Six Things to Know about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Ring of Brodgar

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney will “Glow in the ArchaeoDark” on World Heritage Day (18th April) with interactive storytelling, music and a host of other events.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are pleased to be teaming up with DigIt2017 for the World Heritage Day event in Orkney as part of the ‘Scotland in Six’ celebrations.

To set the scene here are 6 things you may or may not know about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site:

  • It is the only place in the world where you can see a Neolithic settlement, a “temple precinct”, ceremonial standing stones and burial mounds within a few miles of each other.
  • The Watch Stone marked the meeting of the sea water of Loch of Stenness and the fresh water of the Loch of Harray in the Neolithic. Both lochs are brackish nowadays as they are now linked.
  • The Barnhouse Stone “leads” the winter sunset into Maeshowe
  • The Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse village, the Watch Stone and the Barnhouse Stone are still free to enter (in addition to the Ness of Brodgar in the excavation season. However public donations are important to keep research progressing at the Ness.)
  • Runes carved into Maeshowe proclaim that they were carved after the time of Ragnar Lothbrok – who is now starring in The Vikings TV series!
  • The Ring of Brodgar is still used as a gathering place for Orcadians – 5000 years after it was built. It is especially popular for weddings and other family events.

Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology

HHA2017 Logo2017 is the year to delve into the past and discover Scotland’s fascinating stories and unique experiences. Scotland’s rich heritage, captivating history and world-renowned archaeology will come to life through a range of new and exciting experiences and events aimed at locals and visitors alike.

From World Heritage sites to ancient monuments, world-class visitor attractions and cultural traditions, Scotland offers iconic experiences and hidden gems to visitors, all year round.

Scotland’s vast history, heritage and archaeology have a fascinating story to tell and there are countless secrets to uncover at ruins, ancient monuments and remarkable archaeological sites, as well as museums and galleries across Scotland.

Each area of Scotland has its own distinctive heritage and traditions that shape its environment, as well as the lifestyle and humour of its people today. Visitors can discover this for themselves through unique events and attractions in 2017.

We are connected not just by genetics, but by our traits, our beliefs and our spirit. You will find something of yourself in Scotland, as well as a warm and welcoming people.

Visit Scotland has announced a unique event line-up for 2017 themed year: Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. See our blog post for details of events across Scotland.

Thanks to Jim Richardson for permission to use the photograph.

The Ness Battery, Hoy Sound, Orkney

Orkney is well known for prehistoric archaeology and indeed maritime remains from both world wars. Perhaps less well known are the WWI and WWII heritage sites that still exist on land.

Situated on Hoy Sound, Ness Battery guarded the western entrance to the naval base of Scapa Flow, Orkney. The site itself comprised several gun emplacements, searchlight positions, AA gun positions and a huge command centre which had the task of halting any hostile move through the Hoy Sound.


The impressive Ness Battery was the subject of a visit by our students last week. Guided through the complex by Andy Hollinrake, the students were given the full history of the site including stories of the personnel that worked to guard the Royal Navy warships anchored in Scapa Flow.

Andy related how each ship that appeared on the western approaches to Hoy Sound were signalled and ordered to stop and await inspection before sailing into the naval base. On one occasion the ferry from the Scottish mainland failed to stop when hailed and so was treated to a salvo of fire from the guns in the battery. The skipper soon heeded the signal, turned round and headed back to the mainland. Andy further elaborated on the story by saying that the gun loaders were so well trained that they could fire at such a rate that 3 or 4 shells could be in the air at once!

IMG_3896The huge, concrete protected gun positions were impressive in themselves, but in a way, the surviving huts (the only surviving examples of coast battery huts present in Britain) were even more impressive as they allowed us to glimpse into the lives of the men who operated this site. The Mess Hall was extraordinary as its walls were covered with an amazing mural depicting English rural life-complete with a windmill, half-timbered houses, wooded lanes and even a gypsy encampment.

A brilliant field visit and our thanks go to Andy Hollinrake for his on-site lecture and tour!

For more information on the Ness battery see

Fascinating Finds from The Cairns

Seal Tooth

Enigmatic finds continue to emerge from The Cairns during post-excavation work being carried out by Kevin Kerr – one of our MSc students from 2016.

