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Prehistoric Caithness

Archaeology

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There are possibly about 4000 sites in Caithness from Prehistoric times. Most of the sites in Caithness have not been excavated and others may have been tackled in days before the knowledge of how to go about it was better understood.  Even so what is clear is that Caithness has been settled for thousands of years and each new period has left distinctive traces.  The listings which follow are not exhaustive but give an indication of what is to be found.  Mysterious and haunting places chosen with care by their builders but leaving us with few clues as to their true nature. With over 100 Broch sites and many other sites from a variety of periods Caithness has a rich history much of it lost in the past.  What is known provides a fascinating glimpse of long disappeared tribes and people who may or may not be connected to people in the area now. The following listings barely scratch the surface of what is to be found and will be added to as time allows.  Reading about them cannot compare to seeing them and to stand next to these ancient places whether beside a loch, on a hill or beside the cliff tops is an unforgettable experience.

Recent excavations at Thrumster have produced evidence for the first time of even earlier occupation of Caithness in the Mesolithic Period   The dig was led by Amelia Pannet who also provided us with her paper on Monuments and Water: A re-interpretation of the Grey Cairns of Camster, Caithness.

Achanarras
Cairn (ND 145552) 2 to 3 miles SSE of Halkirk
The cairn is a low mound 60 feet in diameter.  It is surrounded by five stones about 6 feet long all lying flat and possibly were part of a circle.

Achavanich
Standing Stones (ND188417) ¾ mile SE. of Achavanich
These stones are very close to the road from Achavanich to Lybster and ¼ mile S. of Loch Stemster.
The stones set out in an incomplete oval measure 225 ft. long by about 100ft wide. About 40 stones set upright averaging 5 feet in height and made of Caithness flagstone look as if they may have formed a complete oval but there is no evidence for this.  Probably about one third of the original stones are missing.  Set about 8 feet apart the broadest sides are towards each other. A cist is to be found at the most northern stone. The monument is probably Bronze Age.

Battlemoss Near Yarrows
An excavation in 2003 uncovered some of the stones revealing how they were put in the ground and the work done to ensure they stayed upright for thousands of years.

Ben Dorrery
Standing Stone (ND 066550) About 9 miles SE of Reay (A836 by road and moorland)
The stone can be found on the east side of Ben Dorrery West of Dorrery Lodge.  It is an example of several stones in the area. It is 5 feet high and 3 feet wide by 1.5 feet thick

Ben Freicadain
Fort (ND 059558) 8 miles SE Reay
Roads and low hill.
The most northerly fort of Britain it sits in a superb position on the top of Ben Freiadain with unblocked views over Caithness and Orkney and south to Sutherland. To the west rough country and south over a large bog known as Buaile Oscar. The fort is 470 feet wide and 900 feet long. The wall is about 12 feet thick. The entrance was lined with large slabs set on end. An even older chambered cairn – possibly 2000 years earlier sits on the very top of the hill. The fort is thought to be early Iron Age.

Broubster
Standing Stones (ND 048608) 6 miles SE of Reay
A836 road.
Consists of 9 stones from a possible 32 set about 12 feet apart. Forming a U shape 140 feet long and 90 feet wide.  The largest stone 5.5 feet high stands at the apex.  A single stone 7 feet high stands 130 feet away but no one has made a reasonable connection between the stones as yet.

Bruan
Broch (ND 310394) 7 ½ Miles SSW of Wick
A9
One of many brochs in the area robbed to make other buildings. A stony mound covered in grass but still 10 feet high and surrounded by a ditch and wall.

Camster
Chambered Cairn (ND 260442) 6 ¼ miles S of Watten
Side road from Lybster.
This cairn and the round cairn 200 meters away are known as "The Grey Cairns of Camster"
A long horned cairn covering 200 feet by 65 feet is one of the largest cairns in the country. Entrance to the cairns is possible through narrow passageways.  The cairns have been restored to allow the full mystery to remain for generations to come. The area recently a boggy land as far as the eye could see has once again begun to be planted with trees.

Camster
Chambered Cairn (ND 260440) 6 ½ miles S of Watten.
Side road from Lybster.
A round cairn 55 feet in diameter and 12 feet in height. Like its neighbour the cairn can be entered through a 20 foot passageway although this requires you to crouch down.  A window has been set into the roof in modern times to allow light into the cairn. An unusual experience to stand in this ancient building surrounded by open country.

Dirlot
Stone Rows (ND 124488)
2 ½ miles S of Halkirk – B870 and side road.
Two cairns one 20 feet and one 15 feet in diameter stand on a low mound 300 meters SSW of Dirlot. From these 20 rows of stones spread out down the slope up to a distance of 100 feet. Many stones are missing.

