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  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

Site in Focus - Broo Gill Roundhouse

Simple fieldwalking in archaeology can be one of the most rewarding endeavours in which one takes part; the fresh air, the singing birds, the views, the camaraderie, the chance finds. Sometimes these finds are small and sometimes large, like the roundhouse at Broo Gill opposite Watch Hill in Hillswick.

Meandering as much for dog walking duties as anything else, a couple of Archaeology Shetland members happened upon the partially exposed walls of a roundhouse poking from the heather and eroded peat. The double skinned walls with rubble core interior were immediately evident. Poking a ranging rod through the heather the stones beneath gave off the familiar metallic ping and a rough outline could be gleaned. Bringing it to the attention of other members, it was decided it would be an excellent opportunity for a clean and record and wider landscape survey for the rest of the membership and entry into the SMR.

Measuring from the inside wall, Broo Gill roundhouse is 6m in diameter with a 1m thick wall on an east facing slope. Though no entrance could be definitively identified, a small gap in the quality of stones obscured by thick heather may indicate the south or southwest. At roughly 80m above sea level, it is with some surprise that the configuration puts it convincingly in the Iron Age – it is a true and perfect circle of a roundhouse. Though speculative, this may indicate the land had been under intensive use for a long enough period of time that the heather hadn’t yet forced them off the hillside and onto the coast as happened around much of Shetland during this time period and, as often with roundhouse location, it very well may have been set above the fertile and more arable south and east facing lands in the valley below.

The wider landscape on the day revealed little of surrounding field walls other than 39m of a surviving wall which appears to be at the same base layer as the roundhouse. Located 10m to the east and running on a north-south line, it is completely robbed out on each end and takes a 90 degree turn to the west on its southern end where a scant 1m remains. If one traces an imaginary line it would put this wall, if extended, roughly 10m away as well. An earlier survey southeast in the valley below did reveal further walls eroding from deep under the peat but their extent and relation to this site is not known.

It is unclear where in the architecture the visible remains are – the top, bottom or somewhere in between – but it seems likely to be the bottom if the wall remains and roundhouse are on the same base layer and the extent to which the wall has been robbed out is taken into consideration. Yet, as there is no rubble core spread, which is often left behind when the larger stones are removed, it very well could be an upper layer.

Within the roundhouse a variety of beach stones inconsistent with the geology of the area were found and perhaps a hammerstone, little else. On an earlier walkover, however, a felsite scraper fashioned from a large flake was found about 50m south. It’s context within the scope of the roundhouse is, naturally, unknown.

So you see, sometimes a chance walk in the fresh air can pay off…but only as long as you’re shoegazing and not enamored of the view.

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