by Susan Kruse
In 1878 when building a branch line from Alness station to Dalmore Distillery in Easter Ross, workers came across a Bronze Age cemetery. For the time the discovery excited some interest, with a number of newspaper articles reporting the find. These were probably written by William Jolly, given similarities in the short article he published with local doctor Thomas Aiken in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Jolly and Aitken 1879).
Jolly was a Schools Inspector, and founding member and first president of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club (now Inverness Field Club). He was an enthusiastic antiquarian, and with members of the society and the little-known Ross-shire Philosophical Society, visited the site during the excavations.
The excavations were overseen by Andrew Mackenzie, manager at Dalmore Distillery and also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Sketches and plans made at the time by Alexander Ross, a prolific architect in Inverness, were deposited in the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, but their current whereabouts are not known. Ross was also a founder member of the Inverness Scientific Society and Field Club, as well as a founder of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, and an amateur geologist and antiquarian.
The first 10 cist burials were discovered in May 1878 and excavated ‘immediately above the distillery’ (Site 1). This was followed by an additional eight burials being found in July 1878 around 200 yards (193 metres) further west towards Alness station (Site 2). They were located on a sand and gravel ridge, overlooking the Cromarty Firth.
The probable area of the cemetery was disturbed again during WWII when the administrative area and an instructional area were constructed by the RAF, as part of a number of wartime developments in Alness. The A9 bypass of Alness built in the 1980s probably passed through or near the cemetery, but there was very limited investigation (MHG14218). Unfortunately there does also not appear to have been archaeological investigation before two supermarket developments to the northeast of the site. Despite this early attention, the find has not attracted the attention it deserves, as noted in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age chapter of HighARF (HighARF Agenda 6.25), and a number of questions remain.
In the 2000s, archaeological investigation of a housing development to the north has provided some fresh evidence, the reports of which are available on the Highland Historic Environment Record (HER).
More recently a housing development to the north of the A9 has triggered several archaeological investigations. In 2005, trench 35 uncovered 151 Bronze Age sherds, with some of the sherds showing similarities to the earlier found examples (Wood 2011; Ballin Smith nd; MHG55328). As the housing development extended, further watching briefs and limited excavation were undertaken. The northern end of the proposed area was investigated in 2015 (Phases 1 and 2), revealing a roundhouse, pits and postholes but no burial evidence (Higgins and Farrell 2016). A watching brief at the southern side of the housing was held in Phase 4 in 2018, and obtained some Bronze Age dates (Farrell 2020). In 2020, phases 5A and 5B yielded further pottery fragments, including a cremation urn, three cremation burials as well as postholes and pits containing prehistoric pottery. Investigations at this stage also overlapped the area investigated in 2005 (Teufel and Williamson 2020). The cremation burials were to the north of Trench 35, and over 200m west of the railway line, while prehistoric pottery was found in pits to the northwest. Phase 6 investigations were completed in 2022, but revealed no further burials (Murray 2022).
Grave Goods from the 19th Century Excavations
Most of the burials excavated in the 19th century had no grave goods apart from, in some cases, pots. However, preservation was variable, and the 19th century excavation reports hint that there were some corroded bronze objects as well as unspecified ‘softer matters’ — possibly lost organics (see Table 1). The more exotic finds from the 1878 excavations probably came from the inhumations. Shortly after their discovery, the bones were identified as coming from both males and females by Thomas Aiken together with another local doctor, Dr Bruce from Dingwall. However, the predominance of cremations did not permit more detailed identification at the time.
Few of the objects found in the 1870s survive, but from descriptions by Jolly and sketches by Alexander Ross in the published account, it is clear that some of the graves were high status. The inhumation at Site 1, burial 1, is a probable male, buried with a large flint knife, a stone wristguard and around 50 beads. The beads were possibly made from jet-like albertite which has outcrops within 20 miles of the burial. A rich assemblage indeed which suggests an archer burial; a high status male burial rite which has been found in other locations in Easter Ross and further afield at Fyrish, Dornoch and Culduthel (HighARF 126.96.36.199, Table 6.10).
