Excavation Project Design

Why we’re doing it and what we want to find out!

An investigation and re-evaluation of the ‘Highland Home’: How it has changed over the last 200 years and its impact on family life. The investigation work at Lower Caen can be viewed as a pilot which will inform and instruct future excavation work at the site.









Many hundreds of longhouses were abandoned at the time of the infamous Highland Clearances when the landowners evicted their tenants to use the land for more profitable sheep farming. The longhouse was the hub for the family at work, sleep and play and many stories were told around the peat fire which was eventually put out for the last time when the family was evicted.

The Sutherland estate policy was to set fire to the roofs of these longhouses to prevent the tenants for returning to their homes. This was a time of physical and cultural translocation that impacted the lives of these displaced people in many ways, including the emigration trails to North America.

There is need to address the lack of information about this traumatic period in history through the systematic recording of a longhouse through excavation where the facts are laid bare, layer by layer. This will be the first research led excavation in Kildonan for over five decades. The local community has been waiting for an opportunity like this one to embrace the area’s history as we commemorate the Bicentenary of the Kildonan Clearances and to actively get involved in the many creative elements of the project that will make this excavation a much more creative experience for all those involved.

A community excavation of an early 19th century longhouse will provide the inspirational venue for archaeologists, artists and oral historians to involve the local community in a creative cultural experience.

The excavation results will be showcased in an exhibition in Timespan throughout 2013 and 2014. This will also include a selection of oral history recordings and stories collected by the artist working at the excavation site. In addition, there will be webcasts of the dig on the web.

The excavation results will be reported in the national ‘Discovery and Excavation’ journal and will be presented at the 2013 Highland Archaeology Fortnight seminar to an audience of over 200 people. Timespan aims to be cultural sector leader in the Northern Highlands and this project will help us achieve our aim.


  • A greater understanding of Medieval rural settlement on a local and regional scale across northern Sutherland and provide greater awareness for the need for a broader morphological examination of longhouses
  • To allow comparative studies with the excavation of longhouses at Rosal Deserted Settlement in Strathnaver by Fairhurst, 1962 and Lelong 2004-2009 on a local and regional basis.
  • To establish and size, shape, character, function and date of the Longhouse to update the Caen virtual world reconstruction in Timespan
  • To inform the sequence of events that led up to the removal of the township inhabitants the by the estate
  • To provide training in archaeological field techniques to students and members of the local community
  • To encourage a local and international sense of historical identify linked to the Kildonan Clearances
  • To further understanding of settlement pattern in the local area through the Medieval period and the processes that influenced both continuity and change
  • To involve local communities in the project, encouraging a sense of shared historical identity and ownership of the archaeological heritage across the region.
  • To increase awareness and appreciation of the archaeological heritage among members of the local community.


  • To carry out geophysical survey using magnetometry and resistivity
  • To excavate trenches internally and externally to recover evidence of its occupation, construction, function and date.
  • To record all archaeological features and evidence of damage
  • To train volunteer excavators in techniques of excavation and recording.
  • To arrange for site visits and open days and the pre-arranged involvement, if possible, of local school children in the excavations


  • A trench measuring c 10 m square will be opened over the longhouse, encompassing its walls and entrance and a strip of 2 m outside both long walls
  • Turf will removed by hand, using spades, and will be stored in coursed stacks according to good practice and watered regularly if necessary to ensure it is able to regenerate after its replacement over the trenches.
  • All deposits and features will be excavated by hand in plan, with discrete features excavated first by section and with baulks left in place at appropriate points for stratigraphic control.
  • All contexts identified will be recorded by measured drawing in plan at a scale of 1:20 and in section where appropriate at a scale of 1:10.
  • Contexts will also be recorded by digital, colour slide and monochrome print photography and by written descriptions on pro forma sheets.
  • Bulk samples will be taken of selected deposits for flotation, in order to provide material for dating and information on the contemporary environment and site formation processes.
  • Samples for micro morphological analysis may also be taken should suitable stratigraphic sequences be identified.
  • All artefacts will be bagged and their locations recorded in three dimensions. The trench outlines and locations will be recorded using a total station EDM. A site daybook will be maintained to record sketches and developing interpretations throughout the course of the excavations.
  • Timespan will seek detailed advice from Scottish Natural Heritage about the re-instatement of both sites after the completion of excavation.
  • At this stage, we envisage that if further excavation of site is likely in a subsequent season, a breathable, permeable geotextile should be placed over the archaeological deposits before back filling to protect in the intervening period.
  • Trenches will be back filled by hand and the turf will be carefully replaced

