The Lost Cemeteries of Pictland: Bankhead of Kinloch

by Grace Woolmer-White

In 2012, an archaeological evaluation was undertaken in advance of a proposed agricultural development on land at Bankhead of Kinloch Farm near Meigle (PKHER: EPK936; MPK18751). Several ditches were discovered and complete stripping of the area revealed an unenclosed barrow cemetery of early medieval date. Wholly unknown prior to this, the excavation of the site that followed is the first complete excavation of a Pictish barrow cemetery to date.

The cemetery comprised of three square barrows, two of which were conjoined, all with causewayed corners, and two round barrows. These five barrows were arranged on a linear alignment, positioned to respect one another, with the central graves all aligned ENE to WSW. The western of the conjoined square barrows measured 7.8m across, with ditches surviving up to 0.9m wide and 0.36 deep, and the eastern most of the conjoined pair was 7.6m across, with ditches up to 1.4m wide and 0.8m deep. The layout of the ditches suggested that the western barrow was the first with the eastern added later. The third square barrow was smaller, measuring 5.4m across, with ditches up to 0.5m wide and 0.25m deep. The two round barrows were largest, with the eastern one measuring 9.2m in diameter with a ditch up to 9m wide and up to 0.5m deep, and the western round barrow 9m in diameter with a ditch up to 0.7m wide and up to 0.35m deep.

Plan of Excavation Area ©️ AOC Archaeology Group

With the exception of the western of the conjoined square barrows, all of the grave pits within the barrows contained body stains and fragments of skull and teeth. Three out of these four were orientated with their heads to the west, with the eastern round barrow the exception and its skull orientated to the east. All of the burials appeared to be extended, single inhumations, although an extra molar was present in the western round barrow grave, which may indicate two individuals, although it is difficult to say with the remains so degraded, and the extra tooth may be the result of may be the result of disturbance from rooting and burrowing. None of the graves were constructed with stone to form long cisted burials, as is more common, and the only stone elements were two granite boulders on either side of the grave of the western conjoined square barrow, which may have had some structural purpose. In the two round barrows, the skeletal remains were slightly raised from the grave base which may indicate some organic lining or structure, such as wooden coffin, which are known elsewhere.

Round barrows during the 2012 excavations ©️ AOC Archaeology Group

Radiocarbon dates were obtained from the human remains in the eastern conjoined square barrow and two round barrow burials. These dates suggest a relatively short internment period, between cal AD 350-580, with the dates statistically indistinguishable from one another. Of note, the similarity between the dates for both round and square barrows at the sites suggests that there is no clear difference in the chronology of these monument types. Given the relatively small size of the cemetery and internment duration, it is likely that it represents the cemetery of a small family group. The conjoining of the two square barrows, through the sharing of ditches may serve to represent such kinship relationships, and the round barrows, although not conjoined also appear to create a pair.

Square barrow during the 2012 excavations, with the round barrows visible in the background ©️ AOC Archaeology Group

The form the barrow took above ground is unknown. Like most cropmark sites, it has been subject to extensive truncation and total loss of all above ground elements through ploughing. A robber trench over the western side of the central grave pit of the western round barrow contained Victorian pottery of 1850s date, indicating that the barrow must have had upstanding elements at least prior to this date, and hinting how many sites are likely to have been upstanding prior to the intensive ploughing of agricultural land in the intervening 200 years.  The extensive programme of trial trenching failed to locate any further barrows and it is likely that the five barrows discovered represent the whole of the cemetery. It is one of nine other cemeteries identified within Perthshire, and its modest size, both in terms of the barrows themselves and the cemetery as a whole, is similar to the overall majority of barrow cemeteries in Perthshire of which six contain one to six barrows.

The barrow cemetery is situated in a hollow and so does not perhaps occupy a very visible or auspicious location in the landscape. The land rises steeply to the south, with an area of low topography to the north, so while the cemetery itself is not located prominently on high ground, there would have been elevated view over the cemetery when approaching it from the southeast. It is also at the end of a large terrace, before the land drops towards the floodplain of the river Isla, and the cemetery and is thus positioned in relation to important travel routes through the landscape. The name of the farm too indicates the significance of the location, denoting the headland at the eastern edge of the ridge where the farm, and cemetery, is located.

Excavation photograph of a round barrow during the 2012 excavation ©️ AOC Archaeology Group

The discoveries at Bankhead of Kinloch, despite not being substantially well preserved in terms of the individuals buried and grave architecture, nonetheless add significantly to our knowledge of this site type, with new information about the variety of barrow and grave types used for the burial of the dead in early medieval Scotland. Such sites have been increasingly identified from aerial photography surveys over the past fifty years, but still remain rare, and the Bankhead of Kinloch cemetery was entirely unknown prior to the investigation instigated by the proposed agricultural developments. Its discovery continues to illustrate the importance of developer funded archaeology in not only protecting known sites, but its crucial role in discovering wholly new ones. Had the development not taken place, this barrow cemetery would have remained hidden, with its secrets at risk of being entirely lost under the ever-deepening plough.


Mitchell, J et al 2020 ‘Monumental cemeteries of Pictland Excavation and dating evidence from Greshop, Moray, and Bankhead of Kinloch, Perthshire’. Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal 26, 21-34.

Cook, M 2012 Bankhead of Kinloch, Meigle: Evaluation and Excavation Data Structure Report. AOC Archaeology Ltd.