Researching the Origins of The Cairns Broch

A view along one of the three subterranean passages of the Windwick souterrain

The Cairns is one of the leading research excavations in Orkney. The work carried out at the site, both during the excavation and post-excavation phases, will over time build a more complete picture of life in the Iron Age in the North Atlantic region.

Site Director and Programme Leader for MSc Archaeological Practice, Martin Carruthers, takes up the story, “One of the things we’re trying to research at The Cairns is the original impulse behind the broch building that is so substantially present at the site. The broch itself is a massive monumental roundhouse of towering proportions and it appears to have exerted huge influence over the landscape of the Windwick Bay, and the valley running off of it, for centuries.

Until recently, most discussions of the Northern Scottish Iron Age were dominated by the brochs. They have exerted such a massive gravitational pull over Iron Age studies that much research has been warped around an obsession with them, and yet they were not the only type of place in the Iron Age. There were several very interesting types of settlement that predated the brochs.

Early Iron Age souterrain which lies 500 metres to the south-east of the main site

We have within the Windwick landscape a number of likely Early Iron Age places; probably settlements, that were founded and occupied before the broch was established at The Cairns. We have previously excavated one of these at Windwick itself, which we know from C-14 dates, began life around 600BC. Another may well lie close by The Cairns itself, immediately to the Northeast of the main trench.

Plan of the Souterrain at Windwick

These possible precursors to the broch may well hold the key to understanding the nature of the brochs and the reasons for their existence!

Understanding the precise moment in time that our broch at The Cairns came into being and when these other earlier places fizzled out will be very important to seeing more clearly what was going on in Iron Age landscape and society at the outset of brochs.

If you are interested in studying archaeology at The Cairns, The Ness of Brodgar and other important sites across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland then apply for one of our courses through the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute website or drop us a line through

Funded Postgraduate Places

The University of the Highlands and Islands is pleased to offer a limited number of places with full tuition fee support for Scottish-domiciled/EU students, studying full time, on this course starting in September 2017 to help talented students join this key growth sector for the Scottish economy.

Fees will be funded by the European Social Fund and Scottish Funding Council as part of Developing Scotland’s Workforce in the Scotland 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Fund Programmes.

See the University of the Highlands and Islands web page for more details.