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Secrets of Black Isle caves unearthed

By Conor Riordan

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Simon Gunn has found evidence humans who lived in Rosemarkie caves.
Simon Gunn has found evidence humans who lived in Rosemarkie caves.

BUTCHERED bones, leather shoes and tools are just some of the items unearthed by archeologists which they believe show people lived in caves in the Highlands thousands of years ago.

Finds in caves on the Black Isle may show there were cave dwellers along the east coast as far back as 300BC.

These dark, rocky dwellings were typically used during Pictish times, between 300 and 800 – but gypsy travellers have also used them up until the 20th century.

Shells, discarded bottles and an engraved stone have also been found during the excavation project which began five years ago.

A team of archaeologists has recently completed another series of test-pitting in a number of caves near Rosemarkie.

Simon Gunn, leader of the Rosemarkie Caves Project, showed a cave to the HNG which had just finished being excavated.

The centre of the Through and Through cave, so called because it has two tunnel-like openings, is pitch black.

Without a light, the path can only be followed by ducking and feeling the walls with fingertips. Rocks stick out in the dark and underfoot is invisible.

After a short walk, sunlight illuminates the exit showing where the ground had been disturbed. This was from the most recent set of work designed to dig up the chamber’s past.

The 20 caves along the coastal stretch have been far from water for over 4,000 years, but their potential historical value has hardly been explored.

Simon first spotted the caves in 1982, when his wife dropped him off at Rosemarkie for a seaside stroll home to Cromarty.

Their high and dry location made him wonder if hunter-gatherers ever lived in them.

It was not until he retired in 2006 that Simon sought the help of archaeologist John Wood to lead an excavation at one of the caves which was unusual for having a mortared wall built in front of it.

After only digging a few feet the expedition unearthed an area filled with dumped shells – a tip for food rubbish made by gyspy travellers in the 1800s.

This convinced Simon to uncover the story of other nearby caves. By 2010 the Rosemarkie Caves Project, an offshoot of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society, was established.

Cairds’ Cave, the closest to Rosemarkie, was the first to be tackled by the new team of amateur and professional archaeologists.

Their work revealed a 1,000-year history of human habitation. Evidence at the top level was dated to about the year 700. When the group dug as far as they could they found more bone and charcoal, from around 300BC. This is the furthest back the evidence goes, so far.

“Charcoal doesn’t find it’s way into caves naturally. It can be blown in, but we found so much. We’ve even found hearths in some caves,” said Simon.

“In some cases we found cut bones.”

The archaeologists use different methods to carbon date the two materials. If the readings come back the same, they can be sure they’re right.

One of the cave’s more surprising secrets was a quern stone – a sort of hand-held grind-stone mill tool used to turn grain into flour.

A flat slab of rock, used to grind grain into the stone, was found buried nearby. Simon reckons it was put there to be picked up later on. But whoever left it either didn’t return, or forgot where it was.

The group believe travellers buried it over many seasons to be reused. They would then move on to somewhere else and make another easily enough.

And so the group moved on too – there were plenty other caves in the area to be surveyed.

Every single cave had limpet and periwinkle shells, too far from the shore to have got there themselves. Some caves even had a special midden area to dispose of them. Dead deer and foxes were also found.

“We get a lot of bones, some of which have been cut or have obvious signs of being stripped of meat,” said Simon.

“Some animals do crawl in. But if bones are cut it’s obviously been done by a person.”

Further obvious signs of human habitation over the centuries have also been found.

Hidden behind a wall of greenery, and a short walk from the Through-and-Through, is Ivy Cave.

Within this chamber there were heavy-based bottles of wine from the 1800s and heaps of discarded leather shoes believed to belong to travellers.

A pair of little girl’s shoes with the tops cut off were found in the cave. Simon thinks it’s because her feet would have grown too big.

Another find was a strange slab with a symbol on it. It was first thought to hold a Pictish message, but after expert analysis this was ruled out.

“It looks like someone’s got a new chisel and been practising with it. It might be a travellers sign, we just don’t know.

“Whether it’s a doodle or what, I don’t know. But you can see it’s been done on purpose.”

Last month the group completed their latest test-pitting. The samples have been sent to Glasgow University for dating and it is hoped the results will reveal more of the picture hidden within these caves’ past.

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