Luing aerial survey unearths past for armchair archaeologists

The aerial survey plane flies above Luing. Photo by Birgit Whitmore.

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A history group on Luing has secured more than £14,000 in just four days to get the island’s lay of the land and buried treasures scanned from the air.

The chance to get a cutting-edge aerial survey carried out from a powerful laser laden aircraft 1,800 feet above the slate island came as a surprise to Luing History Group which snapped up the offer but had to raise the money quick.

A flurry of emails to islanders, holiday home owners, history group members and supporters, the Slate Islands Trust and those with an interest in archaeology on and off the island resulted in pledges of £14,645 to cover it.

And in a window of fine weather last Wednesday, the flight to carry out the laser scanning of Luing, know as a LiDAR survey, took off to document the island’s land surface in all its 3D glory.

‘People have been very generous. They really wanted to contribute towards it. Some of the donations have been very moving. It’s fired people up and generated lots of excitement,’ said Mary Braithwaite from Luing History Group (LHG).

‘The end result will be an interactive map that means people will be able to see the terrain from their homes and all the different archaeological sites. They’ll be able to click and look at them in more detail.’

Data LHG members have already collected on foot will be added to the findings of the aerial survey making a fascinating package. Just some of the gems of interest to be included are the island’s two hill forts and Kilchattan Chapel with its unique medieval boat graffiti.

LHG hopes a final report from the walkover archaeological survey it has been working on since 2016 with the Association of Certificated Field Archaeologists should also be ready for next year.

During lockdown, the group has been featuring some of the discovered sites on its Facebook page as part of a Luing Through Time feature but walkover surveys cannot find everything, especially if land is covered by thick vegetation which is why the aerial survey was too good an opportunity to miss, said Mary.

Keen to catch sight of the survey aircraft as it flew overhead, about 300ft above the highest point of nearby Scarba, people on Luing were given prior notice to look out for it.

Dave Cowley, Rapid Archaeological Mapping Manager at Historic Environment Scotland, will be analysing the flight’s data for free.

Mary added: ‘There are many people on Luing and elsewhere who can’t visit the archaeological sites in person, so this will give them 3D images of the whole landscape as well as specific areas and sites. Combining the results of the two surveys – LiDAR and our walkover  will give a much more detailed picture of Luing’s unique archaeological heritage.’

In the last few years, LiDAR surveys have been used to discover many other archaeological sites including prehistoric settlements and medieval farmsteads on Arran and an exceptionally rare Neolithic cursus monument on the west coast of Scotland.