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  • Stephen Jennings

Site in Focus - An Eshaness Archaeology Circular

It’s rare (as in, never before) that we highlight an entire area for a Site in Focus, but we decided the subject of our latest walk should be more widely shared.​

Eshaness, famed for its views, sheer heights and tempestuous weather, has become a mainstay for the tourists who visit in increasing numbers and the precipitous cliffs are enough to grab the casual viewer, the enthusiastic birder and more than a share of local folk who still marvel with glee at the power of nature during the frequent winter storms or the tranquility of the wide expanse and simple greens of a calm day. Yet, likely due to a lack of ‘knowing’, few turn inward and gaze with equal amazement at the quantity of history, heritage and archaeology; practically the entire span of human occupation on Shetland in one rather easy circular.

Beginning with the Cross Kirk Cemetery on the edge of the Loch of Breckon, you will find the graves of John Williamson (Johnnie Notions), the base of which has a large stone slab bearing mixed Roman and Runic inscriptions, and the grave of Donald Robertson, one of the more interesting and damning epitaphs one will ever chance to see. It is also the site of the substantial remains of the Cross Kirk, an ‘aamos kirk’, finally taken apart in the 1660s by zealous minister Hercules Sinclair in an attempt to civilise the people who were still placing superstitious offerings within.

From there you traverse the 200 metres of steep hill to the west and you will be standing atop Sae Breck Broch, partially excavated by C S T Calder in 1949. Marked by a trig point, the top of the broch is also overlain by the base remains of a coast guard watchtower. Interestingly, 1km directly east from here is the field remains of a croft under which is believed to be the site of Hogaland Broch and 1.2km NNE is the Broch of Houlland (see below). If the three had been contemporary, an often dubious idea, Sae Breck Broch would have overlooked both and, of further note, all three have been built in completely different settings from one another.

Descending the slope to Gerdie Loch you will find an otter trap on the southwestern shore just short of the cairn on the opposite promontory, some of the wood framing for the trap door still in place. Continuing along the shoreline to the western edge and tracing the burn emptying from the loch can be found the remains of a horizontal mill, a burial cairn, another otter trap and finally another horizontal mill. Turning directly north 40m is a very noticeable dyke and in this is the very visible remains of what has been determined an oval house. Departing the area to the northeast for the 1.5km trek to the Broch of Houlland you will pass a large promontory that almost divides Gerdie Loch in two. It is tempting to believe the walling remains and small shelters have some prehistoric origin, but it is likely a rett (stock pen) erected for temporary use to hold sheep overnight during the crop growing season.

The Broch of Houlland is one of the more impressive brochs to visit (see video). Situated on a large promontory on the Loch of Houlland, it has three lines of defensive walls, though they may not all be contemporary, some surviving mural galleries and still stands at 15 feet tall with some outer facing still visible. There may be remains of prehistoric outbuildings to the north and northwest, but the visible site remains southeast of the broch are clearly from a later period. Directly south of the broch is an island with a causeway leading to it, though no prehistoric remains have been found on the island, and the origin of the causeway is unknown. It was at one time reported there was another causeway connecting the broch with the island at the shortest passage, but no trace remains.

For a better idea of the horizontal mill (short of visiting the reconstructed Tangwick Mill not far away and information for which can be found in our Archive section) visit the three NNW of the loch where it empties into the Holes of Scraada, a natural beauty spot with its own legends. These mills, though degraded with time, still stand not far off their original height. More striking is the obvious channels cut to divert water through each mill.

Northwest of the broch is the expansive remains of the Priesthoulland croft. Be aware that a more modern barn and the house itself are still used for storage so respect the landowner. That said, there are several features of interest here from the crofting period. One is the number of easily discernable building types such as the byre and an older barn complete with a sinni (grain kiln) located in the western corner. There is also an older croft house and a variety of animal enclosures and field walls. A fascinating detail here, going back to the more recently abandoned croft house, is the foundation of such. Its seeming width and undulating nature is at first puzzling (and perhaps is still) but on close inspection it appears this newer house was built using the wall of an earlier croft house – the early eastern wall now forming the base of the new croft house western wall so that the wall 4-5 metres west of the new house is actually the western wall of the original house.

Leaving Priesthoulland and moving southwest for .7km you will encounter one of the rarer sites in Shetland, a Neolithic square cairn. March Cairn, as it is known, overlooks Muckla Water and was also excavated by C S T Calder in 1949. At 10m across and with a cruciform chamber, it still stands about 1m in height with large stones around the edges. Though no burial traces were found here, two pottery sherds, two stone discs and a quartz tool were recovered during the excavation. Occupying a rather singular position, it can be seen on the skyline whilst driving to Eshaness. Incidentally, roughly 250 metres ENE of here is Muckla Water square cairn, much smaller and with far less visible remains.

The 1.2 km from March Cairn back to the Cross Kirk Cemetery has three more crofts the first of which has prehistoric field walls and, perhaps, the remains of an enclosure/dwelling still visible. Each croft is unique and has the usual attendant structures: byres, barns, crubs and kros. The second of these crofts is notable for two things – what appears to be two wells close to the house and the wonderful use of driftwood, possibly from a large boat, as a door lintel between the byre and the house. It also has cattle stalls intact and a couple of ‘not recommended for use’ ladders. A further, and last, feature of note is the burnt mound on the eastern shore of the Loch of Breckon near the cemetery, 80m south of the cattle grid.

Stopping for lunch on a leisurely stroll, the four hours taken for this archaeology circular is time well spent considering the thousands of years used in laying this landscape down for you to explore. It indeed encompasses virtually every human occupation period in Shetland.

If you’d like more information, feel free to contact us.

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