Trondheim to Orkney – the adventure of a lifetime

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Standing stones at Stenness

21 year old Erasmus exchange student Martine Kaspersen has just completed her placement at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute in Orkney.

She kindly volunteered to write about her experiences in Orkney…….

“Archaeology and history has always been a big part of my life. As a child, my parents, sibling and I traveled to local museums and historic places regularly and since then, I’ve always found prehistory extremely fascinating. My parents were always supportive of my decision to take an academic education within the field of archaeology and my adventures started there!

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Martine in a seminar in the lab

I started the Bachelors programme in archaeology in Trondhiem in 2016. The course was great, we traveled basically around all of Trøndelag (Which is approximately situated in central Norway). We saw different sites and experienced hands on archaeology. This made us able to spot the difference between a Bronze Age materials and Iron Age materials – just by looking at the artefact.

Even before I started NTNU (Norwegian School of Science and Technology), I knew I wanted to go abroad during the degree programme. The hard part, was deciding exactly where I wanted to go. I had a hard time deciding on this, as I am used to city life and wanted to do something new. In the end, after a lot of thought and consideration, a friend suggested Orkney. One would think that a place with so many connections to Norway and Trondheim, a Norwegian born and raised in Trondheim should know about Orkney. The thing was, I didn’t! Orkney – for some odd reason – is not discussed in any history lessons in school, or at my archaeology course.

I found Orkney very interesting, and the nature and climate was something I already was familiar with (except the lack of hills, mountains and woodland), so the adaption to the place wasn’t too great for me. I fell in love with the history, monuments and how isolated the island can seem for a person who has spent most of her life in a city.

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The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Orkney, accompanied by my older sister and mother. January was cold, windy with a lot of rainy days. The people at the course was so amazingly welcoming and I found friends for life, right away. The courses were extremely interesting, and I put heart and soul into essays and presentations – which payed off pretty well. I also attended the Easter field trip to Bute, which was magnificent. I loved every part of it.

After a trip back to Trondheim during Easter, it was right back to writing essays, presentations and preparing for the exam. Everything went well in the end, and before I knew it, I had been in Orkney for almost four months. I loved every single minute of it, and am very thankful for all the help, support and great adventures both the staff at the college and my friends have made possible.

Thank you for having me here, and bearing with me. I will now be heading back to Trondheim to finish my bachelor, and then straight to a Masters degree – and hopefully even a PHD.”


If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

Late Glacial Pioneers & Mesolithic Explorers – Talk by Professor Steve Mithen

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Rubha Port an t-Seilich Excavation Site

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are delighted to announce a talk by Professor Steve Mithen of the University of Reading on the 15th of May at 5pm in the Orkney College Restaurant.

The talk is entitled: Late Glacial pioneers and Mesolithic explorers in western Scotland: new discoveries from Criet Dubh, Isle of Mull, & Rubha Port an t-Seilich, Isle of Islay

Professor Mithen said, “Scotland has been enjoying a wealth of new discoveries about the Mesolithic, transforming our appreciation and understanding of this period as one of innovation within a rapidly changing climate and environment. In this talk I will cover two such discoveries.

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Excavating at Rubha Port an t-Seilich

First, a Mesolithic dwelling at Criet Dubh on the Isle of Mull, and its significance for interpreting other recently discovered structures in Scotland such as at Echline and East Barnes; second, the discovery of stratified Late Glacial (?) and early Mesolithic deposits at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, which is subject to on-going excavation.”

This is a free talk held in conjunction with the Orkney Archaeology Society and all are welcome.

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Funded Places Available – MSc Archaeological Practice

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The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is offering a limited number of funded places on the MSc Archaeological Practice course.

The MSc Archaeological Practice is a world leading archaeology course which equips you with the tools for work in the real world. Key practical skills are emphasised using the rich archaeological resource of Orkney as your research ‘laboratory’.

