The wheelhouse is a form of complex Iron Age roundhouse found in Scotland and largely concentrated in the Northern and Western Isles as well as the highlands. It is an architecturally distinct style of dwelling typified by radiating stone piers, often wedge-shaped with an orthostat at the end, from the outer wall toward the center used to support a timber and thatch roof. So called because they resemble a wheel with spokes, many remarkable examples occur in Shetland such as those at Old Scatness, Jarlshof, Robin’s Brae and Pundswater.
A common hearth area in the middle, these domestic structures were divided into a minimum of three cells but generally many more, sometimes corbelled, and with an overall building size range from a mere 4m inner diameter up to 11-12m. Often subterranean, where only the roof would have been visible above ground, there are many other examples where they were partially embedded in the landscape or built atop the surface depending on the topography. The majority of our excavated wheelhouses can be found within the earlier brochs. This may have been done for additional strength, protection or simply the abundance of available materials for construction.
The interior cells would likely have been used for a variety of domestic functions which might include levels of necessary privacy such as sleeping quarters. Rather than the rough stone walls we see today, the interior was mortared and, as we found in Channerwick in 2015 (see video here) where yellow pigment had gathered at the base of a support pillar, might have been finished to a deceptively high degree. In some instances there may also have been a level of decoration of the interior as evidenced by the bear carving on a broken orthostat that once stood at the end of a radiating pier in Old Scatness.
Lang Clodie Wick
On the edge of the extremely remote cliffs of Lang Clodie Wick in North Roe can be found what is almost certainly a wheelhouse standing alone in the landscape. Rarely visited and labelled on Ordnance Survey maps a homestead, on Canmore as a ‘heavily mutilated’ but probable Iron Age domestic structure via an OS visit in 1969, a couple of intrepid Archaeology Shetland members recently visited the site.
Largely in agreement with the record, the structure has an approximate 11m interior wall diameter with 2-2.5m walls. Of drystone construction, the entrance faces immediately west with a variety of lintels collapsed down. It is undoubtedly a domestic structure rather than chambered cairn as had once been speculated in the original report.
However, in contrast to the characterization as ‘heavily mutilated’, the structure itself appears remarkably well-preserved and in no small part due to the remoteness of its location. To the immediate left of the entrance is a largely intact corbelled cell about 2.5m in length and 1.25m in width. Following clockwise is a collapsed cell and two mostly collapsed cells, lintels of 1m+ size atop, before it falls away to the southwest. Just inside of this immediate area is a large lintel that appears to still be intact along with its support, access inside is impossible with other debris around it. Adjacent to this is an area where a pier has collapsed inward. Completing the circle is evidence of at least two further cells with orthostats, lintels and limited cell remains abundant throughout. In all the structure had between 6 and 8 corbelled cells and was at least partially built into the hillside where the northern and eastern sides were likely at ground level.
Inside the wheelhouse two distinct and what appeared to be fire-cracked stones were found as was an additional stone in a streambed a few meters away. These were beach or well-tumbled stones prior to firing. Two additional chunks of red granite had the hue and brittleness of having been fired as well. The only other anomaly found within the wheelhouse was a large quartz stone in the entrance.
There are additional archaeological features surrounding the site; 12m WSW is an ovate/rectangular structure that is 5m X 3m and 45m north is the much-depleted remains of a 4m diameter crub. It is questionable either of these structures are contemporary with the wheelhouse but may instead be later. However, 45m ESE (uphill) is a 7m X 5m and what appears to be older structure which is compelling in its general size and type, a possible two cell Bronze or early Iron Age roundhouse. A further 15m ESE are the only confirmed wall remains on the landscape with a section of about 10m running roughly north/south and a 2m section off the south end running east/west.
Other than exposed clay deposits found throughout the wider site, the land itself is of particular interest. It does strike as odd that relatively verdant and easily tillable land should be found amid such inhospitable environs. The answer might be the possible clearance cairns found 180m NNE of the site at the high end of the relatively lowest lying land. Unlike typical clearance cairns, the large size – the biggest approximately 15m x 5m – and the size of some of the stones indicates a very extensive and thorough debris clearance (though the lack of field walls is puzzling). There is no access to the sea in any direction even in what one might consider the middle distance.
Two oddities with no way of determining contemporaneity can also be found. The first is a long cist-like structure a few
meters north of the wheelhouse. Measuring 2.5m x 1m and 3/4m in height, it is only slightly submerged in the landscape but on a par with the more exposed sections of the wheelhouse. It appears to mostly utilize different stone in shape and size rather than having been taken from the wheelhouse itself. Although the strong hunch is of a later date, the preservation level would indicate such, one would have expected the construction of it to have used the higher quality and abundant stone nearby. More importantly, for what purpose was it built?
The second is a hollow corbelled cairn a couple of hundred meters ESE on the hill overlooking the site. Others of these can be found dotting the slopes north and northeast of Ronas Hill and are typically a single cell 2m in height and 1m tapering to about 1.5m in width at ground level. Many along the landscape are slightly smaller but all appear designed to be deposited into from the top and are not found near other archaeological sites. However, one of similar construction was found to have what appeared a lintel and small space to crawl or deposit inside, since blocked up, and this was within a larger archaeological site. One speculation has been for food/fuel stores either as an emergency or seasonally since finding anything combustible would be nearly impossible otherwise. Another supposition is a quick-use temporary storm shelter as one could crouch inside but certainly couldn’t lay out.
Regardless the questions or uncertainties around other aspects of the wider site and the Lang Clodie Wick homestead, that this is a wheelhouse is almost certain.