Crannogs, Celts and Coatbridge

10 min read

The area surrounding Coatbridge has been inhabited for thousands of years. It was first cultivated during the Neolithic, though nomadic fishermen had visited for millennia previously. The first farmers were later invaded by the Bronze Age Beaker folk, who left behind a fascinating cemetery at Drumpellier.

The archaeological record for ancient Drumpellier does not end there, but actually continues into the Iron Age, when two crannogs were constructed, one at Lochend Loch, and one at Bishop Loch.

What is a crannog? A crannog is an artificial island, built out of robust timbers screwed into the bed of the loch. These long posts form a circle, and function like stilts to support a walled wooden dwelling above the water, accessed either by a bridge or by coracles and dugout canoes.

The reconstructed crannog at Loch Tay.

Crannogs were usually covered with a cone-shaped thatched roof to keep the rain out. People lived and worked in them, sometimes using them as sheds for livestock. It was even possible to light fires for cooking or metalwork inside crannogs, using a lining of stones or clay to protect the wooden floor.

The entrance to the Loch Tay crannog.

To protect the crannog-dwellers from the weather, the thatch had no smoke holes, but the roof was high enough for the smoke to rise above the people’s heads. This smoke would prevent insects from pestering the inhabitants, and could also be used for smoking fish hung overhead. Over time, crannogs would break down and fall into the loch. Silt would collect around the fallen timbers, eventually turning into an island, where a house could be built.

Crannogs are unique to Scotland and Ireland, with none in England and only one in Wales. Most of the early examples go back to the Bronze Age, and some even earlier, but the craze for crannogs peaked in the Iron Age, with hundreds built all over the country. The reason for their construction is not certain, but many crannogs were used for centuries.

Once islands had formed, thatched roundhouses like these could be built on them.

Crannogs followed the late Bronze Age trend of migration from defensible high ground into the wetter, more fertile low-lying areas, which could be farmed more effectively with iron tools.

Bishop Loch

The first of the two local crannogs was discovered in 1898. It was found to contain some rough pottery, a metalworker’s crucible, and an iron axe head, probably a woodworking tool rather than a battle axe. Very little is known about this crannog, as the investigators’ records are patchy. The site’s exact position is unknown, and hidden under the water. The date of this crannog is equally hazy, though one authority puts it around 250 B.C. However, the fact that it is so near the other crannog allows the possibility that the two were built by different generations of the same tribe.

Lochend Loch

The crannog at Lochend seems to be older, but better preserved, with more artifacts. It was stumbled on in 1931 when efforts to increase the loch’s depth left the crannog temporarily exposed. The timbers were well preserved in the surrounding peat mud, and showed that two crannog floors, one after the other, had been built on the same spot, the second supported by timbers screwed into the ruins of the first. The floors were strengthened by clay and stones, and the roof, like most crannogs, was thatched. This crannog was very substantial, even including stone paving on the floor at one point.

Three bone pins from the Lochend crannog. Image by kind permission of National Museums Scotland.

The timbers showed that this crannog had been burned multiple times. This burning could have been deliberate, with the dwellers firing the crannog when it began to crumble so that the old timbers would fall into the loch, and they could build a sound new structure above. The presence of human bones may suggest that they were taken by surprise, either by accident or by malice. The crannog also contained pottery, the bones of oxen, large quern stones used for grinding grain by hand, pieces of crucibles for metalwork, and part of a jet bracelet. It is thought that this crannog was in use from 800 B.C. to 400 B.C.

Jet bracelet fragments from the Lochend crannog. Jet jewellery was worn in the late Bronze Age, but went out of fashion, re-appearing later in the Iron Age. Image by kind permission of National Museums Scotland.

Why build crannogs?

So why were such strange dwellings built? There was no shortage of land to build houses on, and the process of building a crannog was much more laborious than building a simple roundhouse on dry land. Crannogs had some defensive properties, but they were not ideal fortresses. They were small and vulnerable to fire, inferior to the hill forts chieftains had long depended on. So why build crannogs?

The answer may be hinted at in the oldest legends of Britain and Ireland. Early Celtic narratives conventionally use physical barriers to represent social boundaries. In the medieval Welsh tale How Culhwch won Olwen, there is a series of formulaic meetings between heroes and gatekeepers. Each time, the gatekeeper stands guard over a fort where a king is feasting with his men. The hero seeks entry, and the gatekeeper refuses, unless the hero can say that he has mastered a craft – no-one else is allowed to meet the king.

The Grianan of Aileach was the stronghold of the kings of Aileach in Ireland.

The same formula appears in the Irish text The Second Battle of Moytura, derived from 9th century material. The text has the god Lugh listing his skills to the king’s gatekeeper, but each time he is refused entry, as the king already has someone with that skill. Lugh eventually asks if they have anyone who has mastered all of the crafts that he has, and the gatekeeper has to admit defeat. Because of this, Lugh was given the name Ildánach, ‘skilled in many arts.’

Detail on one of the drinking flagons from Basse Yutz, France. Such a drinking vessel would have been used at feasts by the very highest strata of Celtic society.

In the same way, the water around a crannog could represent an elitist barrier, marking out a private lodge where members of the warrior elite could host guests of similar standing. Status symbolism would also justify the extra labour required to build a crannog.

There are, however, difficulties with this theory. Ox bones found in crannogs are not inconsistent with the image of a chief’s feast hall; fossilised dung, however, is more of a problem, for historians as well as potential feasters. Why would a chief want to invite noble guests to a house full of cow pats? The evidence of quern stones and other everyday tools also goes against the elitist theory, arguing that these were spaces for everyday agricultural work rather than high status feasting. The presence of hazelnut shells is also troublesome for the theory, as these were far from a staple of the aristocratic diet.

