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Part of the Upper Tote Cairn that has been destroyed by the landowner.	Source: Crown Office

Scottish Farmer Fined For Destroying Prehistoric Burial Cairn

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A Scottish island farmer has been charged for ripping apart a Neolithic burial tomb to build a new shed. You might think the judge’s £18,000 fine sounds quite stiff, but the cairn is damaged beyond recognition and the damage to Scottish heritage is really priceless.

There are Scots who will be remembered for all time, including William (Braveheart) Wallace, Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie. And now we have Duncan MacInnes. While the former three developed and expanded their small but great nation, Scotland, the latter has just pleaded guilty to willfully destroying a protected Neolithic burial monument.

The Criminal Was Warned Time And Time Again

Daily Mail explains that 59-year-old Duncan MacInnes, the now convicted criminal farmer, owns the land next to the A855 near Upper Tote in the north of Skye, where the Upper Tote Cairn is located. Historic Environment Scotland (HES) wrote to MacInnes three times, most recently in 2015, informing him of the existence of the cairn. And so important is this remote Neolithic ritual burial site that Scottish heritage officials inspected the site every ten years.

MacInnes appeared at Portree Sheriff Court on August 25 charged with removing earth from Upper Tote Cairn. MacInnes irreversibly damaged the monument when he excavated around the ancient monument between December 1 and 12 in 2018. He admitted to the court that he had been building a new shed elsewhere on his land and that he needed fresh topsoil. The farmer was fined £18000 for destroying the ancient cairn.

Upper Tote Cairn in the north of Skye, before it was excavated by the landowner (Crown Office)

Upper Tote Cairn in the north of Skye, before it was excavated by the landowner (Crown Office)

Skye Farmer’s Legacy Of Archaeological Destruction

Upper Tote Cairn is located 320 meters south of Tot nan Druidhean on the Isle of Skye, on the foreshore of Loch Snizort Beag. Canmore lists the site as being composed of loose stones forming a ‘large oval cairn measuring 3.2 meters in height [10.5 ft] and 31 × 24 meters [110 x 79 ft] on the ground.’

An entry in the Modern Antiquarian says local legends incorrectly claim that this cairn covers the remains of slain who were buried here after a battle between the Macleods and the Macdonalds in 1539 AD. However, this legend actually refers to a large cairn of stones that used to stand about 300 meters to the southwest, on the other side of the River Snizort. And, would you believe it, that historically important cairn was ‘carted away by a farmer to make room for the plough during the 19th century’.

The Problems With Obliterating The Past For New Sheds

According to STV News, Andy Shanks, Procurator Fiscal for Grampian, Highlands and Islands, said that because MacInnes was the landowner on which the ancient monument was located it was his duty to ‘help protect it.’ Contrary to this legal obligation the farmer demonstrated ‘complete disregard’ for its importance when he dug around the cairn for soil. And while you might think everyone is getting their knickers in a twist over some soil, let me put MacInnes’ actions into their horrid context.

A 2018 article in ScienceDirect discusses professor Gordon Noble’s study of thousands of archaeological sites in Europe that lie under the ‘ploughzone,’ that have been less impacted by modern arable agriculture. The study demonstrated the ‘significant impact’ that even light ploughing has had on artifact loss at archaeological sites. The actual impact of MacInnes’ heavy excavations, and the amount of artifact loss suffered at this site, will never be known.

Quite An Offensive Fine When You Add It Up

Knowing how much effort, time and hard cash is invested by Scottish archaeologists and heritage agencies to protect topsoil around ancient sites, the 18k fine given to Duncan MacInnes really is on the low side. In monetary terms, another way to look at this is: the 18k fine divided by 6000 years of lost archaeology is a mere £3 per year.

£3 per year of destruction represents an amount that is almost discriminatory to the achievements of past cultures. Furthermore, 18k fines for such dedicated and sustained theft of Scottish history will do little to prevent future farmers repeating these acts of cultural annihilation, for their new sheds.

Top image: Part of the Upper Tote Cairn that has been destroyed by the landowner. Source: Crown Office

By Ashley Cowie



God, if one had to leave every bump on the landscape untouched, you’d never get anything accomplished!

From stardust I was born, to stardust I shall return

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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