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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Archaeology of the Skerries (Ynysoedd y Moelrhoniaid), north Wales

On 19 April, Royal Commission Investigator Dr Toby Driver accompanied an RSPB monitoring visit out to the Skerries, a small group of rocky islets off north-west Anglesey. Archaeological aerial reconnaissance had identified unrecorded earthworks surviving on the southern side of the islet. The trip was also a long overdue chance to examine the wider archaeology and built heritage of this remote islet which has seen few archaeological visitors since Douglas Hague’s trips in the early 1980s, culminating in his 1994 Royal Commission book ‘Lighthouses of Wales’.

The Skerries is dominated by its fine lighthouse, built on an outcrop at the highest point. A light was first established here after 1716, built by William Trench as a personal venture. After several different phases of work the lighthouse achieved its present appearance under Trinity House and consultant engineer James Walker, who rebuilt it in 1851. The light towers 36m above high water, and the residential block presently accommodates RSPB staff during the nesting season among a noisy colony of Artic Terns. Luckily the lighthouse was open for maintenance by Trinity House staff during the visit, allowing new photography of its interior and lantern room.

The group of buildings around the lighthouse includes the oldest separate keepers’ dwelling in the British Isles, an early eighteenth-century crow-stepped gabled cottage, and a tiny stone well-head building, both now listed. Both buildings were recorded with 360 degree photography, allowing for future 3D modelling using digital photogrammetry.

During the brief two-hour visit there was time to reconnoitre the wider islet. From the lighthouse, this is reached via a tiny cobbled footbridge across a deep chasm. Further on are the ruins of the ‘Buoy-keepers’ cottage’, a small stone shelter recorded by Hague in 1971. This sits at one end of a larger earthwork building platform identified from aerial photographs. This larger platform may be far earlier than the stone ruin, and could perhaps date to the Middle Ages when the Skerries belonged to the monks of Bangor as one of their principal fisheries. Alongside the platform stands a small stone mooring post above the beach. The vegetation across the main part of the islet is a perforated grass sward covered in rabbit holes, re-used by nesting Puffins in the spring and summer months. Other features noted during the visit included stone navigational beacons, and channels cut between freshwater pools presumably to conserve scarce drinking water in times past.

The Skerries Lighthouse seen from the boat as one approaches the landing stage. The roof of the gabled keepers’ cottage can be seen below.

The tiny gabled lighthouse keepers’ cottage, the oldest separate dwelling of its type in the British Isles.

The attractive footbridge over the chasm which separates the lighthouse from the main part of the islet.

Remains of the ‘Buoy-keepers’ cottage’, a small ruin recorded by Douglas Hague in 1971. It lies at one end of an earlier earthwork platform. Scale 1m.

Looking back towards the lighthouse from the pair of navigational markers built on Toucan rock, named on early Ordnance Survey County Series mapping. Scale 1m.

By Toby Driver: Aerial Investigator

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