10.8 Conflict

Evidence of conflict in the post-medieval period Highlands is diverse and plentiful. The Highlands have so many sites, some of which are nationally important, yet most have seen little or no work. There is real potential for important work on these remains.

Oblique aerial view of Fort George, taken from the NNE. ©HES

Good source materials exist for the study in this period, especially for the 20th century wartime remains, where maps, military documents, aerial photographs and oral history projects can contribute (see Chapter 2). The National Collection of Aerial Photography has far more non-digitised photographs than those available online, providing a wealth of potential data from a number of sorties during and after WWII. Similarly, the National Archives in London hold extensive source material for Highland military installations and serving units, again most not digitised and requiring a visit, but they allow free photography of most resources. Various military archives have been examined for Highland remains (Guy 2000), but recent community projects (see Case Study Wartime Remains in the Cromarty Firth), have shown that far more information exists that can be integrated. Other archive material relating to wartime sites can be found in the National Records of Scotland and Highland archives.

Our earliest military activities for the period are the clan battles that were fought across the Highlands. These are poorly recorded, often just folklore. Even the larger battles have left no trace in the landscape. These events lasted only a few hours, and perhaps just a few minutes. Little remains of these battles in the archaeological record, although recent work by the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology has shown that musket shot can demonstrate the scope and scale of battle (ScARF Modern Case study: Objects on the Battlefield).

Of all the Highland battlefield sites designated by HES (nine in total) only Glenshiel, Lochalsh (MHG7457), and Culloden, Inverness-shire (MHG3047) have what could be described as tangible remains. But these are the exception and the evidence for the other battlefields remains elusive. Recent excavation at Glenshiel has shed light on the Spanish positions and the Jacobite right wing, recovering musket balls and coehorn mortar shell fragments (Case Study Archaeological Work by the NTS). Culloden has seen the most work, including survey, geophysical work, extensive metal detecting and limited excavation (MHG3047). This has resulted in some insights into the exact location of the battle on the field, and has informed some reconstruction of the features shown on 18th century plans. The metal detecting has resulted in a range of artillery and personal possessions being found (Pollard 2009). Over the years a number of objects, including daggers and spurs, have been found in the vicinity, some of which are probably associated with the battle.  Culloden also demonstrates the importance of such sites for later generations, including the building of monument and memorials for the graves in the late 1840s and early 1850s following the centenary.

Given the nature of battlefields the expected artefactual remains are bullets and weaponry. The lack of mass graves for almost every major battle in the UK including the Highlands, Culloden excluded, is an interesting point. Looting of corpses also resulted in few personal objects recovered in situ. Battlefields also bear, in most cases, no relationship with the landscape today, as improvement period agricultural changes and 20th-century urban expansion and forestry have radically changed the landscape. Despite the scarcity of remains, the importance of these sites in people’s sense of place can be seen by recent opposition to planning applications in the vicinity (not on the battlefield) at Culloden.

The first fortified structures in the period were tower house castles which were built from the mid-16th century and into the 17th century. Although sophisticated country dwellings for the elite (see 10.3), they often had extensive gunloops and defensive features. Tower houses thus had military capability, albeit not for resisting a frontal artillery assault.

Remains of Ardvreck Castle, northwest Sutherland, showing gun loops in the lower courses © Susan Kruse

The 17th century was a period of widespread unrest in the Highlands as the area was drawn into the complex civil wars. Battles were fought in many Highland areas, and some coinage finds may relate to soldiers deployed and quartered at various locations (Oram et al 2009, 44ff). The first major purpose-built fortifications in the period relate to the Cromwellian forts; these are the distinctive citadels at Inverness (MHG4367) and Fort William (MHG4196) to control the Great Glen (Gifford 1992, 55). Materials for the fort at Inverness were obtained by demolishing parts of local monasteries and the Bishop’s Palace and cathedral at Fortrose. Only the clock tower remains. Nothing survives of the structure at Fort William, although the 18th century fort may use the same foundations. Further investigation of Cromwellian citadels might provide further information on these little understood fortifications in the Highlands.

