Poverty in the Bronze Age
As a general guide before discussion, upland farming anywhere is a demanding labour, with the rocky landscape it can be even more so here. To add to the local burden, as the trees and variety of flora disappeared in Shetland through the Bronze Age, the soil quality declined as well. The growth of heather and peat bogs from above and salt blow from below, the increasingly colder climate whilst seas were rising, probably led to the proliferation of Bronze Age homesteads along a certain latitude on the hills, between about 30 and 60 metres above sea level. Whether these too were poor homesteads relative to their neighbours is difficult to say. Our exploration of the Beorgs of Housetter in Northmavine would indicate economic inequality may always have existed, including during the Bronze Age, and there are indeed even more humble situations in which to live.
In our recent In Depth article found here, we discussed pauper crofts and the marginal land on which they were built as well as the circumstances that often forced people into such humble abodes. We are able to discuss and interpret these crofts with some degree of certainty because we have written records of their locations and the life circumstances of the inhabitants. But what do we do when we have no written record, when all we have is remains on the ground and field survey? The interpretation is far more challenging and, absent extensive excavation work, borders on a fair amount of speculation. The locational circumstances, however, may provide us with some clues.
This is the case with the small homestead on the southwestern slopes of the Beorgs of Housetter brought to our attention by Kenny Williamson who provided the aerial photograph. At 58m above sea level, the house itself is an oval with four cells each separated by a V-shaped pier finished with an orthostat and an outside wall measurement of 8m x 5m. Each cell is roughly 1m in diameter internally with a possible entrance to the SSW and a porch-like structure extending from this for 2m before cutting back across the entrance for 1m. It has a probable 6m x 4m courtyard appended to the rear of the house and an additional subcircular structure 4m x 3m with a single large orthostat 13m in front.
The circumstances arguing for a poorer homestead here is not simply location but, unlike the vast majority, it has no field wall boundaries other than a large linear wall 15m away that can be traced running up the hillside from the Burn of Roerwater for over 150 metres. The clearance of stone, including boulders, in a heavily rocky area and on a quite steep slope would have been a serious undertaking and likely revealed a thin, undernourished soil. We might further speculate it was a shortlived homestead as the absence of any signs of lynchet downslope would appear to indicate it wasn’t intensively cultivated for any length of time.
More astounding is another homestead several hundred metres north, also on a southwestern but gentler slope, situated at a surprising 115m above sea level and more deeply embedded in the boulder-strewn landscape. Incorporating one such boulder in the fabric of the rear wall, it is a trefoil house some 7m x 6m with a southern entrance opening to a courtyard 4.8m x 4m. The walls vary in thickness from about 1.3m to 1.5m and stand .5m above the current soil layer, a full 1m when measured to floor level.
Although this homestead occupies what may have been easier to till land due to the more even slope, at this elevation and the sheer amount of clearance needed it would hardly have been a prime choice. Moreover, its boundary walls are quite small compared to most homesteads from this broad period, a mere 31m x 23m. It also lacks a steady and easily obtained water supply judging by what is evident today, a small and fairly stagnant burn that meanders through the southern portion of the homestead with very small lochs to the east. That said, the Burn of Roerwater is less than a half kilometre to the west and about three quarters to the easier to traverse south.
Our final homestead profile at the Beorgs of Housetter is humbler than the previous two, the house with an outside wall measurement of just 6m x 5m with about 1m wall thickness. It appears to have been built with two cells separated and supported by two piers each capped with an orthostat. The west facing entrance opens to a courtyard 4m x 3m. Situated on uneven land, the homestead boundary is 50m x 30m yet punctuated by large boulders and bedrock making the functional area of the land considerably less. Occupying a small plateau steeply inclining to the rear and declining to the front, it overlooks the Loch of Housetter about 250 linear metres away which is the only steady source of water that can be found today.
Again, land clearance would have been an issue and the precarious position of the site would indicate poor soil quality in any age. Situated with immediate heights west to the rear, the available direct sunlight would have quickly declined through the day. One advantage it may have had is its proximity to known settlements immediately below. Though contemporaneity is all but impossible to know without dating evidence, something true for all of these sites, the fact it sits above more easily tilled and richer soils in the valley below would indicate those lands were already occupied.
The location of these homesteads with a Bronze Age build typology indicates a level of poverty perhaps commensurate with the pauper crofts we’ve examined before. The circumstances of the people building and eking out a living in such inhospitable places is impossible to know based on just field survey but a level of inequality seems likely. It could be the result of a population boom, arable land collapse, extreme environmental events or simply ostracization and myriad other or combination of reasons. Regardless, they were likely little more than what we can see today which is short-term, probably single generation, homesteads built on unsuitable land with poor soil and exposed conditions much like the pauper crofts of the recent past.
For further reading we recommend Ancient Shetland by Val Turner