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Cateran Ecomuseum

River Detectives

Do you live in Tayside? Would you like to be A River Detective? We’re looking for volunteer Community Scientists & Historians to work with us from August 2023 to April 2024 on four groundbreaking projects in the Ecomuseum that will investigate how we managed our rivers, bogs & lochans in the past and how this knowledge might help us take better care of them in the future.

You can read about each of the projects below, including where and when they will happen. Then, if you would like to get involved, you can sign up to take part via the form below.

Strathmore from Dunsinane Hill, photo Clare Cooper


“Landscapes provide a living history of Scotland’s past and inspiration for many aspects of our culture. They underpin our national economy and offer a wide range of social and health benefits. We must look after our landscapes as a unique and irreplaceable resource for current and future generations”
– NatureScot

Surviving the 21st century will be about making the right choices. We have made some wrong choices about how we manage our landscapes and environments in the past.

Learning from past mistakes means understanding them at all scales from the local to the global. This is what environmental history does. The key to the future is the past – from where we have all come.

The Cateran Ecomuseum draws on the local past of this beautiful part of Tayside to affect the decisions we make about how we take care of it better in the near future: a “Museum of Rapid Transition to a future of hope and not anxiety.

Now it’s your chance to contribute to an understanding of aspects of your recent environmental heritage through support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the expertise of one of Scotland’s leading palaeoenvironmental researchers – Dr Richard Tipping and leading environmental historians – Christopher Dingwall.

Through their guidance, tuition and leadership, you will learn how to become community scientists and historians and together, we will understand more about how our landscape came to be the way it is, and develop a deeper, richer understanding of our shared heritage.

Our focus is on the last period of ‘rapid transition’ in the region, the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th – 19th centuries, and how everything changed: some for the better; some for the worse. The scope is enormous.

Without constraining what we eventually do together, we have settled on four themes around water, how it was harnessed in diverse rural and urban settings, how the landscape was transformed and continues to be transformed, exploring their environmental and social impacts and their ongoing legacies.

Digging out a lade on the River Ericht in 1932, photo Laing Collection

Flax & Flood: An Environmental History of the Blairgowrie Mills

What’s it about? We want to look at how the environment affected the mills – and vice versa. How did changing 19th century weather patterns affect the mills? What were the effects of extreme weather (floods, droughts) on them? How did the mills manage the water supply? Was steam-power a response to variable water supply?

How did the mills work together and compete over the water supply? How did they work and compete with other users of the water supply: farms, traditional mills, salmon fishing and the town itself?

What’ll I do? Work in a team of fellow ‘community historians’ with Richard Tipping, Christopher Dingwall, the Blairgowrie, Rattray and District Local History Trust and Our Heritage to:

  • absorb what we already know of the economic and social histories of the mills, your heritage, through the 19th century, and start to ask new questions
  • explore and collate from 19th century sources (newspapers, magazines, journals) any contemporary descriptions of the weather and extreme weather events (floods, droughts) affecting the River Ericht and surrounding rivers
  • find out if we can reconstruct the impacts of these (e.g. how big? how long? how bad?)
  • submit our data on floods to the Chronology of British Hydrological Events
  • create a climatic history of the River Ericht through the 19th century
  • explore and collate contemporary accounts of how other groups (farmers, millers, fishermen) used and changed the river and the land around it, and how people felt about the changes to the town
  • explore what’s left of the 19th century industrial landscape
  • compare what we’ve learnt with the changing fortunes of the mills
  • write a new environmental history of the mills
  • tell people what we’ve found

What’s involved? Between August 2023 and February 2024

  • we’ll meet in one or two introductory chats in Alyth to learn what’s involved in detail and then every 3-4 weeks to chat through stuff
  • volunteer ‘community historians’ to pursue one or more ‘tasks’ such as (a) collecting data by searching for and reading on-line runs of newspapers, magazines and journals, (b) consulting books, records and old maps held in libraries in Dundee, Perth or Edinburgh and/or (c) tracing on the ground what was described, seeing what’s still there and what’s been lost
  • compiling with the team a list of all the landscape changes we’ve identified

What’ll I learn?

  • how and why the climate used to change naturally
  • how and why your landscape changed in the agricultural and industrial revolutions
  • how to think about the landscape-changing decisions we’ll be asked to make for the future

What’ll we achieve? Something original – a real advance on what we know.

Reekie Linn Falls, River Isla, photo George Logan

Flood & Flow: Reconstructing Flood Histories for the River Isla

What’s it about? We want to extend the flood history of the river beyond 19th century written records using geological techniques, by sampling and recording sediment samples, identifying numbers and magnitudes of floods, date them using scientific techniques, try to explain them in terms of climate and land use change, be able to place the floods of the last several years in an historic context, and make the data available to local communities and professional users.

What’ll I do? Work in a team of ‘community scientists’ with Dr Richard Tipping to:

  • identify from old maps the likely histories of natural features on the Isla floodplain
  • learn how changes in the river can be recorded in sediments stored in ox-bow lakes
  • systematically sample and record sediments in the field, and construct transects of boreholes along and across ox-bows to replicate the data obtained
  • sample for laboratory analyses sediments in representative boreholes
  • work out how best to analyse sediments
  • take samples for sediment dating and interpret the results
  • construct a new flood history for the Isla and place it in its regional and historical contexts
  • tell people what we’ve found

What’s involved? Between August and November 2023

  • we’ll meet in one introductory chat in Alyth to learn what’s involved in detail
  • spend something like 8-10 days before the floods come to do the fieldwork on the ox-bow sediments to see what’s there
  • drawing up the results of the fieldwork, bit by bit, on a few evenings by yourself (with guidance) or in team meetings
  • discussing what it all means, provisionally, and deciding what to sample for dating
  • wait for the dates
  • do lots of thinking in team meetings after February 2024 when we find out how old the sediments are
  • compare our record with others in the region and in the British Isles
  • prepare a report on our findings to be shared with local communities and submitted to relevant bodies such as SEPA and NatureScot

What’ll I learn?

