On the Trail of Munro
by Stephen Jennings
Dr Robert Munro was a physician and amateur archaeologist who turned his full attention to archaeology in 1886 and began lecturing in Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology at Edinburgh University in 1912. He made at least two trips to Shetland and the following article highlights his 1902 foray in Northmavine and the Beorgs of Housetter at the request of local landowner Mr R C Haldane, Esq. A brief biography of Dr Munro can be found here.
Noting the similarity between sites reported by Mr R C Haldane and discoveries by the Honourable John Abercromby near the Loch of Kinnord in Aberdeenshire (Abercromby’s excavations incomplete at this time), Dr Robert Munro arrived in the first week of July 1902 with two days of excavation arranged by Mr Haldane and a couple of ‘sturdy Shetlanders’. The three sites in question were underground dwellings of the ‘beehive’ type which had puzzled Mr Haldane stretching from what is known as the Giant’s Garden to the far shores of Roer Water. Being drawn to the area to verify a wholly different type of dwelling, we too became intrigued as we noted the similarity of these three sites with a site we recently discovered and two additional sites which have been alternately ignored and misinterpreted. Though our studies are ongoing, we will currently only deal with the former; the trail of Munro is more than enough fun to pick through.
The first site he encountered was a ‘ruined beehive hut of small dimensions’ halfway up the Beorgs of Housetter and directly above Housetter Loch. We have yet to locate this structure, initially thinking the small heel-shaped cairn above the Giant’s Grave was perhaps a misinterpretation as the Canmore record states. Yet, it was clear through his writing that Munro was familiar with the different types of burial cairns. Whatever he found we have to take on earned merit and continue our search.
Moving on, the first large site to stir Munro’s interest was the considerably large, partially (at the time) enclosed area we know as the Giant’s Garden. Roughly 30m in diameter, it consists of a series of cells connected by low, linteled passages in at least two, perhaps three, distinct structures with further cells that appear to have no connection. Excavating and partially rebuilding the main structure and a couple of adjacent cells, he noted they were of drystone construction but no evidence of the ‘vaulted roof on the beehive principle’ – corbelling – could be found. From here he simply moved on.
However, before we do, some additional observations are necessary. We counted at least 15 distinct cells with strong evidence of many more buried deeply under the soil and peat giving the impression the entire site is a series of cells for almost the full 30m diameter. The enclosure walls are now completed but every indication is they are not contemporary with the cellular structures. This is most clearly evidenced by their being built atop several of the cells. There is another large enclosure nearby that remains unremarked though no cells can be discerned in this area (a proximate and odd three-celled structure not yet on the public record may be associated with this). Surprisingly, no follow-up to Munro’s excavations has ever been done. The Canmore record cites some of Munro’s report but a visit by the Ordnance Survey in 1969, where they clearly missed the site, is all the records contain. The local Historic Environment Record echoes Canmore.
Not finding the sites can be forgiven as this next set of structures amply demonstrates. Whether it was the technology of the time or that Munro finalised his reports two years after the visit, his four digit National Grid References can be rather challenging. With high probability, the set of huts listed as the Burn of Roerwater, and again not found by OS in 1969, is the set of cellular structures we found 1.25km north after an extensive search. Described by Munro as similar to the Giant’s Garden, he found the site to be the ‘ruins of several huts connected together by drain-like passages, so small…it would tax the ingenuity of most men of the present day to wriggle through’. He did note they appeared to be built partly above and below ground but otherwise paid scant attention.
This is unfortunate. Having just completed a tape and offset plan for the site, we find it is virtually the equal of the Giant’s Garden. The cells are most visible running on a line from north to south for 29m and number at least nine. More remarkable still, the site is roughly 20m wide giving it a similar area. What makes this east to west measurement difficult is the cells are deeply buried in soil and peat but three can be verified and several more inferred along with passages leading from the visible cells. There are no enclosure or field walls of any kind, no surprise given it was likely never cultivable land which is also similar to the Giant’s Garden, and the true layout or size of the site is all but impossible absent a full excavation.
Our final stop on the trail of Munro is the scheduled site at the north end of Roer Water. It was first discovered when ‘a shepherd's dog had found its way for some distance into its interior by a hole formed between a couple of stones partially exposed on its eastern side’. Interpretation of the site varies where Munro initially feels the cells were beehive in nature but subsequent excavations by Haldane and Abercromby in 1904 determine there was not enough stone on site and believe it originally unroofed. Their general feeling was that its ruinous condition was a deliberate act though to where the stone was transported is a mystery as there are scant walls or buildings in the area. Only one lintel was found in situ but the general layout was of cells connected by narrow passages, very similar to the previous two sites.
As a scheduled site, an interpretation has been carried out and it is listed as a prehistoric house on an irregular oval plan with two side cells and some traces of field walls in the surrounding peat. To be cantankerous, we don’t fully agree with interpretations subsequent to the 1902-04 excavations which we hope our next-on-the-list tape and offset plan will show. Just the interior measurements of the main cells cover an area of about 10 x 8 metres, their inability to find the width of the exterior walls partly due to the depth at which the peat had and continues to cover the original structure. Our own site visit, coupled with the drawings in Munro’s report, confirm a more extensive site on the scale and build type of the previous two and with additional cells still buried that are not found in the scheduling report or the original excavation. We found no traces of field walls, the stones nearby sometimes confirming additional cells, and it does appear to be built into the hillside.
So, what do we have with these three main sites Munro visited and how would we characterise them today?
In short, they are sprawling semi-subterranean multi-cellular structures covering each a rather large area with low and often long lintelled passages between most of the cells. They were built utilising natural features such as hillsides and large, in situ boulders as wall fabric and all on uneven ground thus with cells at different levels (the Burn of Roerwater structure drops 2.5m north to south, perhaps double that east to west). A peculiar aspect is the Roer Water site is the only of the three that is built on or near cultivable land, the other two having nothing in a reasonable distance today or indeed in antiquity. Considering the resemblance to known structures elsewhere in northern Scotland and found at Old Scatness, Jarlshof and upper Scalloway, there is every chance they are Pictish in origin. Though unlikely to be ‘beehive’ (there is a large corbelled cell site out here), they would have been roofed and, quite frankly, resembled the structures the Vikings encountered when they described the Picts as living in underground houses.
The trail of Dr Robert Munro is fascinating and well worth a visit as it has unfortunately been largely overlooked to this point. It can be argued the scheduled Roer Water site itself may not be fully understood, in a sense overlooked, absent the context of the other two sites the second of which, as we have shown, has remained hidden since the initial 1902 small excavation and with little official attention paid to the Giant’s Garden. Yet once more, the antiquarian notes have proved invaluable and more than a little amusing to follow.
Munro, R., & Abercromby, J. (1904). Notes on Primitive Stone Structures of the Beehive Type, discovered by R.C. Haldane, Esq., in the North of Shetland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 38, 548-558.
Past In Depth articles can be found in the Archive.