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 taking place 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 work at the site is not the first excavation there as, in 1902, Rev Alexander Goodfellow, a local amateur antiquary, made a small investigation of the site. His notes conclude that he found a “souterrain”, an underground passageway apparently dating to the Iron Age. Indeed, in the 2009 excavation, objects were discovered buried by the entrance to the broch that are likely to be the remains of that antiquarian work.

The earlier work by Goodfellow had long since been forgotten, and it was not even clear if the site now know as Cairns, or Cairns o’ the Bu was the same one Goodfellow encountered – 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 the James Corrie author of the RCAHMS inventory – have taken divergent views on which of the Cairns was which, and which mound was the target of Goodfellow’s excavations in 1902. Our current field work seems to have shown beyond doubt that Goodfellow excavated The Cairns on the north side of the Windwick Bay, site of our current project.

Opening The Cairns 2017

Subsequently, parts of the archaeological remains were encountered again in the mid-twentieth century by the current landowner’s father, who 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 at The Cairns, and other locations, in an effort to rediscover a number of souterrain-type structures in South Ronaldsay which were briefly mentioned in 19th and early 20th century accounts of the area.

The geophysical surveys undertaken at The Cairns at that time 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.