One of Assynt’s modern day assets is a wealth of talented potters, not least because of Highland Stoneware, based in Lochinver. Two people who work some of the time for them, and also run their own ceramics businesses, are Fergus Stewart and Marc Campbell. Fergus is an internationally-renowned potter and kiln builder, with decades of experience, while Marc is a relative newcomer to the field but is already creating stunningly novel pieces and is a keen experimenter with locally available materials. Both have got involved with the broch project to see if we can replicate some of the pottery finds from last year’s excavation.
Last week Fergus and Marc led two workshops to give local folk a chance to try their hand at shaping pots from clay that Marc dug up in the area. Many of the participants did a good job of recreating the decorations found on the pottery pieces from the broch.
Today it was time to fire the pots. Both Fergus and Marc have been researching and trialling the most likely method that would have been used here during the Iron Age. Their conclusion was that a fire pit would have been used. Fortunately close to the broch is the sandy fank, and a metre deep pit was easy to dig out.
The hole was lined with greenwood chips, and then the pots were gently nestled in amongst these, in two layers, interspersed with wood, dry seaweed and sheep dung. Both of the potters believe that not only were the Iron Age pots decorated, but they may also have been coloured, and Marc has been experimenting with the use of natural materials to create colour effects. To see if this could be achieved in a pit kiln, they then added a mix of lichens, mosses, horse and sheep hair, feathers and more seaweed.
On top of the pots we basically built a bonfire, then set it alight. Once the main blaze had died down, wet seaweed was carefully added at first around the edges and then eventually over the top of the fire, to damp it down and create a reducing atmosphere within.
As Mark and Fergus circled the fire, with the broch in the distance, it was tempting to imagine rituals going on, incantations being chanted, spirits invoked to bless the unpredictable alchemy of colours that may be going on in that smoking hole in the earth.
The pit kiln has been left smouldering overnight and tomorrow, Tuesday 3 July, at 6pm, it should be cool enough to open. Everyone is welcome at Stoer Green to see what Iron Age treasures may be found among the ashes.