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  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

In Depth - A Brief Economic Case Study of Lang Clodie Wick

The following is a companion piece to the presentation of ‘The Iron Age in the Neolithic Axe Factory of North Roe, Shetland’. It forms a part of wider research into this area where the 14m diameter roundhouse at this location is at least of middle Iron Age origin but is proposed a late Iron Age wheelhouse. In a real sense, the architectural typology is immaterial to the following as it is looking through the lens of monumental construction and economics. Whether a fully realised wheelhouse or a simple Atlantic roundhouse, the scale of the building indicates it does have ‘status’ and anchors a rather isolated location likely engaged in agricultural activities. It begins with a very brief look at what we know of the preceding broch societies before moving on to consider later iterations of largescale architecture.

Lang Clodie Wick

There is still considerable debate as to the precise role brochs played as a conspicuous display of power and the nature of their centrality to middle Iron Age society. When what is considered prestige items are often found in later contexts, a clearer definition of social status via monumentality of structure is needed when it is unclear who constituted the household (Hingley 1992; Harding 2004) in a system where wealth appeared to derive from land and stock holding (Barrett 1981; Harding 2004). While there is a notional final collapse of broch society somewhere between the 2nd and 4th century (Armit 2016: 47; Harding 2004: 296; Foster 2001: 59), this should be viewed as evolutionary rather than an abrupt transition. East Shore Broch (Canmore ID: 918) showed evidence of primary occupation until the middle of the millennium as did Upper Scalloway (Sharples 1998), both with wheelhouses later inserted. Furthermore, the wheelhouse still contained elements of monumental status only now it projected within rather than without. Ian Armit (2016: 47) believes this is evidence of more social integration and stability where an invitation into the home was embodied in the wide-open spaces. Niall Sharples (2003: 158) agrees but speculates a further delineation of space within the wheelhouse based perhaps on individual social status. Much of the evidence, however, points more strongly at the continuation of extended kinship with elite status in transition to clientship and further developments in the centralisation of power (Foster 2001: 61).

The model of how these societies might have functioned during this transition is an important consideration. In a comprehensive study of the Iron Age landscape in Shetland, in particular the areas around brochs, Noel Fojut has speculated each site formed a wider economic unit based primarily, but not exclusively, on subsistence agriculture where an inherent interconnectedness of society was necessary for function (1982). Tanja Romankiewicz (2016) further illustrated how the close proximity of brochs to one another is indicative of a complex control and sharing system that formed the basis of a cooperative economic model. This is contrasted by Mike Parker Pearson and Sharples following excavations at Dun Vulan (1996) where their review of the Western Isles brochs indicated chieftain elites in competitive isolation, similar to the patronage system advocated by Euan MacKie (2010). At Old Scatness, the excavators believe the broch was a projection of power but perhaps more as the farmstead of a minor chieftain or wealthy farmer (Dockrill, Outram and Batt, 2006). The preponderance of high cost/low yield beef cattle as opposed to dairy may signify a contentious raiding society yet, rather than an aggressive model of patronage, the excavation showed a level of cooperation for agricultural improvement on very difficult land occupied before and after the broch was built.

Leaving aside for a moment whether it is a product of middle Iron Age or late Iron Age construction, these models are appropriate to a deeper understanding of Lang Clodie Wick. The site could be one of isolated subsistence with its closest coastal neighbours the smaller sites south at Valla Kames and north at Hevda Dale, both approximately 2km away. As there is no enclosure or evidence of land division this could be evidence arguing in favour of peaceful coexistence, or these other sites were abandoned by this time. It may also fit a model of chieftain elite receiving tribute from nearby lower status sites if they were still occupied. With strong evidence it is indeed a wheelhouse, it presupposes they fulfilled the same function and carried the same monumental currency the brochs did. This can be cast in some doubt due to the preponderance of them in contemporary occupation with one another around Old Scatness and Jarlshof. It is undeniable the building of a wheelhouse is no small feat. Reconstruction of Structure 6 at Old Scatness, a wheelhouse roughly half the size of Lang Clodie Wick, took 183 tonnes of stone and 780 man hours to complete (Dockrill et al. 2010: 73). This is surely a community effort lasting many weeks and for a building such as Lang Clodie Wick, in excess of 14m in diameter, lasting many more. All the same, this effort does fall considerably short of the labour and material for a fully realised broch.

However, a strictly competitive model here is quite problematic. Lang Clodie Wick is a remote inland site, perhaps nearly as much in the Iron Age, where the closest safe entry point to the sea is 3.5km north in the territory surrounding Uyea. Thus, it has no ready access to driftwood and marine resources. Though there is some evidence the level of deforestation by this time may be overstated – native wood used for fuel was found at Old Scatness in the LIA and Viking period (Dockrill et al. 2010: 204) and a C14 test on roots from an 18-year-old Scots Pine found on the northeastern slopes near Ronas Hill returned a date between 130 and 185 AD (Megarry 2019) – the sea provided a variety of resources difficult to replace. Yet, this is only true if theories on marine resource consumption are correct. As no largescale excavations of brochs and their surrounding wheelhouses have been undertaken outside of coastal areas in Shetland, especially isolated or lower status sites, the importance of these resources for the average Iron Age household may be overstated.

Although we cannot say with any certainty where in the hierarchy of location choice Lang Clodie Wick is situated, it does fit a more cooperative economic model. Exceptionally large clearance cairns are indicative of a site engaged in agricultural practices, the poor soils perhaps more conducive to pastoral activities. It may have grown a subsistence level of grain but there is no surviving evidence of cultivation. Oats are a possibility; at Old Scatness a rise in oats was detected from the middle Iron Age which usefully grows on poorer land (Dockrill et al. 2010: 204). Throughout Orkney and Shetland, a diversification of crops bringing previously uncultivated land into production and the storage of grain as seen at Upper Scalloway may indicate increasing yields as a result of further centralisation of power (Bond 2002: 184). There is a large increase in pig consumption in the LIA suggestive of a feasting elite and oats may have been introduced primarily for enhanced cattle and horse fodder (Ibid: 181-4). Perhaps Lang Clodie Wick was engaged in trade beyond its immediate region. For example, the pigs consumed at Old Scatness may have come from elsewhere (Dockrill et al. 2010: 156). Though they could have been taken in a raid or paid in tribute, it is perhaps as likely to result from cooperative economics with increasing specialisation as the Iron Age progressed.

So whither Lang Clodie Wick? The size of the structure may indicate minor chieftain/wealthy farmer status within an extended kinship model. The poor quality of land and lack of access to the sea could be signs of specialised economy with cooperation or subordination to Uyea or higher status sites lost underneath the village of North Roe. If it does prove to be a late Iron Age wheelhouse this may simply be one site in the transition to clientship and further developments in the centralisation of power (Foster 2001: 61). Its location would suggest potentially more productive land to the south and certainly as far as Uyea to the north were occupied at the same time. In this regard, Lang Clodie Wick was part of a chain of settlements extending around the coasts of North Roe where connections with one another is easier to contemplate than isolated competition.


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Sharples, N. (2003) ‘From monuments to artefacts: changing social relationships in the later Iron Age’. In Sea Change: Orkney and Northern Europe in the later Iron Age AD 300-800. Ed. by Downes, J. and Ritchie, A. Balgavies: The Pinkfoot Press.


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