Crannogs: look, don't touch

If you go to a loch for a look at one or more crannogs, what will you see? Probably not much more than most of our photos here show: a pile of stones with some grass or trees on top. Unless you go to the Crannog Centre by Loch Tay to see archaeologists' idea of a restored crannog, where the research so far is under display, and will explain more about crannogs than can be seen on, or in, a loch.

Many crannogs have been sitting there for the best part of two thousand five hundred years, since the Iron Age. Some possibly earlier ones could be Neolithic say, four or five thousand years old. No-one as yet has done enough research to know, but it's not impossible that versions of crannogs could have been built in the Mesolithic from hunter-gatherer times as refuges or seasonal dwelling sites: perhaps nine thousand years old.

Up top: important stones

The reason that any are there at all is because of where they are: underwater, or nearly so. Their first and only line of defence is the stones most are covered with. Move the stones and they start to deteriorate. There is quite a lot of wave action across a loch surface, and wood will not last long constantly being lapped by waves, or exposed to air. The top timbers that we saw on some of the Loch Awe crannogs are protected by a kind of 'wick' effect: the moisture soaks up into them from below, but will evaporate if the stones are moved. Divers and fishers are as concerned as anyone to look after the country's heritage of the past, so please don't move the surface stones, even though there is nothing immediately visible below. The stones act as an impermeable blanket stabilising the wetness of the inside of the crannog, and leaving the topmost timbers in permanent humidity, even though the top of the crannog is out of the water at times, and looks dry. What seems like a bare, 'useless' topping of stones, isn't: it's the crucial seal which will let the crannog last another thousand years.

Underwater: caution

It's very dull diving, in a Scottish freshwater loch. Peat runoff, and suchlike, colour the water a permanent dark greenish-brown, and vegetable matter is often in suspension, making dim visibility cloudy as well. Water is very rarely clear (never the vis you get in the sea), and always dark-coloured, like tea. Underwater the lochs are generally pretty still, although there is a certain amount of wave action, particularly shallower than 30 feet, which is where most crannogs are built.

Timbers tend to be preserved well underwater, but like those inside the crannog, only if they are left alone. Baulks and logs sticking out from the crannog edge are usually fairly soft and spongy on the surface and will be covered with algae. Don't rub the timbers or fan to remove the green algae, as it will expose the original bark, or cut/tool marks, or original surfaces, to erosion.

The same applies to piles in the bottom. These are often level with the surface of a sandy bottom. They have over the centuries been eroded by wave action until their tops are level with the sand surface, then covered by a thin layer of sand or mud, and algae, but under the surface are OK and sound. If by accident you fan the silt or sand away from the top of a pile, just keep away from agitating further: stand off a short distance. Don't start to fan more or grub around the pile to expose more of it, as that will ruin for ever its chance of survival.

Access and you

And finally, a word of the people who live by the loch all year round. With the new access to the land available for everyone in Scotland (and a good thing, too), you may want to get on or in the loch. Please think to check with the local residents, for access to the water, and particularly if you want to get onto an island, natural or artificial. They are all owned by someone. Landowners on the bank own the land out to the middle of the loch and that includes any crannogs. So please check off if it's OK to get access or launch a boat or whatever. There may in any case be better places that local people can tell you about or information unknown to a visitor.

Take this final thought if you are interested in crannogs and other monuments. They are everyone's heritage but the people that built them didn't just vanish into thin air: they left descendants who continued to use them, rebuild, live on them, and even though they are no longer in use today, they are still the owners. Those descendants are quite likely to be the people who are living around the loch right now; so if they feel a bit proprietorial, don't be surprised: wouldn't you?

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