Some weeks ago an archaeological group was set up on West Ardnamurchan, and Saturday afternoon saw its first field excursion. As might seem appropriate for such an important occasion, our expedition was to the centre of the known universe, Portuairk, and our host on his croft was Jim Caldwell. Jim probably felt a slight pang of conscience, as he had been using an archaeological structure, a circular, walled area with an opening to the west, to burn his rubbish. Of particular interest was that Jim had already done some work on it and had begun to expose a superb stone floor.
With Jim acting as clerk of works, three novices under the close supervision of principal archaeologist Ricky Clark set to work with a will. The feeling being that we couldn't do too much damage to future knowledge if we made a bit of a mess of an ex-incinerator, we set about clearing out the layers of ash to expose the historic stratigraphy.
Our first major find - amongst several items which Jim freely admitted were probably his - was a metal bucket which Ricky carefully exposed. It lacked a base so it may have been a wooden pail. Odd bits of glass and metal followed, and a 2p piece, but none of this detritus deterred the team.
Spirits remained high despite frequent rain and hail showers, and were boosted when Ricky found the uppers of a leather shoe and a steel pin firmly hammered into the soil. The suggestion was that the latter might have been used to tether a cow. Even more exciting was Dale Meegan's discovery, close against the wall on the left side of the structure...,
....of a small grouping of stones, interpreted as a possible hearth. This gave some support to the hypothesis that this structure may have been a shieling hut used by the women of Achosnich clachan in the years before Portuairk was occupied following the Swordle clearances around 1843, or one of the dwellings built when those people were evicted and forcibly moved to Portuairk in that year.
Another use of the structure came to light when this china egg was found buried in the the rock wall just to the right of the entrance. At some stage the structure had been used to keep chickens, this egg being used to replace fresh eggs removed from under a broody hen.
As the light began to fail the team - from left to right, Dale, Trevor Potts, Ricky, Jim, and Jon Haylett - had to call a halt to operations. Probably about half the work had been completed and it is hoped that Jim will gather us together again - not only because there is more to be done on this structure but also because he showed us a wealth of other remains around his croft including houses, byres, enclosures, field walls and, possibly, ancient standing stones.
For sharp-eyed Diary readers who may have noticed a ladder in the background of some of the photos, it was erected by Jim over the excavation. While some team members may have had early worries that it had some purpose relating to those who didn't work hard enough, it is in fact to raise a camera directly above the structure so vertical photos could be taken.
The ladder blew down during Saturday night but this didn't deter Jim, who had it up and working next day - and this is the result. The floor is truly remarkable, and certainly wouldn't have been put into a house for cows or chickens.
Many thanks indeed to Jim and Jackie for their hospitality, which included some very popular bourbon biscuits.
If anyone would like to join the archaeology group, please contact the Diary.