Another theory has crannogs as sites of religious importance. Celts, like many contemporary peoples, regarded water with religious reverence, and perhaps fear. Rivers were personified as gods and goddesses who had to be appeased with sacrifices. Bogs were major sites of ritual activity and were regarded as passages to the other world, so it would make sense for priests (or druids) to have dwellings connected to the boggy Scottish lochs.

The Lochar Moss Torc was sacrificed to a peat bog on the Solway Firth. The wave-like decoration suggests sacred water.

However, this theory has problems of its own. Ancient people would sacrifice almost anything to bogs – swords, spears, cauldrons, jewellery, musical instruments, men, women, entire ships in Scandinavia, and the list goes on. If crannogs were related to the bog cult, then why do bogs connected to crannog sites not yield more treasure and bog bodies?

A reconstruction of the Deskford carnyx, sacrificed to a bog in Morayshire. The carnyx was a war horn with fascinating properties as an instrument. The Deskford carnyx had a hinged wooden tongue which actually modulated the sound. The boar was a common Celtic symbol for a warrior.

The famous Torrs pony cap from Kirkcudbrightshire was deposited in a peat bog. The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland.

Cattle and Treasure

Perhaps the most convincing theory has crannogs as the houses of wealthy farmers and craftsmen. These people would have occupied a position midway between the aristocracy in the hillforts, and the simple peasantry living in roundhouses. Considering the long and storied history of cattle raiding in Scotland and Ireland, the link between crannogs and cattle makes a lot of sense if we think of them as the houses of farmers. When raiders were about, there could be no safer place for cattle than a crannog.

In the Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, the hero Cuchulain single-handedly defends Ulster against a massive cattle raid. Many other early Irish texts revolve around cattle raids.

The association of crannogs with crafting, and particularly metalworking tools, is also of interest in the wider Celtic context. It was the Proto-Celtic Hallstatt Culture that ushered in the western Iron Age, and Celtic peoples ranging from Ireland to the Carpathians fostered a unique tradition of excellence in art and metalworking. The Roman military based their own equipment on that of the Gauls, and Romans prized weapons from the Celtic kingdom of Noricum for their superior quality of iron.

The hilt of a Celtic sword from France. Many Celtic swords have human shaped hilts like this one. It could represent a war god, such as Toutatis, or perhaps the spirit of the sword. In heroic literature, swords are often named, and many ancient burials contain swords that have been ‘killed’ by bending them beyond repair, and buried with the owner.

Jewellery was also very important in Celtic culture. Strabo wrote this of the Gauls: ‘To the frankness and high-spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists, while people of high rank wear dyed garments besprinkled with gold’ (Strabo, Geography).

The Snettisham great torc was a royal treasure of the Iceni tribe, which would later fight under Boudicca.

Strabo assumed that the Gauls were wearing jewellery for frivolous reasons, but he was looking at them from an outsider’s perspective. From the Gauls’ point of view, jewellery had great significance. In the Celtic honour system, items such as torcs and arm rings had a similar importance to wedding rings, but rather than signifying a marriage bond, they represented the relationship between a lord and his followers.

A drawing of a bronze arm ring from Morayshire, c. 100-200 B.C. The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland.

Arm rings of this style were unique to ancient Scotland. The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland.

A lord was expected to provide food and shelter for his followers, and to reward them with gifts, including jewellery, swords, armour and horses. In return, the followers were obliged to fight for their lord, and they were honour-bound never to leave the battlefield before he did (both Caesar and Tacitus report this custom among Gauls and Germanics respectively). Gift giving and hospitality were the foundation for what Tacitus called the comitatus, a warrior band under a charismatic leader. Such warbands could make or break a tribe, and they commanded great power and reputation.

Mirrors are a common item in Celtic burials of high status women. However, Celtic men were similarly image-conscious, both physically and in terms of reputation. The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland.

This was by no means exclusively a Celtic custom. The comitatus was the norm among barbarian nations of the Iron Age, likely originating with the Indo-European nomads of the Bronze Age. Aspects of comitatus culture could be found even in Rome in the form of patronage, which established mutual obligations between the patronus and clientus, such as a master and a servant. The custom of hospitality and gift-giving in the context of lords and heroes is also prominent in later Germanic sources, such as Beowulf and the Sigurd cycle. Indeed, the most iconic monster of Germanic legend is the dragon, a creature which greedily hoards gold, in contrast to the generous hero. Smiths are also important characters in Germanic lore, often appearing in the form of elves and dwarves.

The Ramsund carving in Sweden tells the story of how Sigurd slew the dragon Fafnir, as well as his wicked foster-father, Regin the Smith (left). His horse Grani carried away the treasure.

A panel from the Franks Casket, made in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. The blacksmith on the left is Weland the Smith, a sinister character who was crippled and forced to make treasures for his enemies. The bodies under his anvil belong to his captor’s young sons, killed by the vengeful smith. Curiously, Weland’s forge (and prison) was on an island. Could this be an equivalent of a crannog?

The importance of jewellery and weapons for the warrior class may well explain the common trope of heroes, such as Sigurd, Cuchulain and Kullervo, being brought up by smiths. This would certainly boost the status of crannogs, and begs the question – were any heroes brought up at Lanarkshire’s crannogs?

 

Credit

Drawings taken from J. Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1903. (1993 reprint by the Pinkfoot Press).

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