Core modules will develop your practical skills in a suite of archaeological techniques including project management, excavation, non-intrusive field archaeology, environmental archaeology and post-excavation analysis. You will gain additional vocational experience through our professional placement enabling you to take full advantage of employment opportunities.

  • Study in the outstanding archaeological landscape of Orkney
  • Optional modules allow you to develop professional skills in a range of areas including archaeobotany, archaeozoology, geoarchaeology, survey & geophysics,
    digital recording of archaeological materials and sites
  • A 3 month professional placement offers the opportunity to further develop your professional skills in a chosen area(s)
  • The course is flexible to fit in with your personal and professional life

A limited number of places with full tuition fee support are available for Scottish-domiciled/EU students, studying full time, on the MSc Archaeological Practice starting in
September 2018. Eligible students must live in Highlands and Islands, including Moray, Perth and Kinross for the period of their studies.

Full details on the course, funding and how to apply see our website  or drop us a line at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk

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Creating Links between Orkney and Europe

Signing the Memorandum of Understanding. at Midhowe Broch. Prof Jane Downes (UHI), Professor Eszter Banffy (DAI), OIC Convener Harvey Johnston
Signing the Memorandum of Understanding. L to R Professor Jane Downes (UHI Archaeology Institute) Professor Eszter Banffy (DAI) and OIC Convener Harvey Johnston

Last week marked the first step in a collaboration between archaeology research institutions in Orkney and Germany.

An important memorandum of understanding was signed at Midhowe Broch, Rousay, on 26th April between UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI and the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI).

Signed in glorious sunshine by Professor Jane Downes of the UHI Archaeology Institute and Professor Eszter Baffy of the DAI, the document was witnessed by Orkney Islands Council Convener Harvey Johnston.

The memorandum document confirms the willingness of the UHI Archaeology Institute, Orkney College UHI and DAI to co-operate on future research projects and details the ways in which the three organisations will work together including:

• The exchange of personnel
• Joint research projects and workshops
• Technical support and training
• Other joint projects which will be specified at a later date.

The signing was conducted as a major series of archaeology surveys were undertaken across the island. These projects include the international “Boyne to Brodgar” Neolithic project whose partners working in Orkney are DAI, UHI Archaeology Institute, Historic Environment Scotland and University College Dublin, represented by Assistant Professor Stephen Davis.

All Eyes on Rousay. Major International Archaeology Projects Commence in Rousay, Orkney

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Midhowe Broch, Rousay, Orkney

The island of Rousay in Orkney is renowned for the wealth of its archaeology; so much so that it is known as the Egypt of the North.

Over the next few weeks a team of archaeologists from around the world are assembling on Rousay to help unlock some of the questions still remaining about the distant past of this mysterious place.

Starting on the 16th April, an internationally renowned team from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI) based in Berlin, together with archaeologists from the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute will begin the largest geophysics survey of the island to date. The first phase of the project will continue for two weeks, with the results connecting many of the sites researched by the UHI Archaeology Institute, the University of Bradford, and Historic Environment Scotland.

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Looking across from Rousay to Mainland Orkney.

Professor Jane Downes, director of the UHI Archaeology Institute said, “We are very pleased and excited to be involved in this major international project on Rousay and we are looking forward to seeing the results from the cutting-edge geophysics technology that the team from DAI have brought with them. This will make a substantial contribution to the “Boyne to Brodgar” programme- an Irish/Scottish Neolithic research project. This fieldwork forms one of a whole series of projects happening on the island over the next two weeks including the ‘Gateway to the Atlantic Workshop’ that this week will bring together archaeological scientists working particularly on coastal erosion, climate change and heritage in the North Atlantic and Arctic, and the following week continues an archaeological survey involving experts from Historic Environment Scotland and UHI Archaeology Institute students. We are signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the DAI, for partnership working longer term. It is indeed an exciting time for archaeology in Orkney.”

