On this blog, I often argue that a little more prehistory in our cities, towns and parks would be a good thing. Stone circles, standing stones, roundhouses, earthworks and cairns can be helpful in provoking conversations, but can also improve the quality of local environments, attract visitors and tourists, inform, educate, and help enhance a sense of place with added time depth – but perhaps most significantly they are almost always playful and fun.
This is perhaps no-where better embodied that Scotland’s newest crannog*, constructed in the first half of 2017 in Drumpellier Park, North Lanarkshire, with the primary function of this structure being a good old fashioned children’s play park.
*It probably won’t be the newest for long, at the rate they are being built.
I have followed the construction of this crannog over the past few months, watching with interest as little details have emerged, such as the spread-eagled eagle atop the roof, and little boars on springs for little children to sway back and forth upon (I have no idea what the technical playground terminology for such things is).
The crannog itself is part of the ongoing development of a series of seven lochs that run from the east end of Glasgow out into Lanarkshire, with Lochend being the most easterly of these. The aspiration to create a ‘central belt nature park encompassing lochs, parks and woodland around Glasgow and North Lanarkshire’ was boosted last year with a huge HLF Grant for the Seven Lochs Wetland Park, and the crannog is just one of the new developments that this cash is funding.
The aspiration? Inspired by the Iron Age crannog now hidden beneath the water of Lochend Loch in Drumpellier Country Park, our fantastic, new, crannog themed play structure is ready to be explored by the mini Celts of Drumpellier! [Seven Lochs]
This is powerful precisely because it draws directly on the deep time of this place – as we shall see, there really is an old crannog situated under the waters of the loch right next to where the new one has been constructed. In other words, this is a celebration of the prehistory of Coatbridge and the Iron Age of North Lanarkshire, and the questions that it will provoke amongst the children that see it and play on it will expand their understanding of how special the place they live and play is. This is the essence of urban prehistory.
Intermission (The archaeology bit)
Drumpellier Park includes Lochend Loch, and it is within this loch that a crannog was found in the 1930s. The loch was donated to the public by the local MP a few decades earlier, but proved poor for boating due to being shallow and weedy. A weed-removal loch-deepening exercise in 1931 revealed a crannog at the eastern end of the loch. The crannog was first spotted in the form of a mound emerging from the water by a Mr A Kennedy of Coatbridge, and the discovery confirmed by Ludovic McLellan Mann (not him again!) who also took charge of the excavations as was his wont.
Thankfully there was apparently also a magic money tree to pay for what must have been an expensive excavation.
The excavations, in February 1932, quickly identified wooden piles which supported the crannog, and also some ‘primitive pottery’.
To be honest, it sounds like it was a grim excavation.
Gradually, through muddy perseverance, the team began to find more substantial structural features including wooden beams the size of railway sleepers, as well as flooring and thatch. This all suggested a really substantial wooden building of more than one phase stood here, on a wooden platform surrounded by water.
A wide range of objects were recovered, ranging from the rather unfairly characterised ‘crude pottery’ (as with most Iron Age pottery, it was functional and chunky, but not primitive) and some rather more wonderful lignite and jet jewellery. Quern stones were also recovered, as were thousands of burnt hazel nutshells and ‘fire-injured stones’.
Remains of two humans were found in association with the structure, although these were incomplete bodies. In his report on the ‘osseous remains’ John Robb noted that these bones had chemically converted to Vivianite due to being underwater for so long. He also noted a nice detail related to one of these individuals, an early archaeological indication of the capacity of prehistoric people to help one another:
This was altogether a remarkable discovery, and it was fortunate that the excavation team were afforded time, money and local labour to carry out the work, in challenging circumstances, and it was fortunate too that Mann was on hand to offer his advice. Through time, the crannog became submerged and is now no longer visible from the shore.
Amazingly, at almost exactly the same time, an even older prehistoric discovery was made public related to Woodend Loch, which lies just across the road from Lochend and Drumpellier.
The month before excavations commenced at the crannog, William McLean of Airdrie presented some prehistoric stone tools he had found on the bank of Woodend Loch a few decades earlier (perhaps provoked to do so by the crannog discovery). This location was subsequently monitored by J M Davidson who realised that this was a potentially significant Mesolithic site.
Davidson collected over 800 lithics, in some cases wading into the loch to pick stone tools up from under the water. The ebb and flow of the water levels, weather conditions and time of year all played their role in the efficacy of his muddy-foreshore-walking prospection. These were of sufficient interest to be shown to and approved by the great Mesolithic scholar AD Lacaille: all were agreed that this was a Mesolithic campsite, and limited poking about followed, albeit subject to the same grim conditions as met the crannog diggers in the adjacent loch, and not really amounting to a formal excavation.
My colleague Nyree Finley has written about the significance of this site, being the first Mesolithic encampment found in West Central Scotland, although no further work was undertaken on this site and the context from which these lithics were deposited can only be speculated upon. For Mesolithic scholars like another colleague, Dene Wright, this is a site of almost mythic status, an assemblage requiring modern (re)assessment.
