- Esther Renwick
In Depth - Stanydale
Stanydale - experiencing a Neolithic landscape?
Stanydale temple on the West Mainland is the largest building known from Neolithic/Bronze Age Shetland. It was probably not a temple at all but gained its name when it was discovered in the 1940s as it looked similar in layout to the megalithic temple sites in Malta. The temple itself was excavated by Calder in 1949 with additional work nearby undertaken during the 1950s. Construction of the site probably dates to 2500-2000BC but it appears to have still been occupied through into the early Iron Age.
The Neolithic saw the development of farming; by the time Stanydale temple was built in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age Shetland had already been largely cleared of woodland and had been farmed for generations. These farmers lived in small circular or oval houses with thick walls and a low doorway; inside they had small alcoves around the walls and a hearth in the centre. They worked with stone tools, divided the land with turf field boundaries on a stone foundation and cleared the stone away from their fields to grow crops. They also kept domestic animals, hunted and fished. Their chambered tombs were built in much the same way as their houses, a small building with a low doorway and generally at least one alcove within it. This is roughly the same period as Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the stone circles of Stenness and Brodgar were being built in Orkney.
Shetland in the late Neolithic/early Bronze Age was unlikely to have had much tree cover, what remained would have mostly been low growing species such as birch and hazel. At Stanydale the small streams running through the valley have been little changed by human activity and probably followed much the same course in prehistory. The limited amount of field boundaries visible in front of the temple combined with the underlying geology, suggests that, even in prehistory, this was a boggy area. The major change in the landscape is the growth of peat since the Neolithic/Bronze Age, and on the ridge as you climb from the road towards the temple several prehistoric field boundaries are visible vanishing into the side of peat banks, partially exposed by peat cutting.
The front of the temple was heel-shaped, with a single long, narrow entrance passage in the centre, aligned almost perfectly east-west. The shape of the facade is similar to local Neolithic tombs such as Islesburgh (at Mavis Grind) or Punds Water (at Mangaster). However the interior is huge by Neolithic/Bronze Age standards measuring 11.7m x 6.6m in the main area, with six alcoves, each approximately 2.6m wide and 1.25m deep. The alcoves resemble those found in domestic houses, however rather than a single central hearth there was a small hearth in front of each alcove on the southern side and traces of ash on the northern side. The roof was probably turf, supported by two large spruce posts which must have arrived on Shetland as drift wood from North America (the carbonised remains of the posts were found in the post holes). Burnt sheep bone, pottery and stone tools were also found within the temple. Around the outside of the site Calder identified a series of standing stones, field boundaries and a Neolithic/Bronze Age house. The building’s facade suggested that it was designed to be viewed primarily from the east and a pair of standing stones 180m away had been identified as aligning with the doorway.
In 2009 two people (myself and Simon Clarke from Shetland College) set out to do a very basic survey of this landscape, armed only with a pair of ranging poles, a map and a compass (the results were then checked with a systematic gridded survey undertaken with the help of a group of volunteers). The following account reveals both the results of this survey and is an interesting alternative to the conventional waymarked route (best walked in dry weather due to the boggy ground). If you want to retrace this route the grid references for all the features are in the description.
A prehistoric routeway?
If one were to project a line from the temple doorway directly out into the landscape you would eventually come to a stop at the shore of the Loch of Gruting 900m to the east. At this point there is a mound (HU 2943 5021) on a small headland jutting out into the loch. The mound itself it almost certainly natural, however its summit appears to have been enclosed by a ditch and bank (these cannot be dated, but certainly predate the overlying planticrub). If you stand on this mound and look west the temple can be seen to fall into a notch between the hills on the skyline. This is also marks the alignment on which the sun would set at the equinox (in March and September). As you walk across the road and follow this line to the right of the usual path you will see a pair of stones (HU 2914 5020) which sit on either side of this east-west alignment. Cresting the ridge the temple becomes visible in the distance for the first time and at dusk near the equinox the sun would also come back into view. Heading down the slope single boulders or pairs of stones appear to provide a guide (eg. HU 2897 5021).
Continuing downhill, across the fenceline (you will need to deviate slightly at this point to use the gate/stile then return to the line) towards the temple the line of approach drops to cross the stream via a collection of large boulders (HU 2886 5022) which have identified by ourselves and also by Mahler (2011: 115) as a possible prehistoric crossing point. Once you cross the stream and climb the bank the temple once again comes into view, followed a few paces later by the pair of standing stones (HU 2873 5023). At this point the temple (when complete and roofed) would have been skylined against the setting sun, which would have been directly behind it at the equinox. As you approach the temple more closely there are more standing stones around it, if you map these they do not however make a stone circle as Calder originally suggested, they may be part of the boundary complex which appears to surround the site.
The final view of the temple exterior is the curved facade which may have been the focus for activity taking place outside the doorway, or merely led one inside. While most of the features along the route suggest the focus was the sunset at the equinox, sunrise at the equinox would also illuminate the back wall of the interior (as seen at the winter solstice in the case of Maeshowe in Orkney).
While there is little evidence of farming and domestic life in front of the temple (apart from the single house identified by Calder, several field boundaries and some field clearance cairns) there is a massive amount of activity behind it. Over the modern fence to the left of the temple you will see field clearance cairns spread across the field, prehistoric field boundaries snaking off across the hill and the remains of more prehistoric houses. If you drive round to Gruting you can see the remains of more prehistoric houses just over the hill from the temple, on the slope across the road from the loch (just before you get to the hall).
It is unlikely that this building was actually a temple, however whatever it was this site appears to have had significance for them, enough significance to move 400kg boulders, haul driftwood over the hill from the coast and to survey the east-west alignment across hilly land with no modern equipment to within 3° of absolute accuracy.
Bennet, K. D., Boeman, S., Sharp, M. J., and Switsur, V. R. (1992). Holecene history of environment, vegetation and human settlement in Catta Ness, Lunnasting, Shetland, Journal of Ecology 80, 241-73.
Calder, C. S. T. (1950). Report on the excavation of a Neolithic temple at Stanydale in the Parish of Sandsting, Shetland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.84: 185-205 Figs, 1,6
Calder, C. S. T. (1956). Report on the discovery of numerous stone age house sites in Shetland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland vol.90: 340-97
Clarke, S and Renwick, E (2013) "A Processional but not Processual Approach to Stanydale Neolithic Temple" in Foulds, F (ed) Experimental Archaeology & Theory: recent approaches to testing archaeological hypotheses. Oxbow
Fojut, N. (2006). Prehistoric and Viking Period Shetland (5th Edition) Shetland Times, Lerwick.
Mahler, D (2011). Shetland – the Border of Farming 4000-3000 BC
Some Features of the Neolithic of Shetland, in D. Mahler & C. Andersen (eds) Farming on the edge: Cultural landscapes of the North Rosendahls - Schultz Grafisk (also available online at http://nordligeverdener.natmus.dk/fileadmin/site_upload/nordlige_verdener/pdf/Farming_on_the_edge_rapport_web.pdf)
Richards, C (2005) Dwelling among the monuments – the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness, Orkney McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Monographs, Cambridge
Tipping, R. (1994). The form and fate of Scotland’s woodlands, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 124, 1-54.