Memories of the Scottish Coast: A Britain from Above Journey

Brian Wilkinson is the Activity Officer at RCAHMS for Britain from Above. The project is a four year Heritage Lottery Fund supported project run by RCAHMS and RCAHMW with English Heritage, and involves the conservation, digitisation and cataloguing of 95,000 negatives from the Aerofilms collection.

It’s an astounding statistic, but if you were to calculate the length of the coastlines of mainland Scotland and all her islands you would arrive at a figure of approximately 10,000 km. That’s a lot of coast, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the sea has played a pivotal role in the socioeconomic history of many Scottish communities.

The outreach work I have undertaken so far for Britain from Above has taken me to four very different coastal communities, each with its own special connections to the sea, and each with a unique set of stories. Stories about shipbuilding, fishing, trade, and defence have all been connected to the places visited. I thought I’d retell a few of these discoveries here.


Govan was a major centre of shipbuilding throughout the 20th century, the centre of Clyde shipbuilding, and home to such famous yards as Harland & Wolff and Fairfield. Although today there are few remaining signs of this industry, people’s memories of it and pride in their community are still strong.

Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding Yard, Clydebrae Street, Govan, Glasgow SAW009706

Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding Yard, Clydebrae Street, Govan, Glasgow SAW009706

Meadowside Quay and Upper Clyde Shipbuilding Yard, Glasgow SPW035739

Meadowside Quay and Upper Clyde Shipbuilding Yard, Glasgow SPW035739

Working with members of the Govan Reminiscence Group, and the Fairfield Heritage Project, we have begun to create digital stories to document people’s experiences of living and growing up in Govan. These stories have included cherished memories of family camping holidays to the countryside, away from the noise and clamour of the burgh; recollections of moving into one of the first social housing schemes (complete with inside toilets); memories of a devastating storm, which blew out the lights and caused great damage to Govan in the winter of 1968; and even a story of playing football against a young Sean Connery who was filming at one of the shipyards! More sessions are planned to record further stories from members of the community, and we hope that they will be used at the Fairfield Heritage Centre to help illustrate life in the recent past.


We held an introductory session to Britain from Above and the Aerofilms collection in Cromarty, a Highland burgh on the Black Isle, in order to introduce a local heritage project to our collection. Cromarty Homes and Heritage involves local people sharing their memories of buildings in the Black Isle town, using maps and photographs to recall stories about buildings that still exist as well as some that have been lost.

The Aerofilms images were particularly well received, as not many people had previously seen them. The Cromarty images were all dated to 1930 and are a great illustration of the burgh’s architecture, from the Georgian merchant’s houses to the Victorian fisher town, the icehouse, and the former ropeworks.

Cromarty, general view, showing Braehead and Gaelic Chapel, The Paye SPW033791

Cromarty, general view, showing Braehead and Gaelic Chapel, The Paye SPW033791

The images provide a snapshot of Cromarty between the World Wars, and hold some amazing detail of daily life in a coastal town, for example fishing boats beached on the shore together with salmon nets hung out to dry.

Cromarty, general view, showing The Links and Gaelic Chapel, The Paye SPW033790

Cromarty, general view, showing The Links and Gaelic Chapel, The Paye SPW033790

Records of Cromarty’s role in the First World War were also remembered.  One workshop participant recalled the Royal Naval Air Service seaplane base, and many others identified military buildings around the town. The Cromarty Firth was an important anchorage for the fleet and other photographs showed fortifications and former defence works to protect the ships from attack. Perhaps one of the most interesting discoveries was an image showing practice WWI trenches on the outskirts of the town, including one set which were previously unknown.

Cromarty House Estate. Practice trenches. SPW033785

Cromarty House Estate. Practice trenches. SPW033785


Arrochar is a rural village at the head of Loch Long in Argyll. It marks one end of an isthmus separating the sea loch from the freshwater Loch Lomond. According to the sagas, in 1263 Norse raiders carried their boats from Arrochar to Tarbet to go raiding on Loch Lomond.

Loch Long, general view, showing Meall Daraich and Glen Mallan. SAW029869

Loch Long, general view, showing Meall Daraich and Glen Mallan. SAW029869

Arrochar was home to LochLongTorpedoRange, which operated from 1912 to 1986. The torpedoes were originally produced further down the Clyde in Greenock, and later on in the former Argyll car factory in nearby Alexandria.

