Case Study: Contemporary Archaeology in the Highlands

Kenny Brophy, Alex Hale, Gavin MacGregor and Antonia Thomas

Contemporary archaeology in the Highlands provides an opportunity to expand our understanding of the recent past, through existing and new practices. Contemporary archaeology can be considered in two parts:

  • A methodological approach that encourages archaeologists to engage with the contemporary world as a suitable subject for archaeological study, and by exploring traditional and new methodologies
  • It also provides opportunities for archaeologists to develop new theoretical approaches, which archaeological discourse requires

These approaches to archaeology have been developed and practised across the globe over the past 50 years. In recent years we have seen archaeologists, artists, geographers, anthropologists and many other practitioners working together to consider the recent past (Graves-Brown et al 2013). This has enabled multi-disciplinary projects to address questions about the world today. In 2021 an international network, funded by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, will begin to explore the potential for participation, research and engagement with contemporary archaeology in Scotland in the future. This network builds on a project that looked at the opportunities that can be enabled when archaeology is considered as a collaborative, creative, participatory subject. For a range of examples of both practice-based approaches and the expansion of theoretical opportunities, here are just some of the recent projects that cover the breadth of Scotland (Thomas 2019, Brophy 2020, Wall and Hale 2020, Dalgleish et al 2017, Macgregor and Murtagh forthcoming).

A number of examples from the Highlands helps us to focus on the range of opportunities that contemporary archaeology can enable. The Caithness Broch Project exemplifies a ‘grass-roots’ (their words) project that aims to promote brochs in Caithness. They also plan to build a new broch that will create a future-orientated, landscape inspired site. It will be a fascinating project, to see a new broch built in the Highlands.

Other recent projects in the Highlands have focussed on themes of ‘energy landscapes’. These include heritage sites and windfarms. Linda Ross’s recent PhD research considered the impact of Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment, between 1953 and 1966 (Ross 2019) F(Figure 1). This important research looks at the impacts on the built environment, the community and employment patterns in the region. Complementing this research is the work by Gair Dunlop, who applies writing, video and other artworks to consider the affect that ‘Atom Town’, aka Dounreay, had on the Highlands. Another interesting subject, that is only just emerging is Scotland’s role in space exploration and the establishment of the Sutherland Spaceport. The effects that it will have on the landscape, communities and the environment are unclear, but contemporary archaeology projects could focus on this scheme, to consider one of the current changes in the Highlands.

Figure 1: Aerial view of Dounreay Nuclear Research Facility. ©RCAHMS

Other topics include the natural environment, intrinsically linked to human activity in the past, present and the future. The Flow Country World Heritage bid is a contemporary project that could significantly enhance the status of the landscape (Figure 2). To these projects we can add the work by contemporary artists, photographers and practitioners who have considered themes of landscape, people and time, and through their works we can begin to explore new ways of exploring the place and time. A recent collaborative art and archaeology project focussed on the real and imagined sites in the peatlands of Sutherland, culminating in a film and book (Coppes and Lee 2018; Lee and Coppes 2019).

Figure 2: Flux Tower near Forsinard. ©Dan Lee

Creative practitioners who work with archaeological materials and collaborate with archaeologists can provide sensitive and considerate reinterpretations of complex and disturbing times. For example, Carolyn Lefley worked with archaeologist Keir Strickland and others, at Timespan in Helmsdale, to develop creative responses to the clearances of the Kildonan townships (Lefley 2013) (Figure 3). In summary, creative and participatory collaborations enable us to recognise an expanding potential for contemporary archaeology projects in the Highlands, as well as the rest of Scotland.

Figure 3: Heritage Manifesto.  ©Timespan, Helmsdale

Further Information

Brophy, Kenny 2020 ‘Hands across the border? Prehistory and Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum’, in Gleave, Kieran, Williams, Howard and Clarke, Pauline (eds) The public archaeology of frontiers and borderlands, Archaeopress: Oxford, 55-73.

Coppes, Jasper and Lee, Daniel 2018 Flow Country, Glasgow Publication Studio: Glasgow. Available also at https://jaspercoppes.com/text

Dalglish, Chris, Leslie, Alan,  Brophy, Kenny and Macgregor, Gavin 2018 ‘Justice, development and the land: the social context of Scotland’s energy transition’, Landscape Research, 43:4, 517-528. DOI:10.1080/01426397.2017.1315386

Graves-Brown, Paul, Harrison, Rodney and Piccini (eds) 2013 The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the Contemporary World, Oxford University Press: Oxford. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199602001.001.0001

Lee, Daniel and Coppes, Jasper 2019 ‘Flux tower’, Livingmaps Review

Lefley, Carolyn 2013 Timespan Translocation Residency http://www.carolynlefley.co.uk/residencies#/timespan-translocation

Macgregor, Gavin and Murtagh, Paul forthcoming ‘Apples, Art & Archaeology: mediating the bio-cultural heritage and historic environment of the Clyde and Avon Valleys’, The Historic Environment.

Thomas, Antonia 2019 ‘Parallel Visions: Art, Archaeology and Landscape in Orkney’, Art North 1(3), 28-30.

Wall, Gina and Hale, Alex 2020 ‘Art and Archaeology: Uncomfortable Archival Landscapes’, International Journal of Art and Design Education 39(4), 770-787. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/jade.12316.

Links accessed April 2019

Caithness Broch Project

Ross, Linda 2019 ‘Nuclear fission and social fusion: the impact of the Dounreay Experimental Research Establishment on Caithness, 1953-1966’, unpublished PhD, University of the Highlands and Islands.

Atom Town

Satellites to Sutherland-not quite coals to Newcastle!

Flow Country World Heritage Site submission

heritagelandscapecreativity there is an equilibrium here… ? blogpost by Gavin MacGregor

#3M_DO_2019 Research Network – Reading Landscape (readingthelandscapesite.com)

Ballardian – the urban prehistorian blogpost by Kenny Brophy

Links accessed April 2021

For further information on workshops in 2021, contact Alex Hale (alex.hale@hes.scot)