The Glenbuchat Image Library
No Contributor Year: 201047 Eirde (Erd) Houses or Souterrains
Eirde (Erd) Houses or Souterrains
Remains of these structures have been found at Bachaam, Castle Newe and Glenkindie House
History of Eirde Houses
Standing remote from the centre of the country, Aberdeenshire has not been fated to figure largely in general history. The story of its own evolution from poverty to prosperity is an interesting one, but it is only now and again that the county is involved in the main current of the history of Scotland.
If the Romans ever visited it, which is highly doubtful, they left no convincing evidence of their stay. Of positive Roman influence no indication has survived, and no conquest of the district can have taken place. The only records of the early inhabitants of the district usually called Picts are the Eirde houses, the lake dwellings or crannogs, the hill forts or duns, the " Druidical " circles and standing stones and the flint arrow-heads.
Another form of archaeological remains found in the county is the Eirde or Earth-Houses. These are subterranean dwellings dug out of the ground and walled with unhewn, unmortared stones, each stone overlapping the one below until they meet at the top which is crowned with a larger flag-stone, or sometimes with wood. The probability is that in conjunction with the underground chambers there were huts above ground, which, being composed of wood, have now entirely disappeared. At many points in these earth-houses traces of fire and char- coal are to be seen, stones blackened by fire and layers of black ashes. In one at Loch Kinnord a piece of the upper stone of a quern as well as an angular piece of iron was found. It may be inferred that the inhabitants, whoever they were, were agriculturists, and that the period of occupation lasted down to the Iron Age. Specimens of these houses, which usually go by the local name of Picts' houses, are found in the neighbourhood of Loch Kinnord on Deeside, at Castle Newe on the Don, and at Parkhouse, not far from the circle already referred to.
The use of souterrains probably spread to the British Isles from western Gaul in France. Structures found in the Morbihan, Brittany, date from the pre-Roman Iron Age, and are similar to those known as fogous in Cornwall, and the Scottish weems, or earth-houses, such as those near Arbroath. Thousands of souterrains are found in Ireland, where they were widely used AD 500–1100 and during later periods of unrest.
The common notion of the purpose of these under- ground dwellings was that they were meant for hiding- places in which the inhabitants took refuge when unable to resist their enemies in the open, but if, as has now been discovered, they were associated with wooden erections above ground, they could not have served this purpose. On the surface beside them were other houses, cattle folds and other enclosures; once an enemy was in possession of these, he could hardly miss the earth-houses. Moreover, the inhabitants, if discovered, were in a trap from which there was no escape. It is more probable that the dwellings were adjuncts of some unknown kind to the huts on the surface. The fact that pottery and bronze armlets have been unearthed from these under- ground caverns proves that the earth-dwellers had reached a certain advancement in civilisation. They reared domestic animals, wove cloth and sewed it, and manufactured pottery. They used iron for cutting weapons and bronze for ornament, and must have possessed a wonderfully high standard of taste and manual skill.
The probability is that the so-called Pictish houses, the earth or Eirde houses found on Donside and the lake dwellings at Kinnord already referred to, were the homes of these people. But the whole subject is by no means clear. The general opinion is that the northeast was first inhabited by Picts, who may or may not have been Iberians, and that after the Picts came the Celts; but some critics hold that the Picts were only earlier Celts. In any case the Stone Age was succeeded by the Bronze Age, when Bronze took the place of Stone in the formation of weapons. The Celts made their way through Central France to Britain and ultimately to Scotland. Unlike the people they found in possession of Scotland, they were tall (5 ft. 9 in.). These are the ancestors of the Gaelic speaking people of Scotland. They are supposed to have amalgamated to some extent with the Neolithic men whom they found on the spot, and it is certain that they were Christianised at an early period.
Eirde House at Buchaam
Notice of the recent excavation op an underground Building at Buchaam, Strathdon, on the property of Sir Charles Forbes, baronet, of Newe, and Edinglassie.
Communicated to the society of antiquaries by Arthur Mitchell, A.M. and M.D., Mem S.A. Scot.
