10.8.1 Ways Forward

There is a large public interest in military-related matters that attract a more diverse audience than traditional archaeological periods do. It’s also an area covered by schools (primary and secondary), local history societies and single-issue groups, with specialist websites on various aspects of conflict archaeology. This interest has opened up the importance of archaeology to a very different audience, and this is something that should be built on in the Highlands.

The goal should be to increase the knowledge and understanding of the military remains in the Highlands and to put them into context with the rest of the UK, through understanding the processes and decisions the military used and what that means for the broad range of sites. The links to Empire are varied and need placing in their Highland context.

To do this we need data. Archaeologists need to discover and research as many sites as we can in the Highlands, and ensure that this information gets into the public domain. Lots of structures are disappearing, and it is vital that these are recorded before they are lost. Equally we cannot just focus on the military remains without addressing the civilian aspects; these are interrelated and include, for example, the railways, the pubs, harbours, farming, hotels, billets and hospitals.

Below are a number of themes to look at which could be divided further into regional groups, thematic groups or an individual site level.


Almost all military sites have a camp, often overlooked for more the interesting parts of the complex, but they are the important sites to understand what actually happenned. Most leave an archaeological trace, something tangible to examine and record. These camps became social gathering places, where locals could come visiting for events, such as the cinema and dances, and often feature in local memories and photographs. The camps introduced many Highland civilian populations to electricity and telephones for the first time. In some cases, however, these military camps were closed off communities where the public was not welcome.

Concrete clad brick built cinema of typical naval design, Fearn Airfield. ©The Highland Council

WWI camps are rare and virtually none has been studied archaeologically in depth in Scotland (Stobs Military Camp). Camps involved extensive training systems and while some of these survive, we are often left with no idea about camp layout and size. A number survive across the Highlands including from the three WWI army depots, sites on the Cromarty firth, two of which may survive archaeologically (Case Study Wartime Remains in the Cromarty Firth), to the WWII Commando training camps in the area centred on Fort William; the Achnacarry centre (MHG62195) which was also investigated by Lochaber Archaeological Society. In addition, there are camps for foreign troops including the WWI US naval sites (Harvey and Kruse 2020) and the WWII foreign troops of the allied nations such as Norway and Poland. The camps of the foreign forestry workers along with those spread around the airfields are all worthy of interest, as they would allow researchers to understand the layout and operation of the camps and provide the potential to recover material culture.

Investigations at Achnacarry Commando Camp ©RoCAS

The prisoner of war (PoW) camps built for both wars have never received the attention they deserve. A number were set up in the Highlands, and the survival of PoW camps at Kinlochleven (MHG27947) and Brahan (MHG24899) from both wars presents the opportunity for detailed work. Parallel examples can be examined, both within the UK and overseas, with possible international collaboration. Many of these Highland camps continued to exist for displaced persons after the war. Local memories often speak about the objects prisoners made for children or families, and some survive, such as wooden paintings from Strathpeffer (Remembering Strathpeffer Area Wartime Remains).

A wartime painting of Achterneed House. ©Susan Kruse

Fixed defences

Pillboxes are the one site type that everybody knows about but they were almost obsolete as a defensive position before they were finished. Although often seen as a single feature standing alone, this is not the case, and greater study into understanding other elements of defensive positions is required. Multiple trenches and foxholes are associated with pillboxes for the defence of a location. The Home Guard often built many of these in positions overlooking roads and railways, and they are unrecorded in the records, but local knowledge can assist. The fixed defences around vulnerable points and key towns are worthy of note: Wick, Invergordon, Bonar Bridge and Inverness all had systems of pillboxes, trenches and barbed wire laid out to defend these sites, which were deemed to be especially important. In particular the rather unique Inverness pillbox design could be researched; currently the known distribution is limited to Beauly and Inverness only; see Stoneyfield, Clachnaharry and Lovat Bridge. Road and rail blocks are found across the Highlands, some in rather unusual places, and military plans and aerial photos sometimes aid in identification. Further work on these could reveal information on how these sites would have worked, and throw light on the strategic role they played.