Dorrery
Chambered Cairn (ND 075554) 9 miles SE of Reay
A836 and side road.
A quarter of a mile N by E of Dorrery Lodge the cairn is a grassy covered mound 42 feet in diameter and 5 feet high.

Earl’s Cairn
Chambered Cairn (ND 263697) 2 ¼ miles SW of Mey
Side roads.
A round chambered cairn with Camster type section and excavated many years ago. It is 40 feet in diameter. A passage gives access to a section 2 feet by 5 feet and a second 6 feet by 7 feet and a third 3 feet by 3 feet.

Forse
Homestead (ND 204352) 1 mile NNE of Latheron
A9 and farm road.
A circular enclosure 45 feet in diameter surrounded by a 4 feet thick wall. Possibly Iron Age. Several other ruins of various periods are nearby the site.  Forse House Is Nearby

Garrywhin
Stone Rows (ND 313413) 7 miles SSW of Wick
A9 then side road.
The monument is at the EAST of the hill which has the Garrywhin Fort and 200 meters NNE of the short horned cairn with the same name. It has a small cairn about 18 feet in diameter with six rows of slabs SW down the slope. The longest row is about 200 feet in length. Many stones are missing from the rows.

Garrywhin
Fort (ND 314414) 6 ¼ miles SSW of Wick
A9 and low hill.
The fort spreads over an area 200 feet wide by 590 feet long. It sits between Warehouse Hill and Loch Watenan and is surrounded by various small bogs. The walls were about 8 feet thick and the remains of the entrance are still to be seen. This is one of the best examples of this type of fort in the north of Scotland. It is a reasonable walk from the car parking area and requires time to take in the other monuments in the area not all of which are sign posted. The area also contains many examples of later periods but little of this is sign posted and interested people should look out for organised walks in the area with local experts.

Garrywhin
Chambered Cairn (ND 313411) 7 miles SSW of Wick.
A9 side road and moor.
A short horned cairn ½ a mile west of Ulbster station (rail tracks lifted but route still clear – part of the old Wick/Lybster Railway). The cairn is very damaged but the chamber can clearly be seen along with the passageway. Several features are still clearly visible.

Ham
Chambered Cairn (ND 235738) 3 ¼ miles W by N of Mey
A836 and side road.
A round chambered cairn made up of a grassy mound some 60 feet in diameter and 8 feet high. This is the most northerly chambered cairn in mainland Britain.

Hill of Rangag
Standing Stone (ND 176448) 7 miles N of Latheron
A895
One of several standing stones in the area this four sided pillar under 3 feet square rises to nine feet in height only 30 meters east of the road. Easily seen from the road.

Holborn Head
Fort (ND108715). 1 ½ miles N by W of Thurso.
A822 and Farmland
The fort is made by a wide wall cutting off the headland. Deep gashes in the ground and cliffs combine to make the defensive nature of the fort.  As with many promontory site fresh water supplies would have meant that only relatively short stays were possible.

Keiss
Broch (ND 353611) North of Keiss Harbour.
The Kirk Tofts Broch is a good example of a early broch dating back to the 1st century BC. It was modified and adapted some 100-200 years later.

Langwell
Homestead (ND 102218) 1 mile WSW of Berriedale
A9 and path.
Not much is known about the type of building making this homestead. With walls 6 feet thick and 27 feet in diameter there are various parts – one a gallery 48 feet by 14 feet. Various finds have been made over the years.

Loch of Yarrows
Standing Stones ( ND 316432) 5 ½ miles SSW of Wick.
A9 then side roads recently made up to good quality. Part of a walk -Yarrows Trail- this area is rich in prehistoric and later settlements. The sites are well marked.
Two needle stones stand on the top of a ridge half a mile SE of the Loch of Yarrows. The stones are about 6 ½ feet and 8 ½ feet tall. The stones may have been moved about 100 years ago when excavations were made.

Mid Clyth
Stone rows (ND 294384) 9 miles SSW of Wick
A9 and side roads. The road lies along side the monument.
This is one of the more famous of many stone rows in the county known as the "Hill of Many Stanes". In recent years several stone rows not previously known were discovered in the vicinity by a member of the Caithness Field Club when the heather was burnt off in a hot spell one summer. The stone rows are made up of 22 rows.

Ormiegill
Chambered Cairn (ND 332429) 5 miles SSW of Wick
A9 and path.
A short horned cairn set on the Hill of Ulbster. It is now a collapsed of stones. Originally 75 feet by 70 feet it has been excavated and found to have Charred bones, western neolithic pottery, flint objects and a mace-head.