Argyll Motor Car Factory, North Main Street, Alexandria SPW019588

Argyll Motor Car Factory, North Main Street, Alexandria SPW019588

I visited Arrochar to deliver a workshop to the over-60s computer club, and had a fascinating day finding out people’s stories about life on the west coast of Scotland. Bowling harbour and the paddle steamers which were moored there had a special place in many people’s memories. Day-trippers and holidaymakers would take trips on the steamers ‘doon the water’ from Glasgow, to resorts on the River Clyde like Rothesay, Dunoon, Millport and Largs.

Largs Harbour Pier SPW019556

Largs Harbour Pier SPW019556

The harbour at Bowling no longer houses steamers, but the hulks of many former vessels can still be seen there.


Work will begin shortly with the 1st Stonehaven Cowie Airscouts in Aberdeenshire to investigate their town and use the Historypin website to create a virtual tour. We hope to uncover stories old and new about Stonehaven from the local community.  This is a particularly interesting project as the Airscouts were established by Baden Baden-Powell, an aviation pioneer and inventor of ‘man-lifting kites’!  We are planning to undertake a kite photography session with the airscouts to create our own aerial photographs of Stonehaven and the magnificent Dunottar Castle.

Stonehaven, general view, showing Stonehaven Harbour and High Street SAW019528

Stonehaven, general view, showing Stonehaven Harbour and High Street SAW019528

Dunnottar Castle SAW019645

Dunnottar Castle SAW019645

Nora Edwards RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

I am a member of the Curatorial Group with the Skills for the Future Trainee Team. This is a four year scheme funded by Heritage Lottery Fund to provide 1 year of work experience for 34 individuals who are looking to work in the Heritage Sector. The curatorial skills trainees will undertake a range of tasks and learn about collections, conservation, digitising and access.

My childhood holidays were spent in Scotland and one of the most memorable and interesting places we visited regularly was the Isle of Lewis. There are a number of interesting sites on the island, and while the Standing Stones at Callanish are undoubtedly atmospheric, my most memorable site on the island is the broch at Dun Carloway.  I remember the sheer scale of the building and being amazed that it was so old and yet you could still climb in between the two sets of walls, solidly built to withstand war and weather.

Dun Carloway Broch

The building stands in the centre of a farming township, the remains of blackhouses are dotted around and the fields still show evidence of farming down the centuries. The site is fascinating in the way that it provides evidence of occupation for thousands of years in such a compact area.

If you want to find out more about this years Skills for the Future team, visit our blog or follow us on Twitter @SkillsRCAHMS.

RCAHMS National Collection

Archaeological Archive

The RCAHMS National Collection includes a wealth of material illustrating and recording all types of archaeological sites and monuments across Scotland ranging in date from the late upper Palaeolithic period to the present day.

People have been making a record of their heritage for centuries and the archaeological collections reflect this, ranging in date from the early 19th century to the present day. Included are perspective drawings, excavation drawings and photographs, site reports and notebooks, context cards, small finds cards and correspondence, as well as the latest digital technologies like laser scanning and 3D models.

Some of the oldest material comes from the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Collection with records by antiquarians like James Skene of Rubislaw, James Drummond and Sir Henry Dryden, as well as early excavation photographs of Roman forts at Newstead, Mumrills and Ardoch and brochs by Sir Francis Tress Barry. Other material includes historic prints and negatives by photographers such as John Patrick, Erskine Beveridge and James Ritchie, as well as early excavation photographs by the Office of Works and the Scottish Development Department.

Other noteworthy collections include material from the excavations by Vere Gordon Childe; watercolour drawings by John Nicolson; surveys of stone circles by Professor Alexander Thom and the research archive of Brian Hope-Taylor. RCAHMS is also the main repository in Scotland for all documentary archives from modern archaeological survey and excavations and holds large quantities of material from archaeological units and projects funded by Historic Scotland.

One of the largest components of the archaeological archive is made up of records created by RCAHMS from its creation in 1908 until the present day. From the earliest notebooks and sketches, to the drawings for the county Inventories, and the latest laser scans, the collection illustrates thousands of monuments across Scotland and how recording techniques have changed through the decades.