For the excavation, the results of which I am about to detail, we are indebted to the liberality of Sir Charles Forbes, Bart., of Newe and Edinglassie, on whose property Buchaam is situated. - The work was ably superintended by Mr Walker, gardener at Castle Newe. I happened to be in the locality when the clearing out was in progress; and on stating to Mr Walker that I thought the results ought to be laid before this Society, he promised to forward to me everything he found, and undertook to give me all the information he possessed, if I would prepare a short communication on the subject. This he has done, and the note which I now read is a compilation from the numerous letters which I have received from him, though of course I have been assisted by having had an opportunity of examining the ruin, and of taking sketches and measurements on the spot. These have been submitted to Mr Walker for verification.
In the district in which this "Eirde House " occurs, similar structures are numerous, hut only two of them have been carefully examined, viz., the one at Buchaam, which I am now to describe, and another at Glenkindie, which is in a state of wonderful preservation. Of both of these I append accurate plans. (See Plate XIV. picture above)
The road to the farm steading of Buchaam passed over that which Mr Walker has just cleared out, and the foundation of the farmhouse itself was in such close proximity to it, that we feel sure its existence could not have been known to those who built the house. On the mound over the roof, there grew a large ash tree, which Mr Walker thinks must have been planted in 1727, and he concludes that those who planted it must have known nothing of the cavity below them. The roots of this tree had disturbed the roof stones, many of which were found out of place. Some of these are of great size, being 7 to 8 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 1ft thick, and more than a ton in weight. Neither they nor any other stone about the structure gave any evidence of having been dressed or shaped by tools of any sort.
The chamber was nearly filled with earth and rubbish, and at the bottom there were 20 inches of fine blue clay, which had evidently been carried through the walls by the action of water from the clay bank outside. Its finer quality left no doubt on this point. Either in or below this bed of clay, all the objects now exhibited were picked up.
Above the clay there was a deep layer of black earth and stones. In forming the road to which allusion has been made, it is known that the mound above the chamber was levelled; and when Mr Walker began his excavations, some of the roof stones were almost bare. From what remained in situ however, he thinks that, after the stones were laid, the builders must have spread a rough puddling of clay over them, more effectually to make the chamber watertight.
The general outline of the chamber is pear-shaped, with an elongated and curved neck, and the length of the medial line, following the curve, is 58 feet; the greatest breadth is 9 feet 3 inches, and the smallest at the entrance is 3 feet 6 inches; the height varies from 5 feet to 7 feet, and for the greatest part of its length is above 6 feet. The walls rise perpendicularly for the first two or three feet, and the first course consists of large cubical stones resting on their broadest aspects. After rising two or three feet, the walls begin to incline inwards, not in a straight line, but with a curve, as represented in the drawings—this portion of the cross section corresponding to the cross section of a cylinder sliced, off above and below. In other Eirde houses which I have seen, the stones of the first course are included in this curve, and fall outwards from the line of the base, so that the breadth of the chamber, three or four feet above the floor, is somewhat greater than at the floor, there being first a slight expansion and then a contraction.
In the chamber at Buchaam, however, this is not noticeable, if it exists at all. Where the breadth at the base is 9 feet 3 inches, at four feet above the floor it falls to 7 feet 9 inches, and at the roof stone to 5 feet. This will give some idea of the rate and extent of the contraction. The drawings, however, which are to scale, still better illustrate this feature in the construction of Eirde houses. They also show that in this instance the outer aspect of the walls was nearly perpendicular.
Twelve feet from the entrance, there are two projecting jambs. I saw these, and the conclusion was resistless, that they were in some way intended as the supports of an internal door; but there was no mark of tools about them, nor could I see any way in which bolts or fastenings had been used, as, for instance, holes in the adjoining sidewalls.
At the northeastern corner of the chamber, a large quantity of charcoal was found, and near it, bones of the sheep and domestic fowl. Above this, there was a well-built smoke-hole. A similar smoke-hole is to be seen in the Eirde house at Glenkindie.
At the opposite, or southeastern corner, was found the mouth of a drain, leading away under the corner of Buchaam House, and six feet below the present ground surface. Its outlet has not yet been found, but it was followed for five or six feet, and was found to be about ten inches square, well built, with good roof, sides, and bottom, and having a peculiar box-like opening in the inside of the chamber. I am not aware that such a drain has ever before been observed in connection with the so-called Pict's house, and I regret that I had not an opportunity of personally examining this peculiarity. The floor of the chamber was regularly paved, and the pavement in many parts was found in good preservation.
