Days Out: An archaeological exploration in Scotland

Can we dig it? Yes, you can
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The Independent Travel

What is it?

What is it?

A chance to take part in an archaeological dig. Some digs, like the research ones based at Guard (Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division; 0141-330 5541; www.guard.arts.gla.ac.uk), welcome amateurs to help with certain excavation projects.

At a recent week-long dig in a small church by the unfortunately named village of Dull, near Aberfeldy in Perthshire, I helped to excavate the floor of a mid-Victorian church for evidence of an eighth-century monastery. Rumour was that the first Scottish clan chief was buried here. Once the stone floor was lifted, we dug for the foundations. A trickier task than it sounds, as skeletal remains littered the ground, hampering our progress. Nothing is quite like unearthing 16th-century legs, jawbones and teeth to make you feel you're really getting involved in history.

Amateur archaeologists from Cheshire and clan members from the US had come to help. Before I arrived, a coin from 1403, the reign of David III of Scotland, had been found, indicating they were on the right track. Evidence of an early wall was uncovered by the end of the week, pointing to the monastery's existence. But the clan chief, alas, eluded us.

For one-off digs, thick socks, heavy boots and waterproofs are essential. Most week-long digs are in the spring and summer but Scottish weather can still surprise. For our Aberfeldy dig, we were inside a church building and protected from the elements, but it was still freezing.

Where is it?

Digs take place all over Scotland, but the Council for Scottish Archaeology (0131-247 4119) organises weekend field trips in Caithness in May ( www.britarch.ac.uk/csa/sumschl.html). The National Trust for Scotland, based in Edinburgh, has been running Thistle Camps (www.thistlecamps.org.uk), which train amateur archaeologists at Ben Lawers, for 23 years.

This year, there will be three archaeological field sites at Ben Lawers for on-site training, and actual excavation work in Brodick and Culloden.

For Brodick, follow signs from Glasgow for Ardrossan (A78), or take the train from Glasgow Central. At Ardrossan, take the ferry to the isle of Arran, where it docks in Brodick.

For Culloden, take the train to Inverness, or follow the M9 to Inverness until you reach the B851.

For Ben Lawers, take the A82 from Glasgow past Tarbet to the A85, which leads to the A827. The Ben Lawers Nature Reserve is just past Morenish, and you really need a car to get here.

Something for the children?

The CSA runs a Young Archaeologists' Club for children between eight and 16, while the National Trust runs separate archaeological camps for 16- and 17-year-olds called Trailblazers, a mixture of conservation work and adventure activities, in July and August.

Something for adults?

The first Thistle training camp will be at Ben Lawers from 5 to 19 April, costing £95 per person. There will be a full archaeological excavation at Brodick from 19 to 28 April, costing £80 per person.

I'm hungry

Excavation is hungry work, and while some digs supply hot water for tea and coffee, you should take a hearty packed lunch. The Thistle Camps, however, include accommodation and food.

Can we take home a souvenir?

Just in case you plan on pocketing any 15th-century coins you find, you should remind yourself that it belongs to the dig, not to you. The same goes for human remains.

Will there be queues?

Booking for Ben Lawers starts in January and there are only 20 places at this camp. Book as soon as possible to guarantee a place.

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