Excavations at Caird's Cave, Rosemarkie, Ross-shire: Interim Statement

Hugo Anderson-Whymark

In 1913, Dr William MacLean, an antiquarian and the GP for Fortrose and Rosemarkie, spoke to the Inverness Field Club on discoveries he had made between 1907 and 1912 whilst excavating a cave at Rosemarkie.  A brief synopsis of this lecture was published in the society’s proceedings (1913), revealing that he had found an extensive shell midden and a quantity of bone and antler working debris, which he assumed to be of prehistoric date. This is the only account MacLean published on the excavations and no other written records have been located.  The artefacts from the cave were, however, donated by MacLean’s widow to the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, in 1931.  These artefacts include several bone pins, bone spatulae, handles manufactured from antler tines and various sawn and splintered pieces of cattle bone, sheep horn-cores and deer antler.  The finest artefact is a small pin (38 mm in length) that has a globular head inset with amber.  Far from being prehistoric as MacLean suspected, this artefact dates to the 6th to 8th centuries AD and it provides the only indication for the date of the other artefacts and excavated deposits.

It has long been assumed that the cave Dr William MacLean excavated was Cairds’ Cave, although he only referred to it as ‘the cave at Rosemarkie’ or simply as ‘cave’ on the artefacts.  In order to establish if Cairds’ Cave was the site MacLean excavated, and also to establish a better context for his artefacts, the Rosemarkie Caves Project conducted excavations in and around the cave between the 21st June and 3rd July 2010 (Plate 1).

Plate 1: The Rosemarkie Caves Project excavation team outside Caird's Cave

Caird's Cave: location and topography
Caird's Cave is located on the northern shore of the inner Moray Firth at NGR NH745 595, approximately 1.5 km NE of Rosemarkie; The cave has a roughly triangular ground plan and is c 9 m wide at the mouth and c 9 m deep with a roof that is 5.5 m high in the entrance and only c 2 m high at the rear of the cave; The cave floor is situated at c 8 m above O.D. placing it on the 25ft (7.6 m) raised beach.

A talus deposit covers the cave floor, although this layer is comparatively thin at the rear of the cave and small areas of the floor are visible.  The surface of this deposit is comparatively level at the rear of the cave, lying at c 8.5 m above O.D.; However, a large spill of talus has entered the cave from the east, filling the eastern side of the entrance to c 10.5 m above O.D. (Plate 2); Notably, the talus drops steeply by c 1 m as it enters the cave, before more gently spilling down the slope; This sharp change in angle may represent the edge of a previous excavation, but it may also result from the erosion of deposits under the drip line of the cave; Within the cave there was no clear evidence of previous excavation trenches, but the presence of shells encrusted to the cave wall through the deposition of calcium carbonate between 8.70 m above O.D. and 9.46 m above O.D. indicate that deposits upwards of 1 m deep have been removed from some areas of the cave.

Plate 2: The interior of Caird's Cave, facing south east; Note the spill of talus entering the cave from the east and the sharp break of slope as the talus enters the cave

A series of earthworks and a stone structure are visible outside the cave (Plate 3).  The most prominent of these is a sub-rectangular, flat-topped, heap of stone and soil measuring 9.5 m by 12 m by c 1.3 m high, located to the east cave entrance.  Erosion has revealed this mound is composed of dark shell-rich soils allowing this earthwork to be interpreted as the spoil-heap from an archaeological excavation.  A smaller, irregular mound, measuring c 8 m long by 4 m wide and 1 m high is located to the west of the footpath.  The origin of this material is not known, but the talus at the entrance of the cave appears to have been superficially and irregularly quarried and it is possible the small mound results from this activity.  The large spoil-heap overlies the episode of quarrying and is therefore more recent.  The stone structure is located to the south east of the large spoil-heap. 

Plate 3: Cairds’ Cave following the clearance of undergrowth, facing north.  The small mound is located to the left of the cave entrance and the large spoil-heap is located to the right.  The structure is just visible to the right of the large spoil-heap


Five archaeological trenches were opened to investigate the archaeological features and deposits at Cairds’ Cave.  Three trenches (1, 2 and 5) were excavated within the cave to investigate the location of MacLean’s sondages and to examine if any deposits remained in situ.  Trench 2 (1 m by 1.7. m) was excavated at the front of the cave to investigate the possible trench edge observed in the talus deposit.  Trench 1 (1.5 m by 3.4 m) was located on the western side towards the back of the cave and Trench 5 (1 m by 1.5 m) was positioned to the eastern side of the cave to investigate if any archaeological deposits were sealed beneath the deep layer of talus.  Outside the cave, Trench 3 (5.5 m by 1 m) was positioned to section the small mound and the large spoil-heap, in order to characterise the deposits in these earthworks, and Trench 4 (5 m by 4 m) was opened over the stone structure with the aim of establishing a ground plan and recovering dating evidence. 

