Scottish Crannogs

Brian G Turner

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#1
There was a Team Time episode on last night - a British TV archaeology group - covering Scottish Crannogs.

Essentially, they were small fortified communal houses, set upon timbers away from the bank of loch.

I had never actually heard of them before - but figured they must be inspirational to someone somewhere world-building for fantasy.


Here's some information from: http://www.channel4.com/history/timeteam/snapshot_crannogs.html
(copied, because they'll probably erase it soon)
Crannogs

What is a crannog?
Crannogs are small, man-made islands that are found throughout Scotland in lochs and other inland waters. Similar structures are also known in other parts of the British Isles, particularly Ireland, although they are not called crannogs there. One of the earliest investigations carried out by Time Team, shown as part of the first series in 1994, concerned a crannog at Llangorse, Powys, in Wales. In England, the lake villages' of Glastonbury and Meare (for example) also have many features in common with the crannogs of Scotland and Wales.

Crannogs were places of habitation and refuge usually fortified, raised enclosures constructed of layers of rocks shored up with stakes driven into the loch bed. Many were connected to the land by causeways, which were sometimes concealed by lying just beneath the surface of the water, so that they weren't immediately evident to would-be intruders.

Some crannogs were large enough to house whole communities; and some were important royal or monastic centres. The one investigated by Time Team at Loch Migdale in the 2004 series was at the smaller end of the range, probably only big enough for one roundhouse, one family and a few animals.

How old are crannogs?
The oldest-known crannogs were probably built as long as 5,000 years ago, during the Neolithic era, with many different phases of construction or reconstruction taking place since then. Literary sources tell us that some Scottish crannogs were still in use well into the 1600s, and a number of Scottish castles that survive today were probably constructed on top of pre-existing crannogs.

Some crannogs were used as fishing or hunting bases during medieval times, while others became fortified strongholds of the Scottish clans. The former crannog of Priory Island, on Loch Tay, for example, eventually became a stronghold for the Campbells of Glenorchy, having previously been used by both Scottish royalty and monks. The ruins of the fort the Campbells built on the site in the 16th century can still be seen there today.

At Llangorse, one phase of the construction of the site was dated to about 870 AD. The site may have been built by a king of Brycheiniog, and is reminiscent of similar royal sites in Ireland. The crannog came to a fiery end in 916. A Mercian abbot, Ecgberht, had been assassinated and Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians, blamed Tewdwr ap Elised, the king of Brycheiniog. Her army destroyed the island and captured his queen.

Although many have been reused since, a large proportion of crannogs are thought to date from the Iron Age. While some may have been important strongholds for powerful local families or royalty, many were relatively small. The amount of work that would have been involved in their construction suggests that they were built in troubled times, when even relatively small settlements of people felt the need for a secure base to which they could retreat at times of danger.

How were crannogs built?
There are two basic types of crannog. One consists of structures raised above the water (or, in some cases, marshy land) on stilts. These were the earlier type of crannog and were relatively common structures in wetland or waterside Bronze- and Iron-Age communities throughout Europe. The later type, such as that at Loch Migdale, involved creating an actual island, which then formed the base on which any buildings were erected.

Wherever possible, the crannog builders would take advantage of outcrops of raised bedrock or existing small islands. Sometimes, though, they would have no option but to start their island-building underwater. Either way, the construction process was broadly similar. Large quantities of rock and rubble would be piled up to raise the ground level, with wooden piles being driven into the loch bed to keep the material in place. At Llangorse, it was estimated that 1,000 tons of rock, layered with bundles of branches to hold it together, were piled up to create the crannog. This was topped with a timber palisade surrounding the structures that were built on top of the newly created artificial island.

Shape, size and building materials
Crannogs come in various shapes and sizes, but the great majority are circular or oval, probably for relative ease of construction. Research in Scotland, where several hundred crannogs have been found since they were first identified as man-made features in the 19th-century, shows that most are between 15 and 30 metres in diameter, although there are significant exceptions.

