Studying archaeology in Orkney – ‘A dream come true’

Mairead, an archaeology student with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, tells us what drew her to archaeology and her experiences studying with the UHI.

Mairead at the Brough of Deerness, during a holiday in Orkney in 2016.

My name is Mairead, I am 21 years old, and in my fourth year of the BA (Hons) Archaeology degree with Orkney College UHI. Although I usually study from Orkney, I was unfortunately unable to this year, due to the pandemic, and so I am currently studying from my home in the Black Isle.

In 2016, during my sixth-year at Dingwall Academy, I had no idea what I wanted to study after school, but I knew that I wanted to study in Orkney.

My family and I spent many summers in Orkney, and it was (and still is) one of my favourite places in the world. I loved the nature, the coastal walks, the stillness of the nights and the prevalence of archaeology.

When visiting these archaeological sites as a child, I remember keeping a journal where I jotted down everything I learned about the Neolithic people who built the Tomb of the Eagles, and the Vikings who broke into Maeshowe. I had never considered studying archaeology until that memory came back to me. Suddenly, I had an idea of what I wanted to do.

To make sure that this was the degree for me, I took an archaeology module (Archaeological theory and method) at Inverness College UHI, as part of my sixth-year at school. I visited the college once a week to attend the lecture, and I absolutely loved it. It quickly became my favourite class in sixth-year.

I also volunteered with Dingwall Museum during my spare time, so that I could have some experience of the heritage sector. After my last shift at the museum, I decided to apply for the archaeology degree at Orkney College.

My first year of studying in Orkney was one of the best years of my life. I made life-long friends from across the world, from the USA to Norway. The course itself was very interesting, and I loved studying in a small college where everyone knew each other and where the lecturers were always happy to speak to you one-to-one. After attending an academy of over 1,000 pupils for six years, I found this very refreshing.

I was also impressed by the number of opportunities students were given to volunteer with current archaeological projects in Orkney.

In first year, I volunteered to catalogue finds from the Ness of Brodgar fieldwalking project and the excavation from Links House in Stronsay. This not only gave me the experience of cataloguing and bagging finds, but also gave me the opportunity to handle prehistoric stone tools, animal bone and worked flint.

Lagavulin Bay in Islay, where Dunyvaig Castle is located.

In the summer after my first year, I undertook the excavation skills module. For this module, I attended an archaeology field school at Dunyvaig Castle in Islay as part of a collaboration between UHI and Reading University.

Dunyvaig Castle stands on the shore of Lagavulin Bay in the south of Islay and was once a naval fortress of the Lord of the Isles. This was my first time on an archaeology field school, and I was very nervous but also excited to spend three-weeks digging with students and staff from Reading University.

The Dunyvaig Castle field school proved to be an incredible experience. I learned so much in those three-weeks, from learning how to trowel properly to learning how to do geophysical surveying.

The community were also heavily involved in the project, and primary school pupils came to visit the site. I was responsible for supervising a small group of children and teaching them how to use archaeological tools properly. I was impressed by how many finds they made; the majority of them being tiny animal bones and pottery shards that the team would never have been able to spot!

The experience I gained from the field school at Dunyvaig Castle is incomparable. I made connections and memories that I will cherish for life.

Mairead (left) and the other UHI students who attended the Dunyvaig field school in 2018.

I enjoyed the field school so much, that in the summer of 2019, I decided to volunteer for two-weeks at The Cairns dig, in Orkney, which allowed me to build on the skills I developed at Dunyvaig Castle.

As well as having the opportunity to excavate at exciting archaeological sites, I found that the teamwork and spirit involved in archaeological field schools is one of the attractions of archaeological fieldwork. It is surprising how quickly you can make friends when you are digging together in the mud and the pouring rain!

I am now in the final year of my degree, and as I think about these fantastic memories I have from my last three years of studying archaeology, I find that I have zero regrets about my decision.

At The Cairns excavation, in South Ronaldsay, Orkney, with plum bob while drawing a scale drawing of my section!

Although I have realised that archaeological fieldwork is not the career choice for me (I enjoy two or three weeks on the field – but not months of it!), I have found that I really enjoy researching and writing archaeological papers, especially on Orkney in the Early Viking Age. It is for this reason that I chose the relationship between the Norse and the Picts during the Norse colonisation of Orkney as my dissertation topic. I am also hoping to go on to a masters programme following graduation.

Mairead excavating at The Cairns, South Ronaldsay, Orkney.

My last three-and-a-half years studying archaeology with Orkney College UHI have been the best years of my life so far. The teaching staff have been so encouraging and supportive, and their enthusiasm has both encouraged and inspired my own interest in archaeology.

Studying and living in Orkney has been a dream, and the archipelago will forever hold a special place in my heart. I have made friends for life and memories that I will always cherish.

If you are considering studying archaeology with UHI, I strongly encourage you to do so. I promise that you will not regret it.


If you want to know more about studying archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, email studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk  or see the UHI website

One thought on “Studying archaeology in Orkney – ‘A dream come true’

  1. vcragain Wednesday, December 16, 2020 (2:45pm) / 2:45 pm

    I’m 80 yrs old now (rats!) and learn more about history every day…..yeah the Internet ! ….while I had a super interesting & absorbing life as a programmer for many years. I think this field would be my choice if I were able to choose anew ! I poo-poo’d history as a subject in my youth…stupid!…but since my older years I am never happier than reading something like this or watching the countless Youtube videos now available of all the wonderful discoveries you guys are making. Enjoy & have a happy life & thank you for all the hard work !

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