A Later prehistoric house and Early Medieval buildings in Northern Scotland: excavations at Loch Shurrery and Lambsdale Leans, Caithness, 1955, with a note on Lower Dounreay

Author(s): Alastair MacLaren

Contributor(s): Ewan Campbell, Gordon Cook, Janet Hooper, L Wells, Colin Wallace, Jim Rideout

Summary: Two rescue excavations at the northern edge of a rather sparsely occupied part of the interior of Caithness are reported here, lying near to one of the largest clusters of archaeological sites in the modern county. In the event, the monuments were not threatened, and survive.

Because of the limited nature of the excavation at Loch Shurrery (NGR ND 043568),the main value of the evidence about the hut circle relates to its structure and dating. The excavated remains represented a medium-sized oval house with a west-facing entrance. It had an off-centre hearth of rectangular construction. It was rather different in structure to the majority of the small group of such sites which have been excavated in the northern part of the Scottish mainland, as it did not appear to have an internal ring of post holes. In addition, its western entrance is not matched at the other sites, where entrance orientations are to the south, east or south-east. The wall of the Loch Shurrery house was fairly thick and the excavation suggested that it was complex, while the entrance passageway was quite long. The existence of door checks is also an unusual feature and may relate to the entrance structures of brochs and other substantial roundhouses. Two samples of charcoal from the hearth inside the hut circle were submitted for radiocarbon dating: the determinations produce calibrated ranges (at 2-sigma) of 346-4 cal BC and 341 cal BC-1 cal AD. It is likely that most of the excavated, undecorated pottery is also Iron Age, part of a broad tradition of very coarsely tempered pottery. Not-withstanding evidence of extended occupation, the whole period of construction and occupation may have occurred within the Iron Age.

The mound of Lambsdale Leans (NGR ND 051548)lies in Reay parish, situated on low-lying ground at the head of Loch Shurrery and close to where its main tributary (the Torran Water) enters the loch from the south. The main characteristics of the this partially-excavated site are the presence of what appeared to be two extended inhumations and the remnants of possible structures associated with several layers of burnt material. Lambsdale Leans itself was a natural mound, of elongated shape and composed largely of sand, into which were set the burials and structural remains. The burials (one certainly female, the other probably so) were not in cists. The structural remains, while not fully excavated, accord well with the general tenor of the available evidence of later first millennium AD buildings in the north of Scotland. Both structures at Lambsdale Leans had floors comprising roughly laid paving, edged with upright slabs, and with an outer kerb of stones. The earliest-dated pottery sherds, unstratified, are from a single grass- tempered handmade vessel whose form cannot be determined. Overall,on one interpretation the Lambsdale Leans evidence favours a context within the Early Medieval period in Caithness. The pottery however, being mostly C12-C13 oxidised wheel-thrown vessels, can be seen to support the suggestion that occupation on the site may have begun in the Medieval period.

Keyword(s): Charcoal, Floors, Mound, Wall, Pottery, Burials, Ring Of Post Holes, Vessels, Hearth

Period(s): Prehistoric, Iron Age, Iron Age

Location(s): NGR: ND 043568; ND 051548

ISBN: 0-903903-74-1

Published: 01-01-2003