- Stephen Jennings
In Depth - The Mysteries of Northmavine
We’ve spent a lot of time out wandering in Northmavine this year and have come across a number of new sites. In one case, like that of the Iron Age Broo Gill Roundhouse, we did a full clean and record to ascertain what we had on hand (see the Archive for more on this). Most sites, however, we simply recorded what we saw on the ground through measurements, drawings and photographs. Quite often we knew whilst doing so exactly what we had, within reason, but at other times the summer strolls abounded with mystery.
Feal croft on the side of Ronas Voe is a great illustration with which to begin. A rather long trek in and out over very uneven terrain, much of what is on the ground is common – croft house, barn, byre, outbuildings, field walls – and though one prehistoric homestead has been listed in the official records there are two more which are not; one we are calling the ‘Pobie Sukka’ roundhouse with field walls which is roughly 350 meters west, the other a peanut shaped structure with field walls about 400 meters NNW of the croft. It is 400 meters directly east of Feal croft we have our two somewhat mysterious structures. The first is listed in the record as a fishing station and sits on a rather steep incline some 15m above sea level and 60+ meters from the shore edge. It is rather oddly shaped, some 5m by 7m with a small enclosed field on the sea-facing side that begins about 4m wide at the structure wall and broadens to 6m through its 9m length. Moreover, the entire structure is built on top of something older and quite large, its curvilinear nature evident in several places. Nearby, some 100m north, is a more common, sometimes no less mysterious, enclosure of earth and stone measuring 40m x 50m. A lot of these have been ‘discovered’ over the last few months but nothing about the sites lends itself to easy categorisation (animal husbandry notwithstanding) and certainly not dating.
Stugger Hill in Urafirth is another of these known unknowns. As you pass Ness-houlls Loch and descend through Valla Dale
on either side of the Burn of Valladale you come across an occasional site, likely from a more modern period, and a variety of walls some of which appear prehistoric as they snake off in the distance. Once down at the Lang Roonie it suddenly opens into a terraced, divided and completely mixed landscape with several prehistoric homesteads (perhaps as many as five, one of which has a structure akin to Neolithic dwellings and another which threw up an ard point) and several enclosures, krubs and perhaps a croft of unknown period. The mystery here is two again. Across the Burn of Valladale at the base of The Beorg are several amorphous piles of stone. No surprise as quarrying from this cliff edge seems more than probable. However, two of these several piles have definition like one would find with a cairn and one has a decidedly straight edge, the other covered in enough earth to make interpretation more difficult. A second mystery, and one we hope to partially solve with our upcoming walk in December, is a stone slab with what appears to be Latin inscribed on the visible surface. This has potentially been assigned to the Medieval period based on a very loose translation but until we clean and record the stone its message and origin will remain largely unknown.
Moving back up the coast to Helga Water in Hillswick we have a rather unique and unknown structure along the southwestern bank of the freshwater loch. It might be fruitful first to look at the history of Helga Water, also known as the Water of Health. According to Samuel Hibbert, writing in 1822, this loch was once held as sacred, probably by the Pagan past but perhaps into the Christian period as well. Although he offers no firsthand accounts, he postulates people may have walked around it in a clockwise fashion in silence whilst casting water onto their heads to ward off sickness, something he suggests was still going on in Orkney. Nonetheless, the structure on its shore is puzzling. Roughly 1.5m in height, it is fully 30 meters long and 17 meters wide. Capped with a ring of stones, undoubtedly unrelated, it is purely made of earth. Though this may seem unremarkable, its division indicates otherwise. Its southern flank is formed by a crescent shaped earthen bank, some .75m in height and 7m wide (thus the main portion of the structure is 10m wide and twice the height) and gained from the outside by an earthen ramp some 2m in width that rises to meet it roughly centred along the 30m length. There are several field walls prehistoric in origin nearby and more modern structures as well which confuses further any ability to put it into a time period or gain any real insight into its purpose. It could very well be related to the legacy of Helga Water as curative or restorative but in truth it is pure speculation.
A final mystery is near the edge of Birka Water in North Roe, about midway between the northern slopes of Ronas Hill and
the Beorgs of Uyea. Here we have several corbelled cells, as many as seven, at the base of a cliff topped with a modern cairn. Buried deep in peat and heather, most have experienced some collapse but one of them is remarkably exposed and intact. Determined to be at least 1.1m in depth, it widens from barely over .5m at the top to 1m at what we can find as floor level. Moreover, once inside it is clearly connected to the neighbouring cell by a narrow passage. Such passages appear evident in the partially collapsed cells as well. They do have a resemblance to shieling huts, though on a smaller scale, and due to the relative size of Shetland these huts are quite rare even if this is one of the more remote areas in which to find yourself. In a sense, it is not without precedence; if one walks the outer edges of Ronas Hill, most particularly a couple of kilometers north of the peak, you will find even smaller and more crude variations dotting the landscape. If indeed these latter shelters were used while pasturing animals, it can only be guessed they were hastily constructed and covered with animal skins for protection. As one could only hope to crouch for a short period of time, they would at best be a site to wait out a squall. Our community of huts, larger and better constructed, would indicate an area where seasonal movement was done on a regular basis. Nonetheless, whatever the origin, they are a unique feature for Shetland.
Though such mystery sites abound in all parts of Shetland, many awaiting ‘discovery’, it is in Northmavine we spent a great deal of time this year. Largely away from the high-profile sites, yet they too threw up some new finds, there is an abundance of archaeology throughout. Sometimes the finds are small, such as an ard point out of an eroded peat bank at the very top of Cu Roonie in Urafirth, but are no less a surprise.
To discuss or further elucidate us on any of these sites then please contact us.
Hibbert, Samuel (1822). "Description of the Shetland Islands", 232-33.