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between 12:00 Friday 15th December and 12:00 Monday 18th December



Cemetery (Period Unassigned), Round Barrow(S) (Prehistoric), Square Barrow (Iron Age), Standing Stone (Prehistoric)

Site Name Pityoulish

Classification Cemetery (Period Unassigned), Round Barrow(S) (Prehistoric), Square Barrow (Iron Age), Standing Stone (Prehistoric)

Canmore ID 15389

Site Number NH91NW 15

NGR NH 93166 15286

NGR Description Barrows at NH 93166 15286; Stone at NH 93261 15215

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2023.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Abernethy And Kincardine
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Badenoch And Strathspey
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Archaeology Notes

NH91NW 15 barrows at 93166 15286; standing stone 9325 1521.

(Area NH 931 152) A group of 4 bowl-barrows is situated on the lip of the slope to the Spey, hidden by birch and broom, and beyond the field bordering the road immediately to the SW of the junction of the road Coylumbridge to Nethy Bridge with the road over the Slugan Pass to Loch Morlich. Each has a diameter of 24', height 1'3" - 1'6", a flattened top and a rectangular stone projecting from it. The one nearest the road was completely excavated in 1953 and revealed an extended inhumation in a pit beside the projecting stone, and two small empty pits. No grave-goods, pottery etc. were found, but the discovery of a few fragments of iron and the rust-mark vestiges of a possible knife suggested that the burial was not earlier than the Iron Age. The burial pit had previously been robbed by sinking a vertical shaft. Professor Piggot suggested the possibility that the excavated barrow was, in reality, two, a later one being imposed directly upon the earlier. A standing stone 4'6" high and 18" square at the base stands erect in the field between the barrows and the road.

V Rae and A Rae 1955.

Mr Ferguson (Mr Ferguson, Auchgourish) indicated the area (centred on NH 932 152) where the excavation had taken place. The barrows are situated in dense afforestation, planted since the excavation took place. Perambulation failed to reveal any trace of the barrows.

Visited by OS (R L) 14 November 1966.

In the area centred NH 931 152, now afforested, the only surviving feature is the standing stone, at NH 9325 1521. The precise site of the barrows is not known locally.

Visited by OS (R L) 22 September 1969.


Project (March 2007)

Detailed measured survey was undertaken in the Braes of Abernethy, Highland, by RCAHMS over the course of one week in March 2007. The archaeological and architectural monuments recorded were identified as worthy of further attention during a survey undertaken in 2006 (see Project Event 555817). The survey was designed to record a representative sample of the sites recorded in 2006, particularly those that were otherwise under-represented in then National Monuments Record of Scotland (now the National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE)). The Pictish barrow cemetery at Pityoulish is situated outside the area of the original survey, but the opportunity to record it in detail for the first time was thought to be too good a chance to miss. Accordingly two parts of the site were recorded – the group of four ditched mounds at the NE end (Canmore ID 15389) and a solitary kerbed cairn 230m to the SW (Canmore ID 15413).

Information from HES Survey and Recording (JRS) 18 April 2018.

Measured Survey (8 March 2007)

RCAHMS surveyed the barrows at Pityoulish (NH91NE 15) on 8 March 2007 with plane-table and alidade at a scale of 1:100. The plan was redrawn in vector graphics software at a scale of 1:200.

Publication Account (2007)

The Pictish barrow cemetery at Pityoulish is situated on the leading edge of a terrace on the south-east bank of the River Spey 2km north-east of Aviemore. It is one of only a handful of such sites that are still visible as upstanding earthworks and comprises two groups of barrows lying some 700m apart. The north-east group (NH91NW 15) contains one square and three circular barrows, but there is an additional mound, with an erect stone standing against its south-west edge, some 95m to the south-east. The south-west group (NH91SW 7) contains three circular barrows, two of which have been reduced to cropmarks, but there is also a circular cairn,defined by a kerb of slabs and bouders some 230m north-east.