Excavation trench summaries
The cave interior
Trench 1 (Plate 4)
Trench 1 encountered the floor of the cave at 7.86 m above O.D. and occasional remnants of an in situ Holocene raised beach deposit, measuring up to 0.08 m thick, were noted on this surface.  The raised beach deposit was overlain by a 0.20 m thick dark charcoal rich shell layer (103) from which a complete saddle quern rubber (SF3) was recovered along with a number of 20th century metal, glass and ceramic artefacts.  The latter artefacts indicate this deposit has been disturbed by a previous excavation.  Two overlying layers (100 and 102), measuring 0.30 m thick, and a placed line of stones (101) were associated with late 20th century and modern artefacts. 

Plate 4: Trench 1, post-excavation, facing north west

Trench 2 (Plate 5)
The floor of the cave was encountered at 7.49 m above O.D. on the western side of the trench and at 7.99 m above O.D. to the east.  The cave floor was directly overlain by seven in situ charcoal and shell rich midden or occupation layers measuring 0.60 m thick (202, 203, 204, 207, 208, 209 and 210).  The lowest layers (207, 208, 209, 204 and 210) were partially sealed by a roof fall (211).  Layer 203 abutted this roof fall and the subsequent layer (202) overlay the collapse.  These deposits were then partially sealed by another roof fall (212).  This roof fall was removed from the interior of the cave, presumably by Maclean, exposing the surface of occupation layer 202.  Deposits of talus containing 20th Century artefacts subsequently accumulated (201, 200 and 213).        

Plate 5: Trench 2, post excavation, facing north east.  The lower dark deposits are occupation layers (202-209) which are overlain by roof fall and talus (212, 201 and 200)

The midden and occupation layers were all similar in composition, yielding a large quantity of shellfish, predominately cockles, winkles and limpets; oysters, mussels and clams were rare.  A small quantity of animal bone including bird and sheep/goat was also observed, but no fish bone was recovered.  Several pieces of the animal bone had been split, possibly indicating bone working.    

Trench 5 (Plate 6)
The cave floor was located at 8.50 m above O.D. on the western side of the trench, but the floor falls to the east and the surface of a Holocene raised beach deposit (506) was recorded 8.01 m above O.D.  The cave floor was overlain by 0.25 m of roof collapse (504) which contained a number of animal bones that had became incorporated into the deposits by falling into a void created by the overhanging cave side.  This layer was overlain by a homogenous 0.5 m thick shell midden (503) containing pieces of roof collapse and some large beach cobbles.  This layer was abutted by a 0.08 m thick charcoal and shell-rich occupation layer (502) that extends towards Trench 2.  A thin sandy lense (505) overlies 502 and in turn this layer is overlain by a 0.25 m thick homogenous shell midden (501).  A 0.4 m to 0.6 m thick layer of talus (500) containing 20th century artefacts overlies layer 501.

Plate 6: Trench 5, post excavation, facing south east.  The lower dark deposits are occupation layers and shell midden (501 – 505), which are overlain by talus (500).


The occupation deposits in this trench were comparable to those in Trench 2 and layers 501 and 502 probably equate to layers 203 and 204 in Trench 2, respectively.  A pin manufactured from a splinter of animal bone, which exhibits a well-used and slightly broken tip, was recovered from the surface of layer 501 (Plate 7).  In addition, animal bone including several worked and sawn pieces was recovered from contexts 501, 503 and 504.  A small quantity of fish bone was recovered from layers 501 and 503. 

Plate 7: Bone pin SF1 from the surface of occupation layer 501

Excavations outside the cave

Trench 3 (Plate 8)
Trench 3 investigated the large spoil-heap and the small mound located in front of the cave.  The large spoil-heap is 1.3 m thick and it is composed of numerous layers that have been tipped from the top of the mound, probably as individual barrow loads of spoil were removed from the cave.  The lowest part of the sequence was composed of loose angular stone (305), probably reflecting the removal of talus and roof collapse which sealed the occupation deposits within the cave.  In contrast, the upper part of the spoil-heap is composed of tips of shell-rich occupation layers (304).  The top c 0.30 m of the spoil-heap (layer 302) is comparable to layer 304, but it has been reworked by modern roots.  The cave stratigraphy has, therefore, been inverted in the spoil-heap with the first deposits removed situated at the base of the spoil-heap and the lower cave deposits overlying these and extending down slope. 

Plate 8: Layers in the large spoil-heap in Trench 3, facing east.  Note the stone at the base of the sequence (305), overlain by numerous tips of occupation deposits (304) and a root disturbed layer close to the surface (302)

The deposits in the spoil-heap were sieved to 10 mm to ensure that small artefacts were recovered.  Layers 302 and 304, yielded numerous artefacts including animal bone, fish bone, four pieces of handmade pottery, a hammerstone, a burnishing stone, a saddle quern/whetstone, a fragmentary but finely worked pin and various 20th century artefacts.  The animal bone includes a number of pieces that have been split or sawn, indicating the manufacture of bone tools.  The bone pin was finely worked and compares well to examples MacLean recovered from his excavations (Plate 9). 