The picture above shows a seal tooth that was unearthed last summer at The Cairns. It was found in the metal working area that may post-date the broch.

Part of the tooth is highly polished and, despite having been buried for nearly 2000 years, still glistens when held up to the light. To add to the enigma, there is also slight wear on one side which could have resulted from its use as a tool or perhaps it is an item of discarded jewellery?

It is also interesting to note that the wide bay and beach that The Cairns overlooks is still used by seals who regularly snooze on the rocks and sand at the base of the cliff. It is also the site where seal cubs are born and, in autumn, Windwick Bay echoes to the haunting sound of seals calling to their new offspring.

IMG_3000 - Copy
A seal relaxing in Windwick Bay – just below The Cairns site.

Kevin Kerr (one of our MSc students from 2017) has the monumental task of recording and cataloguing the hundreds of finds unearthed at The Cairns. He can be found most days, when not working elsewhere, entering data, surrounded by boxes of artefacts stacked in the Finds Rooms at the Institute. While discussing some of the finer points of broch life with Martin Carruthers, Kevin showed me a further small find that on the face of it looked like many other finds unearthed at The Cairns, until two tiny crosses were pointed out. Marks that had obviously been scratched into the bone by a very sharp blade.

They were regular and so cannot be butchery marks, but what was their use? Why did one the of inhabitants of The Cairns broch scratch two tiny regular crosses into a broken animal bone? Do they have significance? Are they just a mark of someone’s boredom? Were they used for counting and recording? I guess we will never know….but the object does represent another reminder of the small things that made up the life of the people living in the broch.

Close up X bone
Two tiny marks scratched into an animal bone

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

Should I stay or should I go?

An abandoned farm on the island of Sanday, Orkney

Despite the attractions of living on an island, it has to be said that small islands, especially those located on the geographic margin, are susceptible to de-population and eventual abandonment.

Examples such as St Kilda are well-known, but perhaps the islands closer to the centres of population are perhaps less recognised.

Orkney is a vibrant, busy place that is attracting both people and cutting edge, technology-based companies. There is very little unemployment and yet there are islands in Orkney that have been abandoned in the recent past.

Two of those islands are very visible whenever visitors use one of the ferries that ply between the Scottish mainland and South Ronaldsay. The islands of Stroma and Swona have been abandoned completely within living memory. They are located in the middle of busy shipping lanes and yet are never visited. The gaunt remains of farmsteads, kirks, landing places and other structures are a witness to the changing demands of society. Countryfile’s Adam Henson visited the island in 2012 and the 2017 BBC2 documentary programme, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, detailed the haunting scenes that greet any travellers brave enough to sail across to Swona.

The islands of Orkney are fighting back and their future is looking brighter than at any time in the last thirty years as initiatives are increasingly developed to retain the population. Archaeology, art and the creative industries are playing an increasing role in these initiatives as training programmes are established that provide local inhabitants with the means to stay.


Our Islands, Our Past Conference Call For Papers

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to:

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.

The Cairns Whalebone-the inside story

IMG_3822Post-excavation work is progressing well on the whalebone vessel unearthed at The Cairns late last year.

The vessel not only contained a human jawbone, but also animal bones, remains of ceramic pots and stone tools.

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute MLitt student, Karen Kennedy, is working with Dr Ingrid Mainland (Programme Leader for MLitt Archaeological IMG_3828Studies), examining, recording and cataloguing the animal bone fragments as part of her research into ‘Feasting in the Iron Age’.

Initial findings suggest that neonatal lamb, calf and pig bones were deposited within and around the huge whalebone container in addition to fragments of broken pottery and stone tools. This indicates that the inhabitants of the broch took part in a final feast and ceremony to close the structure down following hundreds of years of occupation.

Post-excavation work on the whalebone is almost complete. The object has been carefully cleaned and emptied of all contents. This has enabled a closer examination of the huge find and gives us an insight into the processes involved in the making of this impressive piece. The transverse processes had clearly been hacked off with a sharp blade, but when examined closer, small knife marks are clearly visible around the rim and the whole of the interior.

The Iron Age inhabitants of The Cairns broch seemed to have a liking for whalebone. This object forms part of a growing collection of whalebone objects emerging from the site. Over 60 whalebone objects have been unearthed in the 2016 season alone.