A second cremation at Site 1, burial 2, consisted of a thick layer of small burnt bones on organic remains. There was also a tanged bronze object, which was probably a razor, suggesting that this was likely a male burial.
Other finds in the remaining cremations at Site 1, include a small hollow cylinder of bone in burial 8, animal bones in burials 3 to 7, a ‘small stem of bronze’ possibly an awl in burial 7, as well as six pots found in five graves from Sites 1 and 2, These pots were all labelled as ‘urns’, but at the time Jolly was writing they would not have been distinguished as Beakers, Food Vessels or Urns.
Finds from the 1878 excavations were said to have been sent to Ardross Castle, as the distillery and land around it belonged to Alexander Matheson who had built Ardross Castle in 1848 (and which was remodelled by Alexander Ross in the 1880s). A community group has attempted to trace these finds, but without success. The National Museums of Scotland (NMS) however holds three pots, which were donated in 1881 by Andrew Mackenzie, who was the manager of Dalmore Distillery.
The first of these three pots, from Site 1, burial 8 (NMS X.EA 10), is a Vase Urn (often also referred to as a Food Vessel Urn), of the encrusted variety tradition, with applied decoration at the top and holes piercing the fabric. Pots of this type generally date between around 2100 and 1850 BC (HighARF 188.8.131.52).
Sherds from another Vase Urn of the encrusted variety (vessel 1), with similar decoration and holes were found in 2005 further to the west in Trench 35 (Ballin Smith nd). While it is not usual to have urns with piercings, they are not unknown.
Two fairly crude Food Vessels with limited incised decoration were also donated to NMS by Mackenzie in 1881, however, these cannot be attributed to graves listed by Jolly with any certainty.
Inverness Museum also holds four pots. In the past, two were thought to be from Dalmore (Clarke 1970), but there are some questions thrown up by the accession register. The pots were donated by Dalmore distillery in 1945 or 1946, though only accessioned in 1955. The distillery was managed by members of the Mackenzie family until it was sold in 1960 to Whyte and Mackay. If the pots donated were from Dalmore, it also suggests Jolly was mistaken in saying that the finds went to Alexander Matheson of Ardross Castle. Unfortunately no archives from the distillery which record the pots have been found.
The accession register at Inverness Museum reads:
‘Three bronze age beakers and fragments of a fourth beaker found in a bed of sand 24 ft below surface level in the Railway cutting opposite the Free Church, Alness when the branch line to Dalmore Distillery was being made in 1859.’
There are many problems with this entry. The distillery extension, as we know, was built in 1878 not 1859. The main line opened in 1863, but construction on it only started in 1860 (Ross 2005, 33–4). There is no Free Church near Dalmore. The Free Church was actually located on the western side of the village, and indeed near the main line where the cutting is at least 20 feet deep. It is doubtful that a Bronze Age burial would be that deep, but perhaps it was cut during construction.
To add to the confusion, one of the four Inverness pots (1955.006) has a handwritten inscription inked on the bottom of the pot stating it was found during construction of the Dornoch Light Railway in Dornoch in 1902, clearly showing that at least one pot has been mistakenly included in this entry. In addition, the fragments of the fourth beaker (1955.004) in fact turned out to be a number of fragments crudely reconstructed after 1955 into a small Food Vessel, missing its base.
If the accession register is partly correct, it shows a previously unrecorded Bronze Age cemetery on the western side of the village. If, however, the entry is just a garbled memory of another find, and the pots, apart from the Dornoch example, were from Dalmore, it remains to match them with Jolly’s descriptions. In the past the fully decorated Beaker (1955.003) has been equated with Site 2, burial 1 (Alison Sheridan pers. comm.), described by Jolly as ‘ornamented with scratched lines’. This may be an accurate description but does not do the decoration justice. The other Beaker (1955.005) has been linked to Site 2, burial 2, where Jolly described the pot as ‘only slightly ornamented’. While not as diversely ornamented as 1955.003, it does have decoration over the entire pot which raises questions if Jolly’s pot and the one in the museum are one and the same. It is possible that the reconstructed small pot (1955.004) might relate to Jolly’s description of two urns, one large and one small found in Site 1, burial 10, and the sherds from both have been used to reconstruct the existing pot.
