Digging up the story of Cnoc an Rath

Paul Duffy (left of picture) explains the topography of the Cnoc an Rath site to interested members of the public during an open day at the Lone Man's Grave. John McCallum is hard at work in the foreground.
Paul Duffy (left of picture) explains the topography of the Cnoc an Rath site to interested members of the public during an open day at the Lone Man's Grave. John McCallum is hard at work in the foreground.

If you’ve noticed unusual activities at the Lone Man’s Grave at Cnoc an Rath recently, don’t be alarmed - just blame the archaeologists!

Over the past three weeks the Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme (DBLPS) Archaeological Research Project has been busy trying to solve another of the archaeological mysteries of the island.

Led by Paul Duffy, the DBLPS Archaeology Project Manager, a volunteer team made up of Bute residents, regular visitors and occasional holidaymakers has been carrying out careful archaeological excavations at the site, and discovered some interesting results.

The site is well known to residents and visitors alike, not least because the DBLPS tramway path now skirts the edge of the site, but until the excavation little was understood archaeologically.

Various theories had been put forward suggesting that it may be a prehistoric ceremonial site, a medieval farm site (or ‘rath’, hence the name, which today is more commonly written as Croc an Raer), or a ‘ting’ site, where Vikings gathered to make laws and dispense justice. However, without some concrete evidence to go on there was no way of knowing which, if any, was true.

Intrigued by the mystery, Paul contacted the archaeology team who excavated at Quein and Scalpsie Barrow last year, and other local supporters of DBLPS archaeology, and asked if they thought the site would be interesting to explore further.

The answer was a resounding yes and, as the site is scheduled and protected by law, Historic Scotland were duly contacted to understand if they would allow the team to excavate, and their strong support for this idea encouraged Paul to commission a geophysical survey of the site - and from this to draw up a research plan for excavation.

Approval of this plan resulted in formal permission to excavate from both the Bute Estate and Historic Scotland, and the dig was on!

Guided by observations at the site and by the geophysical survey, three trenches were opened at the monument to examine the ditch, the bank and a proportion of the central area inside the bank.

Over the three weeks of the excavation more than 35 people volunteered, putting in more than two hundred days of work - with many of the participants taking part in an excavation for the first time.

New skills were learned, new friendships were made, lots of fun was had, and more than 250 visitors to the site were impressed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the team, not to mention the size of the spoil heaps!

So, what did Cnoc an Rath finally turn out to be? Frustratingly, little in the way of artefacts turned up, and the absence of this ‘rubbish’ from the past suggests that the site was not lived at any point.

It was also clear that almost everything that is visible on the monument today is probably a result of 18th century modification of the site.

The ditches have been cleaned out and the banks enhanced, probably around the start of the 1800s, at a time when the developing fashion for estate owners was to use the landscape for recreation, rather than just for generating income through tenant farmers.

The most likely candidate for this work is the last Lord Bannatyne of Kames, at the turn of the 18th century, though the next owner, James Hamilton of Kames (the lone man in the Lone Man’s Grave), may also have had a part to play.

Does this mean that the site is not originally prehistoric or Viking? Well, not really. A single piece of prehistoric worked flint was found in the upcast from the ditch, suggesting that some prehistoric activity took place at the site.

Also, if it was used as a ceremonial centre then comparison with similar sites suggests that the evidence for what went on may lie around the monument, rather than on it.

Despite the 18th century modifications, the mystery may still be solved - more work is planned, and there will be more opportunities for anyone with an interest to come out and help before the Lone Man’s Grave gives up all its secrets.

Said Paul: “Many thanks to everyone who helped make the excavations such a success.

“From small beginnings last year, the community excavation side of the DBLPS has really taken off and I was delighted to see so many people interested in and participating in the dig.

“Although we didn’t find a Viking helmet, or a prehistoric burial, it was great fun, and a really good training excavation for people. I

“t’s also interesting that the archaeological remains that we found relate to an 18th century desire to get people out and about enjoying the beautiful landscape and heritage of Bute, an aim that is central to the DBLPS some two hundred years later!”