  • how the sediment record allows you to ask and answer questions out of reach to historians
  • how to put in historical context the recent trend to bigger floods in a changing climate
  • how to use the past to guide near-future decision-making

What’ll we achieve? A new scientific analysis that stands alongside the best done to date in the region and which can be used by local communities and statutory bodies.

Peat & Productivity: Discovering a lost landscape around Meigle

What’s it about? We think we know from old maps that the flat ground between Coupar Angus and Eassie was covered in wetlands before the 19th century. We only think we know, because maps made before the Ordnance Survey were subjective and of varying qualities. So we need to use many different types of evidence, historical and archaeological, to establish what was there, how extensive it was, how and why it disappeared, what replaced it, and what, if anything, is still there to be discovered.

What’ll I do? Work in a team of fellow ‘community historians’ with Christopher Dingwall and Dr Richard Tipping to:

  • appreciate what map-making involved before the Ordnance Survey in the mid-19th century
  • collate what is known from old maps for the extent of wetland and for settlements and farms over time
  • use other clues in the landscape (archaeological monuments, place names, fields and field boundaries, historic land use assessment) to generate more detailed maps
  • compile from written records (books, newspapers, magazines, journals) the chronology and the processes involved in the replacement of wetlands by farmland
  • uncover the techniques employed in removing the wetlands
  • trace on the ground and record what might remain of these wetlands
  • record possible peat remains with help from the Flood & Flow ‘community scientists’
  • tell people what we found

What’s involved? Between August 2023 and February 2024

  • we’ll meet in one or two introductory chats in Alyth to learn what’s involved in detail and then every 3-4 weeks to chat through stuff
  • maybe pay a visit to the National Map Library in Edinburgh to talk to the staff there
  • volunteer to pursue one or more ‘tasks’ (a) compiling maps, (b) searching for and reading on-line runs of newspapers, magazines and journals, (b) consulting books, records and old maps held in libraries in Dundee, Perth or Edinburgh and (c) learning to interpret the distribution of archaeological monuments in the landscape
  • use and interpret old maps to visit key localities in the landscape
  • record and analyse what’s still there
  • construct a local historic land use assessment for Meigle to aid in conservation and protection of the historic landscape
  • synthesise all the data to explain landscape change over the last few centuries
  • explore the consequences, environmental, economic and social, of this landscape change

What’ll I learn?

  • how to make the past come alive in the present, for the future
  • how to begin to care for your heritage, and how to encourage others
  • how to use and combine very varied approaches to historic landscape change

What’ll we achieve? An entirely new history for this part of Scotland.

Engraving by George Heriot Swanston of Patrick Bell’s reaping machine

Marl Mania: Exploring the basis for the 18th century agricultural revolution in Strathmore

What’s it about? A few contemporary descriptions make it clear that landowners after AD1730 destroyed many peat bogs and lochs to find marl, a powdered limestone, to put on their fields and increase outputs. But we have almost no idea, in Strathmore or in Scotland, how the whole process worked, from finding the marl, to organising and funding how to get it, the mechanics of quarrying it, what was done with it and what the legacy of all this was.

What’ll I do? Work in a team of fellow ‘community historians’ with Christopher Dingwall and Dr Richard Tipping to:

  • learn about what happened to make possible the agricultural revolution in Strathmore
  • appreciate the significance of marl in agricultural improvement and the difficulties of extracting it
  • investigate which estates in Strathmore looked for marl – and those that didn’t
  • locate contemporary documents and estate plans that might reveal how and where they looked
  • read, ‘translate’ and compile these records, almost certainly for the first time since they were written
  • try to establish what made some lochs and peat bogs safer bets than others
  • build a picture of the complexity and costs of the whole process, from exploration to consumption and eventual failure
  • try to trace on the ground if anything is left of this industry

What’s involved? Between August 2023 and February 2024

  • we’ll meet in one or two introductory chats in Alyth to learn what’s involved in detail and then every 3-4 weeks to chat through stuff
  • chatting with local landowners, historians, heritage bodies etc. to find out what there is to research
  • volunteer to pursue one or more ‘tasks’ (a) searching for and reading on-line runs of newspapers, magazines and journals, (b) consulting books, records and old maps held by landowners or in libraries in Dundee, Perth or Edinburgh and/or (c) exploring archaeological records
  • use old estate maps and visit key localities to see what’s still on the ground
  • pool whatever we have found and write an entirely new history of this industry
  • think about how to present the information to others

What’ll I learn?

  • how agricultural improvement changed every single aspect of the landscape around you
  • the hopes and motivations of agricultural improvers
  • an appreciation of what was lost in the name of improvement, and the legacy it left behind

What’ll we achieve? We’ll have researched and written pretty much the first ever work on this much-neglected story.

Freshly cut peat, photo Clare Cooper

Introductory Talks

We’ve organised three introductory talks in July in Alyth, Blairgowrie and Meigle, where you can meet the team and find out more abut the projects:

Interested in getting involved? Sign up via the form below and we’ll be in touch with more details.

Please tick as many of the project boxes below to indicate your interest
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