A series of caves along the north coast of the Black Isle in Easter Ross between Rosemarkie and Cromarty has been the focus of attention in recent years by a community project. This ongoing work is showing occupation in the caves from prehistoric times onwards.
The cave closest to Rosemarkie, Caird’s Cave, was excavated in the early 1900s by local doctor William Maclean. He found evidence of bone working, and an exquisite pin with amber settings which has been dated by typological grounds to the 8th or 9th century AD. The Rosemarkie Caves Project re-excavated the cave in 2010 and found some in situ stratified deposits showing a late Iron Age date, while dating of some bone objects recovered by Dr Maclean showed early Medieval and post-medieval use in the cave (Anderson-Whymark 2011). In more recent times the cave had been used by travelling folk.
This long use of the caves has also been seen in investigation of other caves excavated by the project. Recent work has focussed on a series of caves at Learnie which have very good preservation and deposits. These have revealed a rich and unusual picture of use in the caves from the Iron Age onward.
Several of the Learnie caves show early medieval period occupation, important evidence for this period, and some of it contemporary with the monastery at Rosemarkie just up the coast. Metalworking was taking place, and a smithing hearth was preserved in one cave, a rare survival from this period. There is evidence of subdivision within the caves. Were the caves workshops associated with the monastery or used by itinerant craftspeople?
Completely unexpected was the discovery of a burial in Learnie 2B (‘Smelter’s cave’). He had been brutally killed and then buried between AD 430–631 in an alcove of the cave, carefully laid out near where there the later metalworking took place. He was probably local, and unusual in having had a high protein diet almost entirely of pig. The brutality of his death is not in question, but its interpretation – whether murder or ritually motivated – is still a matter of some debate. His death, treatment and burial rite all mark him as special at this time when many other local burials are in long cists or barrow cemeteries. When combined with other evidence from the caves of animal burials, still awaiting radiocarbon dating, it shows the cave was considered to be special.
Medieval occupation is found in Learnie 1A, composed mainly of midden in an area marked by rubble walls. Within the midden there are fish and animal bones, and medieval ceramics. Several hearths were also related to this occupation.
Nineteenth and 20th century use of the caves shows some industrial working including leather working (especially shoes), bone/horn and woodworking. A range of ceramics, bottle glass, metal tools and copious clay pipe fragments were found. Environmental evidence combined with food remains will provide a good indication of what people were eating. Fish scales, a rare find from archaeological sites, were found in substantial numbers, perhaps for commercial fishing economy rather than domestic consumption. Whether the caves were used on a fulltime or part time basis is unclear.
The project is important for elucidating activity in caves through the centuries, drawing on preservation rarely encountered in the Highlands and underpinned by radiocarbon dating. The work is ongoing.
Highland HER records:
Caird’s Cave MHG8855
Learnie Cave (2b), Cromarty MHG50574
Rosemarkie Caves Project Website