The collection continues to grow on a daily basis as our specialist survey staff traverse the country to investigate and record Scotland’s archaeological sites and landscapes, using photography, measured drawings and digital technology.

All the collections can be consulted in our Search Room or by using our online resources. We also maintain an active digitisation programme, with new images being added to Canmore every day. This gallery highlights images from across the Collection and contains examples which are being made available online for the first time.

Mike Middleton RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

My name is Mike Middleton. I am an archaeologist, specialising in mapmaking and survey, working on two archaeological mapping projects.

Out on fieldwork, getting a better view!

The first is the Defining Scotland’s Places Project which aims to defining the extent of monuments in the landscape so that people know where they are, where they are and who they need to contact if they need more information. (click here to see more about this project from last years Day of Archaeology)

The second project is the Historic Landuse Assessment Project, a partnership project with Historic Scotland, which aims to map the change in land use over time.

It is difficult to choose just one site as my favorite. Growing up in Shetland I could have chosen Mousa, Jarlshof, Clickimin or Scatness Brochs. Living on the east coast I considered choosing the Aberlemno pictish stones, the Abernethy Round Tower or Norman’s Law hill fort but instead I have gone for a site I visited on my recent field visit, Hut Knowe.

Knowe and the surrounding cord rig field system

Piers Dixon walks along a small track between fields of cord rig running in different directions

What is special about Hut Knowe is the amazing preservation of an entire prehistoric landscape. Not just the settlement but entire field systems. I’ve been lucky to visit many prehistoric sites over the years and, with colleagues, I’ve mapped and attempted to tease out field banks and boundaries. But, this can be frustrating with only tiny fragments surviving from which to interpret the whole.  What is so great about Hut Knowe is that the prehistoric fields of cord rig stand out so clearly. An entire c2000 year old landscape of rig, fields, trackways and settlement is there for all to see. A time capsule and one I recommend everyone to visit and certainly one for all students of Scottish landscape archaeology.

Georgina Brown RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

I am Georgina Brown, a surveyor and cartographer in the Landscape Section at RCAHMS. The site that I have chosen is the archaeological landscape around Inveresk. At this point, I had better admit to a slight bias in choosing this site as Musselburgh is my adopted home town. Very little of the archaeology in this area is actually visible on the ground; most is buried below the modern day land surface and has only been revealed when an excavation has taken place or when it shows up as a cropmark in the fields; however, when you put all the discoveries together, they tell a fascinating story.

Roman remains were first noted at Inveresk in the 1560s but the story of the fort and its environs is still being added to today. Parts of the Roman Fort were excavated in the 1940s and many other structures and artefacts have since been discovered around Inveresk during excavations preceding building work. The remains of houses, streets and wells of the civilian vicus were unearthed at Inveresk Gate, the base of a possible viewing stand for a Roman parade ground was discovered at Lewisvale Park and, close by, altar stones to Mithras and Sol were found during the construction of the cricket pavilion. Most recently, Roman and Iron Age skeletons along with the remains of an enclosure, possibly used for storing military supplies shipped in from the continent, were found at the former Brunton’s Wireworks site. The area’s outlying features – Roman temporary camps and field systems – have been revealed as cropmarks on aerial photographs. Add to this list Mesolithic flints, a 900m long Neolithic cursus, Bronze Age burials, Iron Age house remains and you have a very rich and varied “invisible” archaeological landscape.

Map of Roman Remains at Inveresk

Inveresk Cropmark remains

To have a look at these sites and a map showing where they all lie, try the following links.

Inverest Fort

Roman temporary camps

Westfield Cursus

Altars to Mithras and Sol

Skeletons at the former Brunton’s Wireworks site

Rebecca Jones RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

My name is Rebecca Jones and I’m a Romanist. My regular work at RCAHMS is as an Operational Manager in the Survey and Recording group where I am responsible for Data and Recording, overseeing a range of projects relating to the data in our online database, Canmore, and its mapping application, and working in partnership across the sector to deliver information to the public. Information Management is one strand of my research interests but another is very firmly placed in Roman military archaeology.