As already stated, all the objects now exhibited were found in or below the clay. We have, first, an iron ring, the purpose of which I cannot divine, and another object in iron, which appears to have been the iron shoeing of a wooden spade. These were the only pieces of metal discovered.
Several staves of a small wooden cog were found. The duplicate of this might be bought in our own day in any country market. Other fragments of wood were also found, whose shape had been given to them by cutting tools. One of these Mr "Walker regards as a bit of the handle of a spade. The wooden comb, so generally found in such excavations, was also found here, and is now shown. Bones of the sheep and domestic fowl, deer's horns, bits of charcoal, fragments of pottery of a fine clay but coarse workmanship, an acorn, and a piece of a quern, were the other objects discovered.
It appears to me that the general character of these objects is not such as to lead us to regard them as very ancient, or as by any means coeval with the structure in which they were found. The temporary occupation of such a chamber as a human habitation might occur in very late times. Mr "Walker has peculiar views as to the manner in which these Eirde houses must have been constructed. He thinks that a deep trench was first dug round the outline of the house, and that in this the walls were built with the required slope inwards, the undisturbed earth supporting them till the huge covering stones were rolled over the contained earth into position. Though, these are in no sense the keystones of an. arch, still, he thinks, that by their weight, they would prevent the walls from falling in, and bind them together. "When all this was done, he thinks the excavation was commenced, and a mound raised over the roof.
Mr Walker has restored the house at Buchaam, as far as he could, to its original state. A solid coat of clay has been puddled over the traverses of the roof to make it watertight, and over this there is now an oblong curved mound of earth, round which 80 to 100 spruce and silver firs are planted. Restorations are perhaps doubtful, but Mr Walker has done what he thought best for the preservation of this interesting relic of antiquity.
Mr John Stuart pointed out the great value of Dr Mitchell’s careful observations and plans, which enabled us to compare these structures with each other. He added, that all along the course of the Don, down to Kildrummy, there appeared groups of similar houses, indicating the presence of an abundant population at an early period, and with evidences, in some cases like the present, that they had been the abode of men, which had sometimes been doubted. Their more recent occupation was analogous to what was found in the Irish crannoges, where articles of bone and stone were found mixed with others, which were not 200 years old.
Professor Simpson drew attention to a similar house, which he had discovered, in a mound near Bathgate, now destroyed, and to the fewness of such structures south of the Forth.
Various members gave instances of the continued use of the quern for grinding meal at the present time.
Erd House Castle Newe
This earthhouse was discovered in 1863 beneath an apparent occupation area marked by a fireburnt pavement with ashes, beads and quern fragments. It was fairly complete, but had been robbed to build a garden wall which ran for about 50ft along its whole length. Its walls were 4 1/2ft high and corbelled, and the width of its paved floor was 7ft It was very similar to the earth-house at Buchaam (NJ31SE 8).
(Name cited as House of Newe). A beech leaf-filled depression (2m wide) running for no more than 10m along the top of the break of slope was taken to represent the souterrain. It is situated on a slight shelf on a moderate SE-facing slope at an altitude of 274m OD.
Two massive cast bronze armlets found several years before 1864 embedded in earth over the entrance to a souterrain in the grounds of Castle Newe, apparently with 'Ashes, parts of stone querns, beads etc.'; a denarius of Nerva was subsequently found nearby. Both armlets are in excellent condition and held in the British Museum under accession number BM 1946.4-2.2.
The site of this souterrain is marked by a rectangular pit, measuring 1.7m from N to S by 1m transversely and up to 0.6m in depth. The pit is lined with dry-stone masonry, its N side possibly being part of the original wall of the souterrain. The E side is evidently of relatively recent date, as may be the other two sides. Accordingly, it is impossible to be certain which direction the souterrain extends or how big it is.
The armlets and the glass bead are still in the British Museum and Banff Museum respectively, but the whereabouts of the quern and the Roman coin found in the 19th century are not known.
Picture added on 26 February 2010 at 18:25
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