Plate 9: Bone pin from Trench 3, layer 304 (SF5)

The small mound was composed of a 0.2 m layer of silty sand (301) overlain by a 0.3 m thick deposit of stone and sandy soil horizon (300).  These deposits overlie a former soil horizon (303).  These layers yielded only late 19th and early 20th century artefacts.  

Trench 4 (Plate 10)
Excavation revealed part of a well built but irregularly shaped structure dating from the late 19th or early 20th century (400) that exhibits two insubstantial episodes of rebuilding (401 and 402).  The structure was buried by a windblown sand (404) over which a soil had formed (403); the latter yielded modern artefacts.  Considering the coastal location and the absence of domestic artefacts, it seems likely that this structure is related to the fishing industry, although no known salmon fishing stations are located in the area.

Plate 10: The structure in Trench 4, facing south west

The recent investigation has confirmed that Cairds’ Cave was previously excavated and that this activity removed a significant depth of archaeological deposits from the cave’s interior and left a substantial spoil-heap outside the cave’s entrance.  The character of the occupation debris in the spoil-heap correlates with the brief description of the ‘shell midden’ deposits excavated by Maclean (1913).  Moreover, the bone pins and bone working debris recovered from the current excavations can be paralleled with the artefacts in MacLean’s collection.  This provides a very strong indication that Cairds’ Cave was the cave MacLean excavated.

The recent excavations also demonstrated that, despite the removal of deposits up to 1 m in depth from the western side and rear of the cave, in situ deposits survive in the south east quadrant of the cave.  These deposits are up to 0.6 m deep and comprise a series of distinct well stratified occupation layers that have been punctuated by episodes of roof collapse.  These deposits yielded a similar range of artefacts to the spoil-heap and MacLean’s excavation, indicating that the deposits are probably of early Historic date.  The date and chronological span of these deposits, however, remains uncertain and scientific dating on charcoal and animal bone in the stratified deposits is required to clarify this issue.   

It is however clear from the deposits that the cave was subject to a prolonged episode or episodes of habitation.  The people living in the cave survived on a diet predominately composed of shellfish that were readily available on the local seashore, including periwinkles and limpets, with some crab, but fish were rarely consumed.  Bones of birds, deer, sheep/goat, pig, cattle and seal are present in small numbers, possibly indicating these species formed only a minor component of the diet, but equally these bones may reflect craft activities rather than consumption.  The animal bone was certainly being worked, as is demonstrated by a number of pieces that have been sawn or splintered beyond typical butchery or bone marrow extraction practices.  Bone pins may represent one product, but the presence of used and broken examples indicate that these pins may also have been used for other craft activities.  One possibility is that animal hide and leather was worked and this may be supported by the presence of many lower leg, feet and skull bones in the animal bone assemblage, rather than meat rich parts of the animal. Further analysis of the faunal assemblage is, however, required to clarify the range of activities being undertaken at Cairds’ Cave, but a narrative is beginning to emerge allowing new light to be shed on Dr William MacLean’s excavation. 

The Caird’s Cave excavation was directed by the Rosemarkie Caves Project. The Steering Committee, Dr Eric Grant (Chair), Simon Gunn (Secretary/Coordinator), Alastair Morton, John Wood and John Wombell, and the author, would like to express our deep gratitude to many people who have made this project possible. Firstly, we would like to thanks Phillip Anderson for permission to excavate on his land, Scottish Natural Heritage for granting permission to excavate in a SSSI, and our sponsors: Highland Council Black Isle Ward Discretionary Fund; Highland LEADER 2007-13; The Cromarty Firth Port Authority; The Cromarty Trust; Groam House Museum; Fortrose & Rosemarkie Common Good Fund; Workers’ Education Association (North Highland Local Association); Mr Neil MacKinnon and Mr Donald Cameron. Without your support this project could not have happened.

We are also very grateful to the following people for advice and assistance with various administrative, logistical and practical tasks: Cait McCullagh, Chris & Dave Rendell, Ingrid Rochford, Steven Grigor, Paul Monk, Paul Young, Douglas Simpson (Fortrose Academy), Anne Law & Imogen Young (Resolis Primary School), Liz Whiteford and Diane Agnew. The project has also received archaeological advice and support from: Trevor Cowie & Alison Sheridan (National Museum of Scotland), Tom Dawson (SCAPE), Stephen Birch (University of Aberdeen), Barbara Cohen (Groam House Museum), plus Anne Coombs, David Findlay, Meryl Marshall and many other members of NOSAS (North of Scotland Archaeological Society).

The excavation team was: Tim Blackie, Ben Brown, Duncan Collard, Olivia Dalsème, Brian Duff, Paul Dungey, David & Susan Findlay, Jonie & Richard Guest, Bob & Rosemary Jones, Elspeth Kennedy, Matthew MacDonald, Allan MacKenzie, Paul Monk, Christine and Fraser Simpson, Illya Sparkes-Santos, Samantha Williamson, Christine Yuill, Amelia Donald, William Fraser and Elliot Stirling.



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