Finds from 21st century excavations
The 2005 excavations found 151 Early Bronze Age pottery sherds (Ballin Smith nd), comprising at least five decorated pots: one Vase Urn (encrusted variety), two probable Food Vessels, and one definite and one possible Beaker. The 2020 excavations also found an undecorated urn containing cremated remains. Interestingly the urn had been deposited upright, unlike those in Trench 35, where the preponderance of rim fragments suggests most were deposited inverted. The fabric of the urn found in 2020 was similar to the fabric of Neolithic sherds found in other pits at Dalmore, suggesting similar local clay sources were used to make them (Teufel forthcoming).
The two cremations without pottery found in 2020 were deliberately placed on stones, perhaps in organic containers which have not been preserved. Oak charcoal was found in both burials, which the excavators speculate may have been deliberately chosen for the cremation (Teufel and Williamson 2020; Teufel forthcoming).
Radiocarbon dating of the three cremation burials excavated in 2020 have dated them to the latter part of the Early Bronze Age (see Table 1).
The three cremations found in 2020 represent adults and adolescents (Teufel forthcoming).
Summary and Research Potential
The mixture of inhumation and cremation, together with the 19th century reports of stratigraphic sequences suggest that the cemetery was in use for some time. It is not clear if later burials knew and respected the earlier ones. This correlates to the norm, where inhumations, in general, date to the earlier part of the Early Bronze Age, while cremations date to later in the Early Bronze Age and into the Middle Bronze Age (HighARF 184.108.40.206). Other Bronze Age burials are known from the area (HighARF Datasheet 6.1), though most are known only from antiquarian accounts.
Altogether the evidence is tantalising. Undoubtedly if excavated in modern times more evidence of burial rites and stratigraphy would have been obtained, probably presenting a situation similar to that encountered at Seafield West, outside Inverness, with different burial forms, finds of animal bones and grave goods (Cressey and Sheridan 2003; See ScARF Case Study on Seafield West). The 19th century excavations at Dalmore identified only cists, and it is very possible that pit burials, such as found in 2020, would also have been present but missed by the excavators.
Might there be any further burials to find? It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where Sites 1 and 2 were located, hinging on what Jolly meant by ‘immediately’ above the distillery. Map 1 suggests two possible interpretations. The latest investigations, Phase 6, located to the south of other investigations and closest to Dalmore Distillery did not find any further burials (Murray 2022), suggesting that the 19th century finds might have been further north, though the Phase 6 area probably overlapped with some wartime disturbance.
Regardless of which is correct, the cemetery area is quite large. Although as mentioned above, the area has been disturbed by later development, particularly by wartime building, the RAF camps did not extend to the east of the railway. This area, south of the supermarket developments and towards Dalmore farm, might hold potential.
There is also some evidence where the Early Bronze Age people lived. To the north of the A9, in the area of the housing development pictured in Map 1, there is evidence of roundhouses, pits and postholes. These have produced radiocarbon dates mainly for the Middle and Late Bronze, but one pit dates to the Early Bronze Age (Higgins and Farrell 2016; Teufel forthcoming). The recalibration of the radiocarbon dates (Higgins and Farrell 2016; Farrell 2020; HighARF Datasheet 2.1) showed that many attributed to the Early Iron Age were in fact Late Bronze Age. Four undecorated sherds of a talc-tempered ware were found in 2016 at the northern part of the site (McLaren 2020), but may represent later Bronze Age domestic pottery. The roundhouse found in Phase 6 remains to be dated. Hulled barley and flax found in Phase 5 pits give some indication of crops grown in the area in the Late Bronze Age, supplanted with hazelnuts and sloes (Teufel forthcoming).
Further to the north, at Alness Academy, more prehistoric evidence has been found, including pottery, hearths, postholes and pits, dating from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age (Teufel and Williamson 2020, 19). At Dalmore Farm, to the east of the cemetery, traces of round houses and grain pits of unknown date, and later ironworking were discovered. These remains were not dated, and excavation was limited to a pipeline trench (Wordsworth 1993).
