Bronze Age cemetery at Dalmore, Easter Ross

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).

Map of northern Scotland showing the location of Dalmore, near Tain, with a purple marker
Map showing location of cemetery at Dalmore, Easter Ross © Google Maps

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.

Recent Investigations

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).

Annotated map overlaying a map of Dalmore, showing the locations of the important sites noted in the case study, including T35, S1 and S2
Map showing ESRI aerial photo superimposed on 2nd edition OS map (surveyed 1904) showing locations of excavations © National Library of Scotland
Key: T35: Trench 35 in the 2005 excavations with Bronze Age pottery
P: Bronze Age pottery in pits from 2020 excavations. CR: Cremations from 2020 excavations
S1 and S2: Possible locations of Site 1 and Site 2 from 1878 excavations
The copse of trees near T35 provides a useful fixed point, appearing in the OS map, wartime photo and modern aerial photos. However it was removed in 2021.
Hand-drawn plans of Dalmore in black ink showing the world war two RAF buildings
Plan of WWII RAF buildings. The square with the copse of trees can also be seen in the above. This suggests that much of the area to the south and east of the copse up to the railway line was disturbed by RAF buildings © Crown copyright, courtesy of RAF Museum

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, Table 6.10).

Artefacts drawings of four O-shaped beads in descending order of size placed in a row. The image is black ink on white paper.
Artefact image in black ink of the front and profile view of a curved spear-shaped object with clear scrape marks from being shaped.
Drawing in black ink of front and profile of a rectangular object, curved in prpfile with a pinhole cute through the top left corner of the object
Finds from Site 1, burial 1 (Jolly and Aitken 1879)

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. 

Front-view drawing in black ink of a spoon-shaped object with a bent handle
Tanged bronze object, probably a razor from Site 1, burial 2 (Jolly and Aitken 1879)

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.

Black drawing of a cylinder lying on its side, with an uneven finish.
Hollow bone cylinder from Site 1, burial 8 (Jolly and Aitken 1879)

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

Black drawing of a vase-shaped urn with a zig-zag pattern around the rim and a tapered bottom.
Urn from Site 1, burial 8 (Jolly and Aitken 1879)
A fragmet of pottery in yellow-brown with dark stains and holes, as well as dents and scrapes across the item
Sherd from Vessel 1, 2005 excavations showing piecing decoration © Beverley Ballin Smith

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.

Two brown-grey bowl-shaped vessels sitting on pale-green paper on a white table. The left vessel is smaller, though both are a very similar bowl shape. They are marked with their catalogue numbers in white paint.
Two Food vessels which were donated by Andrew Mackenzie to NMS © Susan Kruse

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.

Image of a highly-decorated, orange-brown, vase-shaped vessel with deep carvings of parallel zig-zags and straight lines across the whole item.
Fully decorated Beaker possibly from Dalmore (accession number 1955.003) © Inverness Museum and Art Gallery – High Life Highland
A broken vase-shaped vessel which has been pieced back together. It is orange-brown and has irregular straight lines around the rim and base, and diagonal lines in the centre.
Decorated Beaker possibly from Dalmore (accession number 1955.005) © Michael Sharpe
Dark brown-black bowl-shaped vessel with a faint checked pattern around the rim, with a dot in each square. It appears broken and pieced back together.
Incorrectly reconstructed Food Vessel possibly from Dalmore (accession number 1955.004) © Susan Kruse

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 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.

GraveGrave typeHuman bone?PotteryOther grave goodsGrave type
Site 1, Burial 1CistCrouched inhumation. Analysis by Aiken suggested probably middle age.None mentioned1) 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 2CistBurnt bonesNone mentionedBronze razor (illustrated)20” below surfaced (Jolly and Aitken 1879).
Site 1, Burials 3–7All but one were ‘rough cists’Burnt bones, some possibly animalNone mentionedNone mentioned except a little stem of bronze in No. 7Jolly and Aitken 1879.
Site 1, Burial 8Stone enclosureBurnt 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 rimHollow cylinder of bone (illustrated): 7/8 inches long, 6/8 inches in diameterGrave 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 9CistBurnt bones in centreNone mentionedCharcoalJolly and Aitken 1879.
Site 1, Burial 10Cist ‘formed of rough stones’Burnt bones2 ‘urns’, large and small. One upright filled with gravel, one inverted with bones. Smaller said to be ‘well formed’No other grave goods mentionedJolly and Aitken 1879.
Site 2 Burial 1Cist neatly put togetherCrouched 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 goods5’ below surface. Skeleton placed on fine, clean, smoothed gravel (Jolly and Aitken 1879).
Site 2 Burial 2Cist (finest discovered)Crouched inhumation, possibly male, 30–40 years old, 5’8” to 6’ tall. Brachycephalic skull. Placed on right side, face looking eastInverted ‘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 3Cist, one part perhaps re-using a quernInhumation (fragmentary preservation) None mentioned3’ below ground (Jolly and Aitken 1879).
Site 2, Burial 4Cist made of small stonesBurnt bone‘Rough urn’ – broken when grave openedCharcoal and fire-cracked stone2’ below ground (Jolly and Aitken 1879).
Site 2, Burial 5Pit?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 3Cist  Only gravel insideFound 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 findsArea 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), 027PitCremated remains of at least one adolescentNoneFill with hazelnut shell and oak charcoal.Bone dated 1876–1632 cal BC at 2σ (Teufel forthcoming).
Site 4 (Phases 5A and B), 028PitCremated remains of at least one adultNoneFill with oak charcoal.Bone dated to 1746–1616 cal BC at 2σ (Teufel forthcoming).
Site 4 (Phases 5A and B), 018PitCremated remains of at least one person, possibly young adult and femaleUndecorated cinerary Urn, placed upright (truncated)NoneBone dated to 1600–1436 cal BC at 2σ (Teufel forthcoming).
Table of sites mentioned in the text

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 ScotlandNational 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.

Farrell, S 2020 ‘Report of an Archaeological Watching Brief of a Development at Dalmore, Alness, Highland. Phase 4’, report attached to EHG5353.

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)

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

Useful links

Highland Historic Environment Record: MHG6311,  MHG55328

Canmore links: 13620, 293468