Scotland is one of the best places in the Roman empire to study the archaeology of the Roman army. Repeated attempts to conquer Scotland left a legacy of remains that are the envy of the rest of the Roman world. One of the places where this is most evident is the Roman fort of Ardoch in Perthshire.  This is the location of one of the best earthwork Roman forts in Britain, and the plain to the north of the fort was a marshalling ground for large armies on campaign through Perthshire to the north.

View of the eastern defences of the Roman fort at Ardoch (©Rebecca Jones 2008)

The fort itself was occupied several times leaving a legacy of multiple ditches still surviving as earthworks. I have accompanied several tours of the site and visitors never fail to be impressed by the scale of the defences. Some of these were excavated in the late 19th century by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and some of the photographs from those excavations are amongst the most fascinating early excavation shots held in the Collections at RCAHMS.

But not only is the fort an amazing site. To the north lie at least five marching camps. These were temporary structures occupied by invading armies who were housed in rows upon rows of leather tents. We are fortunate that they built ramparts and ditches around the perimeter of their encampments, for it is these that leave visible archaeological remains. Imagine a field of tents from T in the Park or Glastonbury: after the weekend is over and the tents have gone – what have you left? No doubt a sea of litter but the Roman’s did not live in our disposable culture. Once the litter is cleared you probably have a muddy field. But then six months later? Is there any evidence that those tents were there? But if a regular perimeter rampart and ditch with particular rounded corners and entrance protection is built, then that leaves an archaeological footprint that we can detect as Roman. The majority of the camps at Ardoch have been levelled through centuries of ploughing and only the perimeter ditch can be seen from the air through differential cropmarkings in dry summers, although stretches of three still survive as upstanding earthworks.

Rebecca Jones explaining the camps at Ardoch

A handful of other camps in Scotland have revealed internal rubbish pits and ovens through aerial and geophysical survey and excavation but for most camps, it is the perimeter which we can identify. The camps at Ardoch witnessed one of the largest Roman forces that ever took to the field in Britain, with the largest camp enclosing over 54 hectares / 130 acres.

It’s this combined evidence of the transient Roman army plus the troops stationed in the fort here for several years, that make these seemingly peaceful fields in Perthshire so fascinating.

Kirsty Millican RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

Cows, Cropmarks and a Cursus

View of Lochbrow, looking west from the cursus terminal (photo ©Kirsty Millican)

It is the kind of place most people would pass by without a second glance, an apparently empty field usually occupied only by cows, but the site of Lochbrow in Dumfries and Galloway is one of my favourite archaeological sites inScotland. My name is Kirsty Millican and I am a Historic Land-Use Assessment (HLA) Officer at RCAHMS. My interests, though, extend beyond HLA to encompass cropmark archaeology and the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods in Scotland. Lochbrow is a site I first encountered while undertaking research for my PhD and is a place that I have returned to several times since.

So why do I find such an apparently unremarkable location interesting? Because of the cropmarks of course! Cropmarks are formed by the differential growth of crops over buried archaeology, and are best recorded from the air. A scattering of such marks were first recorded at Lochbrow by an RCAHMS aerial survey in 1992, indicating the buried presence of pits and ditches. These features can be interpreted as a timber cursus monument (a long enclosure defined by timber posts usually dating to the Earlier Neolithic), at least one, if not two, timber circles (a monument form dating from the Later Neolithic into the Bronze Age) and several round barrows (later prehistoric monuments). This tells us that this apparently empty field was an important location for a long period of time, and was probably a hive of activity during the construction and use of these monuments.

Map of the cropmarks (in red) and the main topographic features at Lochbrow. The cursus is the long enclosure oriented north to south, the two timber circles lie to the east and south-west of the cursus and the barrows to the south (©Kirsty Millican).

What I have always found remarkable is the level of information such ghostly marks in crops can reveal. This is archaeology with no remaining above-ground features; if you visit the site today there is nothing to suggest such a complex of sites ever existed. Moreover, the cursus and timber circles were built of wood, a material that is not durable and so does not survive for us to study today. All that remains are the infilled pits that were dug to take the upright timbers forming the outer boundary of these wooden monuments; it is these pits that influence the formation of the cropmarks, allowing us to photograph them from the air. The cropmarks, then, give us a rare glimpse into the activities and structures built by our prehistoric ancestors. Indeed, without the simple technique of taking photographs from an aeroplane we would know nothing about this important group of monuments, nor the location of what was undoubtedly a very special place. It makes you wonder how much more is buried beneath your feet …!

