ECR Case Study: Performing Glencoe – Sounding out a Creative practice for Digital Archaeologists in Highland Landscapes

Lizzie Robertson, University of Glasgow

Perceptions and representations of Scottish Highland landscapes have often been subject to romantic notions of the sublime – with landscapes being perceived as empty, wild and rugged. Such perceptions have a tendency to overlook the archaeological past and present realities of highland life, where landscapes were busy with the activity of human and non-human actors and supported a rich tradition of Gaelic language and culture. Creative and innovative approaches to archaeological methodologies and interpretation have played an increasing role within the discipline, with interdisciplinary collaborations between archaeologists and artists paving the way for new spaces in which archaeology can be a creative process (Thomas et al 2018). Parallel to this, both new and old forms of immersive technologies present mediums through which to further explore creative forms of archaeological practice and interpretation.

Landscape image of a rocky hillscape with moss growing up the front and grey rock at the top. The sky behind is blue with white clouds.
Figure 1:  A view of Aonach Dubh, taken during field-recording © Lizzie Robertson

I’m currently in the third year of my PhD in the Archaeology department at Glasgow, looking at creating and performing immersive audio experiences in highland landscapes, with a particular focus on the archaeology of Glencoe. Through this, I’ve been particularly interested in telling stories about this region, and about Highland life more generally from the post-medieval to the 20th century. In August 2022 I received some funding through the Scottish Archaeological Framework’s Early Careers Research bursary which enabled me to carry out fieldwork in the Glencoe region.

The motivation behind this research is that I’ve been interested in the embodied experiences of the people that lived in these landscapes in the past and communicating these themes and interpretations with modern audiences. Because of this, I’ve been looking at elements of site-specific performance alongside elements of immersive game design to think about how to engage people with both the tangible and intangible heritage present within the landscape (Bozdog and Galloway 2020; Pearson and Shanks 2001). In order to do this, I’ve been developing a creative practice that looks at field-recording in the landscape; re-collecting and recreating past soundscapes through archaeological, historical and environmental records; composing pieces from and about Glencoe, and then, finally, performing these in the landscape itself.

Through my research in Glencoe, I’ve walked, tiptoed, clambered and sunk into its various terrains – From the expansive Rannoch Moor with its many lochans, estate roads, old overgrown pathways; the various townships in the middle of Glencoe itself with the busy A82 nearby; to the summer shielings in Gleann Leac na Muidhe, a valley running off of Glencoe where fellow student Eddie Stewart has been excavating some of these structures that people used to stay in as they grazed their cattle in the warmer summer months (Stewart 2022). There’s a good range of archaeological and written evidence showing various townships, shielings structures, other structure associated with how people were living and working in these landscapes in the post-medieval period to the modern day.

Hand drawn plan of the landscape using labels. The words fill the space of each different landscape type.
Figure 2: Planning a landscape-based composition: mapping blending into graphic notation © Lizzie Robertson

My fieldwork in August focussed on testing some of the prototype forms of my audio experiences in their landscape settings. The first of these was based around the township of Achtriachtan which has in recent years been surveyed and excavated by the National Trust for Scotland. As a result of these surveys and excavations, several structures and artefacts were discovered, and among these were the foundations of a stone and turf house, a quern stone within its floor layers and a corn-drying kiln nearby (Alexander 2019). The composition for this location takes inspiration from these findings, and focusses on stories about methods of processing grain, the various associated sounds, the role of the waulking songs in daily tasks, and the wider features in the landscape.

A man wearing a plaid shirt uses a mobile phone and earphones to trial the app. He is standing in a green, hilly landscape on a sunny and cloudy day.
Figure 3: Trialling the prototype app at Achtriachtan © Lizzie Robertson

In order to deliver this composition to listeners in an interactive way, I created a prototype app that responded to the orientation of the listener whilst various elements of the soundscape played around them via their headphones. I chose to design this as a headphone-based experience as the sound of the main road is a dominant part of the present soundscape at this particular township. Through this I’m aiming to encourage the listener to explore the relationships between the various features of this township, which survive mostly as ephemeral traces in the landscape, and immerse them in a contrasting audio reality that will prompt them to explore and understand these landscapes in ways that depart from the perceived notion of these as empty and wild landscapes – romanticised notions that are sometimes reinforced by the imposing, grand visuals of the surrounding glen.

