that was found in these chambers is of early Neolithic date and it is likely that these sites were being used for burials and other activities from around 4000 BC to 3000 BC.
Stone rows at Battle Moss
The stone rows at Battle Moss and on the southern hills above the Loch are thought to be Bronze Age in date and have been traditionally been interpreted as burial sites or monuments to record astronomical events.
Excavations by Anderson did not throw up any finds and his records of the investigations are limited. Recent excavations at Battle Moss, in 2003 and 2005, similarly did not produce any artifacts or dating material to confirm the presumed date. They did identify a small Bronze Age burial cairn at the northern end of the row, which is thought to be contemporary with the rows of standing stones.
These enigmatic monuments have been variously interpreted as burial sites for warriors following battles and astronomical observatories, however recent work has suggested that they may have been referencing earlier monuments within the landscape.
Iron Age Broch
The Iron Age Broch lies on the southern shore of the Loch, partly submerged by water, the level of which was artificially raised in the twentieth century. The Broch and settlement were excavated by Joseph Anderson in 1866 and 1867. The Broch lies at the centre of the complex and comprises a massive circular tower with an intramural passage and staircase. The external settlement consists of at least five structures arranged around the outside of the Broch. These are later additions to the Broch site.
Other notable finds
As well as the massive monumental sites, the Yarrows area contains less visible evidence for past human occupation. On the northern and eastern shores of the Loch is the site of an extensive scatter of worked flint. This dates from the Mesolithic period (pre-4000 BC) to the early Bronze Age and contains tools and worked pieces that suggest that people were living in this part of the landscape.
Roundhouses dating to the later Bronze Age can be found on the southern side of the Loch, as well as the remains of later farmsteads and fields.