The Cairns

Structure names and numbers

The excavations at The Cairns are part of an archaeological research project investigating the later prehistory of the landscape around Windwick, on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney. 

Work at The Cairns has been ongoing since 2006, with the investigation now focusing on the excavation of a large Atlantic Roundhouse, or broch, and associated structures from various phases through the Iron Age and Norse period.

The project is run by director Martin Carruthers, a lecturer in archaeology with UHI Archaeology Institute, based at Orkney College,

Overall aerial
Aerial view of the broch interior under excavation.

The current excavation is not the first in the area – in 1902, Rev Alexander Goodfellow, a local amateur antiquary, made a small investigation of the site. He concluded he had found a “souterrain”, an underground passageway apparently dating to the Iron Age. Indeed, in the 2009 excavation season, objects were found buried by the broch entrance that were likely to be the vestiges of Goodfellow’s exploration .

When our project began the work by Goodfellow had long been forgotten and it was not even clear if the site – now know as Cairns, or Cairns o’ the Bu – was the same one encountered in the early 20th century. Another archaeological site, known as The Cairns (o’ the Flaws), exists in the same area.

Different commentators – such as former county archaeologist, Raymond Lamb, and James Corrie, the author of the RCAHMS inventory – have taken divergent views on which of the Cairns was which, and which mound had been the subject of Goodfellow’s excavations. However, our fieldwork shows beyond doubt that Goodfellow excavated The Cairns on the north side of the Windwick Bay – the site of our current project.

Opening The Cairns 2017

Subsequently, parts of the archaeological remains were encountered in the mid-20th century when the current landowner’s father accidentally uncovered a narrow opening to what appeared to be a large voided chamber.

The official archives for the site previously listed The Cairns as a mound of indeterminate nature and it was only due to the recent archaeological work that more sense could be made of what the remains at The Cairns actually represent.

In 2003, Martin and his team conducted geophysical surveys on the site, and other locations, in an effort to rediscover a number of souterrain-type structures, which were briefly mentioned in 19th and early 20th century accounts of South Ronaldsay.

These indicated a vast wealth of remains lurked within the low, but extensive, mound. It was not until 2006 that resources were built up to undertake exploratory excavation work.