Ousdale
Broch (ND 072188) 4 miles SW of Berriedale.
A9 and moor.
Standing on the right bank of the Ousdale Burn between the main road and the sea. 350 feet above the sea it commands spectacular vistas to sea and is defended by steep drops to the burn. The wall is 14 feet thick. It is one of the best-preserved brochs and many features are easily to be seen.

St John’s Point
Fort (ND 310752) 2 miles NE of Mey
A836, side roads and footpath.
The fort is a promontory fort and the most northern of its type. With a ditch and a stoney rampart 10 feet high stretching from cliff to cliff about 600 feet wide. Possibly Iron Age in origin it may well have been re-used by the Vikings and later people.  An early chapel is supposed to have been sited at the eastern end of te main wall.

Sgarbach
Dun (ND 373637) ½ mile east of Auckengill over grazing land.
Set on a promontory a wall 62 feet long cuts off the cliff. At over 12 feet thick and 4 feet in height and an entrance passage 3 feet wide it does not take much imagination to see that the original when at its full size would have commanded the respect of any attackers.

Shebster
Chambered Cairn (ND 013653) 3 miles East of Reay
Side road and grazing land.
A long horned cairn near to another on the northern summit of Ward Hill (Cnoc Freiceadan)

Shebster
Chambered Cairn (ND 014654) 3 miles East of Reay
Side road and grazing land.
A long horned cairn near to another on the northern summit of Ward Hill (Cnoc Freiceadan)

Shebster
Chambered Cairn (ND 013646) 3 miles east of Reay.
Side road and farmland.
A round cairn on the top of Shebster Hill over 80 feet in diameter. It is divided into three compartments similar to the cairn at Camster.

Shurrery
Fort (ND 053577) 7 miles SE of Reay.
Side roads and moor.
The wall of stone slabs about 7 feet thick around an area 300ft long by 200 feet wide. Another inner enclosure 30 feet in diameter and 7 feet thick is now overgrown and sits on the SE part of the fort.

Shurrery
Chambered Cairn (ND 048587) 6 ½ miles. SE of Reay
Side roads.
Some of the original stone slabs 5 feet high remain in place although it is not easy to be sure what the original shape of the cairn was.

Skinnet Stone
8th CenturyAD now in the Thurso Museum

Skirza
Broch (ND 394684) 2 ¾ miles S of Duncansby
A9 and side road.
With 14 feet thick wall and enclosed area of 22 feet in diameter. Other structures are both in and out of the original structure.

Ulbster Stone
From the Pictish period - 7th or 8th century AD.  The stone now in the Thurso Heritage Museum was originally sited at (ND336419).

Upper Dounreay
Stone Rows (ND 012659) 3 ¼ miles E by N of Reay.
The stones – about 100 form 13 rows and a possible cist may be the area to which the stones point. The rows are set out WNW and ESE.

Warth Hill
Cairn (ND 371698) About 6 miles ESE of Mey on the A836.
It is the highest point in the parish of Canisbay about 300 meters west and 30 meters above the main road. The cairn is scattered and originally stretched to about 40 feet in diameter within two rows of large stones 4 feet apart. The cairn covered a cist which contained a skeleton but no goods were found. Another cist was found to the SW of the first and apparently contained another body.

Westerdale
Broch (ND 133510) 5 miles S of Halkirk.
B870 and grazing land.
The Broch is on the right bank of the Thurso River ½ mile south of Westerdale. The wall is 12 feet thick and the inside measures 28 feet in diameter. Other buildings surround the main part.

Yarrows
Chambered Cairn (ND 304432) 5 ½ miles SSW of Wick.
A9 Farm road and rough land.
Two long horned cairns were originally 300 yards apart SSW of Loch of Yarrows but 100 years ago excavations destroyed one of them.  The other is enormous in length being 240 feet long and 92 feet wide.  A Camster type cairn in three parts could be entered by a short passage and are clearly to be seen today.
MORE about Yarrows
Yarrows Day Out

Sculptured Stones Of Caithness

Articles On Stone Rows In Caithness & Sutherland
The Multiple Stone Rows of Caithness & Sutherland 1

The Multiple Stone Rows of Caithness & Sutherland 2

The Multiple Stine Rows of Caithness & Sutherland 3 - Not Yet published on Caithness.org

The Multiple Stone Rows of Caithness & Sutherland 4 - Their Purpose

Stone Rows of Tormsdale

Caithness Field Club Pages on Caithness.org has a variety of articles on Ancient monuments, stones, hut circles etc.

Caithness Field Club Bulletins - contain many articles on Archaeological and Historical subjects