Busman’s Holiday: The Scottish Crannog Centre

If you’ve ever wondered what museum archaeologists do on vacation, it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday. As you may have guessed the tropical destinations and theme parks are typically bypassed for museums and archaeological sites. This was true on a recent vacation to Scotland, which featured everything from kitschy shops on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to breathtaking vistas in Glencoe. But, for the archaeologist, the real highlight was a visit to the Scottish Crannog Centre on Loch Tay in Perthshire.

Image of thatched pile dwelling reconstruction at Scottish Crannog Centre.
Replica crannog at the Scottish Crannog Centre, log boat in the foreground.

So, what’s a “crannog?”  A crannog is an Iron Age pile dwelling, and it turns out that they are quite common in Scotland. At least 347 are recorded in Scotland and more are known in Ireland. Each crannog varies based on local environment and geomorphology, but they are commonly made of wooden timbers set in the lake bed and surmounted by a thatch dwelling. A narrow boardwalk provides a connection to the shore. The crannogs were built and occupied by Iron Age families (and their livestock) some 5,000 years ago. Accumulation of debris under and around the crannogs resulted in artificial islands. Many of these remained in use for a considerable time after the Iron Age, and we even had lunch in a restaurant built on a crannog in Fort William.

Image of dyed materials in a range of colors, all made with Iron Age pigments and processes.
Iron Age dyes replicated at the Scottish Crannog Centre.

The Crannog Centre in Perthshire is a living history museum with an active program of experimental archaeology and hands-on activities for visitors. A highlight is a reconstructed crannog based exactly on archaeological remains located nearby. Construction and repair of the replica crannog, and experiments to recreate ancient foods, tools, and clothes have provided considerable insight into the lives of Iron Age peoples. The interpreters did an outstanding job of explaining what is known and not known about crannogs. We got a sense of what the bustling lake must have been like 5,000 years ago as people tended crops and livestock, created tools and ornaments, cooked and ate their meals, and were entertained by traveling bards. Fragments of a musical instrument, traced to the Iberian Peninsula, provided some clues about connections during the Iron Age. Our guide Jason was a specialist in recreation of Iron Age textiles and shared some of his work in dyeing, spinning, and weaving. We were also treated to a fire-making demonstration, ancient pottery making, and replica log boats.

 

Since the water in Loch Tay was relatively calm that day we were invited to take out one of the modern replica log boats. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a paddle, but I was delighted to learn that a 3,000-year-old log boat had been located adjacent to the reconstructed crannog. We had seen examples of these craft in both the Riverside Museum in Glasgow and the Scottish National Museum in Edinburgh. They share a lot with Native American dugout canoes, though the Scottish examples have a plank inset in the stern, creating a distinctive flat transom. And, of course, they are carved with iron tools rather than hollowed by fire.

Image of artifacts, including carved wooded ladles, bowls, and other shapes.
Anaerobic conditions at the crannog preserve wooden artifacts, seeds and nuts, as well as the more typical stone tools found at terrestrial archaeological sites.

So along with Scotland’s castles, sweeping vistas, great food, friendly people, and the occasional bagpiper, we had a real treat at the Crannog Centre. Next time: paddling one of their log boats!

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