MHG9097 - Barrow cemetery - NW of Tarradale House


Pictish barrow cemetery identified by aerial photography at Tarradale and excavated by the 'Tarradale Through Time' Project in 2019.

Type and Period (6)

  • (Alternate Type) ROUND BARROW (Late Iron Age to Pictish - 2 AD to 900 AD)
  • SQUARE BARROW (Late Iron Age to Pictish - 2 AD? to 900 AD?)
  • BURIAL (253 AD-601 AD, Late Iron Age to Pictish - 2 AD to 900 AD) + Sci.Date
  • RECTILINEAR ENCLOSURE (Late Iron Age to Pictish - 2 AD to 900 AD)
  • (Alternate Type) BARROW CEMETERY (Late Iron Age to Pictish - 2 AD to 900 AD)
  • PIT (Late Iron Age to Pictish - 2 AD to 900 AD)

Protected Status

  • None recorded

Full Description

Air photography has revealed the crop-marks of at least three ring-ditches 400 m NW of Tarradale House.
RCAHMS 1979; Visible on RCAHMS air photogaphs RC 1857-60, flown 1978.

NH548 489. Enclosure (Site), Tarradale House: Air photography has revealed the NE side, and parts of the NW and SE sides, of a rectilinear enclosure 450m WNW of Tarradale House (Visible on RCAHMS air photographs RC 1857-60); it measures 33m by at least 38m within a ditch about 1.5m broad.
RCAHMS 1979.

NH 548 489 Cropmark of circular (?bivallate) enclosure, c 30m diameter, with two linear cropmarks extending to NW. The SE edge of the ditched enclosure touches the pentagonal 'castle' site, to the NW of Tarradale House. Possibly in RCAHMS catalogue of APs, 1978, 18.
J S Bone 1996

Cropmarks, cluster of at least five ring-ditches, with possibly two square enclosures, to the N and E of the pentagonal enclosure 400m NW of Tarradale House. Diameter of the three largest circles is c 10-12m. Has the appearance of a barrow cemetery. Noted as 'three ring-ditches' in RCAHMS catalogue of Aps, 1978, 18.
J S Bone 1996

At least 10 ring ditches have been recorded around Tarradale Castle, plus evidence of the old road to the castle.
See assoc. docs. File.
Aerial Photo by Jim Bone.

J Aitken : 24/01/01.

A programme of archaeological evaluation including geophysical and metal detecting surveys, and open area excavation, was carried out at the Tarradale Barrow Cemetery, Muir of Ord, Ross-shire between the 28 August and 21 September 2019, by the Tarradale Through Time Project. The cemetery and associated features at Tarradale form one of the largest to be identified through aerial imagery in Scotland. The Tarradale barrow cemetery is located on a terrace overlooking the Beauly Firth, around 300 metres northwest of Tarradale House (see Figure 1) at an altitude of approximately 15-20 metres OD (NGR NH 5493 4895). Set within undulating ploughed fields, nothing can be seen of the cemetery on the ground today. <1>

Aerial photography has identified the remains of an extensive barrow cemetery on higher ground 1 km north-west of the mouth of the Beauly river where it joins the Beauly Firth. Around 18 circular barrows are visible, the largest being 10 to 12 m in diameter. Eight square barrows are also distinguishable, measuring around 5 m to 6 m in diameter. Central features are visible in at least five of the barrows, possibly indicating grave cuts. An area of uncultivated land obscures the central area of the cemetery. A circular and a square enclosure are also visible to the north-west, as well as a trackway which runs through the cemetery. <2>

The Tarradale Through Time excavation in September 2019 was a major research excavation to find out to what extent the features on the aerial photographs survive underground. We opened three large trenches (totalling almost half an acre) carefully chosen to explore the different patterns and sizes of the barrows. It soon became clear that the cemetery had been built on a vast scale. Trench 1, on the highest part of the site, revealed four large ditched barrows cut into the very stony soil. While aerial photographs had suggested some loss of barrow features in this area owing to plough damage and natural soil erosion downhill, we found the ditches and the bottom of the grave cuts to be relatively well preserved and, but no human remains or grave furniture survived.

The large square barrow in trench 2b had been more than quadrupled in size when it was surrounded by a second square enclosure of truly impressive proportions measuring 40m across, with ditches up to 7m wide and 2m deep. Whether this was constructed contemporaneously with the inner square or as a later enlargement and aggrandisement is not known, but the resulting double-ditched square barrow enclosure is the largest of its kind known in Scotland. No burial was found but it was abundantly clear that this prominent feature, still shown on an estate map of 1788, had been levelled in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. If it was a burial mound (though a shrine or some kind of funerary meeting place are other interesting possibilities) it hints at an occupant of the highest, possibly royal, social status.

Trench 3 was a massive undertaking, opening an area 40m long and up to 25m wide, and as the hundreds of tonnes of soil were scraped back, an amazing array of ditches and pits emerged. A round barrow 7m in diameter (containing a clear central grave cut) lay a short distance from a larger (17m-wide) round barrow, with another large example beyond. Close by, two neatly laid-out square barrows, c.8m wide with causewayed corners, were accompanied by a larger diamond-shaped, barrow 13m across. Sections across the barrow ditches revealed them to be only 1-2m wide and fairly shallow, and both within and without the barrows there were numerous pits and areas of burnt soil, as well as several unenclosed graves scattered between the monuments.

The emergence of monumental cemeteries like Tarradale is seen as an important transition in the visibility of the dead in the archaeological record. The creation of larger barrows may be linked with the emergence of elites and kingship, and the aggrandisement of existing grave mounds with the increasing status of the deceased’s descendants. Yet this kind of monumentality begins to disappear in the region from the 7th century onwards, possibly owing to the evolution of overkingship based in southern Pictland and the growing influence of Christianity favouring simpler burials close to churches. The TARRADALE THROUGH TIME project has dramatically shown that, elusive though the Picts may be there is still considerable evidence beneath the plough soil of powerful elites. <3>

Trench 1 - although there was some indication of the cuts made for graves in the middle of the barrows, no human remains survived, either because the bones had completely decomposed in the acid soils or the burial was destroyed when the barrow was levelled by ploughing. However, the fill of one of these graves gave radio carbon dates of AD253 - 410 and AD 247 - 409, suggesting that this burial may be from the early Pictish period.

Trenches 2a and 2b revealed a very sandy subsoil and a very different pattern of barrows. There were no obvious grave features within the enclosed are but the presence of two fragments of beaker pottery (one from the ditch plus plus an earlier fieldwalking find nearby) may indicate a Bronze Age origin. We believe that this feature was still prominent in the landscape when a large square Pictish barrow, 17m across with causewayed corners, was laid out just to the north (seen in trench 2b). This double ditched square feature is the largest of its kind in Scotland … it would suggest a burial of the highest, possibly royal, status.

Trench 3 - an unenclosed date gave a Pictish date of AD 432 - 558. Another grave gave a date of AD 438 - 601, with a median date of AD 557, confirmimg our expectations that this was a Pictish cemetery. <4>

Sources/Archives (6)



Grid reference Centred NH 2549 8489 (214m by 254m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NH28SE
Geographical Area ROSS AND CROMARTY
Civil Parish URRAY

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Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Investigations/Events (3)

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