This clock-tower marks the site of the Citadel in Inverness, a pentagonal fort built in 1652-8 by Joachim Hane. The fort superseded the town’s medieval castle but was demolished in 1660 during the Restoration. ©HES

The Jacobite risings in the Highlands had a profound effect socially and physically, splitting neighbours and even families. The reprisals after the 1745 rising were long felt in the Highlands (Richards 2007, 39). A number of estates were annexed and some were managed for varying periods on behalf of the crown (Smith 1982; Taylor 2016b; Scottish Record Office 1973). From a material culture point of view, objects were produced and circulated that showed Jacobite affiliation (Pittock 2011; Guthrie 2013), with many that have been preserved by families and in museums purporting to have been used by key Jacobite figures. Some claims are undoubtedly wishful thinking, but a few stand out, such as the silver gilt travelling canteen set owned by Prince Charles Edward Stewart, captured after the battle of Culloden.

Silver gilt travelling canteen set, owned by Prince Charles Edward Stewart. ©National Museums Scotland

The massive 18th century military road construction remains visible in many areas of the Highlands (see 10.7.2), pointing to a perceived period of loss of government control and the state’s attempt to wrestle it back. This was combined with the building of forts, adapted castles and barracks to support the control of the Highlands. Any distribution map of these known sites demonstrates that researchers lack information about extensive patrol outposts and the buildings used for this purpose. This massive fort building program included the original Fort George in Inverness (MHG3693), Fort Augustus (MHG25629) and Fort William (MHG4196) on the Great Glen, Ruthven Barracks near Kingussie (MHG4510) and Bernera Barracks at Glenelg facing Skye (MHG5353). The current Fort George, situated near Ardersier (MHG15618), built between 1747 and 1769, is the finest surviving 18th-century fort in Britain (HES Scheduling Document). It cost a fortune for the time, and is arguably as much a symbol of power as a defensive structure (Gifford 1992, 174ff).

Bernera Barracks, Glenelg. ©HES

The 19th century is a period of calm in the Highlands in some ways, and much military activity was based on recruitment and training. The forts had been all but abandoned and the roads began to be replaced. The Highlands were still a valuable resource for men, and Highland regiments appear in every conflict in the British Empire (Spiers et al 2014). These men needed to be recruited, housed and trained, be it as full time soldiers or as a member of the part time militia or volunteer regiment. These volunteer soldiers required training in the use of weapons and drill, horsemanship and artillery. The social importance of the volunteer should not be overlooked in the archaeological record. The coastal communities across the Highlands often had artillery practise batteries, for example at Cromarty, Helmsdale Wick, Castletown. There and elsewhere, we have drill halls and associated firing ranges, some merely recorded on maps, others with surviving remains.

The drill hall and instructor’s house at Golspie. ©HES

Service in the Royal Naval Reserve became very important in coastal communities in the Highlands  (Thomas 2018). For example, in World War I large numbers of fisherman at Avoch were early pulled into the war as they were also reservists (Groam House Museum World War One project).

Nevertheless, the 19th century saw conflict in the forms of local riots, against clearances and responses to widespread famine (Richards 2008; Hunter 2019). However, these have left few physical traces, although their impact has lingered long in local memory.

It is of course the 20th century in which, like other areas of the UK, industrial-scale wars resulted in the creation of military landscapes, with massive training areas, extensive airfields, naval bases, anti-invasion defences, anti-aircraft (AA) defences, supply and victual systems. These all had a huge effect on the landscape of the Highlands and thus the archaeological record (see Case Study Wartime Remains in the Cromarty Firth). We have now reached a point where only a few people active during WWII can educate and inform us. These individuals can also provide insights into the impact of far away conflicts on local Highland communities.