Although Pityoulish does not lie within the Braes of Abernethy survey area, both its national importance and the lack of detail within the existing record singled it out for special attention. Accordingly, the various elements of the cemetery were mapped using differential Global Positioning System (dGPS) equipment, while the north-east group of barrows and the kerbed cairn were planned at a larger scale.


One of the circular barrows in the north-east group was excavated in the summer of 1953 (Rae & Rae, 1955 Excavation of a bowl barrow at Pityoulish, Strathspey, in 1953), but although the group was known locally, it had never been formally recorded or mapped. The excavation confirmed anecdotal evidence that the site had been robbed, as the Raes were able to identify a robbed area that had clearly removed a considerable amount of the mound. Despite this, they located a truncated central burial-pit, which containedthe remains of an adult male inhumation. They also noted five concentrations of charcoal associated with traces of fires and two small pits.

The Raes planned only the single barrow they excavated and the Ordnance Survey twice incorrectly assumed (in 1966 & 1969) that the group had been destroyed by afforestation. The site was only rediscovered during a fieldchecking exercise conducted by the RCAHMS and the Historic Land-use Assessment team in 1999.

The north-east group This group of barrows occupies the corner of an indulating terrace. If the group had formerly extended to the SW, any visible remains would have been eradicated by rig-and-furrow cultivation. The group comprises not only three circular barrows, which are aligned in g row from north-west to south-east and measure about 5.5m in diameter by 0.5m in height within shallow ditches, but also a single square barrow, situated immediately south-west of the north-west end of the row, which neasures 6m across by 0.5m in height, again within a shallow ditch.

Unlike the circular barrows, which appear to have uninterrupted ditches, the square barrow has a narrow causeway at each corner. A common feature that all the barrows in this group share is each one has or has had a stone grave-marker set into its summit. The Raes’ excavation of the south-east barrow demonstrated that the grave-marker (which is no longer visible) measured 1.65m in length. The boulders on the three other mounds are all considerably smaller and do not appear to be deep-set.


The Commission undertook an analytical survey of this group at a scale of 1:100 in order to examine the character and relationship of the barrows. In the event, no chronological relationship could be established between the square barrow and the others, but the ditch of the circular barrow at the north-west end of the row clearly cut across the ditch of the central barrow

and impinged slightly on the foot of its mound. Although the relationship between the northwest barrow and the square barrow could not be established, their respective positions strongly suggest that one should be later in date than the other. Unfortunately, an unrecorded excavation trench has removed the surface evidence that might have helped decide this point.


The location of the Pityoulish barrow cemetery on a river terrace links this site with several others in similar locations, both on the Spey and elsewhere. However, cemeteries containing both square and circular barrows have been found in a number of topographic settings, and their siting was probably an important consideration to whoever constructed them. The suggestion, that such cemeteries occupied liminal positions between this world and another, is not supported by any evidence. The more prosaic proposal that the dead were buried, with all due ceremony, in otherwise unproductive land, situated on the edge of farms or estates, seems equally valid.


As one of the few Pictish cemeteries to survive as upstanding earthworks, Pityoulish is a site of national importance and it was clear that the inadequate record of the site needed revision. As a result, the whole cemetery has been described and mapped, while a large-scale plan has been produced which highlights the barrows in the north-east group.

Information from ‘Commissioners Field Meeting 2007'.

Note (May 2017)

Crop marks, barrow cemeteries and the Pityoulish cemetery

The cemeteries can tell us much about burial traditions during the time when they were built, usually known in Highland Scotland as the Pictish period. Many survive as archaeological crop-marks, because the physical remains of the barrows (a barrow is simply a mound of earth over a grave) have been removed over time, whether by natural erosion, ploughing or the actions of antiquarians. Crop-marks reflect the surviving buried remains, and in the case of barrows one can often see a square or circular ditch, within which there is a pit that marks the position of a grave. While these remains may offer much to the excavator (see Alexander 2005), imagine how exciting it can be to re-discover a barrow cemetery which is better preserved, where the mounds are still visible on the surface.

