It was late at night, Mike Benson had been sleeping and his initial response to the phone call was sluggish to say the least.

“I said I’d sort it out in the morning,” he recalls. “It was when I got another phone call and could hear the fire engines in the background that I realised it was bad.”

The blaze at the Scottish Crannog Centre in June 2021 would take just six minutes to tear through its much-loved and oft-photographed reconstructed Iron Age roundhouse.

By morning, the wooden structure that had stood on stilts over the edge of Loch Tay for quarter of a century – a modern homage to an ancient way of life - had been reduced to a smouldering wreck of charred wood.

The Herald: Traditional skills and materials are being used in constructionTraditional skills and materials are being used in construction (Image: Scottish Crannog Centre)

Mike, the centre’s director, remembers being in tears when he saw the devastation, and then at the outpouring of public support as donations flooded in.

Now, almost three years on from that devastating blaze, a reborn Iron Age village is set to rise phoenix-like from the ashes.

Next month a new visitor attraction made using materials gleaned from the surrounding landscape and pieced together by people using ancient skills, will finally open.  

Three replica Iron Age structures are in place, the first of seven, made using age old techniques on a spot on the other side of the loch from the Scottish Crannog Centre’s original site at Dalerb.


The Herald: The new Scottish Crannog Centre at Loch TayThe new Scottish Crannog Centre at Loch Tay (Image: Scottish Crannog Centre)

Intended to reflect an Iron Age village, they will offer craft workshops, technology demonstrations and hands-on experiences for visitors, alongside a modern museum telling  the story of the Iron Age dwellers who made the area around the loch their home.

It will showcase artefacts found in the area, including the first display of ‘wet find’ items retrieved during underwater excavations at Oakbank Crannog, the Iron Age dwelling near the village of Fearnan upon which the Centre’s fire destroyed crannog was based.

More than 600 containers with a range of materials inside, some in storage for up to 40 years, were recently removed from the Centre’s former base to be assessed by archaeology experts.

The Herald: Volunteers and experts have been working at the new centreVolunteers and experts have been working at the new centre (Image: Scottish Crannog Centre)

With their stability and viability for public display now confirmed, a selection will go on display in a new museum, constructed from modern modular units, covered with larch and with seeded roofs that will sprout and blend with the surroundings.

As time goes on, additional Iron Age-style buildings will appear, followed by the first of three expert-led, community-built crannogs.

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The devastation of the fire hasn’t been forgotten, says Mike, but focus is now on a brighter future.

“What is happening here is magic,” he adds. “Right now, though, I’m knackered. We have no electrics yet, there’s quite a bit of thatching still to do.

“At some point I will feel excited, but right now I’m just hoping it will all be ready for the end of March.”

Plans to create the new £12.5 million Scottish Crannog Centre were already underway when the fire took hold; the management team had completed the community asset transfer of former Forestry and Land Scotland site for just £1.

The Herald: Inside the centre's replica roundhouseInside the centre's replica roundhouse (Image: Scottish Crannog Centre)

But all was thrown into confusion with the blaze and loss of the reconstructed crannog.

It sparked fresh urgency to push ahead with a new centre, fuelled by the immense public response: by September last year, more than £100,000 of public donations had poured into the Centre.   

Funds arrived from other sources: a £2.3m grant from the Scottish Government, and support from other bodies and charitable trusts.

“We are a small organisation, we have no money in the bank, and everything was ruined,” says Mike.

“But the public was behind us from the start. On the Saturday afternoon after the fire, we set up a JustGiving page. By the end of the weekend, it was up to £50,000.

“I was in tears every time I saw that. I’m not as tough as I look.

“At that point, we got another breath of air behind us and realised that we could do this.

“Within a couple of days, we had a rough plan of what we would do.

“We decided not to build another crannog straight away. Instead, we would build an Iron Age village then get the crannog up.

“That is what they would have done.”

‘They’ are the Iron Age dwellers who occupied more than  20 crannog sites that have been identified around Loch Tay.

The Herald: The new centre will have museum and visitor facilitiesThe new centre will have museum and visitor facilities (Image: Scottish Crannog Centre)

The Oakbank crannog, first examined in the early 1980s, provided the blueprint for the Centre’s replica – and now lost – crannog.

At the new site, one village structure will be used to show woodwork skills, another stone building will become the blacksmith’s workshop.

Others will provide space for cookery, metalworking, weaving and pottery demonstrations.

Perhaps the most striking structure on the site is a massive round house; around six metres high and spanning 8.5 metres, it has been made ‘basket style’ from intertwined strips of hazel and is thought to be unique in the UK.

It has been made using methods that would have been employed by Iron Age dwellers 2,500 years ago, using materials found within walking distance.

Work at the centre has been a collaborative effort, bringing together volunteers with archaeology experts and highly skilled crafts people, and involving local landowners.

The Herald: The centre combines modern museum with replica Iron Age structuresThe centre combines modern museum with replica Iron Age structures (Image: Scottish Crannog Centre)

A partnership with Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) has seen timber sourced from nearby Drummond Hill, Scotland’s oldest managed woodland which sits behind the Dalerb site. It will supply wood for the three crannogs – a single crannog alone will require 900 timbers.

Stone for the blacksmith’s building has been sourced from nearby Taymouth Estate in Kenmore, and turf for walls and roofing taken from the site of a new car park.

With hundreds of hazel rods needed to create the woven structure for the replica buildings, the centre turned to an ancient form of woodland management, coppicing.

It involves felling a tree to create a stool from which new shoots emerge as long, straight poles, suitable for building and fencing.

The process is continued over several cycles to ensure a regular supply while at the same time has added benefits of allowing woodland species to thrive.

In October, 28 tonnes of reed needed for building the replica structures made the short journey from RSPB Scotland Tay Reedbed site, located near Errol, to Dalerb.

Then, in the depths of a January snow shower and with the wind howling, teams from the centre’s heather picking team climbed hills around the centre to collect the supplies that will be used by thatchers for the buildings’ roofs.

It’s all been done despite the centre receiving planning approval just 17 months ago.

“Just getting through planning took a huge amount of work,” says Mike.

“Since then, we’ve worked with fantastic crafts people: stone wall builders, thatchers, academics, structural engineers.

“There’s no concrete, no nails. The crafts people have been outside working when it’s below freezing some days.

The Herald: The 2021 blaze destroyed the Loch Tay replica crannogThe 2021 blaze destroyed the Loch Tay replica crannog

“The whole thing has been a massive collaboration.”

Local schools and young people struggling with mainstream education have been involved alongside refugee integration groups, Glasgow-based mental health organisations and members of Perthshire Women’s Aid.

Apprentices have been employed to learn traditional skills, and volunteers touched by the crannog’s loss have travelled from across the country to pitch in: one archaeology graduate made a 12 hour drive from home in north Wiltshire to help out after hearing of the fire, another, a dry stone wall builder arrived from Cumbria.

The centre’s rebirth marks a new start, but the efforts will continue well into the future: the replica structures have a life expectancy of just seven years, meaning it will be a continuous task to renew and replace them.

The Herald: The Loch Tay crannog before the 2021 fireThe Loch Tay crannog before the 2021 fire

“It’s slow going trying to build this properly,” adds Mike.

“We could have built something fast and disguised it. But we haven’t done that, we’ve built it the way they would have built it.

“This is keeping skills alive. As we move forwards, we are trying to grow the skills and the material we need in the future.”