- Archaeology Shetland
In Depth - Neolithic & Bronze Age Burwick
On the west mainland coast just north of Scalloway and situated between the hills of Burwick and Houlland is the coastal community of Burwick itself. What was once a more vibrant place with a fishing station as its central feature is now but two crofts settled amongst a variety of period ruins. The base of a long sloping valley with several small lochs culminating at the Hill of Griesta, this lower coastal area is littered with the remains of horizontal mills, field boundaries and several croft houses, most from the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the odd Bronze Age site in evidence such as the ubiquitous burnt mounds. However, as you climb away from this tight cluster and just past the Loch of Burwick you enter an area rich in Neolithic sites.
It is a challenging place to field study. Always marshy in the lowest reaches around the lochs, any elevation gives way to thick heather and peat obscuring both objective details on the landscape and rather insecure footing. With two former 19th century crofts nestled in the slopes just east of the Loch of Houlland and the Loch of Garth, the area has seen some mixed use. Of this, the removal of peat has been perhaps the most damaging and as a result further and more intense study has been hindered by these landscape elements.
Nonetheless, the first feature of note and one that stands most starkly against the landscape is a Neolithic structure just west of the Loch of Houlland, NGR HU 3975 4161 and scheduled as “Loch of Houlland, homestead”. The interior measurement is 10m by 7.5m and comprises six orthostats each set at regular intervals with a narrow entrance facing southeast and flanked by two additional orthostats. The interior is further divided by an arc of five stones set against the west wall which is matched by a similar feature on the exterior northeast wall. There is evidence of an exterior wall or total wall thickness of approximately 3.5m best seen running along the northeast of the structure. A curving boundary wall leading from the entrance and heading in a northerly direction as well as some of the interior wall elements have been speculated of a later date, perhaps to create an enclosure, though it remains inconclusive.
It must be mentioned this site bears an uncanny resemblance to Stanydale Temple, another large structure of late Neolithic origin, which measures roughly 12m by 7m with six recesses and a wall thickness of just over 3.5m. Indeed it was described as another “temple” when Charles S. T. Calder, an archaeologist with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland who spent a great deal of time examining the Neolithic sites on Shetland including an exploration of Stanydale in 1949, explored Burwick some ten years later. It was he who gave Stanydale the designation of Temple due to its resemblance to Mediterranean temples he used as reference. Not to get too deeply involved in the debate as to its nomenclature, subsequent study at Stanydale Temple has yielded artefacts commonly associated with a domestic dwelling and although the landscape has elements of a more sacred nature not much can be said other than it was perhaps a large house or community building of some kind. This is likely true here as well.
Continuing his studies of the Neolithic landscape in Burwick Calder also catalogued a second structure of distinction, the unscheduled homestead between Jamie Cheyne’s Loch and the Loch of Ustaness. In contrast to the former site, this unscheduled structure, located at NGR HU 3987 4278, comprises two chambers and is likely of late Neolithic or early Bronze Age origin. Less stout, the remains of the main chamber are approximately 6.5m in diameter while the much smaller chamber is connected to the east where the entrance likely stood. Two concentric circles ring the site converging at the west wall, the outer at a maximum distance of 34m from the structure. It too is likely a domestic dwelling though no studies have been undertaken as to its actual origin or purpose.
C. S. T. Calder located many other sites in Burwick including some that haven’t quite withstood the scrutiny we can bring with more modern methods such as a kiln at NGR HU 4056 4301 or a Neolithic structure at NGR HU 4049 4286. Yet other potential targets have remained uncatalogued or largely unexplored such as a standing stone at approximately HU 40438 42652, a series of mounds at HU 39747 41808, potential enclosures at HU 39807 42397 and HU 39926 42604 as well as buried boundary or field walls at HU 39720 41864 and on Vegg Hamar at HU 40215 42974. Of such sites, perhaps none are as obvious as the enclosure at HU 40046 42062, some 80m southwest of the Loch of Garth.
Measuring 80m by 45m the oval structure was determined “not an antiquity” by an OS survey visit in 1968. This seems an erroneous designation for several reasons. In the first, empirically the depth of peat growth covering much of the enclosing walls is on a par with other structures in the vicinity. Also, there are carefully placed orthostats, many still standing and in particular at the southern end of the enclosure, ringing the site as a part of the walls. Finally, there are interior recesses, at least three in evidence, along the more broadly surviving west side of the oval. Approximately 9m in length, each recess is separated by 2-3m wide “wall” with a length to the interior of approximately the same. However, the heather and peat growth is obscuring the stone underneath thus without breaking ground it is difficult to determine of what each wall is made and it could very well be each recess is in actual fact a fallen orthostat.
One further additional detail regarding Neolithic and Bronze Age Burwick is as you move south in the direction of Scalloway it noticeably gives way to what would appear a more solidly Bronze Age landscape, if such can be said of the Shetland move from the Neolithic, that is equally undisturbed. Several farmsteads are still evident on the landscape separated by large field boundaries stretching from the hillside and disappearing into the sea. They can be traced in a line along an uneven ridge from HU 39674 40452 on the northern edge to HU 39452 40042 on the southern. Associated structures, those with measurable ruins on the ground, are generally between 35m and 45m above sea level and, with the exception of one, between 120m and 150m from the sea. If you trace this back north through the valley at Burwick you can see what appear to be similar ruins running roughly along the same ridgeline. In both cases this roundhouse/farmstead activity appears to take place midway up the hillsides while our mixed activity, and in some of the aforementioned cases which are believed to be late Neolithic, is at a variety of elevations. It must be cautioned there is no real conclusion to draw from this as later landscape disruption obscures any coherent picture of a definite period. Moreover, the experience in Shetland with standard practises stretching even into the Iron Age make dating exceptionally difficult without breaking the surface. Nonetheless, there is a peculiar coherence to this activity and more intense study at this elevation along the ridgeline may yield some results applicable to both periods as they remain mostly undisturbed.
If and when such study takes place the contemporaneity of these sites will likely always be in some doubt but they do point to an active landscape throughout the late Neolithic and Bronze Age in a location left largely intact due to its relative remoteness and rugged terrain. There is still much to be found, the damage to the landscape notwithstanding, and still much that can be gained by field study. To be sure, the unscheduled homestead between Jamie Cheyne’s Loch and the Loch of Ustaness has brother sites of very similar construction in other but more inaccessible places here, HU 40457 42963 as just one example.
Calder, C S T (1958) 'Stone Age house-sites in Shetland', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.89, Page(s): 377, No.4
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
Mahler, D (2011). Stanydale Hall – a Gathering Site or just a large Neolithic House on Shetland? In D. Mahler (ed) The Border of Farming Shetland and Scandinavia – Neolithic and Bronze Age Farming; Ditlev L. Mahler, Page(s) 11-19, also available online at (http://nordligeverdener.natmus.dk/fileadmin/user_upload/temasites/nordlige_verdener/Nord_Verd_Shetlandsprojekt_3_web.pdf)
Additional information gathered from site records at RCHAMS, Canmore Mapping, in particular http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/710/details/loch+of+houlland/ and
NGR HU 3975 4161, scheduled as “Loch of Houlland, homestead”. Note the resemblance to Stanydale Temple.
Unscheduled homestead between Jamie Cheyne’s Loch and the Loch of Ustaness, NGR HU 3987 4278, is likely of late Neolithic or early Bronze Age origin.
Roundhouse, NGR HU 39674 40452
Roundhouse, NGR HU 39452 40042