Glenshee, in north-east Perth and Kinross, is a beautiful and distinctive landscape that is remarkably rich in archaeological remains - from prehistoric stone circles and burial cairns to Pictish longhouses, and the fermtouns and sheilings of the 19th century. The well-preserved archaeological remains have been neglected by academics and national agencies, and only lightly-touched by developer funded archaeology since the RCAHMS publication North-east Perth: an archaeological landscape highlighted its importance and value in the 1990's.
The Glenshee Archaeology Project was developed by Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust and delivered in partnership with Northlight Heritage between 2012 and 2017. Through 'citizen science', the project aimed to address the neglected narrative of north-east Perth and Kinross, uncover the fascinating story of prehistoric and early historic life in Glenshee and share this with residents and visitors.
The initial thrust of the project was concerned with the so-called 'Pitcarmick' style buildings in the uplands around the glen and investigated several rare Pictish turf and stone longhouses dating to around 500-1000 AD. It also explored related features of the wider landscape, such as clearance cairns, trackways and boundaries.
The Pitcarmick buildings are stone/turf and timber longhouses of the late first millennium, and were first identified in the uplands of north-east Perthshire in the late 1980's (RCAHMS 1990). Their date, function and relationship to other archaeological sites remains poorly understood, as very few have been excavated, the notable exception being the site in Strathardle (Carver et al 2013) from which the group takes its name.
The site-type is important as early medieval buildings are rarely found elsewhere in Scotland, with the exception of Viking settlement in the Outer Isles (ScARF 2010). Like Pitcarmick, the Lair site comprises a relatively dispersed settlement of long-houses around an earlier prehistoric settlement (itself consisting of round houses of probable late Bronze Age or possibly Iron Age date). These are all set around a ring-cairn of probable earlier Bronze Age date.
The last Ice Age (c. 12,000-10,000 BC)
The melting of the last ice sheets, and their associted melt-waters, created the framework of the landcsape we see today. As the climate warmed, soil began to form, followed by early herb and shrub colonisers, such as sedges, birch and juniper, which was in turn followed by woodland of ash, hazel and oak.
The Mesolithic (c. 8500-4000 BC)
There is currently no eveidence for Mesolithic – or middle stone age – activity in Glenshee, however it is likely that hunter-gatherer groups from this time did explore the area. Our total knowledge of the Mesolithic in Perth and Kinross amounts to only 30-40 flint artefacts.
The Neolithic (c. 4000-2000 BC)
While there are none of the classic Neolithic - or new stone age - monuments, such as round barrows or chambered cairns, pollen evidence shows the sort of woodland clearance usualy associated with the arrival of the first farming communities of the Neolithic. It is possible, however, that a number of ring-cairns, mounds of stones contained within upright kerb-stones and with a central open area, date from the end of this period.
The Bronze Age (c. 2000-500 BC)
Unlike the earlier prehistoric periods, there is an explosion of Bronze Age remains throughout the area that reflect both an increase in overall population, and the warmer climate at that time, which allowed people to settle uplands that are now too exposed. The Bronze Age remains consist of farm buildings, field-systems, agricultural clearance cairns, as well as ritual and burial monuments like cairns, standing stones, and stone circles. Bronze Age buildings were large circular timber round-houses, that had stone and/or turf walls which survive as low circular earthworks. While now buried, associated field-dykes and clearance cairns, where small piles of stones were removed from ploughed fields, also survive and are visible both on the ground, and from the air.
The Iron Age (c. 500 BC-500 AD)
The Bronze Age saw a deterioration in climate with weather becoming increasingly colder and wetter. It is possible that many of the round-houses date to the Iron Age, though so few have been excavated we cannot say for sure. Perhaps the sites lower in the valley section date to this period as the uplands became increasingly inhospitable. What is noticeable is that there are none of the classic Iron Age sites in Glenshee: no hill-forts, duns or the fortified round-houses, or homesteads that are common in the glens and straths of north-western Perthshire. The crannog on Loch Beanie is perhaps an exception to this rule, although it could date to any period from the later Bronze Age, and almost certainly remained in use until the 16th century (see Middle Ages below).
The Early Medieval period (c. 500-1000 AD)
While none of the Pitcarmick-type builidngs of Glenshee have yet been excavated, we can only assume that they date from a similar period in time as the excavated example from Pitcarmick Estate, Strathardle: namely between the 8th and 11th centuries AD. It is possible that some of the farms date from the centuries either side of this bracket - only further excavation will tell.
The Middle Ages (c. 1000-1600 AD)
At the very end of the 16th century, the first map of the area is made by Timothy Pont, and can be viewed here: http://maps.nls.uk/pont/specialist/pont27.html While many sites discussed on this website appear on Pont's map, perhaps one of the most remarkable features is the building shown on the crannog at Loch Beanie, which is annotated 'Loch Sesatut, sumtyms ye dwelling of ye chief man of Glenshy and Strathardle'. Gordon (1636/1648) notes 'L. Sesatur old chief dwelling of Glens(hie)' inferring that it was no longer in use, while by 1747 all knowledge of the island appears to have been lost. The name 'Spittal', which tends to appear on remote hill passes, comes from the Scottish gaelic spideal meaning ‘refuge’ or ‘hospice’, and while some have taken this as evidence for a medieval hospital at Spittal, there is no documentary evidence to support this. There are, however, 'Chapel-crofts' on record in 1615, and the chapel is depicted on Brown's 1808 survey and shown as unroofed, and so out of use.
The Post-Medieval period (c.1600-1800 AD)
There are numerous remains of fermtouns (farmtowns) with associated head-dykes, sheilings and drove routes, throughout Glenshee and Strathardle. Dating from the 17th-19th centuries, these historic rural settlement sites include houses and townships, field systems and shielings, lime kilns and illicit whisky stills.
Major Caulfeild completes the military road from Blairgowrie to Braemar, connecting Perth with the new Fort George. Constructed to thwart any further Jacobite threat after Culloden, the road opened up Glen Shee and connected its inhabitants to other communities far and wide.
The project wouldn't have been possible without the considerable support of the local and wider community. A huge thank you to the 66 enthusiastic and hard working people who volunteered their time to assist with the excavation over the six year duration of the project.
"I am proud to have participated in this project. I remember that excavation fondly, excavating in the Highlands on an interesting site, with great volunteers and archaeologists."
Alexander Westra, GAP 2012 Volunteer
Across it's duration, over 1,500 people engaged with the project including:
Friends of Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust
The name Glen Shee comes from the Scottish gaelic word glean meaning 'glen' and sìth meaning ‘fairy people of the Other World’, so hence ‘Fairy glen or glen of peace’. As part of the project, a place-name survey was commissioned to try and unlock more of the history of the Glen and its people from the names of natural and man-made features in the landscape. Have a look at the results in the report below to find out more.
Read more about the Pitcarmick-type buildings and the discoveries at Lair in the book. Available as Open Access download and to buy in print from Archaeopress.
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Images by Edward Martin Photography www.em-photo.co.uk