Case Study: Glen Feshie Landscape Study

Meryl Marshall

A walkover project of recording archaeological sites in the upper part of Glen Feshie in Badenoch, Inverness-shire and linking them with their history was carried out from 2000 to 2003 (EHG1113; Marshall 2013a). A linear area 16km in length on the western edge of the Cairngorm mountains, much of it remote terrain at an altitude between 300m and 600m, was explored. The project was followed in 2004 to 2006 by a North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) excavation of probable shielings. In previous centuries the glen has been a through route for travellers, drovers and rievers and there have been several proposals for the construction of a road linking Badenoch and the North Highlands with Braemar to the SE through the glen (Marshall 2013a, 9) but none has come to fruition.

In early documents, the glen was known as ‘the shielings of Dalnavert’, Dalnavert being a township beside the River Spey at a lower altitude. A document from 1682 (NRS GD44/27/13/1) states that there was ‘no winter dwelling above Tolva’, which was the lower limit of the survey. In 1452 ‘The Forest of Glenfeshie’ was held in feu from the Duke of Gordon by Lachlan Mackintosh of Mackintosh. It is mentioned in an Act of Parliament of 1685, although by this time it was regarded as summer grazing for cattle and not as a hunting forest (Scrope 1883). In general, it is thought that most of the destruction of Scottish woodlands came about in the period before 1600 (Crone and Watson 2003) and by the 18th century landowners were imposing restrictions on the use of timber by the shieling tenants, including in Glen Feshie (Marshall 2013a, 39). The earliest reference for the sale of timber from Glen Feshie is in 1787 (NRS GD176/1582). The timber was floated down the Rivers Feshie and Spey to Garmouth where it was used for building ships for the many overseas wars that the country was involved in. The demand was to continue for 40 years through the period of the Napoleonic Wars ending around 1830 (Dunlop 1997).

Not surprisingly many shieling sites were recorded in the 2000–2003 survey and several place names on the maps had references to cattle and summer grazing (eg Druim na Bo, Ruigh Fionntaig). But there was also evidence of more permanent settlement in the rig and furrow cultivation and in the townships which were recorded; interestingly a few of the townships had shieling elements in their place names, Righ na Bruach, for example meaning ‘shieling of the bank, border of edge’ (Marshall 2013a). But the glen proved a harsh place in which to survive all year round and the tenants still relied on removal of the stock to the higher pastures in the summer. When the glen was leased as a sporting estate from the 1820s and the tenants deprived of their summer grazing they found it impossible to survive and moved to Pictou in Canada (Taylor 2016a).

From around 1825, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford leased part of the glen as a sporting estate. They established a shooting lodge in the upper glen and were to make autumn visits for most of the next 25 years. Sir Edwin Landseer, the Victorian artist, was a frequent visitor and found a wealth of inspiration for his paintings. Many guests were invited to enjoy the outdoor activities and have left both written and pictorial descriptions of their experiences (Marshall 2013a). Ironically one of the activities was recreating the ‘shieling life’ – they imagined a simple idyllic ‘back-woods’ life!

The survey was followed up in 2004 and 2006 by the excavation of two clearance cairns (MHG50632 and MHG33993) at the township of Achleum-a-Choid/Achnahoid (MHG4564; Marshall 2004; 2006). The two cairns were similar in shape, size and orientation, and the broad aim was to establish whether or not they had buildings underlying them. We did indeed establish this objective but we did not date the buildings and therefore cannot say when they were in use. One of the buildings had three circular stone recesses against the back/north wall which were probably safe locations for milk ‘coggies’; the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore has many examples of these staved wooden vessels. We were intrigued by small mounds at each corner of the second building – what purpose did they serve? The excavation revealed a post pad and associated stone setting which would have supported a ‘tailfork’, a timber caber or hip gable prop which together with its neighbour just 2m away at the other corner would have supported the end of the building. A reconstructed example of such a building can be seen in the Highland Folk Museum. In retrospect we should have excavated the buildings completely and taken samples for radiocarbon dating and environmental analysis.

Timber frame construction with stones along the bottom.
Figure 1: Reconstruction at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, demonstrating the use of ‘tailforks’ to support the end of a building. ©NOSAS

The combined work over the years 2000 to 2006 of landscape survey, of historical research, of excavation and subsequent publication of the book on Glen Feshie (Marshall 2013a) is a good example of the work that can be done in a glen typical of so many in the Highlands. But inevitably it throws up more questions and provides the foundations for further work. In Glen Feshie there is an opportunity to investigate more about the shieling life and particularly the transition from shieling grounds to permanent settlement.