Dr Alison Sheridan (National Museums Scotland) and Professor Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin) of the Boyne to Brodgar Initiative added that, ““We are absolutely delighted and honoured that the DAI team have come to Orkney to undertake their survey on Rousay. With this work, and the survey that they already carried out in the Boyne Valley in Ireland, the team are contributing enormously to the Boyne to Brodgar research initiative to understand Neolithic people, their monuments and their interactions in Britain and Ireland”.

Background to the Events on Rousay
Orkney – Gateway to the Atlantic: Rousay Workshop
19th and 20th April 2018
Venue: Rousay Community School

The UHI Archaeology Institute are hosting an international workshop on the island of Rousay, 19-20th April 2018. This workshop is organised on a multi-disciplinary basis bringing together colleagues who are working on a similar range of issues in the North Atlantic region, and in comparative islands environments. We aim to examine sustainability, resilience through time and work towards understanding impacts of climatic and environmental change. This meeting will provide an opportunity to catch up on existing projects, and an impetus and basis for planning further in-depth collaborations and projects.

Organisers: Professor Jane Downes (Director of the UHI Archaeology Institute), Dr Ingrid Mainland (Curriculum Leader and Programme Leader for MLitt Archaeological Studies) Julie Gibson (County Archaeologist for Orkney and Lecturer in Archaeology)

Boyne to Brodgar Project
This major archaeological project aims to develop the understanding of early people in Scotland and Ireland and place within a wider European and global story. Through the study of prehistoric monuments, Boyne to Brodgar aims to increase awareness of and engagement with an early chapter in Scotland’s history. Outreach and community archaeology projects are planned across Ireland and Scotland which will help people to understand their shared heritage.

Memorandum of Understanding
A memorandum of Understanding will be signed between Deutsches Archäologisches Institut Römisch-Germanische Kommission (DAI), the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and Orkney College UHI in which the three organisations confirm their willingness to co-operate and may include:
• The exchange of personnel
• Joint research projects and workshops
• Technical support and training
• Other joint projects which will be specified at a later date.

Student Field Trip to Bute – Easter 2018

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Archaeology students from the University of the Highlands and Islands colleges across Scotland gathered this Easter for a residential field trip to the island of Bute.

The island itself has a fine collection of archaeological sites ranging from the Mesolithic to post-medieval and has been the subject of study by both Martin Carruthers and Dr Scott Timpany – the two members of staff who led the excursion.

Jasmijn Sybenga, PhD student at the UHI Archaeology Institute takes up the story….

“The trip started from Orkney College UHI on a rather cold, but clear early Friday morning. We rarely get frost in Orkney, but if we did then it would have been one of those mornings. It was early and it was cold, but everyone was excited and looking forward to the trip.

After a long journey we finally arrived in Bute. On Saturday we visited sites in the northern part of the Island starting with a long walk through ancient forest Rhubodach where still past management practices were visible in the composition of trees today. After passing the forest, we emerged into open fields where Michael’s Grave Neolithic Cairn was situated. This cairn is severely reduced by robbing and ploughing but is still well displayed in the landscape.”

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Excavations in 1903 revealed the chamber, which was divided into two equal compartments by a septal stone. The floor of each compartment was covered by a layer of black earth with charcoal also present. Items from the chamber are now in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) and included an undecorated pottery sherd and a piece of pitchstone. Other sherds, a flint flake, fragments of burnt human bones, a tooth of a pig and ox bones were also found at the same time and place, but are now lost.

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Jasmijn continues, “At this point we had a discussion about the past landscape and the palaeonvironmental study that has been carried out at Red Loch area close to this site. We continued our walk up a hill where large stones containing cup marks were scattered around the Glenvoidean Chambered Cairn. This cairn is well situated in the landscape and must have been visible from afar.

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We followed the path back through the forest where we went up a hill once more to visit the Cairnbaan chambered long cairn. In the afternoon we met Paul Duffy who is the director of Brandanii Archaeology and Heritage in Bute. Together we walked part of the old tramline that was opened in 1882 to transfer tourists from Rothesay to Port Bannatyne.

This tramline passed the site of Cnoc an Rath. It remains unknown what this ring and ditch earthwork was used for but recent suggestions include that it was part of a Viking site.

