Monday, August 06, 2007

Last Saturday Adventure of the Summer: Scottish Crannog Centre

Entry for 5 August (in transit to USA):

When Kenneth started his volunteer work for the Glasgow City Museums, he spent his first day sorting slides in their Resource Centre in the southern suburbs of the city. Several of the 600 slides he sorted that day were of “crannogs”. What, he asked Katinka Stentoft, his mentor, is a crannog? Crannogs, she replied, were ancient forts or dwellings built in Scottish lochs.

We were all intrigued by this ancient form of builty culture with the strange name. I was particularly interested because I remembered reading with fascination about the lake dwellers of prehistoric Switzerland when I was a child. What would it be like to live in a wooden town built over the waters of an lake?

When we mentioned crannogs to our friend Margaret MacKay from St. Mary’s (she’s head of Celtic Studies at U. of Edinburgh), she told us there was a reconstructed one in Tayside. So, when it came to planning our last Saturday Adventure of the summer – and Kenneth’s last excursion before he went back to the US, I proposed a crannog visit. Beth and her daughter Ana were just back from the person-centred conference in New York City, so I invited them along as well, and they readily agreed to join us.

We picked them up a little after 9 on Saturday morning. We made a wrong turn leaving Glasgow and ended up heading toward Carlisle, but soon were back on track and on our way to Tayside, Loch Tay, to be exact. It took us a bit more than two hours to get to the Scottish Crannog Centre. The reconstructed crannog sits at the end of a short wooden causeway, a round house built on log pilings, its tall thatched roof sitting jauntily over of the choppy waters of the wind-swept loch. It was a strange and inspiring sight.

The crannog at the Scottish Crannog Centre is a reconstruction of the 2500-year old Oakbank iron age crannog across Loch Tay, which has been extensively excavated and studied. That, and a fair amount of inference, guesswork and experimentation. Our guide, a young computer science graduate named Ewan, was a real crannog person, having been involved with the reconstruction since he was 11. He took us out along the wooden causeway, made of logs laid next to each other, which made a bumpy walk, especially for Ana, who was still using one crutch after her recent knee injury.

It was dark inside the crannog. The floor was covered with a thick layer of bracken, making it very soft to walk on, and, according to our guide, nice for sleeping also. We were startled to discover that there was no hole at the top of the roof; Ewan explained that the smoke dissipates through the thatch, and that leaving a hole in the roof would cause the fire to burn too quickly, putting out sparks and burning the place down. There was also a loft; possibly there was originally a second floor in the same level as the loft. There are partitions made of woven willow branches, some of which were used to house the more vulnerable livestock.

We spent some time experiencing this reconstructed ancient structure, before going back out into the bright sunshine to watch demonstrations of wood carving using various versions of a lathe, methods for making holes in stones (e.g., for fishing weights), grinding grain (spelt was big), and using tinder to start a fire.

All in all we all loved this site; it was one of our best Saturday Adventures. We spent the rest of the day winding our way back through the Highlands, passing alongside of one wonderful loch after another, until we finally made it back home in time to start packing up for our trip the USA the next day. Crannogs were now longer an interesting abstraction to us, but instead a lived experience.

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