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Treasured Places In Focus

Controversy on the Clyde:
the excavation of Dumbuck crannog

Dr Alex Hale, Archaeologist, RCAHMS

Dumbuck crannog is an over-looked and undervalued Scottish archaeological site that sits quietly in the mud on the north shore of the Firth of Clyde, near Dumbarton rock, with a hidden secret. It's not only the site itself, but also its recent history that is so fascinating. What appears as an innocuous pile in the foreshore muds belies a tale of controversy and mystery. This site is Scotland's very own Piltdown Man forgery. The Piltdown Man hoax was a find of a skull from a village in Sussex, which was thought to be the 'missing link' between apes and early humans. The fragments were proven to be forgeries in 1953, comprising modern human and orangutan bones, and the perpetrators of the hoax were never discovered.

Dumbuck crannog gave up its secrets over 50 years before the hoax of Piltdown Man was discovered. The site was excavated in 1898 and a handful of artefacts recovered from the crannog were the cause for the 'Controversy on the Clyde'. During the excavations, apart from the structural remains, a number of small, carved objects were recovered that had never been seen before and were to cause the archaeologists at the time and the archaeological institutions serious cause for concern. The objects came to be known, as the 'queer things of the Clyde'. They were small pieces of stone, commonly known as 'cannel coal', which can be found on the shores of the Clyde. Along with the cannel coal were a few shells and all had been carved with both figurative and abstract designs.

William Donnelly, an artist from Old Kilpatrick, excavated the site over the course of the Summer and Autumn of 1898. Donnelly was part of a team of excavators from the Helensburgh Naturalist and Antiquarian Society, who waded out into the inter-tidal muds. When the tide was down the excavators exposed parts of a 2,000 year old prehistoric timber platform, surrounded by a stone and timber breakwater. They also found that attached to the platform was a wooden-lined dock, within which they found a 12m (40ft) long log boat, which is now preserved in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. The investigations and especially the 'queer things' generated a great deal of public interest and led to visits by locals and delegations from learned societies of the time.

Luckily for us, William Donnelly, being an artist, recorded much of the excavations, the people involved and those who came to visit the crannog in sketches in his notebooks. Unfortunately I have been unable to track down the original notebooks, but held in the RCAHMS archive are glass lantern slides of his sketches. These slides illustrate beautifully the crannog over 100 years ago and what life must have been like for the excavators on the shores of the Clyde. They show scenes of workmen trying to excavate the crannog as the inrushing tide fills their trenches. In one sketch Donnelly has drawn a family in full Victorian garb walking home from 'doing the crannog' carrying buckets and spades and the mother figure carries a black parasol, shading her three children from the glaring Clyde sun. Donnelly carefully draws all the artifacts, including the 'queer things' and one of them looks surprisingly like himself! Best of all though is an illustration of a wild boar hunt. This shows the fantasy of the painted man hunting a wild boar on the shores of the Clyde with the crannog in the background and a logboat being paddled along the river. This must be Donnelly's imagination at its artistic best.

If we take the illustrations preserved in the lantern slides and combine them with press cuttings, original notes, photographs and published articles, we are then able to reconstruct aspects of the life of the crannog and how the controversy unfolded. In the book 'Controversy on the Clyde' Rob Sands and I trace the history of the site, describe the excavations and why the 'queer things' deserve to be seen as Scotland's very own Piltdown hoax. After the artefacts turned up, the excavators quickly wound up the dig and the discussion regarding their origins and the purpose of the site began. Initially the words exchanged were complimentary. But things soon degenerated and private letters along with articles in the Glasgow Herald and the Evening Times soon started to be exchanged between the excavators and various archaeological professionals. Others got involved as the war of words became personal and the vitriol began to be penned. It got to the stage whereby contributors assumed cryptic pseudonyms such as 'XYZ' and 'High Water', to avoid being identified. Sadly, Donnelly died in 1905 and his son later stated that the controversy was one of the causes of his father's early death.

Today the crannog remains preserved in the mud and is part of an on-going research project between RCAHMS and the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. The booklet 'Controversy on the Clyde' tells the crannog's story and is illustrated using Donnelly's sketches, including the wild boar hunt on the front cover. But from all this research it is still not clear who carved the 'queer things' and the crannog still has many secrets to yield.

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'Doing the crannog'. Digital image of water colour drawing on glass lantern slide
. © RCAHMS 2008 | SC 709705

'Doing the crannog'. Digital image of water colour drawing on glass lantern slide .
© RCAHMS 2008 | SC 709705

Dumbuck crannog, view of excavation. Digital image of colour photograph on glass lantern slide
. © RCAHMS 2008 | SC 709730

Dumbuck crannog, view of excavation. Digital image of colour photograph on glass lantern slide .
© RCAHMS 2008 | SC 709730

Wild boar hunt at Dumbuck Crannog, West Dumbartonshire. © RCAHMS 2008 | SC 687470

Wild boar hunt at Dumbuck Crannog, West Dumbartonshire.
© RCAHMS 2008 | SC 687470

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