According to Mark W Holley (see Further reading), who has researched many Scottish crannog sites, the materials used in building them vary throughout Scotland. Crannogs found in the Hebrides, for example, seem to have been built mainly of stone, while those on the mainland were built in large part with wood. 'Most of this variation can be ascribed to differences in local environments,' says Holley. 'In general, people used materials that were easy to come by or immediately at hand.'

Channel 4 is not responsible for the content of third-party sites.

The Scottish Crannog Centre
www.crannog.co.uk/
Kenmore
Loch Tay
Aberfeldy
Perthshire PH15 2HY
Scotland
Tel: 01887 830583
E-mail: info@crannog.co.uk
The Scottish Crannog Centre is open to visitors from 15 March to 30 November 2004. It features a recreated crannog and causeway open to visitors and is the location for various special events. The website includes background information on crannogs, the crannog reconstruction and underwater archaeology.






Anyway, here are some research links, and then a photo of one reconstructed:

http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=2146411352&mode=thread&order=0
http://www.mcmahonsofmonaghan.org/crannogs.html
http://www.arcl.ed.ac.uk/arch/holley/
 

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Brian G Turner

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#3
I thought I'd bring this subject up again, for a couple of reasons:

1. Dating of a Crannog at Loch Tay has been narrowed down to 370-355BC:
Breakthrough in study of Scotland’s ancient loch dwellers

That's going to make it easier to put into any sort of context, especially if the move to water was to help protect against an invading people - though I suspect any explanation cannot be so simple, especially considering that water was also commonly a sacred place.

2. Crannog Men come up in George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, not least via Howland Reed. So now you know something of the context GRRM was working with. :)
 

Harpo

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#4
There's a tiny one a few hundreds yards from my house. I can see the end of the loch from where I'm sitting, but not the section with the crannog. It has a causeway still, which is how I can tell what it is.
Thanks Brian.
 

Venusian Broon

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#5
That's going to make it easier to put into any sort of context, especially if the move to water was to help protect against an invading people - though I suspect any explanation cannot be so simple, especially considering that water was also commonly a sacred place.
My first inclination is to imagine that the reason that you build a crannog's is to take advantage of the waterways - they were the main roads and motorways of Bronze and Iron age Scotland.

Here's a map I found of some of the crannogs discovered and their distribution.
Crannogs.jpg


Then you would also have access to the resources from both the water and the bank.

I agree that it is likely that there could have been some sort of spiritual connection too with the water.

I'm not so sure they would be excellent as defensive structures, although they do have a degree of defensibility.

Interestingly the much sturdier Brochs - like a stone tower and clearly defensive in nature - become prevalent at about 1st century BCE - 1st century CE - although Wikipedia suggests that some come from much earlier and in line with the date you've given above for the crannog.

They exist in many of the same areas as the crannogs - see distribution map below:

Brochs.png


Although I guess it's likely that it would have depended on what resources were at hand and if you could acquire enough quality stone to construct them.

Probably hill forts with mainly earthen works were more common in the south of Scotland, given the more 'rolling' nature of landscape with plenty of hills. It also seems they were in place much earlier, from at least 1000 BCE and a much more formidable place to stop any invaders!

Here's a lovely atlas site of hill forts: ArcGIS Web Application

Purely on eye inspection, the Southern Uplands, Lothian and Fife were full of them!
 

night_wrtr

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#6
I had never actually heard of them before - but figured they must be inspirational to someone somewhere world-building for fantasy.
I've made a mental note, and have a good idea where I can use these.

I'm not so sure they would be excellent as defensive structures, although they do have a degree of defensibility.
I think in terms of defense it depends mostly with location. If they are surrounded by water, it is essentially a moat of a sort that would do well against a ground attack. But, if they are built above the water, what is stopping an enemy force going upstream, making a raft of some kind, setting fire to it and letting the water do the work? Assuming the flow of water would allow that kind of thing of course.

It does make a lot of sense though - being used to take full advantage of water systems and also land.
 