Taken together with the amazing collection of Bronze Age Food Vessels found near Drumpellier in 1852, there is a remarkable prehistoric flourishing on the fringes of Coatbridge which to date has been afforded almost no consideration by modern archaeologists.
Park (pre)history pre-crannog
The prehistoric remains found on the fringes of both these lochs has played a small role in the presentation of the park to the public. However, the emphasis has increasingly been on ecological matters with birds and reeds and that kind of stuff all over the place. Walking and leisure is also a big driver of activity here, and in the summer, there is a carousel ride consisting of giant tropical fruits, and a regular ice cream van.
In the small visitor centre earlier this year, I picked up a black and white photocopied leaflet entitled Drumpellier Country Park History.
To be honest, the text in the leaflet is out-dated. It notes, ‘Primitive stone tools were discovered around Woodside loch. These discoveries date the first sign of man to nearly 6,000 years ago’. There is then a bit of nonsense about a Celtic invasion of Gaels from Europe (??). ‘It was a family of these Iron Age people that built the fortified loch dwelling, called a crannog, in Lochend Loch around 100 BC’. These people were allocated to the Damonii tribe. Three episodes of settlement and burning were noted, with the final family meeting a violent end (hence the two bodies) around AD 500, apparently at the hands of a ‘marauding tribe’ of Scots from Ireland. This is all a bit 1950s but I guess at least it helps inform visitors that something seriously old and vaguely important happened here.
However, this leaflet really needs to be revamped, and hopefully the construction of the crannog will generate updated information and more contemporary forms of interpretation for the public (and I believe the Seven Lochs team are working on this).
There are also some indications in the visitor centre that this park has prehistoric depth, with a noticeboard about the park next to the main door briefly name-checking the Mesolithic and Iron Age. More dramatically, inside the cafe, there is a fine mural of the crannog and coracle, just behind a Peppa Pig ride.
On a visit in April 2017, I also noticed a new noticeboard that announced the imminent prehistoric upgrade that was about to hit the Park – the new crannog.
And – as if the power of coincidence had not already been demonstrated to you by my tireless blogging – the visitor centre itself was opened by a Provost Cairns.
The first sods were cut symbolically early in 2017.
The whole scheme was ambitious from the start, with the final design for the crannog playpark produced by Jupiter Play, the source of the two uppermost images below.
I visited the crannog a few times during its construction, and saw it emerge, built on a peninsula on the eastern end of the loch, just to the north of the location where the real thing is located. It was fascinating to watch a prehistoric-style building being constructed almost in front of my eyes, and it was almost comforting to see the job over-run its time schedule and the site constantly to have all sorts of crap lying about and no-one ever seemed to be working.
The crannog was opened with great ceremony on the morning of Sunday 18th June. A real event was made of this, probably as would have been the case back in the Iron Age day. Tents were set up with traditional prehistoric crafts demonstrated (aptly by the excellent Scottish Crannog Centre team) and park rangers doing their thing. Visitors were bussed in from Coatbridge. A red ribbon was draped over one of the entry points onto the crannog playpark, all the better to be cut with big ceremonial scissors at the propitious time. As with the Iron Age also, the elite and their children were afforded privileges, in this case being allowed onto the crannog first to run around like mental and have a great time.
Best of all was that for the first time the crannog was not a quiet and lifeless building site, but a living breathing place of sound, energy and people.
What next? That’s up to the stakeholders of course. Some interpretation will be added I’m sure, so curious users can find out where the old crannog is / was and get a sense of how long ago the sounds of children on the water were first heard in this place. The Council will bask in the happiness of their support for this innovative venture and I hope keep maintaining the site to ensure it is sustainable, safe and clean for as long as humanly possible. Moves will be made to explore the heritage of the Seven Lochs in other ways, perhaps with the re-examination of the Woodend Loch hunter-gatherer site being a good place to start (and I’ll encourage this to happen).
What will children do? They will swing, slide, rock, roll, laugh, cry, live – and learn? Maybe they will, maybe not. That isn’t the point. Prehistory can be used to improve lives without being front and centre, it is enough for it just to be there, it is more than enough for seeds to be planted, watered by the loch that laps over the muddy remains of an old prehistoric house.
The Iron Age can wait, for now.
Sources and acknowledgements: Various websites and images consulted in writing this blog post have been referenced in the post itself, and credit given beneath images for those that are not mine. I have included no links to the website for Jupiter Play as I keep getting a virus warning when I go to it [as of 30th June 2017]. I would also like to thank Dene Wright for sharing his thoughts on the Woodend Loch site.
The excavation reports consulted, quoted from and the source of most of the black and white image are:
James Monteith and John R Robb 1937 The crannog at Lochend, Coatbridge, Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society 9.1, 26-43.
JM Davidson, James Phemister and AD Lacaille 1949 A Stone Age site at Woodend Loch, near Coatbridge, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 83, 77-98.
Both papers are free to download online.
Finally, the Finlay 2014 source is Nyree’s contribution to the series of ‘Essays on the Local History and Archaeology of West Central Scotland’, commissioned for the Regional Framework for Local History and Archaeology, her chapter being on the Mesolithic, and it offers some essential context for Woodend.