Excavation at the Iron Age site at the Burn of Swartigill, Thrumster, Caithness, is a collaboration between the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the Yarrows Heritage Trust.
The excavations have provided a glimpse of everyday life in Iron Age Scotland – but a life that does not centre on the monumental architecture of the brochs.
The site was first investigated by members of the Yarrows Heritage Trust and CFA Archaeology in 2004, after structures were noted eroding from the bank of the burn.
In 2012, concerned that valuable archaeological evidence could be lost the trust recorded the eroding section. They discovered the remains of structures and deposits containing ceramics, which appeared to be Iron Age in form.
In 2014, ORCA Archaeology undertook a geophysical survey of the site, combining magnetometry, earth resistance and ground penetrating radar. This confirmed the likely presence of substantial structures and evidence of occupation at the site.
ORCA returned in 2015 to do some small exploratory work and the excavation has continued to expand from there. In four seasons of excavation the team, including professional archaeologists, local community volunteers and students, have uncovered the remains at least four buildings that were in use between 350-50BC.
The Burn of Swartigill is situated within the Yarrows, an area recognised for the excellent preservation of cultural heritage sites dating from the Neolithic to the Medieval period.
The late Iron Age settlement site of Thrumster is approximately 1km to the west of the site, further upstream of the Burn of Swartigill. The Thrumster site is characterised as a “wag”, which is defined as a post-broch structure, mainly found in Caithness, and characterised by a rectangular building form possessing two rows of orthostats forming a central aisle. The settlement is visible as a low mound, approximately 20 metres in diameter, with the remains of solidly constructed drystone wall footings visible in the top.
Two broch sites are situated within close proximity to the site.
The broch of Thrumster Mains is 1.3km to the south-east of the site and the Broch of Yarrows, along with a range of complex secondary structures including “wags”, is 2.5km to the south-east on a spur on the edge of the Loch of Yarrows.
The Burn of Swartigill site is also near two medieval farmsteads, which sit within an identified medieval farming landscape.
The first is approximately 30m to the north-west of the site and is comprised of a heavily robbed-out range with a smaller building and a set of run rig cultivations. The second is on the southern edge of the meltwater channel, approximately 160m to the south-east of the site. This farmstead is also comprised of a heavily robbed building and has an enclosure situated immediately to the east, with field system composed of pens and embankments to the south and east.
It was initially thought that the Swartigill Burn site represented a mill dating from the same period as the Swartigill township, and was included in the original record for this site.