Excavation Iron Age ORCA Swartigill

Scenes from Swartigill – and don’t forget the excavation open day

By Sigurd Towrie

Yesterday I headed south across the Pentland Firth to visit the ongoing excavation at the Burn of Swartigill in Caithness.

Although I knew the background to the project – a collaboration between the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the Yarrows Heritage Trust – and had been posting the excavation dig diaries here since work resumed last month, this was my first time at the site.

And what can I say. I was truly blown away.

“Enigmatic” is a word you’ll frequently see attached to archaeological sites. But in this case applies perfectly to the Iron Age roundhouse and the collection of buildings surrounding it.

There are many questions surrounding the site and its various elements – questions that will, over the course of excavation, hopefully be answered. But with every answer, I suspect Swartigill with throw up more perplexing questions.

Swartigill site looking West
Swartigill excavation site, looking west. (Sigurd Towrie)

Despite seeing photographs of the excavation over the years, arriving on site it soon became clear that seeing the remains up close really highlighted how incredible it is. Huge “boulders” flank a section of the outer north wall of Structure B, perhaps mirroring those directly opposite, across an underground feature capped by equally large stones. Entrances and structural features seem also to have been enhanced by the placement of large stones. One in particular stands out – the big pink rock marking the interior of the Structure B doorway was difficult to miss…

Open Day – Saturday, September 11

A selection of photographs taken yesterday follow, but I’d urge you all, if you can, to head along to the site open day tomorrow, Saturday, September 11, from 10am until 3pm (more details below). Not only will there be tours, talks and artefacts on show, but you too can see this incredible archaeology first hand.

The 2021 season at Swartigill comes to an end next week. If you can’t make it along to tomorrow’s open day, you can still visit the site on Monday and Tuesday before the backfilling work begins on Wednesday, September 15.

Burn of Swartigill Open Day
Saturday, September 11, 2021
10am – 3pm

Directions to the site

The site is located near Thrumster, a few miles south of Wick. To get to the excavation, you need to take the Haster and Tannach road from Thrumster and look out for our signs just before the bridge crossing at the Burn of Swartigill.

There is limited parking at the roadside, so be cautious as you get in and out of your vehicles. The dig site is a short hike across boggy moorland.


Martin Carruthers of the UHI Archaeology Institute, will be giving talks on the Swartigill site and the discoveries at 11am and 3pm. Those interested in attending are asked to arrive at Thrumster House ten minutes beforehand to be given parking directions and relayed to the excavation site.