Second World War Pillbox, Keiss. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council
The road block at Glencarron. ©Susan Kruse

There has always been a lack of information concerning the location of WWII auxiliary bunkers, since they were meant to be secret, and personnel were sworn to secrecy. They were built in case of invasion, for a guerrilla force to conduct operations from. The British Resistance Archive provides a starting point but only local knowledge will uncover the sites, as it depends on the people who talked about them after the war.

Loch Ewe remains perhaps the largest and most poorly studied military complex in the Highlands, with massive AA defences and all aspects of naval activity, including shore bases, oil stores, supplies, camps, boom defence and coastal batteries. Many of these were short lived while others lasted the entire war (Chadwick 2014). Such was the importance that the location of the base ‘Port A’ (its codename), is seldom mentioned in the records. The site encompasses not just the Loch but much further over to Achnasheen. The Arctic Convoy Research Project is investigating one aspect of the Loch Ewe complex, where convoys were sent to protect ships to Russia. A full research programme is required to map the surviving remains from the area as a whole to better understand the protection and operation of this important base, not just in WWII but also in WWI and the Cold War; HES hopes to start a survey in 2021.

The jetty at Naast, Ross and Cromarty. ©Martin Briscoe
Detail of the jetty at Naast, Ross-shire, where hessian bags were filled with concrete to form the ‘stones’. ©Martin Briscoe

The ROC wartime posts for monitoring aircraft and the WWI and WWII coastwatch posts for monitoring ships, submarines and aircraft around the coasts existed all over the Highlands, but few are recorded and, in particular, the coastwatch posts of both wars are not recorded. They are mentioned in newspapers and were manned by local people, volunteers assisting the military authorities.

Cold War sites are not uncommon, and include listening stations, training areas, radar stations, barracks and post War AA positions at Loch Ewe. Some are still extant but the building use has changed. However, there are many Cold War sites which have long been abandoned and are either ruinous or have been redeveloped. During the Cold War the north of Scotland played a key role in controlling the access to the Atlantic along with providing, key military training grounds such as at Cape Wrath, RAF Tain, Fort George and the Royal Navy underwater range BUTEC, all still active.

Training Remains

Training plays an important part in any military complex and the whole of the North of Scotland was designated as such. It is important that archaeologists record as many features as possible at all training sites, although the repeated bombing at Cape Wrath and Tain creates difficulties and implications for site preservation. A survey of Cape Wrath Training Centre has documented the impacts associated with a military training area which has been in use mainly as a range for bombing and off-shore gunnery since the early 1930s (RCAHMS 2009). There is scope to build on the work of Lochaber Archaeological Society investigating the former commando training sites around the Fort William area (see above).

First World War Practice Trenches, Rhicullen. Andrew Puls ©The Highland Council

Firing ranges in the Highlands were the subject of a study by Annette Jack, with the information incorporated in the Highland HER. These were for the volunteer forces, dating from the 18th century onwards. In some cases targets are still preserved.

Naval training also took place in Highland waters, for example the X craft that disabled the German battleship Tirpitz trained in West Coast Lochs. Mines and booms to protect certain areas were installed, for example during WWI at the Sutors at the head of the Cromarty Firth, Easter Ross (MHG59145) and during WWII at Loch Ewe, Wester Ross, with anchor remains still to be seen at some locations (MHG59145; Chadwick 2014, 37ff). A number of beaches were used for WWII practice landings including at Nairn, the Dornoch Firth and Moray Firths (Scarfe 1947); an entire community at Inver near Tain was evacuated just for this purpose (Inver Evacuation). 

Looking to the future, archaeologists must address these areas where they lack knowledge, engage local communities where information exists and look at remains not just locally but regionally, nationally and even internationally to understand, document and record these remains before we lose them. The Highlands are well placed to focus research on the British military activity over the last 300 years, in all aspects of warfare.

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