A Tale of the Ancient Crannogs

By Sophie 8 months ago 949 Views No comments

Never heard of a Crannog before? We love these ancient water dwellings and made it our mission to find out more...

Scattered around many of the Scottish lochs are mysterious little islands filled with trees. They sit just above the waterline and can be quite difficult to spot as they completely blend with the natural landscape. Hidden with trees, it's easy not to realize that these islands are, in fact, ancient man-made constructions. Built in the Iron Age, as water dwellings, the Crannog is a unique settlement used by many loch dwellers from around 800BC to 43AD. What is admirable about these intricate constructions is their strength to withstand almost 2817 years, while still maintaining their natural look.

With over 600 known Crannogs, dotted around Scotland, it is suspected that these settlements were the centers of prosperous Iron Age farms. By building their dwellings out in the water, farmers were defended from every side and could protect themselves and their cattle from passing raiders. The most likely set up of a Crannog would center around a farm house. Any cattle and livestock would be tended to in nearby fields, and any sheep would scatter the hillsides surrounding the loch. From their small island, the farmer would have an advantageous, almost 360 degree, view of his entire farm, whilst maintaining safety from intruders. Crannogs were built using wood from nearby trees and woodland areas. This meant the house could be maintained, while food sources such as berries and wild cabbage could be foraged for.

To build a Crannog, round timber poles were used for the flooring as well as to form the structure of the roundhouse. With a thatched roof, made from reeds sourced from the loch, the enclosing walls of the house would be made from hundreds of hazel stems, woven together. Hazel stems are extremely flexible, which allows this construct to wear well in the harsh Scottish weather conditions.

Due to the peaty, boggy make-up of the Scottish lochs, many Crannogs have, amazingly, maintained their structure throughout the last 2000 years. When scientists explored the waters of Loch Tay, in 1980, they discovered evidence of one, under the waters near Oakbank. This remarkable discovery lead to the finding of structural timbers still in tact, food, utensils and clothing dating back 2600 years! There was even a butter dish with butter still clinging to the inside, although it is safe to say it was definitely out of date.

This discovery allowed scientists and archaeologists to uncover the secrets around the mysterious Crannogs and how they were built. They began their own, modern reconstruction and followed the ancient methods used to build a new Crannog on Loch Tay, using the same materials as the original one.

When reconstructing the Crannog, archaeologists discovered just how integral timber was to the Crannog builders of ancient times. To provide them with all types of timber required, the farmers would have needed to maintain and manage their woodlands carefully. They would have been skilled in woodwork and would have had an in depth understanding of the different properties of each tree species. This would have stood them in good stead to build anything from timber construction poles to food bowls.

There truly is considerable skill required to build these impressive constructs. Rafts and boats would be used, as well as wooden scaffolding, which would have been built out on the loch. Firstly, an artificial island would be created using piles of timber. Alder trees which were around 8-10 meters long, would then be used for the piles.

Using a crosspole, lashed to the Alder pile, the pole would be twisted back and forth until the momentum drove it two meters into the lochbed. This technique would have taken the Iron Age builders an estimated 12 days to erect and secure the 168 piles needed to build the Crannog. From here the thatched roof and woven inner walls could be added.

We know that Crannogs have been around for a while, but just how long is up for debate. The earliest known structure of a crannog is the Neolithic islet of Eilean Do'mhnuill, Loch Olabhat on North Uist in Scotland. The settlement produced radiocarbon dates ranging from 3650 to 2500 BC.

Want to see a Crannog for yourself? Why not visit the Scottish Crannog Center in Perthshire? With a fully reconstructed Crannog, you can make a visit and experience life as an Iron Age farmer. You can take a look around the Crannog, look at historical artifacts in the nearby museum, and even learn a trick or two about the ancient crafts and technologies of the Iron Age. From wood-turning, stone-drilling, wool-spinning and grain-grinding, there is something here for everyone. This award winning center is not to be missed!