Venusian Broon

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#8
I think in terms of defense it depends mostly with location. If they are surrounded by water, it is essentially a moat of a sort that would do well against a ground attack. But, if they are built above the water, what is stopping an enemy force going upstream, making a raft of some kind, setting fire to it and letting the water do the work? Assuming the flow of water would allow that kind of thing of course.
If you are attacked, unless you have transport (which I would think you're likely to have) , you're kinda stuck in a relatively small wooden building well within projectile range. And if this band of raiders has war canoes also, then you can't really escape.

Having said that, against a small group, probably reasonable and it does depend what sort of crannog it is - a big imposing one could probably function as a stronghold...although the baddies would probably nick all your coos and crops - which seems to have been the main sort of raiding that was done between clans/tribes.

From the archaeological record, apparently, there is not much evidence of weapons and destruction from any crannog site, which tentatively suggests to me they were mainly there for economic and transport reasons; defensibility an issue of course but probably a similar issue for all farmsteads and other households.

In an aside - the main reason a moat worked as a deterrent against an attacking army was not that it was a body of water, but that it acted as a giant stagnant latrine for the fort/castle within it. Generally all effluent and waste found its way into it. So really a form of biological warfare. :sick:

Personally if a bunch of warriors were to come sweeping in to attack, I'd much rather be on an earth wall atop a large hill, chucking big stones at their heads! ;):)
 

night_wrtr

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#10
n an aside - the main reason a moat worked as a deterrent against an attacking army was not that it was a body of water, but that it acted as a giant stagnant latrine for the fort/castle within it. Generally all effluent and waste found its way into it. So really a form of biological warfare. :sick:
Yeah, that would stop me from wading through...

Personally if a bunch of warriors were to come sweeping in to attack, I'd much rather be on an earth wall atop a large hill, chucking big stones at their heads! ;):)
This makes me wonder if the extra effort to construct these crannogs was worth it. It must have if it was used for so long, but what was the building process and cost associated with it? Is there a larger degree of difficulty to build this instead of a hill fort with solid walls?

You'd have to have several people involved to help place the tree posts, working in water for long periods of time, and getting the materials from land to the spot you're building on, which means boats strong enough to transport these items. Seems like a lot of work.
 

Venusian Broon

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#11
This makes me wonder if the extra effort to construct these crannogs was worth it. It must have if it was used for so long, but what was the building process and cost associated with it? Is there a larger degree of difficulty to build this instead of a hill fort with solid walls?

You'd have to have several people involved to help place the tree posts, working in water for long periods of time, and getting the materials from land to the spot you're building on, which means boats strong enough to transport these items. Seems like a lot of work.
While its probably true that it was quite a feat of engineering to construct a crannog, given the levels of tech and resources available, to build a hill fort...well that meant trudging up and down hills all day getting what you needed. And hill forts, I guess, were much bigger. Crannogs, I believe, tend to be relatively small - so perhaps for family and near-family???

There's another small thread on Scottish vitrified hill forts hear - but in summary, part the stone work placed to make part of the 'wall' of the fort has been observed to have been fused together, which suggests they must have hefted a huge amount of wood up a hill to create these temperatures. (If that is how they did it, we still not sure how they actually managed this feat. A legitimate mystery of the ancient world!)
 

Abernovo

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#12
Is there a larger degree of difficulty to build this instead of a hill fort with solid walls?

You'd have to have several people involved to help place the tree posts, working in water for long periods of time, and getting the materials from land to the spot you're building on, which means boats strong enough to transport these items. Seems like a lot of work.
I don't know. I've lived close to crannogs, to hill forts, and to a broch. We're not talking empires with vast sieges here. In general, it was a neighbouring tribe, or village, or local bully boy with a few tens of fighters, at most.

You want a threat? Bears, primitive wild cattle, wild pigs; perhaps worse, food being stolen or eaten, and watching your loved ones starve through winter. Water acts as a natural barrier to a lot. Adding a palisade close to water's edge helps prevent a proper foothold from which to do damage, or to dig.

