Timber roundhouses in the south and east

Platform settlements

Just as the excavations at Lairg have pushed the dates of hut circles firmly back into the bronze Age, recent work in Upper Clydesdale has shown an equally precocious development of timber roundhouses in the south. At the site of Lintshie Gutter, more than thirty platforms cut into the hillside mark the stances for roundhouses formed of earthen walls faced with wattle and daub. Inside were hearths, cooking pits, pottery and querns. Charcoal from the buildings has been dated well before 1500 BC and the settlement was clearly occupied over many centuries. Similar settlements, such as at Green Knowe in Peeblesshire, may have persisted as late as 800 BC. These 'platform'

settlements are common throughout the southern uplands and we must assume that the houses they once supported were equally common in lowland areas where platforms were not required.These sites are hard to find but one at Myrehead, near Falkirk, revealed three timber roundhouses dating to before 750 BC, with dimensions and internal features similar in appearance to those of the platform houses at Green Knowe.

House platforms are also found in some early hilltop enclosures, as at Eildon Hill North in Roxburghshire (see chapter 4). However, the structures that occupied these platforms probably varied widely in their design and construction over time and from place to place.

Timber RoundhousesTimber Roundhouses

Ring-groove and ring-ditch houses

Some early roundhouses can be detected without the giveaway platforms. These are known as ring-groove and ring-ditch houses because of the distinctive marks they leave in unploughed upland pastures, like those of the Cheviot Hills. Ring-groove houses were built of timber, their conical thatched roofs resting on an inner ring of stout posts and an outer wall of close-spaced timbers. This outer wall was set in a circular foundation trench and it is this that can sometimes be identified as a low groove in the ground surface. Sometimes two concentric grooves are clearly discernible and these double ring-groove houses have been identified as a particularly early variant.

Survey of the Bowmont Valley in the Cheviots has shown that some settlements enclosed by timber palisades contained six or more of these double ring-groove houses aligned along a central 'street . They are also sometimes found within early hilltop settlements like Burnswark Hill, Annandale and White Meldon in Peeblesshire (see chapter 4) but seem to have largely fallen out of use by around 500 BC. In the Bowmont Valley their remains are sometimes overlain by ring-ditch houses; a related but probably slightly later form, perhaps dating from around 700-300 BC. and it is these ring-ditch houses that occupy many of the southern hillforts discussed in chapter 4.

Although not uncommon in the southern uplands, it is in the arable lowlands of south and east Scotland that ring-ditch houses have been studied most intensively (14). This has been mostly due to a burst of archaeological activity in the late 1970s and early 1980s when rescue excavations were carried out on a fort at Broxmouth, East Lothian, an unenclosed village at Douglasmuir in Angus, and other sites threatened mostly by quarrying.

Ring-ditch houses in general conform to a remarkably consistent ground-plan, presumably reflecting a widespread and fairly coherent architectural tradition. The space inside was organized into concentric zones. In the centre was a level or slightly domed circular area, often curiously devoid of the trappings of domestic life, like hearths and cooking pits. However, the presence of two hearths in a recently excavated example, high on Culhawk Hill in Angus, suggests that similar fittings on lowland sites may have been obliterated by centuries of ploughing.

Surrounding this central zone was a ditch, often paved and usually quite shallow (although the ditches at Douglasmuir in Angus were up to 2m (6ft] deep). At Broxmouth fort in East Lothian, where the most detailed evidence was recovered, the roofs were supported on inner rings of posts and an outer plank wall, either side of the ditch, while a rather slighter middle ring of posts probably supported an upper timber floor.

One theory to explain the peculiar architecture of the ring-ditch house suggests that cattle could have been stalled and overwintered in the paved 'ditch'.The animals would thus have been protected from the worst of the winter weather, at the same time

14 Aerial photography can of ten give us a glimpse of prehistoric sites in the lowlands where all surface traces have long since been removed by the plough. The ditches, post holes and pits o f ancient settlements, like this pair o f ring-ditch houses at Hawhliill Quarry in Angus, fill up with soil that is often deeper or different in texture to that of the surrounding field. In suitable conditions, especially in dry summers, this can affect the growth of crops and produce colour patterns that reflect the layout of the original settlement. Crown copyright: RCA H.MS.

providing warmth for the human occupants and a readily collectable source of dung to fertilize the surrounding fields. A typical ring-ditch house could probably have accommodated up to thirty cattle. The human inhabitants, meanwhile, would have lived on the timber first floor, hence the general absence of ground-level domestic fittings (15). The central part of the ground floor would have served principally as a storage area for animal feed and other agricultural products. Its storage capacity of around fifty tonnes of hay would have been quite capable of supporting thirty cattle through the winter months.

This concept of a prehistoric 'bvre-house' has more modern parallels. The well-known blackhouses of the Hebrides, for example, were home to cattle as well as people until quite recently. It has also been suggested that where several ring-ditches occur 011 a single site, some may have been exclusively barns while others were exclusively houses. Nonetheless, the interpretation has its problems, not least of which is the rather daunting prospect of providing enough water for the cattle on sites not always conveniently situated near a source of fresh water.