Altogether a picture is emerging of a landscape lived in throughout prehistory, with first Neolithic settlement, followed after a gap in time with an important Early Bronze Age cemetery which was probably used for centuries. Settlement remains survive, especially from the Late Bronze Age (around 1000–800 BC), though it is difficult to know if the earlier grave remains were visible and respected in this period. Later pits from the Pictish period, as well as a pit containing medieval pottery show continued activity at the site into the Early Historic period. Further work in advance of housing expansion may add and refine to this picture.
|Grave||Grave type||Human bone?||Pottery||Other grave goods||Grave type|
|Site 1, Burial 1||Cist||Crouched inhumation. Analysis by Aiken suggested probably middle age.||None mentioned||1) Flint shaped knife (illustrated) 2) 50 circular beads, possibly albertite (4 illustrated) 3) stone bracer (illustrated). 1 11/16 inches long||8’ below surface, and most westerly of burials uncovered in Site 1 (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 1, Burial 2||Cist||Burnt bones||None mentioned||Bronze razor (illustrated)||20” below surfaced (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 1, Burials 3–7||All but one were ‘rough cists’||Burnt bones, some possibly animal||None mentioned||None mentioned except a little stem of bronze in No. 7||Jolly and Aitken 1879.|
|Site 1, Burial 8||Stone enclosure||Burnt bones||‘Inverted urn’ placed on rounded stone of mica schist. 21” across rim, 13” high. Fine border with applied raised pattern, with 2+ holes below rim||Hollow cylinder of bone (illustrated): 7/8 inches long, 6/8 inches in diameter||Grave 2’ 3” below ground, formed of circle of stones, with flat stone on top (Jolly and Aitken 1879). Pot illustrated PSAS v. 15 (1881), 250. In NMS, acc no. X.EA 10. It compares to some sherds found in 2005 further to the west.|
|Site 1, Burial 9||Cist||Burnt bones in centre||None mentioned||Charcoal||Jolly and Aitken 1879.|
|Site 1, Burial 10||Cist ‘formed of rough stones’||Burnt bones||2 ‘urns’, large and small. One upright filled with gravel, one inverted with bones. Smaller said to be ‘well formed’||No other grave goods mentioned||Jolly and Aitken 1879.|
|Site 2 Burial 1||Cist neatly put together||Crouched Inhumation, identified as middle aged female. On side, looking east.||Inverted ‘urn’, ornamented with scratched lines. Broken after recovery. Placed in front of skull.||No other grave goods||5’ below surface. Skeleton placed on fine, clean, smoothed gravel (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 2 Burial 2||Cist (finest discovered)||Crouched inhumation, possibly male, 30–40 years old, 5’8” to 6’ tall. Brachycephalic skull. Placed on right side, face looking east||Inverted ‘urn’, only slightly ornamented. Broken after discovery. Placed behind head.||Only charcoal ‘and other softer matters’||7’ 9” below surface. Jolly concluded no 1 and 2 were related, (but they are at different orientation) (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 2, Burial 3||Cist, one part perhaps re-using a quern||Inhumation (fragmentary preservation)||None mentioned||3’ below ground (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 2, Burial 4||Cist made of small stones||Burnt bone||‘Rough urn’ – broken when grave opened||Charcoal and fire-cracked stone||2’ below ground (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 2, Burial 5||Pit?||Burnt bone on bed of sand||5’ below ground. Although Jolly said all were cists, this is described as ‘without any protecting stones’ (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 2, Burials 6–8||‘Small rude cists’||No finds at all. (Jolly and Aitken 1879).|
|Site 3||Cist||Only gravel inside||Found around 2 years earlier than the ones above, on the same terrace, around 300 yards to the west. Mentioned in Jolly and Aitken 1879, but no further details|
