Studying archaeology ‘was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,’ says Gerry

Gerry Gillies (front row, right) with some fellow UHI Archaeology Institute students and excavators/students from around the world during the operation to extend Trench X at the Ness of Brodgar in 2019.

Perth-based Gerry Gillies on his time as a mature student with the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute.

My name is Gerry and I’m a (very) mature student in my third year of a B.Sc. (Hons) in Archaeological Science. I went to university when I was just turned 17 and made a bit of a mess of it. Some young students take to it straight away, but I was a bit rebellious and not really interested in the subjects I’d chosen.

Many years later I saw this course and thought: “If only this was around when I was young” and then “Why not now?”

It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Gerry taking levels at the Ness of Brodgar excavation in Orkney.

Because of family commitments, I couldn’t move to Orkney so I’m studying out of Perth, which has been fine, especially seeing my fellow students during the week for a bit of mutual support. I’ve missed that this year but hope we’ll be back to normal in 2021-22.

Comparing this time around to when I was young the two main differences I’ve found are how friendly, approachable and supportive the teaching staff are and the enthusiasm of the students for the subject. It’s been a breath of fresh air. There has also been plenty of that on the field trips and field schools and I’ve been lucky enough to be on digs at both The Cairns and the Ness of Brodgar in Orkney.

Excavating Trench X at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney.

I’ve become especially interested in landscape archaeology and the Scottish Mesolithic and there is flexibility and encouragement here to pursue your own passions while still getting a good grounding in all areas and eras.

I’m loving my time so far and I’d strongly encourage anyone who missed out or messed up when younger to go for it. You won’t regret it.

Why should the young have all the fun?


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 our website

Ness of Brodgar textile among Scotland’s ‘most groundbreaking archaeological discoveries’ of 2020

Ness of Brodgar Excavation site. (Scott Pike)
Ness of Brodgar Excavation site. (Scott Pike)

Evidence of a woven Neolithic textile found during post-excavation work at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute’s flagship Ness of Brodgar excavation has been named one of Scotland’s “most groundbreaking discoveries of 2020”.

The Covid pandemic has had a profound impact on Scottish archaeology, with the majority of excavation work brought to a standstill. However, archaeologists and volunteers still managed to uncover new details about Scotland’s past.

Dig It!, a hub for Scottish archaeology, has compiled a list of three of the biggest stories from the last 12 months, featuring the Ness of Brodgar textile impression at number two.

The pot sherd with the cord impression (left) and the textile impression towards the bottom right. (Jan Blatchford)

Organic material from prehistory does not often survive, so the study of Neolithic textiles has to rely on secondary evidence, such as the impression that the fabric left when it was pressed against the wet clay of a pot 5,000 years ago. The impressions appear on the inner face of the vessel which suggests that they were made by the potter’s clothing during the pot’s creation.

The Ness of Brodgar team has been investigating this massive complex of monumental Neolithic buildings, in Orkney, since 2004, but all excavation and fieldwork was put on hold this year due to the pandemic.

The impressions were discovered during post-excavation examination of the huge quantities of pottery from the site. The project uses a technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), which combines multiple photos of a subject to create a highly detailed image that can reveal surface details not visible during normal examination.

The Ness textile joins the Tap o’ Noth Pictish settlement in Aberdeenshire, where, in May, archaeologists from the Leverhulme Comparative Kingship Project uncovered evidence that up to 4,000 people may have lived or gathered in hundreds of houses on the summit around 1,700 to 1,400 years ago.

In Edinburgh, when lockdown was lifted in the summer, archaeologists began unearthing skeletons and artefacts from a medieval cemetery in Leith that were to be affected by the work to extend the Edinburgh Tram line to Newhaven.

The discovery of over 350 burials which could date as far back as 1300 came as no surprise, but this wasn’t the team’s only find. Others included a cannonball that may have been fired during the 1559-60 Siege of Leith, pottery and a coin of Dutch origin which dates to 1628, and bones from the fin of an adult sperm whale, dating to around 1800, which shone a spotlight on Leith’s industrial whaling past.

Dr Jeff Sanders, Project Manager at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s Dig It! project, said: “Archaeology is all about discovering Scotland’s stories and these are just some of the new chapters that have been added despite the pandemic, with other finds ranging from a major Iron Age village in Aberdeenshire to a “lost” medieval bridge in the Scottish Borders.

“As Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy reminds us, archaeology is for everyone, so we hope you’ve been inspired to get involved in 2021 when it’s safe to do so.”

2020 Rhind lectures put Neolithic Scotland in the spotlight

Structure Ten at the Ness of Brodgar. (Tim Winterburn)

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s annual Rhind lectures are under way and this year the focus is firmly on the Neolithic.

From December 13 until December 18, Dr Alison Sheridan will present a series of six online lectures, bringing together the most up-to-date research to show how Scotland’s early farming communities lived their lives and made sense of the world.

For a lecture programme, and details of how to view them, click here.

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

Lecture: Radiocarbon and archaeology

Dr Simon Clarke

Dr Simon Clarke, lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is going online tomorrow evening, Thursday, to deliver a free lecture on radiocarbon dating.

Simon will explore the potential and pitfalls of radiocarbon dating – a technique heralded as the single most important scientific tool for examining the development of prehistoric societies.

The seminar runs from 7-8pm GMT on Thursday, December 10.

For details on how to access, click here.

Viking boat burials in the spotlight at Friday’s free online seminar

The Oseberg boat burial, Norway, under excavation in 1904.

From the massive and rich ship burials found in Scandinavia, to the small rowing boats used in boat burials on Scottish isles, the distinctive Viking burial rite making use of a boat to carry the dead into the next life has always fascinated.

On Friday afternoon, as part of the ongoing University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute research seminar series, Dr Colleen Batey will explore the variety of Viking boat burials, with examples from Orkney, Lochaber, the Western Isles and beyond.

The vessels themselves, the grave goods accompanying the dead and the excitement of recovery are all elements combining to make this an exciting aspect of the Viking Age.

The whalebone plaque recovered from the Scar boat burial in Sanday, Orkney, in 1991. (Sigurd Towrie)

The most evoked images come from the writings of Ibn Fadlan and his travels on the River Volga where he encountered the burial rites from death to final release and wrote down his experience in candid detail. His viewpoint was as a “superior” traveller and this is reflected in his report, but it does provide a useful starting point for helping us understand something of the rites behind the physical remains we have in the archaeological record.

From the massive and very rich ship burials found in Scandinavia – Oseberg in particular – to the small rowing boats used in the insular context, there is much variety to be explored. The discoveries from Westness, Rousay; Scar, Sanday and more recently at Mayback in Orkney will be considered, in addition to the burial from Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan, and Kiloran Bay, Colonsay, as examples of the distinctive burial form.

The free online seminar is at 4pm GMT on Friday, December 11. For details on how to view, click here.