Brochs were storage centres as well as homes. The evidence is that crannogs may have been the same, as well as holding a religious significance in some cases -- several crannogs have been named after a Christian saint, suggesting that the new religion was superimposed over the old. How much effort went into building cathedrals and churches, which were not strictly necessary as buildings? Plus, as a home, you have that good old loch view...valuable real estate. ;)

As to hill forts, many of them were placed as a show of force, denoting tribal dominance. Some of them may have held communities, but most villages and towns were in more sheltered areas. Five hundred metres up a hill makes for some bitter draughts under your door. And, unless you have a decent spring up there, it means carrying water up a hill (I can attest that is not fun, and I only had to go up a hundred metres with forty litres).

Damn, I see VB got in first.
 

Venusian Broon

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#14
I remember reading somewhere that many small islands in lochs were used as family burial grounds. Could it be that crannogs act as a spritual bridge between the living and the dead?
There does seem to be a lot of evidence that the peoples of Britain did hold bodies of water with spiritual and religious esteem, although unfortunately we have largely lost what their beliefs were.

There was also the practice of burial or even just storage of the dead in the houses of the living. From memory 'mummified' bodes were found amongst the debris of the living in some north Scottish prehistoric homes. (I believe they first deliberately buried the body in peat bogs, which as you know from the numerous bog bodies acts as a sort of preservative, then they exhumed it and returned it to the family home!)

This basic practice has pedigree going way back - I believe the found evidence of this in one of the worlds first 'urban' communities in Turkey ~6000 BCE. (The burial of the dead in the space of the living, not mummification!)

So it would interesting if there was any evidence of the dead being interred 'underneath' or within crannogs, given as you say Foxbat, the possibility that being on a loch may have been a more 'spiritual' place (?? )
 

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#15
There does seem to be a lot of evidence that the peoples of Britain did hold bodies of water with spiritual and religious esteem, although unfortunately we have largely lost what their beliefs were.

There was also the practice of burial or even just storage of the dead in the houses of the living. From memory 'mummified' bodes were found amongst the debris of the living in some north Scottish prehistoric homes. (I believe they first deliberately buried the body in peat bogs, which as you know from the numerous bog bodies acts as a sort of preservative, then they exhumed it and returned it to the family home!)

This basic practice has pedigree going way back - I believe the found evidence of this in one of the worlds first 'urban' communities in Turkey ~6000 BCE. (The burial of the dead in the space of the living, not mummification!)

So it would interesting if there was any evidence of the dead being interred 'underneath' or within crannogs, given as you say Foxbat, the possibility that being on a loch may have been a more 'spiritual' place (?? )
Interesting what you say about the storage of the dead in the houses of the living.

Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think it's the custom in England to have the deceased on view in their own home where people can come to pay their respects. I don't think it's the case so much now in Scotland but I do remember as a child going to see (for example) my grandmother lying dead in her bed as part of the funeral rites.

Perhaps it was just a local custom or, if widespread throughout the country, I wonder if it was an evolution of these ancient customs towards the dead?
 
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#16
Interesting what you say about the storage of the dead in the houses of the living.

Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong but I don't think it's the custom in England to have the deceased on view in their own home where people can come to pay their respects. I don't think it's the case so much now in Scotland but I do remember as a child going to see (for example) my grandmother lying dead in her bed as part of the funeral rites.

Perhaps it was just a local custom or, if widespread throughout the country, I wonder if it was an evolution of these ancient customs towards the dead?
In Liverpool Roman Catholic funerals have the open coffin in the house whereas Anglican/Prodestant ones didn't. My gran came from a mixed family but she was ten before her first Roman Catholic funeral came along and it freaked her out.
 

Foxbat

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#17
In Liverpool Roman Catholic funerals have the open coffin in the house whereas Anglican/Prodestant ones didn't. My gran came from a mixed family but she was ten before her first Roman Catholic funeral came along and it freaked her out.
I'm also from a mixed family and, come to think of it, my gran was Roman Catholic so maybe it was more a practice of a specific religion rather than a Scottish custom.
 

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