|Site 4||3 cremation burials (Teufel and Williamson 2020)||Cremated remains (Teufel and Williamson 2020)||Trench 35 with 151 sherds comprising at least 5 decorated pots. Vessel 1: Vase Urn (encrusted variety); Vessel 2: Cordoned urn; Vessel 3: probably Food Vessel urn; Vessel 4: possible Beaker; Vessel 5: probable Beaker. Some of the sherds have decoration similar to Site 1, no. 8, with applied decoration and pierced with holes (Ballin Smith nd). 2016 excavation: with 4 sherds, all heavily tempered with talc, in LBA contexts, probably domestic not funerary (McLaren 2020). 2020 burials: one with urn (see below)||No other finds||Area to North of A9 where new housing development. In 2005 in disturbed plough soil, pottery sherds found (now in IMAG). Some c14 dates (Wood 2011; Higgins and Farrell 2016; Farrell 2020; Teufel and Williamson 2020.; Teufel forthcoming).|
|Site 4 (Phases 5A and B), 027||Pit||Cremated remains of at least one adolescent||None||Fill with hazelnut shell and oak charcoal.||Bone dated 1876–1632 cal BC at 2σ (Teufel forthcoming).|
|Site 4 (Phases 5A and B), 028||Pit||Cremated remains of at least one adult||None||Fill with oak charcoal.||Bone dated to 1746–1616 cal BC at 2σ (Teufel forthcoming).|
|Site 4 (Phases 5A and B), 018||Pit||Cremated remains of at least one person, possibly young adult and female||Undecorated cinerary Urn, placed upright (truncated)||None||Bone dated to 1600–1436 cal BC at 2σ (Teufel forthcoming).|
Canmore in context
This case study is adapted from a series produced as part of the AHRC funded Boundary Objects Project, a partnership between Historic Environment Scotland, National Museums Scotland and the Universities of Manchester and Reading. The original, condensed blog was published in Canmore in Context and can be found here.
I am grateful to Leonie Teufel and Mary Peteranna of AOC Archaeology for sharing results of post-excavation analysis of Phase 5A and B before publication. These results will be published in Teufel forthcoming once all fieldwork is complete.
Ballin Smith, B nd ‘The Prehistoric Pottery, Dalmore, Alness’, report attached to Highland HER MHG55328
Clarke, D L 1970 Beaker Pottery of Great Britain and Ireland, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cressey, M and Sheridan, J A 2003 ‘The excavation of a Bronze Age cemetery at Seafield West, near Inverness, Highland’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 133, 47–84.
Higgins, P and Farrell, S 2016 ‘Final Report of an Archaeological Watching Brief of a Development at Dalmore, Alness, Highland. Phases 1 and 2’, report attached to EHG5164
Highland Regional ScARF (HighARF) https://scarf.scot/regional/higharf
Jolly, W and Aitken, T 1879 ‘Notice of the excavation and contents of ancient graves at Dalmore, Alness, Ross-shire with notes on the crania’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 13 (1878–1879), 252–279.
Mackenzie, A 1881 ‘Donations to the Museum…’ Proc Soc Antiq Scot 15 (1880–1881), 249–250.
McLaren, D 2020 ‘The prehistoric ceramics from Dalmore, Alness’, in Farrell 2020, ‘Report of an Archaeological Watching Brief of a Development at Dalmore, Alness, Highland. Phase 4’, report attached to EHG5353 16–18.
Murray, C 2022 ‘Dalmore Phase 6, Alness. Archaeological Watching Brief. Data Structure Report’, report attached to EHG5958.
Ross, D 2005 The Highland Railway, Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd.
Teufel, L and Williamson, S 2020 ‘Erection of Housing Development Phases 5A and 5B on Land 200M SE of Alness Academy, Dalmore. Archaeological Watching Brief Data Structure Report’, report attached to EHG5477
Teufel L forthcoming ‘Prehistoric Archaeology near Dalmore, Alness’
Wood, J 2011 ‘Proposed housing development at Dalmore, Alness’, report attached to Highland HER MHG55328
Wordsworth, J 1993 ‘Dingwall-Invergordon British Gas Pipeline 1993: Archaeological Report’, attached to MHG17924