One of several pillboxes preserved at WWll Evanton Airfield. ©Alan Kinghorn

It is too easy to look at the odd pillbox or anti-tank block without placing these sites into a regional strategic picture, a point which will be returned to below. There are various challenges to research of military remains. Local variations result in differences to the standard buildings seen elsewhere; for example, one can’t assume that the buildings at an airfield always confirm to the standard RAF type number. Local or later adaptations to a building can often change the role and function of the building depending on the local environmental considerations or changes to the operation and organisation of a base.

The Highlands is rich in potential sites to study. Of the big sites the Cromarty Firth area and Loch Ewe especially require more work. Only basic recording has been done at Loch Ewe (Chadwick 2014), and more detailed study is required; many structures are in poor repair. The impact on the local community also needs exploring. The role of Inverness in WWI is also of some importance, with supplies and post for the fleet at Cromarty and Scapa Flow channelled through the town. The role of the US Navy, the remains of the massive mining workshops and their supply systems could also be further explored archaeologically especially at Dalmore (Harvey and Kruse 2020). Wartime remains in Caithness are common and would repay further work.

Remains of WWll coastal defences at Loch Ewe showing an engine house in the foreground and a searchlight emplacement beyond. ©HES

The role of UK troops, foreign troops, seamen and foresters are of great social but also archaeological interest. Little survives at a range of camp sites and almost none have been investigated. Foreign forestry workers came from the United States, Honduras, Canada and Newfoundland (Bird and Davies 1919; Ford 1985; Curran 1987; Wonders 1991; Forbes 2015). Detailed survey work at a WWII Canadian Forestry Corp camp in Sutherland has provided insights on how to identify these sites in the landscape (see Case Study Skibo A WWII Canadian Forestry Camp).

The bunkers from the Cold War of the second half of the 20th century (ROC posts) are also scattered throughout the Highlands. Many have been demolished, and surviving examples are often flooded. A few of the larger structures have been re-used, with the new Gairloch Museum a pertinent example. There is still time to collect the memories which go with these sites. The Subterranea Britannica website provides details of all known sites. In addition, Evanton in Easter Ross was one of only four sites in Western Europe where the US Air Force released spy balloons designed to drift over the Soviet Union. The programme was a failure, but some remains at the site may date to this period (Kruse 2013b, 15).

The remains of a Royal Observer Corps (ROC) bunker at Tomatin, soon to be demolished due to road building ©Susan Kruse
The interior of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) bunker at Tomatin. ©Susan Kruse

In addition to structures, there is also material culture evidence of activities in the Highlands. Metal detecting in the Highlands, particularly around Fort George and Fort William, has uncovered a large array of dress objects including buttons, fittings and shoulder straps, together with items reflecting daily life and activity, even toy soldiers. This material shows, in some cases, movements of people, as the regiments of the soldiers stationed in the Highlands can be identified from their buttons. Middens in camps might also provide further information on life in camps. Gunflints indicate use of firearms (see 10.4). Local museums hold a range of items.

War memorials abound in the Highlands (War Memorials Online; War Memorials Register), with a number of community projects investigating those commemorated. This information is scattered across a number of websites, and ideally should be linked to the HER and Canmore. Some memorials have listed protection, and many are cared for. Each has a story to tell, not only of the conflicts they record but also of the local commissioning, design and building of these monuments. The memorials were generally erected by local committees and represent early examples of civic sculpture. An unusual wooden World War I memorial built of wood from the battlefield at Cambrai in France was removed from France after the war and re-erected at Dingwall Station (MHG21590). The wood inevitably rotted, but it has been replaced. Some memorials, particularly plaques in buildings, have disappeared over the years. There is also the material culture of commemoration, including medals, memorial plaques known as death pennies, photos and letters.

Seaforth Highlanders Memorial Cross, Station Road, Dingwall. ©Martin Briscoe, courtesy Highland Council.

10.8.1 Ways Forward

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