For the fourth instalment of my Scottish travels, I will head as far north as it is possible to go in the British Isles, up first to Orkney and then Shetland. These locations are superbly rich in archaeology, and the magazine’s coverage reflects this. In terms of cover stories alone, they account for, by my reckoning, 12 of the so-far 396 covers, which makes them one of the most consistent stars in the 56-year history of the magazine.
As noted previously, these columns on Scotland are dedicated to the memory of Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022), an old friend, outstanding archaeologist, and proud Scotswoman who had a particular love of the Highlands and Islands.
Sights and sagas
Orkney is referred to so many times in the history of Current Archaeology that I have had to be highly selective in my sampling. If you are curious, then do a keyword search of the online archive (and if you do not subscribe to the online edition, then here is a great reason to do so: www.archaeology.co.uk/digital).
An exceptional starting point is CA 199 (September/October 2005), a special edition that belatedly celebrated the creation of the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ World Heritage Site (see https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/514). But the first-ever mentions of the islands come in passing in CA 2 and 5 (May and November 1967), while the first site-specific study waited until CA 56 (May 1976), when the Bronze Age burnt mounds of Quoyscottie (near Dounby, on the north end of the island called the Mainland) were examined by a hardy team in the spring of that year.
A very different, and emotionally impactful, Norse site on the southern shores of the Mainland then featured for the first time in CA 127 (December 1991) and again in CA 154 and 212 (September 1997 and November 2007): that of Earl’s Bu and Church at Orphir, a site which features in the Orkneyinga Saga of c.1136. This narrative describes a ‘large drinking-hall’ next to a ‘magnificent church’, the remains of which survive to this day. For those curious to learn more of Orkney’s Norse heritage, I flag too CA 228 (March 2009), which visited Deerness on the far eastern coast, and CA 253 (April 2011), which visited Birsay-Skaill on the opposite west coast.
Links to the Neolithic
Any of you who know Orkney will realise that the above sites, for all their delicious richness, were merely designed to whet your appetites. The ‘red meat’ of Orkney’s archaeology comes from later editions of the magazine, but reflect a much earlier time: the Neolithic. It is the stunning density of sites dating to this period that gained Orkney its World Heritage status.
Proceeding chronologically through the pages of Current Archaeology, we will start with Barnhouse and Maeshowe, which first appeared in CA 131 (October 1992), and then again in CA 154 (September 1997). The former is immediately adjacent to the Stones of Stenness, clustered with other Neolithic sites, including the Ring of Brodgar, in a natural bowl in the south-western Mainland. At this time, the area was subject to a programme of fieldwalking funded jointly by the Societies of Antiquaries of Scotland and London. This would lead to the discovery of what was thought to be a Neolithic settlement there. CA 154 followed up on this discovery, reporting that the site’s unusual layout led the excavators to conclude that it, too, had a ritual component, alongside that of its near neighbours.
News of these neighbours – led by an examination of the huge Neolithic complex (buried beneath an artificial mound the size of five football pitches) known as the Ness of Brodgar – then comes first in CA 224 (November 2008), and repeatedly after that, including in CA 241 and 259 (April 2010 and October 2011; both cover stories), and again in CA 328 and 335 (July 2017 and February 2018), the latter another cover story. The site’s most recent coverage came in last month’s issue, CA 395. The adjacent associated henge and stone circle known as the Ring of Brodgar then appeared on the cover of CA 347 (February 2019). This is quite the constellation of Neolithic stars.
Perhaps the most famous Neolithic site of all in Orkney – and possibly the British Isles – also makes a regular appearance in the pages of Current Archaeology: Skara Brae, on the Mainland’s west coast. Although regularly namechecked, it did not receive dedicated coverage until CA 268 (July 2012), but from then on it featured frequently, including in CA 316 and 318 (July and September 2016), and most recently in CA 361 (April 2020).
Finally, before I leave the Mainland, I must mention one other site of this era, the stunning Neolithic house at St Ola, just south of Kirkwall, that featured in CA 291 (June 2014). Here was discovered the oldest art yet found on the islands – testimony to the extraordinary richness of the Neolithic communities living there at this time.
Islands of the imagination
Moving away from Orkney’s Mainland, I want quickly to visit three of the archipelago’s islands. The first and closest of these is Wyre, to the north-east of Mainland, which CA 268 (July 2012) visited as part of a feature on Orkney before Skara Brae, examining the islands’ earliest farming village. Next up is Westray, further to the north-east, where the magazine toured the famous Links of Noltland (a Neolithic/Bronze Age farming settlement dating from about 3300-800 BC) in CA 275 (February 2013) and 387 (June 2022). Third and finally (and furthest north-east of all), we come to Papa Westray, where CA 154 (September 1997) and 318 (September 2016) visited the Neolithic Knap of Howar: two ‘houses’ with surviving stone cupboards and stalls that date to the 3rd millennium BC – contemporary with Orkney chambered tombs such as Midhowe.
I will conclude this first visit to the Islands of Scotland with a brief visit to the far north and Shetland. The remoteness of this location has meant that Current Archaeology’s visits have been modest in comparison to those made to Orkney, but, in particular, the magazine has made repeated trips to examine the fine Iron Age brochs that survive there, including Old Scatness broch in CA 177 (January 2002) and 308 (November 2015), and Mousa broch (on the island of the same name) in CA 274 (January 2013) and 330 (September 2017).
I will continue my island peregrinations in the next issue, heading west and, in time, south to the Western Isles and Hebrides, visiting prehistoric and later sites, especially those of the Viking Age.
Discover old issuesRead a selection of the articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive396. They will be available for one month from 2 February. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI396’.
Some of the articles mentioned by Joe are also available on The Past (with a subscription):