The authentic reconstruction of an ancient loch-dwelling plays host to an Iron Age Halloween pagan ritual
As the evening sky turned violet, a mist descended on the banks of Loch Tay and the swarm of people gathered outside the Scottish Crannog Centre grew restless. Suddenly one of the men let out a whoop, his painted face contorted, and he began to bang on his huge snare drum. The low thumping reverberated and the energy of the densely-packed crowd became palpable.
Heart in my mouth, I jumped several inches off the ground when the man standing beside me suddenly blew a shrill blast on a small brass horn and then purposefully strode off into the thick woods. A small masked woman in a sheepskin cape followed behind him, wielding a flaming torch. The horde rushed in behind the duo, jostling each other and beginning to chant. The damp darkness, the acrid smell of smoke, the hypnotic beat of the sing-song incantation all had my senses on overdrive - I was both terrified and exhilarated.
Carried along by the tide of humanity, I was swept along the loch’s shoreline, tumbling into others as the throng came to a halt. The small woman in the cape stood in front of a larger-than-life size wicker effigy of a ram, holding her torch out between herself and the crowd, commanding “Stand back!”
A man in a feathered mask spoke mildly in a Scottish brogue. “Dear, don’t ever wave fire at people!”
I laughed out loud and the spell was broken. I had been so mesmerized by the events unfolding before me that I had been transported in time from the Scottish Crannog Centre’s Halloween celebration to an Iron Age pagan ritual.
The Scottish Crannog Centre is an authentic reconstruction of a type of ancient loch-dwelling found throughout Scotland and Ireland, built by the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology. Diving archaeologists have been exploring the crannogs in Loch Tay since 1980. The Crannog Centre reconstruction is based on their excavation results from the 2,500 year old Oakbank Crannog located off the village of Fearnan.
A Tutorial on Crannogs & History of Life on the Lochs of Scotland’s Highland Perthshire
Earlier that day, I had been led by Barrie Andrian down a rough-hewn pier out to a thatched circular structure perched on stilts above the Loch Tay. Barrie is the Managing Director of the Scottish Crannog Centre and the alter ego of the torch-wielding woman whom I would watch light a ram effigy aflame later that night.
As we sat on plain wooden benches with a carpet of straw at our feet, Barrie explained that crannogs seem to have been built as individual homes to accommodate extended families. Other types of loch settlements are also found in Scandinavian countries and throughout Europe. Crannogs are also known as artificial or modified natural islands and they were as much a product of their environment as the period in which they were constructed.
Barrie explained that the ancient structural timbers, plant remains, food, utensils, and even clothing have been remarkably well-preserved by the cold peaty water. A particularly spectacular find was a butter dish with butter still sticking to the inside of it, and a handful of sloes with the fruit still intact. Pollen, seeds and even herbs have also been discovered.
Barrie told me that the earliest loch-dwelling in Scotland is some 5,000 years old but people built, modified, and re-used crannogs in Scotland up until the 17th century AD.
“Here in Highland Perthshire, the prehistoric crannogs were originally timber-built roundhouses supported on piles or stilts driven into the lochbed,” she said. “Throughout their long history crannogs served as farmers' homesteads, status symbols, refuge in times of trouble, hunting and fishing stations, and even holiday residences.”
I asked Barrie what had led her here to the crannog on Loch Tay.
“I have always liked making connections linking people and places, ideas and spaces and activities that do this, too,” she said. “I was born and raised in Connecticut. My love of travel began as a child when my parents would take us on car trips, combining sight- seeing with visits to their friends who lived in other states.”
“There was always something new to experience, somewhere else to explore and someone new to meet,” she continued. “Whether it was sea kayaking along a Florida shore, discovering stalagmites at Luray Caverns, viewing the grandeur of Grand Canyon or the geysers in Yosemite National Park, there was always an adventure waiting to happen.”
“The family trips embraced Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields and places like Colonial Williamsburg where I was first introduced to ‘living history,’” she said. “I loved the guides in period clothing, their ‘different’ manner of speaking English and all of the craft demonstrations.”
“I attended Trinity College and interest in the family tree inspired my junior collegiate year’s study in England where I chanced upon what would become my passion and my career,” Barrie explained. “In one great “ah-ha” moment when I attended a lecture in London on shipwreck archaeology, I knew that I had found the way to combine my love of exploration and history with people and places. And so I became an underwater archaeologist, museum advocate and living history aficionado……just like that.”
“Since that illuminating moment some 30+ years ago, the ability to physically discover and ‘touch’ people and structures of the past provides me with a real sense of continuity and an almost tangible connection to them,” she said. “These past and on-going discoveries provide me with more than enough motivation to continue along this learning journey for years to come.”
That enthusiasm for connecting the past with the present was evident in the others who work at Scottish Crannog Centre.
As I watched Danny McQueeney’s demonstrations in woodturning and wool-spinning, I was struck by how he brought to life these age-old crafts. He said his main reason for working at the Scottish Crannog Centre is that he loves the interaction with people, sharing information in an entertaining way.
“You never know who you will meet or what story they may share," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Danny’s colleague Lesley Donnelly’s shares his passion for making the past come alive for people at the Scottish Crannog Centre.
“I just love the history of it and to see the work of the archaeologists brought to life in the shape of a reconstructed crannog, gracing the shores of Loch Tay as they once did, is thrilling!” she exclaimed. “To spend my day inside this structure passing on the knowledge I have gained both about the structure and the lifestyle of the Iron Age people is beyond belief!”
Rowan Branches & Cult of the Ram: Scottish Crannog Centre Celebrates Gaelic Festival of Samhain
That night, Lesley was in her glory, outfitted in an elaborate headdress of leafy greenery for the Crannog Centre’s celebration of Samhain.
Barrie explained to me that Samhain is a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the "darker half" of the year. Most commonly it is held on 31 October–1 November, or halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.
According to Barrie, Samhain has been linked with All Saints' Day and later All Souls' Day since the 9th century. Both have strongly influenced the secular customs of Halloween. Samhain is still celebrated as a cultural festival by some and since the 20th century has been celebrated as a religious festival by Wiccans.
Samhain was seen as a time when the door to the Beyond opened enough for the souls of the dead to return to this plane. To honor their presence, banquets were held, with places set at the table for the departed. Because harmful spirits could also slip through that open door, people disguised themselves in costumes for protection.
I asked Barrie if relics of a Samhain celebration had been found in the Crannog’s Centre’s excavation.
“Absolutely no direct archaeological evidence here, just tradition,” she said.
She explained that those traditions included a ritual in which farmers drove their animals between two fires to purify them and protect them from evil.
“We couldn’t slaughter animals for feasting here at the Scottish Crannog Centre so we do the ceremonial sacrifice of a wicker effigy instead,” she said. “We started the Cult of the Ram, but other effigies could include cows and wild boar.”
“Another Scottish traditions associated with Samhain is the carrying of rowan branches to ward off evil spirits,” Barrie said. “Not sure of the origin of these, but to this day most Scottish homes have at least one rowan tree in the garden.”
Many may blindly carry on a tradition simply because the practice is the accepted norm. But judging by the happy hordes of visitors relishing the Samhain celebration at the Scottish Crannog Centre, there are many who actively seek to connect with the ancient souls who started such traditions.