On 6th June 2016 members of the Fieldwork group visited a site at Cougie, five miles west of Tomich. We had known for some time of the existence of a large enclosure of unknown date and purpose at Cougie. Following recent visits to Comar Wood Dun, and knowing that the Dun is one in a series of fortified sites stretching up Strathglass, we wondered if the Cougie enclosure could belong to this series.
The enclosure is clearly visible on OS maps at NH 2401 2122, and on the Google satellite map (see below). It lies on a south-facing slope just north-west of Iain and Sasha Pocock’s farm and pony-trekking centre. The enclosure is oval in shape, about 50 or 60 metres N – S by about 20 metres E – W. (No actual measurements were made on this visit, though it is hoped to revisit the site in the future and produce a rough plan of it).
The walls of the enclosure are made of rough boulders, with no visible dressed stones. They are now only about 30 cm high and are partly grass-covered. The walls and interior have been much disturbed by grazing animals (horses and pigs), and it is not possible to tell whether they were originally higher, stone-built walls, or whether they were turf walls with stone footings.
There seem to be two entrances, one in the east and one in the west. No features are visible in the interior except for a short stretch of wall running from the enclosure wall roughly northwards into the interior.
The most striking feature of the enclosure, however, is that it is open to the northern, uphill end. At this end there is no trace of walls whatsoever, but the ground slopes quite steeply upwards in a low bank, then levels out again.
At the moment we have no idea what the enclosure is or when it dates from. We were told by Iain Pocock that there are the remains of a few old houses in the forestry nearby, but it seems impossible for the enclosure to have been used for stock, or for crops or a garden, with one end open.
The gap could of course have been closed by a fence of wooden hurdles, so a use for, say, gathering sheep is not impossible. A large flock could be driven down off the hill through the wide opening into the enclosure, then the gap closed by hurdles, while the narrow entrances allowed small numbers of sheep to be removed at a time for shearing.
Thinking of defensive sites such as hillforts (like Knockfin a few miles to the east), this enclosure is the right size to be a small hillfort, and has quite a good position overlooking the river (the Allt Rhiabhach), although it is perhaps rather unusual for a hillfort to be built on such steeply sloping ground. There is no trace of any stone buildings within the enclosure, so it is not a dun or broch, but it could have been a timber-built farmstead with a defensive outer wall. Traces of wooden buildings could only be found by excavation, to look for postholes.
The absence of a wall on the north side is obviously a problem if we consider the enclosure to have had a defensive nature, but again, there could have been a wooden palisade or fence closing the gap; an excavation could look for traces of such a structure either at the foot of or on the top of the bank at the north end. Alternatively the wall might simply not have been completed, because the threat which inspired the fortification had gone, or had overtaken the builders before they could complete the wall.
Another possibility is a marching camp for Hanoverian soldiers, in the late 18th. century, and a map exists by General Roy showing settlements in Strathglass up as far as the promontory at Knockfin at the confluence of the Affric and Dheabhag rivers, so his soldiers could easily have continued westwards through Cougie. A very temporary encampment for just a few nights could have had sentries posted along the gap in the wall. Marching camps are known near Fort Augustus and on the south side of Loch Ness, but none have been identified in Strathglass.
Finally, a visiting archaeologist (identity unknown) some years ago apparently said that the site could be a horseshoe henge [Dennis Ross, pers. comm.]. But henges (Neolithic ritual monuments) are rare in northern Scotland, and the horseshoe element generally refers to the layout of a stone or timber setting within the henge (like the trilithons at Stonehenge), rather than the actual henge enclosure itself.
So any identification of the enclosure is pure speculation - unless any further evidence comes to light!
We are indebted to Iain and Sasha Pocock for their time in taking us up to the site and telling us all they knew about it. We are also very grateful to Iain for repairing the road from Plodda to Cougie, to make our drive there easier (the Forestry-owned road from Tomich as far as Plodda remains in a very bad state - anyone in FCS reading this, please take note!)