During this time, I also conducted fieldwork in Rannoch Moor to Ba cottage, the remains of an 19th century structure. Here, I trialled an interactive radio experiment which allowed users to explore the site with an old radio and hear different parts of my compositions coming through depending on where they were around the cottage. This sort of interactive experience was inspired by geo-located applications that reveal certain information depending on where somewhere is in a site – a key feature of many apps that are used in heritage, arts and cultural settings. The use of analogue technology, however, introduces opportunities for glitches and interference that makes each performance unique and allow the user’s movements to impact on how the composition reveals itself to the listener.

A wide and green landscape of long grass, trees, hills and a forest with small areas of grey archaeological stoneworks. A man from afar can be seen in the left of the image and a woman on the far left.
Figure 4: Testing the inter-audibility between shielings in Gleann Leac na Muidhe for audio installation © Alex Yeo

The third part of this fieldwork was based in Gleann Leac na Muidhe, a smaller valley that runs off Glencoe. It is up here that fellow PhD student Eddie Stewart has been running excavations on some shieling clusters, of which I participated in. Around one such cluster, I’ve been designing an interactive installation that will use imbedded speakers around the various shielings and associated features. This glen is sheltered somewhat from the noise from the busy main road in Glencoe, and so by using speakers, the focus can be instead on a shared experience that utilises the way that sounds behave and project themselves around the site to prompt the audience to think about how the soundscape may have been experienced in the past when these shieling grounds were in use. This way of thinking about acoustic space and soundscapes was inspired by some of the methodologies developed by Hamilton et al in their consideration of past soundscapes (2006).

A woman wearing a purple jumper sits cross legged on the stone floor of a turf house with wattle walls behind her. She has a laptop on the ground in front of her, is wearing earphones and is holding a digital device.
Figure 5: Making recordings in the new turf-house at the NTS Glencoe visitor centre © Eddie Stewart

This fieldwork also provided further recording opportunities, which are a key part of gathering materials for use in the soundscape compositions. Using a hydrophone, I captured recordings from the various waterscapes of the Glencoe region. The Alt na Muidhe runs past the shielings with a musical bubbling noise, whereas the bogs of Rannoch Moor can be deceivingly quiet until a footstep elicits a stream of bubbles and a satisfying squelch. I also had the opportunity to make recordings in the newly constructed turf house at the NTS Glencoe Visitor centre, which helped to think about the sort of acoustics offered by these structures, and how that may impact on designing material for compositions.

These initial experiments within their landscape setting have been essential to developing them further for eventual public-facing events and gathering feedback. It is my hope that these forms of landscape-based interactive experiences and the methodologies I have been developing can promote new forms of heritage and archaeological media and engagement.


Alexander, D 2019 Achtriachtan Glencoe – Trial Trenching 2018 and 2019 Data Structure Report. Unpublished DSR: National Trust for Scotland.

Bozdog, M and Galloway, D 2020 ‘Performing walking Sims: from Dear Esther to Inchcolm Project’, Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds 12(1), 23–47. Available at:

Hamilton, S, Whitehouse, R, Brown, K, Combes, P, Herring, E and Thomas, M S 2006 ‘Phenomenology in practice: towards a methodology for a ‘subjective’ approach’, European journal of archaeology 9(1), 31–71. Available at:

Parker Pearson, M and Shanks, M 2001 Theatre/archaeology: Disciplinary Dialogues, London: Routledge.

Stewart, E 2022 Data Structure Report for excavations in Gleann Leac-na-Muidhe, Glencoe. Unpublished DSR.

Thomas, A, Lee, D, Frederick, U and White, C 2018 ‘Beyond Art/Archaeology: Research and Practice after the ‘Creative Turn’’, Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 4(2), 121–129. Available at: