Repair Work Starts at the Skibageo Hoose

DSC_0040Work has started on the repair project at the Skibageo Hoose – a boat house situated high on a cliff near the Brough of Birsay on the exposed north coast of Mainland Orkney.

The project is a continuation of the archaeological building recording completed in partnership with Birsay  Heritage Trust during 2016. This phase involves Orkney College construction students who will, as part of their building course, repair the damage caused by years of storms.

The building was constructed probably during the early twentieth century by fishermen DSC_0038from Birsay. It is not recorded on the 1900 revised O.S. sheet and was used up to the late nineteen sixties when commercial fishing ceased in the geo.

After falling into disrepair, a project by the local school in 1989 restored the building to a functional state enabling its use as a shelter, a place to rest and a point of interest. The present description “Fishermans Hut” was never used locally to describe this building in the past and only appeared after the upgrading by the school. It was always known as the Skibageo Hoose or the Hoose at the Geo.

DSC_10035Dry built random rubble walls consisting of land stone and beach stone on top of an excavation into clay and rock of probably an old boat house (noust). The east end is built almost entirely of stone and incorporates the doorway. The west end consists of little more than a gable with a small opening in the stonework to allow spars, rods, etc., to be stored in the roof space. A stone facing extends almost to floor level internally.  The roof on the north side is supported off the stonework whilst the south side is supported on a heavy wall plate on vertical wooden props. Seven timber couples with purlins incorporating some driftwood, support the roof covering of flagstone and turf. The floor is of beaten clay and of an internal size of approximately 4.4m x 2.5m. The building is sited approximately in a north-south direction, the doorway being on the east elevation.

Archaeological building recording and measured survey of the neighbouring nousts was undertaken during 2016 by a team from the Archaeology Institute and local volunteers. This produced a drawn, written and photographic record of the Hoose prior to the proposed renovations. This formed part of a wider programme of building survey in the Palace village area and making a 3D model of the Birsay whale bone.

The current repair work involved is considerable and includes the following:

  • Strip back turf and flagstone to both gables to allow access to stonework as required.
  • Take down West gable to ground level and set aside for reuse.
  • Take down East gable to below the level of the door lintel at the South side of the doorway and set aside for reuse.
  • Build in area of missing stone to lower South side of doorway to match existing
  • Consolidate or replace loose or missing stones to inside walling as required.
  • Rebuild both gables using existing stone, to profile as before.
  • West gable opening to be retained.
  • West gable may require the formation of a suitable foundation.
  • Build in stone lintel over the doorway.
  • Core of stonework to be reinforced with clean beach sand/cement mix.
  • Top stones of gables to be solidly bedded with bedding kept well back.
  • Replace flagstone and turf to roof making good to gables and existing roofing

When complete, the Hoose will provide a safe and secure haven for walkers who find themselves caught in one of the squalls that frequent this coast.


Investigating Iron Age Social Change in Caithness

DSC_0016The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have teamed up with Yarrows Heritage Trust to commence excavation at the Burn of Swartigill on 24th April.

Located in Caithness, the site was excavated on a small scale in 2015 where the aims were to explore anomalies from a geophysical survey undertaken by Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA).

This survey had pointed to the possible presence of a substantial rectangular building, perhaps a post-broch Iron Age period ‘Wag’ – a form of building well-known in Caithness and Sutherland. A second objective aimed to establish the character of archaeological remains discovered eroding from the side of the Burn of Swartigill.

During the 2015 fieldwork, a substantial mass of stonework and well-preserved archaeological features were unearthed and it was suggested that the linear wall lines picked up in the geophysics survey may reflect a long building with its long axis at right-angles to the stream.  A possible drain feature was also identified indicating an element of water management over and above that required for a purely domestic use. Samples taken from the site may even be able to shed light on the role and function of the site.

untitled-8It was also established that previously recorded massive blocks of stone that were eroding out of the stream bank were also parts of wall lines and wall faces. Well-made and decorated Iron Age pottery was also recovered in addition to a quern rubber and hammer stone – the latter from the drain feature.

However the most surprising find was a copper alloy triangular fragment with a possible setting for an enamel or glass paste inlay. This would appear to have been a relatively valuable item from something like a brooch and perhaps hints that a certain social status was accorded to the Swartigill site during the Iron Age.

Interestingly, radiocarbon dates suggest that the site also was occupied in the period when brochs were evolving in the Northern Scottish Iron Age. It can be tentatively suggested that Swartigill represents an early Iron Age site, occupied before and during the establishment of brochs in the wider landscape.

DSC_0113The unusual mix of well-built stone features may imply that the site had some function connected to hydrology, perhaps in an industrial/craft capacity and the site may ultimately allow us to reflect on a wide range of types of place and activity associated with the Caithness Iron Age.

The 2017 excavation will give us the opportunity to further explore the social and historical conditions that were present at an important moment of change during the Iron Age period in Caithness.

If you want to be involved in this community dig then call 01955 651387. No experience required!

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If you are interested in our research work, then check out our conference………..

Our Islands, Our Past Conference

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to: archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.

Bud(dough) Biscuits kept us going on Art & Archaeology Field Workshop

Students travelled from all over the United Kingdom – from Gloucestershire, Bristol, North Berwick, Aberdeenshire, Moray, the West Midlands and Orkney – to take part in the Art & Archaeology Orkney Workshop that was held at Orkney College from 30th March to 1st April.

Eleven students studying the Art & Archaeology Masters Module arrived on Thursday to begin a three-day workshop exploring Orkney, its art and, of course, its archaeology.

Having spent the first part of the course meeting on screen through video conference lectures and seminars, the group travelled to Orkney from all over the UK for our 3-day field workshop – it was really great to meet everyone in person at last.

We started in the Orkney College Art & Design Department with Rebecca Marr’s talk on Tom Kent, followed by a practical studio photography workshop, working with artefacts and objects, some made by the students themselves.

The session was entitled Photography: the Present in the Past and examined the representation of objects and how documenting artefacts will always be influenced by the choices made during the photographic process.

IMG_4003In the evening, following a few hours discussing the course and exploring Kirkwall, the group attended the Endeavour – A Creative Collaboration event at the Pier Arts Centre. This event involved artist Neville Gabie, the Centre’s Piergroup and students from Orkney College UHI’s Art and Design Department.

The weather was not kind on Friday as a sea fog enveloped the islands closely followed by torrential rain. It was, of course, the day assigned for our students to visit the World Heritage Site. The rain cleared as the mini-bus approached the Ring of Brodgar allowing everyone to enjoy the experience and discuss Neolithic art present at the Ness of Brodgar and elsewhere. The afternoon was spent in Stromness Museum which had been the focus of our first project.

Despite a rather drizzly start to Saturday we headed out to the West Shore near

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Stromness. Photograph thanks to Helen Garbett

Stromness for a morning of drawing, recording, casting and generally ‘making things’ in the landscape. We then ended up at the Pier Arts Centre to look at the collections and to discuss our first project which had focused on objects in the Stromness Museum. Buddo was the most popular choice of subject and had been ‘recreated’ in clay and dough –  the recipe for the biscuits will be shared later!

It was a very intensive and creative 3 days with many ideas for further collaboration coming out of the general discussion. Everyone is now looking forward to meeting up again, both on the VC and in person and all agreed that the Art & Archaeology Orkney Field Workshop was a great success and should be repeated very soon!

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“Thank you Anne Bevan @OrkneyCollege @UHIArchaeology for 3 inspiring art and archaeology days….bursting with ideas now. ” Helen via Twitter


If you are intrigued by the art, history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

Six Things to Know about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney

Ring of Brodgar

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney will “Glow in the ArchaeoDark” on World Heritage Day (18th April) with interactive storytelling, music and a host of other events.

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute are pleased to be teaming up with DigIt2017 for the World Heritage Day event in Orkney as part of the ‘Scotland in Six’ celebrations.

To set the scene here are 6 things you may or may not know about the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site:

  • It is the only place in the world where you can see a Neolithic settlement, a “temple precinct”, ceremonial standing stones and burial mounds within a few miles of each other.
  • The Watch Stone marked the meeting of the sea water of Loch of Stenness and the fresh water of the Loch of Harray in the Neolithic. Both lochs are brackish nowadays as they are now linked.
  • The Barnhouse Stone “leads” the winter sunset into Maeshowe
  • The Ring of Brodgar, Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse village, the Watch Stone and the Barnhouse Stone are still free to enter (in addition to the Ness of Brodgar in the excavation season. However public donations are important to keep research progressing at the Ness.)
  • Runes carved into Maeshowe proclaim that they were carved after the time of Ragnar Lothbrok – who is now starring in The Vikings TV series!
  • The Ring of Brodgar is still used as a gathering place for Orcadians – 5000 years after it was built. It is especially popular for weddings and other family events.

Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology

HHA2017 Logo2017 is the year to delve into the past and discover Scotland’s fascinating stories and unique experiences. Scotland’s rich heritage, captivating history and world-renowned archaeology will come to life through a range of new and exciting experiences and events aimed at locals and visitors alike.

From World Heritage sites to ancient monuments, world-class visitor attractions and cultural traditions, Scotland offers iconic experiences and hidden gems to visitors, all year round.

Scotland’s vast history, heritage and archaeology have a fascinating story to tell and there are countless secrets to uncover at ruins, ancient monuments and remarkable archaeological sites, as well as museums and galleries across Scotland.

Each area of Scotland has its own distinctive heritage and traditions that shape its environment, as well as the lifestyle and humour of its people today. Visitors can discover this for themselves through unique events and attractions in 2017.

We are connected not just by genetics, but by our traits, our beliefs and our spirit. You will find something of yourself in Scotland, as well as a warm and welcoming people.

Visit Scotland has announced a unique event line-up for 2017 themed year: Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. See our blog post for details of events across Scotland.

Thanks to Jim Richardson for permission to use the photograph.

The Ness Battery, Hoy Sound, Orkney

Orkney is well known for prehistoric archaeology and indeed maritime remains from both world wars. Perhaps less well known are the WWI and WWII heritage sites that still exist on land.

Situated on Hoy Sound, Ness Battery guarded the western entrance to the naval base of Scapa Flow, Orkney. The site itself comprised several gun emplacements, searchlight positions, AA gun positions and a huge command centre which had the task of halting any hostile move through the Hoy Sound.

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The impressive Ness Battery was the subject of a visit by our students last week. Guided through the complex by Andy Hollinrake, the students were given the full history of the site including stories of the personnel that worked to guard the Royal Navy warships anchored in Scapa Flow.

Andy related how each ship that appeared on the western approaches to Hoy Sound were signalled and ordered to stop and await inspection before sailing into the naval base. On one occasion the ferry from the Scottish mainland failed to stop when hailed and so was treated to a salvo of fire from the guns in the battery. The skipper soon heeded the signal, turned round and headed back to the mainland. Andy further elaborated on the story by saying that the gun loaders were so well trained that they could fire at such a rate that 3 or 4 shells could be in the air at once!

IMG_3896The huge, concrete protected gun positions were impressive in themselves, but in a way, the surviving huts (the only surviving examples of coast battery huts present in Britain) were even more impressive as they allowed us to glimpse into the lives of the men who operated this site. The Mess Hall was extraordinary as its walls were covered with an amazing mural depicting English rural life-complete with a windmill, half-timbered houses, wooded lanes and even a gypsy encampment.

A brilliant field visit and our thanks go to Andy Hollinrake for his on-site lecture and tour!


For more information on the Ness battery see http://www.nessbattery.co.uk/

Fascinating Finds from The Cairns

Seal Tooth

Enigmatic finds continue to emerge from The Cairns during post-excavation work being carried out by Kevin Kerr – one of our MSc students from 2016.

The picture above shows a seal tooth that was unearthed last summer at The Cairns. It was found in the metal working area that may post-date the broch.

Part of the tooth is highly polished and, despite having been buried for nearly 2000 years, still glistens when held up to the light. To add to the enigma, there is also slight wear on one side which could have resulted from its use as a tool or perhaps it is an item of discarded jewellery?

It is also interesting to note that the wide bay and beach that The Cairns overlooks is still used by seals who regularly snooze on the rocks and sand at the base of the cliff. It is also the site where seal cubs are born and, in autumn, Windwick Bay echoes to the haunting sound of seals calling to their new offspring.

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A seal relaxing in Windwick Bay – just below The Cairns site.

Kevin Kerr (one of our MSc students from 2017) has the monumental task of recording and cataloguing the hundreds of finds unearthed at The Cairns. He can be found most days, when not working elsewhere, entering data, surrounded by boxes of artefacts stacked in the Finds Rooms at the Institute. While discussing some of the finer points of broch life with Martin Carruthers, Kevin showed me a further small find that on the face of it looked like many other finds unearthed at The Cairns, until two tiny crosses were pointed out. Marks that had obviously been scratched into the bone by a very sharp blade.

They were regular and so cannot be butchery marks, but what was their use? Why did one the of inhabitants of The Cairns broch scratch two tiny regular crosses into a broken animal bone? Do they have significance? Are they just a mark of someone’s boredom? Were they used for counting and recording? I guess we will never know….but the object does represent another reminder of the small things that made up the life of the people living in the broch.

Close up X bone
Two tiny marks scratched into an animal bone

If you are intrigued by the history and archaeology of the Scottish Highlands and Islands and want to learn more then either drop us a line through studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk or go to our guide to courses on this blog or visit our University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute web page

Should I stay or should I go?

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An abandoned farm on the island of Sanday, Orkney

Despite the attractions of living on an island, it has to be said that small islands, especially those located on the geographic margin, are susceptible to de-population and eventual abandonment.

Examples such as St Kilda are well-known, but perhaps the islands closer to the centres of population are perhaps less recognised.

Orkney is a vibrant, busy place that is attracting both people and cutting edge, technology-based companies. There is very little unemployment and yet there are islands in Orkney that have been abandoned in the recent past.

Two of those islands are very visible whenever visitors use one of the ferries that ply between the Scottish mainland and South Ronaldsay. The islands of Stroma and Swona have been abandoned completely within living memory. They are located in the middle of busy shipping lanes and yet are never visited. The gaunt remains of farmsteads, kirks, landing places and other structures are a witness to the changing demands of society. Countryfile’s Adam Henson visited the island in 2012 and the 2017 BBC2 documentary programme, Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney, detailed the haunting scenes that greet any travellers brave enough to sail across to Swona.

The islands of Orkney are fighting back and their future is looking brighter than at any time in the last thirty years as initiatives are increasingly developed to retain the population. Archaeology, art and the creative industries are playing an increasing role in these initiatives as training programmes are established that provide local inhabitants with the means to stay.


call-for-papers-final

Our Islands, Our Past Conference Call For Papers

The conference will be a celebration of island Identities, collective traits and traditions, through aspects of recent and contemporary archaeology. This conference intends to contribute to the Scottish Government’s ‘Our Islands, Our Future’ agenda, initiated by the Local Authorities of the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland.

Please see our conference website for themes and further details.

We wish to encourage multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions that engage critically with Scottish islands’ archaeology, as well as comparative islands perspectives.

We invite papers, posters, exhibitions and installations.  Abstracts of no more than 150 words together with name, e-mail and institution should be sent to: archaeologyconference@uhi.ac.uk.

Call for papers closes 30th April 2017.