Point of Cott, Westray

Point of Cott, Westray
Point of Cott reconstruction. (Barber 1997)
Proposed reconstruction of the Point of Cott long horned cairn.
(Barber, J. 1997 Excavation of Stalled Cairn at Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney)
Long horned cairn.
Stalled chamber.
Notes:A large, long cairn on the coast, situated c4m above the shoreline.

Orientated N-S, the mound was first planned in 1935, at which time it was already suffering from the effects of coastal erosion and damaged at the northern end and eastern side. By 1957 at least another 3m of the eastern side had been lost to the sea and another 1.5 to 2m from the northern end by 1983.

When first recorded the cairn measured c30m, but given the erosion was probably larger.

In 1935, limited investigation revealed wall faces revetting part of the southern end of the cairn. These appeared to be straight with a horn projecting at an angle to the south-west for at least 6m. The south-eastern horn had been lose to erosion but, assuming a symmetrical plan, the cairn would have been around 16m wide across the south end.

The western side of the mound survived to c1.5m at the southern end, decreasing to c0.8m at the north. Due to coastal erosion, the eastern side had not fared so well and had been reduced to a much lower level.

Under threat of destruction, due to coastal erosion, the cairn was completely excavated in 1984/85. [2]

This confirmed that the southern end of the cairn contained a chamber, around 8.2m long, divided into four compartments by orthostatic dividers. The innermost compartment contained a double box-like structure of low slabs set on edge.

The chamber was entered by a passage about 3.8m long, roofed by lintels set on edge. The chamber and inner half of the passage were within a rectangular cairn core with a rough outer that had been surrounded by several casings of stonework, giving the structure a stepped appearance.

The structure began as a stalled cairn. Subsequently, the cairn was enlarged and hornworks added.

Human and animal remains, along with pottery, were found on the floors of the first three compartments. Radiocarbon dates from the human remains provided dates from between c3600BC to c2800BC.

Although filling material was encountered in the entrance passage, contrary to suggestions in other cairns across Orkney, Barber felt there was “no evidence for a Neolithic period deliberate slighting of the sites in rejection of the social order they represented.” [2]

Prior to excavation, what appeared to be a chamber was visible in an eroded section of the northern end of the cairn — an area found to be “extremely difficult” to excavate because of its “collapsed state”. [2]

This collapse was found to be the result of a construction device similar to that found at Vestrafiold, Sandwick, Orkney, some 19 years later. According to Barber, this “space-filler” consisted of a “two-tier, honeycomb arrangement of cells” that had been “constructed, partly by drystone walling and partly by settings of orthostats, to fill the core of the cairn at this [northern] end”. [2]

The apparent lack of concern over stability encountered at Vestrafiold was also evident at the Point of Cott. Not only was up to 40 per cent of the northern cairn made up of voids, but on the few occasions orthostats were set in socket holes, these were “little more than shallow scrapes”. Other orthostats were kept upright by smaller stone slabs or even chunks of turf. [2]

The poor-quality construction prompted Barber to suggest the cairn had been “erected by less-experienced builders”. In complete contrast, the primary stalled cairn was found to have been carefully constructed and markedly different “from every other part of the monument”. [2]

Despite this apparently inferior workmanship, based on the suggested reconstruction (pictured above) the Point of Cott structure was, on the surface at least, a visually impressive monument. Around 31 metres long and three metres high at its highest point, the quality of the external wall faces suggested that “at least in their upper parts, they were intended to be seen”. [2]

According to Barber, the monument’s spectacular “stepped and facaded appearance” made an “architectural and aesthetic statement” that perhaps elevated its creators above their contemporaries. [2]

There is no doubt that in its later phases the Point of Cott was not only spectacular, highly visible and designed to be seen, but according to the excavator, its final, monumental form sweeps away the idea that chambered cairns were always mere grassy or rocky “amorphous masses” [2]

Despite the surface dressing, however, the fact remains the building was intrinsically unstable and probably doomed to collapse from the day construction began.
Scottish Radiocarbon Database
References:[1] Davidson, J. L. & Henshall, A. S. (1989). The Chambered Cairns of Orkney. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
[2] Barber, J. (1997) Excavation of Stalled Cairn at Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney.
Poiny of Cott excavation plan.
Plan of the lower courses of the Point of Cott Long Cairn. The section of the structure to the east was lost to coastal erosion.
A: The ‘two-tier, honeycomb arrangement of cells’ forming the body of the long cairn.
B: The original stalled chambered cairn. (Barber, J. 1997. Excavation of Stalled Cairn at Point of Cott, Westray, Orkney.)