Products and Outcomes of the Fieldwork

  • An illustrated data structure report, prepared according to standards set out by Historic Scotland and the Institute of Field Archaeologists, will be produced within three months of the completion of fieldwork.
  • The data structure report will describe and discuss the results of the fieldwork, identify interpretive issues arising from it and make recommendations for future work.
  • Copies of the final report will be distributed to all excavation participants, and extra copies will be made available for interested members of the local community and for the Timespan Archive and Helmsdale Library. Copies will also be distributed to the National Monuments Record of Scotland and the Highland Sites and Monuments Record and to other interested bodies and/or funders, including Historic Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, funders, the Society of Antiquaries for Scotland Library and the British Archaeological Bibliography
  • A summary account of the fieldwork will be submitted to Discovery and Excavation in Scotland in December

Site of the area(s) to be excavated
The main emphasis will be on the excavation of the longhouse situated near the edge of the old river terrace at Lower Caen. The longhouse measures approximately 25m by 3m. An investigation of the doorways and ground immediately outside the house could be investigated if time allows.

Site access
We would like to access the site through a gate just of the A897 on the west side of Caen Burn. This would be the only disturbance in terms of opening and closing the one gate to access the site. This access would be used by the members of the archaeology team, volunteers and a few groups of visitors under my supervision. A full list of persons using the site will be drawn up and sent to the estate for approval. The site would be accessed in the morning around 9.30am and at the end of the working day at 4.30pm. Timespan’s heritage officer Jacquie Aitken is in charge of the volunteer programme, including risk assessment and onsite training.

Uncovering/reinstatement plan
We will remove the most intrusive bracken from the longhouse by hand and continue to carry out this work throughout the growing season. We will not be using any chemicals on the site. We will also seek advice locally and from experts on how best to proceed.

The sensitive archaeological deposits will be near the surface in and around the longhouse therefore all digging at the site will be carried out by hand. We will de-turf using spades and then carefully record the layers just under the surface that can be rich in archaeological deposits. The work will involve removing collapsed stonework and turf to reveal the longhouse walls.

We are interested in recovering information about the layout, construction and function of the site as well as any dating evidence from finds etc. Once the site is reinstated it will remain much the same as it appeared beforehand.

Post ex arrangements
The reinstatement work will be completed at the end of the excavation and by the excavation team and volunteers. At the end of the exploratory work we will replace the soil and turf in an orderly manner to allow the site to more effectively regenerate.

Artefact conservation arrangements
All finds will be carefully retrieved and stored accordingly to material type and size etc. Timespan will seek advice from curatorial adviser Estelle Quick and the Inverness Museum conservation staff. Although there is no additional budget for expert conservation work during the excavation there will be scope to deal with conservation needs as and when they arise.

We will remove finds for post excavation analysis with a view to displaying them in Timespan after they have been processed though treasure trove. The type of finds may include bits of metal, pottery, wood, glass etc.

The data structure report will contain a full finds list to allow the Finds Disposal Panel to reach a decision on their final place of deposition following post-excavation analysis.

A fully catalogued archive for the project will be prepared and deposited with the National Monuments Record of Scotland within one year of the completion of the overall project.


2 thoughts on “Excavation Project Design

  1. i’m an italian journalist and i’m strongly interested in the highlands clearances. I’m also trying to get the App but cannot succeed
    If you can give me informations it would be really helpfull
    thank you very much for your time
    ambra pirri

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