The Cairns

Overall aerial

The excavations at The Cairns are part of an archaeological research project investigating the later prehistory of the Windwick landscape on the island of South Ronaldsay, Orkney.  The investigation now focuses on the excavation of a large Atlantic Roundhouse, or broch, and associated structures from various phases through the Iron Age and Norse period at the site known as The Cairns. The project is run by director Martin Carruthers, a lecturer in archaeology with UHI Archaeology Institute based at Orkney College, and work at The Cairns has been taking place since 2006.

Opening The Cairns 2017

The current work at the site is not the first excavation there as in 1901 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.

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 which was hastily covered up and the exact location was not recorded.


The official archives for the site (RCAHMS Canmore
entry: )previously listed The Cairns as a mound of indeterminate nature and it was only with the recent work described here 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 on 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.

Check out The Cairns Dig Diary 2018.

The 2019 Dig Diary

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Structure names and numbers