Rosemarkie Caves Project

One of the caves near Rosemarkie © Simon Gunn

On the south shore of the Black Isle and just up the coast from Rosemarkie are about twenty old sea caves. Some of these are large and dry and all are at least 3 metres above the high water mark. For the past 7000 years, due to isostatic recovery after the last Ice Age, the land has been rising, while the sea has receded. The old, raised shoreline can be seen round most of the Black Isle. Cromarty, Avoch and Rosemarkie all sit on raised beaches, as do the caves. A photograph of one of the caves can be seen opposite.

The caves at Rosemarkie are largely unexplored but it is believed that many of them could have been used in historic and possibly prehistoric times. The Rosemarkie Caves Project was set up to research the archaeology of these caves. The project is a partnership between people living locally and the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS), assisted and advised by professional archaeologists.

Decorated pin from MacLean's Cairds Cave excavations © National Museums Scotland

Their first major field project was to excavate Cairds’ Cave, the nearest cave to Rosemarkie, and traditionally said to be the site of Dr William Maclean’s excavations 100 years ago. The excavations in 2010 quickly established that this cave was indeed the site of Dr MacLean's excavations. Original deposits still survived beneath a layer of broken rocks and earth that had spread over the floor of the cave after MacLean’s excavations. These deposits contained shells, charcoal and a bone awl. A section was made into part of MacLean’s spoil heap revealing large numbers of limpet and periwinkle shells, animal bone fragments, fishbones and charcoal retrieved from wet and dry sieving. A bone pin was also retrieved (the decorated bone pin from Dr MacLean's excavations is shown opposite).

Initially it was thought that the cave deposits related to one period of occupation, possibly suggesting a Pictish bone processing workshop. However, as part of the post-excavation analysis radiocarbon dates were obtained from bone fragments found both by Dr MacLean and in the recent excavation. The bone implements discovered by MacLean have been dated to around 600/700 AD, nicely within the Pictish period, whilst the dates from the 2010 excavations are substantially earlier, ranging from 300 AD to as early as 300 BC from the deepest deposits, taking the occupation of the cave back to the Iron Age.

Much more information about this project can be found on the project website, from where this information has been compiled.

The 2010 excavation team © Simon Gunn
Note from the Highland HER

For more about Dr MacLean and the 19th-century Caird's Cave excavations see our feature for the MacLean exhibition

Readers might also be interested in a trial excavation that was carried out in another of these caves, Learnie 2B, in 2008. The full report can be downloaded from the site record.