So why have I chosen to visit this site several times, if there is nothing to see of this archaeology on the ground? Well, sites such as these are not built independently of their location, and you can learn a lot about a site by considering their locations, even without above-ground archaeology. Indeed, I believe that the sites at Lochbrow are closely connected with their location, and the cursus in particular seems to mimic the dominant topography. By visiting the site of these cropmarks, I’ve been able to suggest that the topography of this location was likely drawn into the use and functioning of these monuments, possibly defining the outer extents of this place, and may have had an influence upon the form of the monuments chosen to be built here. I have also returned twice (with colleagues from Edinburgh and York Universities) to undertake geophysical and topographic surveys of this site, to try to gain a better understanding of the sites here and their location, and to investigate the possibility of additional sites and features that have not been recorded by the cropmarks. The results so far are promising and I’ll be returning again later this year to finish the surveys. Who knows what we’ll find, but I’m excited by the notion that so much lies buried beneath my feet, and with a little perseverance we may be able to add a little bit more to the story of this site and to our understanding of what people did here and the structures they built thousands of years ago.

Undertaking geophysical survey at Lochbrow (photo ©Gordon Wallace)

To view more about these cropmarks, visit the RCAHMS Canmore page for this site with particular reference to the cursus and pit enclosure

Day of Archaeology

Today is the Day of Archaeology, a worldwide event where archaeologists from all sectors blog about their working lives giving an insight into the profession. RCAHMS is joining in on the fun, and will be posting staff blogs throughout the day describing some of our work here at RCAHMS, but also some of our favourite archaeological sites in Scotland.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #dayofarch and be sure to check back here throughout the day for more updates.


Brian Wilkinson RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

Brian Wilkinson

Britain From Above Activity Officer

Sandwick, known locally as the Easting, is an east-facing bay with a gently shelving, broad sandy beach on the Isle of Unst, Shetland. Sloping up from the bay is a hillside where you can see the substantial remains of Sandwick township, comprising the unroofed and collapsing walls of dwellings, barns, byres, and enclosures that housed and sustained a community of farmers and fishermen in the historic past.

Sandwick Bay view E

I first visited Easting in 2009 with the Scotland’s Rural Past project to undertake field survey training with Unst Archaeology group, and begin a school project with Uyeasound primary school. Our initial recce visit revealed an amazingly rich archaeological landscape, with the footings of older, perhaps Norse buildings underlying several of the farmsteads.

Elsewhere there were signs of prehistoric occupation, including a reconstructed Iron Age building, the original eroding into the sea and excavated by the local community together with the SCAPE trust, and the low sub-rectangular turf and boulder bank of a previously unrecorded Neolithic dwelling. Clearly this fertile landscape had been valued as a place able to support a farming community over several thousand years.

A surprising piece of evidence for an historic farming economy could be seen in the remains of a Norse farmstead eroding out of the sand dunes down on the beach. Excavated in the late 1970’s and occupied during the 13th – 14th centuries it shows the same basic layout as the historic farmsteads further up the hill; with a dwelling at one end of the building, and a byre at the other.

Sandwick Norse house view N

This building leaves no doubt as to which end was which. The entrance into the north end is cow-shaped! The walls at the foot of the door are narrow and the doorway gradually widens as it goes up, just as the width of a cow increases with its height from hooves to belly. This discovery finally solved the puzzling problem of the dimensions of excavated Norse byre entrances being too narrow for cattle to pass through.

Sandwick Norse house view S

It can sometimes be difficult to look at an archaeological site and imagine what it was and how people used it. This doorway’s profile helped me make a mental picture of the Norse farmers of Sandwick and their cattle of long ago (as illustrated by my colleague Danny’s useful impression).

Danny interprets the door

Day of Archaeology 2012

RCAHMS is once again participating in the Day of Archaeology! On June 29th, we’ll be blogging and tweeting throughout the day about what we get up to here at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and talking about some of our favourite sites across Scotland.

You can follow our updates on the day here on It’s Not Just A Trowel and also over on the official Day of Archaeology page.

We will also be tweeting on the Day which you can follow on our Twitter page and also by following the hashtag #DayofArch.

Be sure to check back here on the June 29th!