The Black Spout

by Grace Woolmer-White

Close to the Black Spout waterfall, Pitlochry, there is a circular banked enclosure, approximately 20m in diameter (MPK1607). It is one of a group of massively walled and roughly circular structures within Perthshire, first noted in the 18th century, several of which were excavated in the 20th century. Suggested as early medieval, the date of this group has remained contentious, however. Five seasons of excavation at the Black Spout, led by Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust, were carried out between 2005-9 as a community archaeology project which aimed to investigate the structure, and the wider group, further (Strachan 2013).

Digital plan drawing of the Black Spout, showing the 2005-2009 excavation trenches, which are numbered 1 to 7. Edradour Burn is below the site, drawn in blue.
Site plan showing 2005-9 excavation trenches and topography at the Black Spout © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

The Excavations

The excavations explored the enclosing walls, entrance and interior of the site. The massive stone wall varied in thickness from 3 m at the entrance to 2m, and included a distinct ‘shelf’ in its internal face, a feature known as a ‘scarcement ledge’ and common in broch and dun architecture, where they supported raised floors.

Composite of three images from the excavation of the scarcement ledge at the Black Spout. The top image shows the whole eastern side of the drystone ledge. Bottom left: a close-up of the ledge. Bottom right: the plan of the feature, showing the excavated soil around the drystone walls and ledge.
Eastern wall internal elevation and in plan with scarcement ledge © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

The entrance at the north-west included a rebated door jamb and an intra-mural chamber was set into the interior of the wall, c. 5m to the north-east of the entrance. Both of these features are also associated with broch and duns. and the intra-mural chamber may have accessed stairs leading to a raised floor. Discovered set into the stone foundations of ground floor, and positioned centrally in front of the entrance, was part of a much worn rotary, with a small circular stone disc covering its ‘hopper’ or opening. Both of these objects had clearly been deliberately and carefully placed.

Digital plan of the intramural cell showing the excavated features with dotted lines and arrows. The paving is highly variable in size, with some areas using large slabs and others tiny cobbles.
Plan of the intra mural cell © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

While the interior of the building was heavily disturbed by tree roots, paved surfaces, a two ill-defined hearths (one at the centre of the enclosure) were identified. Stone small finds included five rotary quern stones, loom weighs, worked flint, a whetstone, smoothers and stone discs. Metal finds included fragments from iron implements including a dagger or sword tip, a hooked fitting, vitrified material and iron slag, while a bead or toggle made of reused Roman glass was also recovered. Ecofactual evidence included a small assemblage of animal bone and evidence of oat and barley grains were also recovered. All of these indicate domestic occupation through activities such as food processing and metal working.

An excavator kneals in the excavation trench, holding a glass bead in one hand and leaning on his knee with the other. He is wearing a high vis vest and smiling at the camera.
Discovery of the Reused Roman glass bead or toggle © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

Dating and Interpretation

The group had previously been described as ‘circular buildings’, ‘ring-forts’ and ‘homesteads’ and were suggested as being early medieval in date on the basis of excavations by Margaret Stewart in the 1970s. Radiocarbon dates from the Black Spout excavations confirmed the site was occupied between the late 3rd and late 2nd centuries BC, however it appears to have been reused, if not reoccupied, in the early medieval period, although the nature of the reuse is not yet clear. This Iron Age date is in keeping with the architectural characteristics of the site and suggest a massively walled ‘monumental’ roundhouse. A similar, and broadly contemporary, building has recently been revealed within Moredun fort near Perth.

Excavation image of the site, showing how thick the walls are and the preservation to around 1 metre tall. The whole site is drystone and surrounded by green trees.
External view of the massive solid walled construction and entrance passage © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

The Value of Community Archaeology

The initial season of excavation was carried out as part of Perthshire Archaeology Week 2005, and afterwards, excavations were undertaken annually until 2009.  In total, 70 days of excavation were carried out by a range of community volunteers, PKHT staff member and archaeology students who learned excavation, recording and surveying skills. This demonstrated the popularity and value of community excavations within Perth and Kinross and inspired several more community archaeology projects, led by PKHT and other organisations at sites across Perthshire since.

The excavation team pose for a photograph, with people standing and kneeling on five different layers of the site, showing the true scope of the Black Spout. 13 people in total are pictured wearing high vis vests and digging gear.
Community volunteers at one of the site’s quarries © Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

The publication on the full excavation and results at the Black Spout can be purchased from PKHT’s online bookshop.


Strachan, D 2013 Excavations at the Black Spout, Pitlochry and the Iron Age Monumental Roundhouses of North West Perthshire, Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust: Perth.