MHG1145 - Monastery, Ballachly


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Type and Period (1)

  • MONASTERY (Medieval to 19th Century - 1058 AD to 1900 AD)

Protected Status

Full Description

Site of (NAT) Chapel & Grave Yard (NR)
OS 6" map, Caithness, 1st ed., (1871)

Chapel, according to local tradition, survived until Reformation, and graveyard, in part, until 18th century when most of it was carried away by a flooding of Burn of Houstry, during which coffins were seen to be swept down to sea. The little that survived the flood was eradicated by cultivation. The priest's house is said to have stood on rising ground above junction of the Burn of Houstry with the Dunbeath Water.
Name Book 1871. <1>

At Ballachly is site of a chapel. From the haugh land near the river there rises a ridge some 80-100 yds in length, and at right angles to it there runs towards river a wall 5ft thick and still some 8-10ft high. Along level to base of ridge at E are ruins of a similar massive wall. Bishop Forbes (Craven 1886) records that he was told on his visit to Caithness in 1762 that here 'had been a small monastery called of old the Chapel or Church of Peace'.
RCAHMS 1911; J B Craven 1886. <2>

OS 6" map, Caithness, 2nd ed., (1907)

This seems to be an Early Christian monastery whose church continued in use until later medieval times. It may have been associated with St Triduana since there was, apparently, a 'Croit Trolla' nearby (Beaton 1909).
D Beaton 1909 <3>

(ND 1570 3033) Chapel and Graveyard (NR) (Site of)

All that remains of this site are the massive walls on S, E and W sides of a secluded haugh at ND15673037. They are of drystone construction incorporating large facing blocks, roughly coursed, with a rubble core. S wall, which survives to a height of 3m, is 1.9m thick at base, tapering to 0.6m at top; other walls remain to a maximum height of 0.8m. The manner in which they surround the haugh suggests an early date, and their most likely origin appears to be as precinct wall of an early monastery. The "priest's house" may be building at ND 1570 3033 of which only footings remain.
Visited by OS (N K B) 25 March 1968.
A D S MacDonald and L R Laing 1969. <4>

The site was Scheduled in 1968.

Monastery (NR) (remains of) OS 1:10000 map, (1979)

The massive walls of the supposed monastery are as described by previous OS field surveyor and as depicted on OS map.
Wall 'A' contains a blocked gap widening towards wall-head. 'B', though reduced to a max height of 0.8m, is same width and displays same boulder base footings as 'A', and amount of tumble around it suggests that it could have been same height. It is possible that these two walls, together with natural knoll 'E', were originally joined to enclose the haugh; a wall along W side could have been destroyed by flash-flooding of Dunbeath Water and Houstry Burn, and that along N side by development of a hollow-way. There is no no trace of such walls and no evidence of structures within postulated enclosure, now under permanent pasture. On level summit of knoll 'E', the building footings suggested by OS field surveyor (NKB), to be remains of a "priest's house" are indistinguishable from ruins of a typical croft, and the associated walls are narrow and of different character to walls A and B. However, position is unusual for a croft, there being no easy access up very steep slopes of knoll. To E & SE of alleged monastery is further walling ('C' and 'D') which may be contemporary. 'C' is 0.8m in max height and width is 1.8m at the massive base-footings. Wall 'D' is less strong and, connecting two low cliffs, effectively encloses, with the river, an area of secluded haughland S of the supposed monastery.

The evidence for a monastery at this site is very slender, based apparently on two factors: (i) tradition of pre-Reformation chapel and graveyard, and (ii) survival of what has been considered to be a precinct wall. The latter, exemplified by wall 'A', resembles a precinct wall of a formal early medieval monastery in terms of height only; a wall of dry stone construction, battered and 3m high is unknown at other monastic establishments in northern Scotland, and it would be remarkable that a wall of such height could survive from Early Christian era. The site has poor defensive capability, and secluded nature of assumed enclosed area is more akin to a monastic settlement than a fortification. It is possible that the walls were built merely at whim of a local eccentric for no important purpose, and this may explain their uniqueness.
Visited by OS (N K B) 15 December 1982.

It is possible that this could be site of 'hospital' at which English envoys were accommodated on night of 3rd October 1290, on their way N to attend reception of Maid of Norway (see ND13SE 54).
B E Crawford 1982. <5>

Topographic and geophysical surveys on and around the site of the possible monastery were carried out by GUARD in 1998 in a project funded by Historic Scotland, the Dunbeath Preservation Trust and the landowners to provide more information and to inform a management plan for the site. <6>

A sketch of the "Ballachy Stone 2" by Colin Macaulay 17/3/99, 1st impression Found while rebuilding the garden wall. Probably part of the cove. 13cm by 12cm by 6cm. See the associated documents.
J Aitken : 18/12/00.

A geophysical survey of part of the site was carried out by GUARD in 2002. (Awaiting details)

Site visit 2/7/2003 to view excavate/overlay. Photographs. Distinct knoll beside the water, would be a good natural defensive site. There are remains of buiildings/structures on top , but too overgrown to distinguish. Large wall on lower ground off the S side of the knoll, but another also off the N side. Resistivity has identified a large circular feature to S of the knoll and E of the wall (ND13SE0170). This lies part in part out of the scheduled area - HAW 7/2003

Incised stone from this site is now in Dunbeath Heritage Centre
JW 18-3-2004

Geophysical surveys, involving both resistivity and magnetometry, were carried out at the site in 2007 by the University of Nottingham. Several anomalies were subsequently investigated through trial trenching. Several large walls and an area of cobbling were exposed. A single sherd of C13-C14 pottery was recovered from Trench 3. Excavation was expected to resume the following year. <7>

Four season of excavation at the site were undertaken by the University of Nottingham between 2007-2010. This work was subsequently published in 2013 as a PSAS article. Although the enclosed area produced little evidence of occupation, two areas at the base of the hillock produced evidence for medieval industrial activity including ironworking and cobbled working surface. This activity post-dated a palaeochannel possibly resused as a ditch and a substantial stone wall. Evidence of the site's association with an early monastery was not substantiated, but the site was centre of some imporatance with possible early medieval and Norse, later medieval and post-medieval activity. See link below for the full discussion of the site including radiocarbon dating and finds reports. <8>

Sources/Archives (16)



Grid reference Centred ND 1570 3036 (123m by 115m) (2 map features)
Map sheet ND13SE
Civil Parish LATHERON
Geographical Area CAITHNESS

Finds (0)

Related Monuments/Buildings (1)

Related Investigations/Events (7)

External Links (3)

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