Pityoulish is one of these rare sites, all the more so as it stands on a terrace just above the River Spey in a landscape that has been heavily improved for agriculture. If you get the chance to visit you will find two groups of barrows, some 700m apart. The NE group, described here, contains one square and three circular barrows, but there is an additional mound, with a stone set against its edge, some 95m to the SE. The three round barrows measure about 5.5m in diameter within a shallow ditch, and stand to 0.5m in height, while the fourth square barrow is slightly larger. It too has a surrounding ditch, but this is not continuous and there are narrow ‘causeways’ at each corner (a diagnostic feature). Two of the round barrows have a stratigraphic relationship – one is certainly later than the other.

Archaeologists excavated one of the round barrows at Pityoulish in 1953. The circular earthen mound appeared to cover just one burial placed in a rectangular pit near its centre. The excavation confirmed anecdotal evidence that the site had been robbed, perhaps by those in search of grave goods, sadly a relatively common occurrence prior to the development of an archaeological profession. Despite the robbing, they found skeletal remains, concentrations of charcoal and a small stone marking one side of the pit. The excavators report, published in 1955, included a thorough description of the skeletal remains by Dr I H Wells of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Edinburgh:

“These remains comprise portions of the skull, mandible and uppermost three cervical vertebrae; and the lower ends of both femora, remains of both tibiae and fibulae, and some of the bones of both feet. The ossification of the limb bones and of the base of the skull shows this individual to have been fully adult. At the same time the short length of the lambdoidal suture which is preserved shows little evidence of closure and indicates an age probably less than 35 years. Although the skull bones are thin the muscle markings are strongly developed and the mastoid processes large, suggesting that the skeleton is most probably male.” (Rae & Rae 1955, 158)

Even in the 1950s, the careful analysis of small fragments of skeleton could tell is a lot about a person from the past. But archaeological science has come a long way in 64 years, and a reanalysis of the bones (if they survive) would no doubt tell us much more, perhaps including the diet of the man, and the area he was brought up.

Some interpretations

So what can we say about burials from this period? It appears that the tradition of burying people in barrow cemeteries like this was long-lived. Dating evidence from a range of barrow cemeteries demonstrates their use from around the 3rd to the 11th century AD. But it is important to bear in mind that our methods of dating are still relatively crude, and that apparent similarities in the morphology of burials and in their date, perhaps masks regional and cultural variations. There are many questions to keep the archaeologists of the future busy!

Finally, it is worth thinking about the location of many of the barrow cemeteries (RCAHMS 2007, 123-4). Most are positioned adjacent to rivers, or close to the sea, on relatively flat natural terraces. In some cases, these locations favour the formation of cropmarks due to their well drained and light soils, but others have no doubt been carefully considered by the builders, reflecting boundaries of control or management, or a more symbolic explanation. Archaeologists have suggested that they might have appealed as ‘liminal’ places. The term, which describes a position at a boundary or threshold (between land and sea for example), might help us interpret the sites in their contemporary landscape, culture and environment. We know from ritualistic deposits that water had a meaning beyond the functional in the Iron Age; perhaps bodies of water such as the Spey were seen as gateways between different worlds? The positioning of the barrows close to the water may have been significant, as if the placement of the burial allowed the soul of the person to pass across a liminal zone to another world.


Alexander, D (2005) ‘Redcastle, Lunan Bay, Angus: the excavation of an Iron Age timber-lined souterrain and a Pictish barrow cemetery’

Rae and Rae, A and V. (1955a) A bowl barrow at Pityoulish, in Strathspey', Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 87, 1952-3. Page(s): 153-60

RCAHMS (2007) Commissioners Field Meeting 2007. Edinburgh: RCAHMS.

RCAHMS (2007) In the Shadow of Bennachie. Edinburgh: RCAHMS and the Society of Antiquaries.

Alex Hale - Archaeology Project Manager


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