Two Midlothian Souterrains 1.Crichton

A day when we set out to investigate two souterrains but discovered that there were plenty more things to see in the areas around them! From searching the quiet country lanes for our first souterrain at Crichton, to the busy but wonderful Rosslyn Chapel, and from a castle with an unexpected Italianate interior to Castlelaw Hill Fort and Souterrain in the Pentland Hills.

Both souterrains were near Edinburgh, not many miles south of the bypass, but we found landscape that changed from rural farmland with sweeping views across the countryside to steep wooded valleys and then the Pentland Hills, which gave us even better views over the Firth of Forth to Fife.

3.Crichton souterrain
Inside Crichton souterrain

Crichton is a small hamlet with scattered farms along narrow country lanes. Apart from the souterrain, which is probably its least known claim to fame, it also has an interesting castle and a collegiate church.
The souterrain is of particular interest because it has some unique and distinctive features. Quite a number of the stones used to build it were of Roman origin and one of them even has a faint outline of a Pegasus on it – the emblem of a Roman legion.  I think I found the Pegasus but it was so faint I couldn’t be sure.

Souterrains can be very difficult to date, particularly if there is no evidence left of any other structure around it, such as an Iron-Age roundhouse or fort. This one sits on its own in the middle of a field, all trace of any associated dwellings long gone. However, due to the blocks of dressed Roman stone, showing their distinctive chisel marks, we know that this souterrain must have been constructed during or after Roman times, perhaps around the end of the 2nd century AD. This is quite a late date in Scotland’s period of souterrain building. Maybe after the Romans had left, the stone was plundered from nearby Roman sites or it was unused stone left over from one of their quarries.

4.Crichton souterrainDetail of Roman stones, showing chisel marks

Some ancient stones bearing  distinct cup marks have been used as lintels.

Cup marked lintel, CrichtonCup marks on roof lintel

The souterrain is situated in an arable field and care needs to be taken when accessing it. I couldn’t see an obvious farmhouse to ask permission but I did meet someone from a neighbouring farm who gave me directions and some more information about it. After walking up the track on the right hand side of the field, then along the top edge of the field it was a short careful walk over to the fenced-off souterrain.

2.Crichton souterrain

Steps lead down to a very low entrance where you have to crouch down and squeeze through. A short creep takes you into the main passage where there is plenty of room to stand up. The curved passage is about 15m long and the end of it is just squared off, rather than formed into any kind of chamber.


9.Crichton souterrain A previous visitor had placed tea lights along the walls of the passage!

Two familiar features of souterrains.  L. roots coming through the roof ,  R. a cubby hole                                                             

I’d looked at the entry for Crichton souterrain on the Modern Antiquarian website and  one of the contributers said that nearby Crichton Castle was a corker and not to be missed! So off we went to visit the castle.

Crichton Castle

After the rolling fields and farmland it was a surprise to find that the castle was perched on the very edge of a steep hill. Down below was the narrow twisting valley which is the source of the Tyne Water. Until then I didn’t know that Scotland had a River Tyne! This one flows into the North Sea near Dunbar, and at Pathhead where we had left the main road, there was a large railway viaduct across it, built by Thomas Telford.

The castle was certainly impressive but what a disappointment to find that it was closed that day and we could only look at the outside. We had to make do with looking at photos of it on the internet so we could see what we were missing and it was certainly not what you would expect to see in a Scottish castle.

Most of the castle is 15th century and what makes it really special is the ornate Italian design in the inner courtyard, influenced by the architect’s travels in Italy. If we had been able to see inside we would have seen the Italian-style arches and windows on the courtyard facade and the diamond studding effect on the stonework. All it needed was a Romeo and Juliet balcony – but perhaps it had one in it’s day!


Crichton Castle and a building next to it which was probably the stables

The car park for the castle is beside Crichton Collegiate Church. This is a Pre-Reformation church, contemporary with the castle and built by Lord Crichton to house a collegium of priests or canons. Mass would have been sung daily and the priests would have offered up daily prayers for the souls of Lord Crichton and his family.

Crichton Collegiate Church

Around 50 collegiate churches were built in Scotland from the 13th century until the time of the Reformation. They were secular churches, built by local chiefs and landowners on their own ground to increase the authority of the landowner and the crown at a time when the monasteries and the church wielded so much power. After the reformation some became parish churches while many others fell into ruin.

After exploring Crichton we set off to see the souterrain at Castlelaw Hill Fort in the Pentland Hills, visiting Rosslyn Chapel on the way.
see Two Midlothian Souterrains 2. Castlelaw Fort






Portnancon Souterrain

Portnancon is a well- preserved souterrain near the western shore of Loch Eriboll in Sutherland. It took 3 attempts to find it but after getting directions from a very helpful lady in Durness Tourist Information Centre we easily spotted the 2 large stones by the roadside that marked where to park. The souterrain wasn’t far from the road and I soon spotted the dark hole in amongst the heather.
Portnancon (Eriboll )Souterrain

This was my very first experience of a souterrain and would turn out to be the catalyst for much more research into the souterrains of Scotland and Ireland. It has also  remained one of my favourites.
Souterrains were underground storage facilities,and in Scotland, were usually built underneath or beside Iron Age round houses. There had been evidence of a round house here in the past but this was destroyed when the road was built.
There has been some speculation that they may also have served some ritualistic purpose, but mainly, they were for storage and possibly sometimes used for refuge as well.

With great excitement, I pulled back the heather and tentatively made my way down the 12 steps into the darkness, not knowing what it was going to be like inside. Like most souterrains, the roof was very low at the entrance but then got higher. I started to make my way along the curving passage and I must admit, it was quite scary when I turned the corner and was out of site of the entrance and would have been in complete darkness if it wasn’t for my torch.

Eriboll Souterrain 09
Into the darkness

It is a fairly typical design of the small souterrains found on the Scottish Atlantic coast. An 8.5m long passage curves in an anti-clockwise direction and culminates in a small rounded-off chamber at the end. It has dry stone walls and the roof is made from stone  lintels.
As the end of the passage came into view I had a heart-stopping moment! I’d seen a photo of it, so knew roughly what it would look like. However, down there at the end of the passage I could see what looked like two ropes hanging from the ceiling, one of which appeared to have a sack suspended from it. This was disconcerting for a few moments but I carried on and investigated. It turned out they were just roots from the ground above which had woven themselves into this sack-like shape –  it looked quite eerie, though.

Portnancon Souterrain
Approaching the end of the passage

A slideshow is a good way of showing the descent into the souterrain!

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Raitt’s (Lynchat) Souterrain, Kingussie

Raitts Souterrain (6)

The souterrains of mainland Scotland are found mainly in the eastern lowlands, with many in the fertile agricultural lands of Perthshire and Angus.
Raitt’s souterrain is further north, situated on a hillside above the wide flood plain of the River Spey, with views across to the Cairngorms.

Raitts Souterrain (4)
The original entrance, with the Spey valley and the Cairngorms behind

It is shaped like a horse shoe, with a short narrow passage at the entrance which leads to a much roomier tunnel with plenty of headroom. The rear of it is stump-shaped, rather than ending in a circular chamber, as many do.

After it was discovered in 1835 it was broken into from the side, destroying a good part of the side and roof but making easy access along the remaining passage.

The souterrain is on the Kingussie Paths Network and is a short distance up the way-marked route to Raitt’s Township,  a ruined settlement site.
Leaving the B9152 at Lynchat, the Raitt’s Township walk and the souterrain are both signposted.