Karen’s work will not only add to our understanding of the rituals involved at The Cairns but on a personal level, will also enhance her career prospects as she learns new techniques involved in front line archaeological research.

Marks on the whalebone vessel rim.

More details concerning our research at The Cairns will be discussed at ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held in Kirkwall between 14th and 17th September 2017. For more information about our conference, contact or see our conference website.

Call for papers poster outlining the themes

Dr Iain MacInnes: Scotland’s Forgotten War of Independence (1332-1357)?

A Blog post detailing the new book by Dr Iain MacInnes: Scotland’s Forgotten War of Independence (1332-1357). From our friends at the University of the Highlands and Islands Centre for History.

Scottish History Network

Perhaps ‘forgotten’ is the wrong word. Several historians have, after all, dealt with the period in question in some depth. But there can be little doubt that the war that commenced in 1332 – only three years after the death of King Robert I (‘Robert the Bruce’) in 1329 and the supposed ‘end’ of the First Scottish War of Independence – rests in the shadow of its more illustrious predecessor. In particular, popular awareness and understanding of the events of these years seems somewhat absent.

In part this is because the figures involved in the second war are often eclipsed in the public consciousness by those who rose to prominence during the First War of Independence. There is no William Wallace, no Robert Bruce, and no Edward I. In their place we have the lesser known Andrew Murray of Bothwell, John Randolph, earl of Moray, King David II, and (King)…

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Our Islands, Our Past-Connectivity and Communications

Wide Firth
The ferry to the northern islands of Orkney entering the Bay of Kirkwall.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute conference, ‘Our Islands, Our Past’, is being held in Kirkwall, Orkney from 14th September to 17th September 2017.

Over the next few months, we will explore the exciting and interesting themes of the conference in a series of blog posts. In this blog post we explore the theme of Connectivity and Communications within our island environment.

Living on an island in the North Atlantic in the 21st Century is an experience. It is almost universally accepted by most people living in the UK that they can communicate and connect to anyone else on the planet. The internet, rapid transit systems, motorways and the ever increasing capacity of airliners means that people take these things for granted.

There are no railways on Orkney. The nearest motorway is 200 miles to the south. The rapid transit system is the X1 bus which traverses the length of the Mainland on an almost hourly basis (amazingly there is even a night bus that runs at 2am on a Sunday morning).There are frequent ferries and flights that link us to the mainland of Scotland and beyond. And there is internet.

Even though I have spent most of my life living in an urban or semi-urban environment far to the south, I do not feel unconnected to the world – despite living in South Ronaldsay which is connected by four causeways to the main Orkney island.

Barrier 4 linking the island of Burray with the island of South Ronaldsay.

But what was life like on South Ronaldsay before the building of the Churchill Barriers? How connected were the people in our islands in our past?

We are lucky in that we can still ask older residents who still remember the days before the Churchill Barriers. It would seem that connectivity between islands and people was by boat. Innumerable piers and jetties facilitated movement between the islands. The relatively sheltered waters of Scapa Flow allowed people, goods, news and ideas to move between the islands.

Remains of piers in St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay

In the village of St Margaret’s Hope itself, even now, the houses on the shoreline each possess their own pier. And along the shoreline of South Ronaldsay itself, each house seemed to possess its own jetty. So perhaps we can say that the islanders of South Ronaldsay, in particular, did enjoy connectivity through the use of small boats and their individual piers and jetties and this perhaps led to the survival of the island before the barriers were built.

Almost all of these piers and jetties have fallen into disuse as the residents prefer the connectivity offered by the bus, car and the road over the barriers.

Remains of the old ferry pier connecting South Ronaldsay and Burray

It will not be long before even the function of these strange lines of beach stones stretching out to sea, will be lost and they in themselves will become future archaeology.

Many thanks to Terry and Sandy Cuthbert-Dickinson at Ayre of Cara for their help in making the photograph of Barrier 4 possible.

Paul Sharman and Julie Gibson are working on a paper entitled ‘Prospecting for Orkney’s medieval harbours and landing places’ which they will explore at the conference as part of the wider connectivity and communications theme.