It has been calculated that upwards of 650 trees, each yielding over 6111 (20ft) of timber, would have been swallowed up in the construction of a single ring-ditch house. Judging from the considerable energy expended 011 their construction it is not too fanciful to imagine that their interiors may have been finished and maintained with equal care; their wattle-and-daub walls may have been brightly painted or hung with decorated hides and textile adornments, while wooden furniture may have stood upon their timber floors.

Whatever the details of their construction, we can be confident that ring-ditch houses were big, ostentatious buildings by the standards of what had gone before, their facades often embellished by airy porches and massive timber swing-doors. That these buildings were as much about prestige and status as about the practicalities of warmth

15 Tliis cutaway drawing shows an artist's impression of daily life as it might have been in a ring-ditcli house around 500 BC. Like many of the larger hut circles, these were elaborate and spacious buildings, and it has been suggested that they may have been used to over-winter habitation. Some of the ring-ditcli

Bro.xmouth in East Lothian were remodelled and rebuilt up to five times on the same site, probably over several centuries.

cattle as well as for human houses inside the fort at

Cutaway Celt Roundhouse

and shelter is demonstrated by the recently excavated example on Culhawk Hill in Angus. This building sits at more than 300m (984ft) above sea level, overlooking the fertile expanses of Strathmore: it is inconceivable that anyone would build a house some 20m (66ft) in diameter and around 10m (33ft) high in such an absurdly exposed hilltop location unless their aim was to dominate the landscape and the valley below.


In some parts of Scotland, particularly the Highlands and the south-west, timber roundhouses were commonly built on artificial islets of timber or stone, known as crannogs (from the Gaelic root word 'crann' meaning wood). Crannogs were generally constructed on foundations of stone, timber or brushwood, sometimes utilizing natural outcrops. They were usually sited close to the shores of inland lochs from which they were reached by stone causeways, wooden gangways, or by log boats, of which examples up to 13m (43ft) long have been found preserved in the loch mud (16).

Aside from a solitary example in South Wales, crannogs are found only in Ireland and Scotland, where they are recorded as late as the eighteenth century (some even serving as refuges in the aftermath of the '45 Rising). However, their origins lie much earlier. The oldest site that can be meaningfully called a crannog is Eilean Domhnuill on North Uist. a largely if not wholly artificial islet dating to the Neolithic period and built around 3650 BC. Most, however, seem to date to the period from the Later Bronze Age to the Early Historic period, with re-occupation thereafter.

Many crannogs were discovered and excavated towards the end of the nineteenth century, when hundreds of lochs were drained to improve land for agriculture. The waterlogged conditions on these sites meant that many perishable, organic materials that would long since have decayed on dry-land sites survived virtually intact. Wooden bowls, barrels and churns, pins, pegs and mallets and even a' shoe-last were recovered from Buiston crannog in Ayrshire. Other sites produced well-preserved rope, ladles and scoops and boxes, filling out the meagre record of stone, metal and pottery objects that survive from contemporary dry-land sites, and showing something of what has been lost elsewhere.

More recently crannogs have been studied by underwater archaeologists, using modern excavation techniques. Excavations at Oakbank in Loch Tay, for example, have recovered such casual debris as grains, seeds, nuts, animal

16 This artist's impression of an Iron Age crannog is based on the excavated example situated at Milton Loch in Kirkcudbrightshire, which has been radiocarbon dated to around 700-300 BC

Crannogs Scotland

17 Tliis map shows tin• locations of crannogs in Locli Hiy ami of homesteads in Glen Lyon to the north. It seems likely that both groups represent broadly contemporaneous farms situated for convenient access to the limited patches of good land along the two valleys;

the crannogs exploit the shallow margins of the loch, while the homesteads, u'ith no natural defences, rely on thicker walls and stone construction.


Crannogs A

Homesteads «

Hill Forts O Land below 150m droppings and insects, all of which help reconstruct the Iron Age environment of the site and the life-style of its occupants. This work has shown that Oakbank was home to a small community of Iron Age farmers herding animals, growing crops and gathering wild plant foods on the fertile lochside (17).

Nobody yet, however, has answered fully the basic question of why such immense efforts were expended to construct these great island platforms, a precarious enterprise demanding substantial resources of skill, time and timber, before work even started on the house itself. Defence may be one answer; crannogs would presumably have been defended relatively easily against a small band of raiders attempting either to cross the causeway or to land a boat, though they would remain vulnerable to attacks by fire or siege. Crannogs would also have served to protect stock from predators, such as wolves and bears, that would have roamed the Iron Age glens. However, a stout palisade on land would probably have provided equal protection for considerably less effort and expense.

As with ring-ditch houses it appears that, whatever their practical defensive capability, fashion and prestige played a major role in the construction of crannogs. As elsewhere, the land-holding farmers of the Highland glens and the south-west had sufficient resources at their disposal to display their wealth and status to their neighbours, and to stamp on the very landscape their legitimate tenancy of the locale.

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  • segan
    How to make a celtic roundhouse?
    7 years ago

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