The Archaeology of Assynt
Assynt has one of the largest concentrations of Neolithic cairns anywhere in Scotland. A 2011 excavation at Loch Borralan revealed a complex and accomplished structure. The orange-pink bedrock and uprights of the chamber had been worked to the desired shape using hammer stones and the whole cairn was built of the same stone. The chamber had been corbelled over and surrounded by arcs of stonework creating a tiered structure with a triple façade, its entrance portal of contrasting white stone leading into an antechamber before the main chamber. Built when the climate was warmer and drier than now in a partially wooded landscape close to a loch with an area of land suitable for cultivation and herding, the cairn had been used for burials, but this may not have been its only purpose. Perhaps it is better pictured as a family shrine.
Far fewer Bronze Age remains have survived – a few small cairns over single burials, some clusters of roundhouses in secluded valleys little used for later settlements, and a number of Burnt Mounds – piles of fire cracked stones once used for heating water. Often presumed to be cooking sites, one excavated in 2012 is much more likely to have been a sauna or bath!
Big was back by 500BC and Assynt’s coast is dotted with the remains of large farmsteads. Built on promontories and islands, against inland cliffs and in valleys, these Iron Age houses seem to have been deliberately isolated from their neighbours and were focal points surrounded by their own woods, fields, loch or burn and often with a beach suitable for landing a boat. The largest is Clachtoll Broch, currently undergoing long term investigation and consolidation. Standing at 14 metres it collapsed in the last few decades BC and was never re-occupied, although there are signs of later habitation around it.
Fragments of a large stone Cross have been found at Inchnadamph and are now housed in the Old Kirk. Together with the neighbouring moated site, a cross marked stone from Lochinver and some place names these all point to the early presence of Christian missions in Assynt. The Vikings also left some place names but as yet no remains have been identified.
By the later medieval period Assynt had acquired a Laird’s castle at Ardvreck, to be superceded by the neighbouring Calda House in 1726, but there are few signs of the majority of the population from this period. In contrast Assynt has extensive remains of clearance period settlements and finds from a house in Glenleraig suggests a degree of unexpected surplus income – wine bottles and fine quality Staffordshire Creamware!