Illicit stills, skeletons and plenty of very old pottery. How the National Trust for Scotland has spent 30 years digging for treasure.

When Derek Alexander was a boy, he loved to scrape about at ruined farm buildings near his family home, digging for hidden treasure.

Eventually his efforts were rewarded when, from the debris, he pulled a jolly but long since discarded, rough around the edges, garden gnome.

In terms of archaeological finds, it wasn’t quite ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’. But it was enough to spark a fascination with what might be lurking below the topsoil.

“I cleaned him up and painted him,” he says. “He was probably the most important thing I ever found.”

It set him on course for his current role as Head of Archaeological Services for the National Trust for  Scotland. And he is pleased to report there have been much more significant artefacts found down the years.

Among the most recent was a fragment of Iron Age flint, spotted on a beach on Fladda, one of the Treshnish Isles and recently confirmed as having come under protection of the Trust.

The Herald: A team searching at the Culzean CavesA team searching at the Culzean Caves (Image: National Trust for Scotland)

Something those without an archaeologist’s eye would overlook, it is a precious piece in the islands’ jigsaw and hard evidence of a prehistoric human presence.

“We’re at the start of the process there,” he says, of initial surveys at the remote archipelago of eight small uninhabited islands west of Mull.

The islands are a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its landscape and nesting sites for puffins, guillemots and razorbills. For an archaeologist, they are particularly interesting: there are remains of two medieval chapels, a castle and an 18th century barracks.

On one island, Bac Mor, with its distinctive Dutchman's Cap, a volcanic cone rising from the flat landscape, he saw evidence of huts, enclosures and cultivation.

And on Fladda, the northern most of the islands, the fragment caught his eye.

“I bent down and picked up a flake of flint, the first evidence of prehistoric presence on the islands. It’s not surprising that it’s there,” he adds. “But finding it, is.”

It is just one of many uncovered by the Trust’s archaeology team during three decades of exploring, excavating, and trying to better understand the range of properties and sites in its care.

Read more: Treshnish Isles: National Trust for Scotland takes ownership of isles

It was established in 1993, sparked by new planning rules and an enlightened approach to conserving Scotland’s history.

“If you wanted to build a motorway or houses you had to employ professional archaeologist,” he explains. “That changed attitudes towards archaeology, it was a gamechanger.”

The Herald: Dr Daniel Rhodes at a dig at test pit in CullodenDr Daniel Rhodes at a dig at test pit in Culloden (Image: National Trust for Scotland)

Since then, there have been more than 650 investigations, yet the work is just scratching the surface: the Trust has more than 11,000 archaeological sites and features, spanning from the Mesolithic (8500BC to 4000BC) to modern day.

There are grand houses where wealthy families’ stories are just part of the picture; a key element of the team’s work is uncovering relics of the ‘ordinary’ folk who also lived and worked within the estates.

“Written history often relates to the ‘elite’ and tends to ignore people at the lower end that don’t make it into the history books,” he continues.

“Archaeology is good at finding the things that people threw away that can tell us a lot about how they lived and worked.”

The Herald:

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) cares for everything from 14th century battlefields and cleared Highland settlements in wild glens, to Iron Age burial sites.

“We have 76,000 hectares of ground that covers about 1% of Scotland’s land mass,” he continues, “and investigations range in scale from just digging a hole and taking a photograph to finding something by chance, to surveys that take in entire islands to excavations that last months. 

“We’ve done an awful lot and know an awful lot about what we’ve got.”

He has just returned from Glencoe, working with Glasgow University on excavations at abandoned townships.

While the past week has been spent at Crerar Gardens in Argyll, where NTS gardeners are planning gardens between a medieval graveyard and Neolithic burial site.

Read more: Where to find gold in Scotland and what it could be worth

Previous investigations have revealed burned material radiocarbon dated to the 8th century, medieval pottery from the 13th and 14th centuries and some from France and Spain, offering fascinating insight into the lives people led.

There’s every chance the latest digs will turn up something special – or, indeed, nothing at all.

“You’re never ‘crushed’ not to find something,” he stresses. “There’s always hope that a spot will have something interesting. But we can’t dig it all.”

Further north and further back in time on the Shetland island of Unst, the team’s work at the Iron Age roundhouse and midden at Collaster uncovered signs of pottery making and furnaces, and moulds used to make fine iron pins.

Read more: How one man and his dog are rebuilding a slice of Scottish history

While one dig at House of the Binns near Linlithgow even unearthed two skeletons from the first centuries bc/ad, buried within a single stone cist.

Read more: National Trust Scotland: Archaeologists celebrate 30 years of research

More recently at Marr Lodge in the heart of the Cairngorms, a project with Dublin University is unpicking details of early settlements in the area.

There are more modern sites too, also classed as archaeology sites including Second World War pill boxes, plane crash sites on NTS land and at Ben Lawers, where they have explored the remains of work from the 1950s hydro dam construction.

While in secluded glens, alongside bubbling burns, the team is uncovering the secrets of Scotland’s illicit whisky stills, in a three-year project with distillery giant.

This year they have been explored NTS sites at Marr Lodge, Torridon, Ben Lomond and Ben Lawers, with discoveries ranging from glass bottles to distillers’ clay pipes.

“This is the first time there has been a concentrated effort to locate and excavate these sites,” he says. “When we started, we had 30 known illicit sites on Trust land, now it’s up to 45.

“It’s a story with huge cultural significance to Scotland and a key story to tell and a nice way to get to understanding our landscape,” he says.

Attention recently turned to Ben Lomond, revealed remains of an illicit still’s metre high wall, irons bars from a fire grate used for the distillers’ copper pot and oak staves for a barrel – all unusual finds.

One of his favourites was at the site of the 1719 battle of Glen Shiel between the Jacobites and a force of British government troops, almost 300 years to the day of the clash.

“I picked up a piece of mortar shell - think of comedy bombs in cartoons with a fuse - launched out of small canons to the Jacobite positions.

“I’d never seen anything like it. It was a key part of the battle, and this was the day before commemorative events to mark the anniversary.

“It might not be the most significant find, but for me, it was one of the best.”

Now, 30 years since its launch, the archaeology service he leads with Inverness-based colleague Dr Daniel Rhodes, is tackling a modern problem. Climate change is bringing coastal erosion, some sites are being exposed, some covered by sand dunes or swamped by rivers that flood.

At Mingulay on the edge of the Outer Hebrides, shifting sand dunes are affecting abandoned dwellings. And at St Kilda, where Iron Age and Bronze Age pottery has been found on the main island of Hirta, archaeologists are racing against time.

“St Kilda has erosion problems,” he adds. “Every year a bit more goes, and the coast edge is getting closer. It’s not something we can stop.”

While technology such as drones, 3D modelling and carbon dating has transformed the job, there is still little that can replace the joy of seeing something emerge from the soil, even if it is an old tatty gnome.

“It's like history but it’s outside, it’s puzzle solving, like being a landscape detective,” he adds.

“It’s amazing how much knowledge we’ve built up over these 30 years.”

For more about the National Trust for Scotland's archaeological work visit.