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On our return to Rothesay (where we were staying in a hostel) we visited Rothesay Castle. ”

The castle itself was first mentioned in 1230 when it withstood a siege by Norsemen. The building is one of the best preserved castles in Scotland. Archaeological excavations were undertaken during 2002. A watching brief was carried out during the excavation of a new trench in connection with construction work on the new shop site down to the moat.

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Day Two of the fieldtrip to follow…….

Each monument name is linked to Canmore, where you should be able to learn more.


If you would like to explore the possibility of studying and contributing to the research undertaken at the UHI Archaeology Institute at undergraduate or postgraduate level then please either e-mail us at studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or see our website.

Creative Writing and Archaeology – Guest Blog

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Clachtoll Broch. Photo: Bob Cook

Every now and then, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology team invite a guest to write a blog post.

Writer, Mandy Haggith from the UHI Creative Writing Degree Programme team kindly volunteered to write a piece that talks about her experience writing for archaeology. 

Mandy continues…

“From September 2018, the University of the Highlands and Islands will be offering a BA degree in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands. The students on the programme will be the only Creative Writing undergraduates in Scotland, and those of us involved in the degree are hugely excited to meet them and get underway with helping them to develop the skills they’ll need for a writing career.

What might such a career look like? The stereotype of a writer is someone alone in a garret, chewing on a pencil, gazing out at the moon, before scribbling down a few lines, or scratching furiously away on their great work of literature. The reality is far from this, and, I’ve found, far more fun.

Since I qualified in Creative Writing, in 2005, I have penned five novels, three collections of poetry and an anthology. However, it’s hard to make a living from poetry and fiction, so I’ve also written non-fiction for a huge range of organisations on a wide variety of topics including forests, mountains, the sea, land management, paths, industry, politics, art, music, crafts and history. This creative non-fiction writing has brought me into contact with fascinating people from all walks of life and the research for it has taken me all over the world.

Yet one of my favourite writing jobs has been right on my doorstep, in my home parish of Assynt, on the north west coast of Sutherland. For several years, I have been working with Historic Assynt and a team of archaeologists on a series of community history surveys, excavations and conservation projects. My role is to write press releases, notices and poster texts, and particularly the ‘dig diary’ on the project website featuring a weekly, or more frequent, blog of the latest news.

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Photo: Chris Puddephat

This means that I get to hang out on digs, chat with archaeologists, even push a barrow or join in with some trowelling, but everyone knows that I’m really there to pick people’s brains in order to write up what’s happening. I ask dumb and nosy questions, encourage the archaeologists and volunteers to speculate about who may have lived in the place, and of course, because I’m a fiction writer, I get to make stuff up! I try to stick to informed guess work, of course, but my job is to let my imagination run riot, to conjure people up out of the past and create stories that can bring the ruins and remnants of the past to life.

Recently, Historic Assynt has been concentrating on Iron Age monuments, particularly the broch at Clachtoll, and this has given me the chance, while earning a few pounds writing the dig diary, to research a trilogy of historical novels inspired by Pytheas of Massalia, the first Mediterranean to circumnavigate Great Britain. The first novel, The Walrus Mutterer, has just been published by Saraband books. Its opening chapters are set in the broch, then the characters roam with Pytheas up into the northern ocean, via Orkney and Shetland. Writing this novel trilogy has fuelled my interest and fluency in the archaeological project, thus my fiction and non-fiction writing have been completely symbiotic.

I frequently say that studying Creative Writing back in 2003-5 was the best thing I ever did. It kitted me up with the tools of a trade that has enabled me, like an itinerant bronze smith, to roam about, making my living by crafting pieces to meet the needs of each client, while gathering material for the artworks that allow me to express my own view of this baffling but often wonderful world. I am so looking forward to helping another generation of Highlands and Islands writers to embark on their own unique writing lives.”


If you’re interested in the BA in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands, find out more here: https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses/ba-hons-creative-writing/.