The Life And Times Of The Cairns

I have been fascinated by brochs since I first read about them as a primary school bairn. That was over 50 years ago and little was known about them then , even less about the people who lived in the brochs.

It is projects like the one at The Cairns excavation at Windwick Bay, South Ronaldsay, Orkney that is changing all of that. On Wednesday, 29th of April, Orkney Archaeology Society (OAS) hosted a talk by Cairns excavation director, Martin Carruthers of the Archaeology Institute, UHI.

The Cairns Broch, Orkney (2019) Credit Bell

‘The Life and Times of The Cairns’ kept the audience of almost 300 people enthralled, as Martin, talked us through the excavation so far. Due to the lockdown restrictions of Covid19, the excavation wasn’t able to take place last year but that has presented an opportunity to process much of the material. This includes radio carbon dating providing accurate dating periods.

Brochs are amazing structures – tower houses that supported surrounding communities – and at The Cairns – lasted 1,000 years.

I particularly appreciated how Martin Carruthers set what was happening at The Cairns within the landscape. He did this across time as well as location. What we have is an area which has been used and shaped by humankind for thousands of years – up to the present day.

Looking towards Windwick Bay from The Cairns

The Cairns broch is set back from the coastline and is about 40m above sea level. It sits within a valley. When it was occupied during the Iron Age it would have been a prominent feature – seeing and being seen.

Martin Carruthers

Martin Carruthers described it as a complex mutli-period site but with a fantastic preservation of materials. There have been 13 seasons of excavations so far, producing thousands of artefacts: animal bones, a souterrain, an exceptional carved stone head, glass beads, pottery, a wooden bowl, moulds for jewellery making, human remains (including strands of hair) and environmental samples.

This rich bounty of material is being meticulously processed and documented by a team of volunteers and students. All of that information goes towards forming a picture of what life in The Broch was like.

Martin Carruthers has assigned 11 phases to past activity at the site including what was happening once The Broch tower itself was no longer in use.

It is a period of stability and change, explained Martin Carruthers, it is generational with its rhythms and routines.

Prior to the building of The Broch the area was landscaped. It sits on sloping ground so to create a level platform a substantial amount of the hillside was cut into. It had a ditch system which has not yet been fully explored. Externally the diameter was 21.5m and 11m internally. The walls were 5 m thick and remain up to a height of 2m.

The Cairns Broch – the well Credit: Bell

The interior is very well preserved and there are cells within walls. There were also upper storeys. Martin Carruthers explained that within The Broch space was demarcated. It forms two halves with the central area of the broch being more like a corridor space. There is no hearth in this part. Many of the hearths are very informal.

It appears that different activities were taking place in the two halves. In the West section food is being processed and there are a lot of objects which could be best described as ‘bling’. In the other half – textile production is one of the activities.

The floors are rich in micro artefacts. All these are being studied and add to a more complete understanding of what was happening and how people were living over several generations.

The Cairns Photo B Bell

There are cereal grains and burnt bone giving us an idea of what people were eating around the hearths. Lots of red deer and cattle meat but also seal, sheep, goat, fish, whale, swan, a variety of birds and juvenile pig. A human tooth with substantial dental plaque will also provide dietary information.

Towards the end of The Broch as people were no longer using it as a place to live there were deliberate deposits made as the community began to close it up. In the well was found a remarkable wooden bowl which had contained a dairy product (butter/cheese/yogurt), something like Bog Butter. In it was also found the strands of human hair. Analysed these are from two people: one is red haired, the second one dark much coarser hair.

Martin Carruthers described the similarities and differences to Broch sites in other parts of Scotland. There are similarities with sites in Caithness where surrounding buildings are of a rectilinear design rather than round, which is the case elsewhere

Scatness Dig, Shetland Credit Steve Jones

There are also no wheelhouses in Orkney, superb examples of which are found in Shetland – more information here Scatness Broch Shetland

Jarlshof, Shetland – wheelhouse

The most exciting thing was left to last when Martin Carruthers announced that The Cairns project would be participating in COMMIOS.

we will conduct the first concerted programme of genome-wide ancient DNA analysis on Iron Age populations anywhere in the world (c. 1000 individuals in the UK), mapping genetic clusters to shed light on ancient populations and on their relationships to modern genetic patterning.

Together with isotope analysis, and underpinned by both osteoarchaeological and cultural archaeological approaches, we will directly address critical issues of population movement and inter-regional connectivity in Iron Age Europe


If I was excited as a bairn by brochs when so little was known about them, I am even more so now that archaeology and science is providing more evidence about the communities who lived in and around them.

The talk was recorded and will be uploaded to the OAS YouTube.

If you want to read more about The Cairns, The Orkney News has several articles about the excavation (just use our search button) and you can also find out more here: Archaeology Orkney

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

2 replies »

  1. Yay! Martin’s talk is now view-able……

    Other side of the coin – a decision has been made to cancel field work at The Cairns for Summer 2021. The team will, however, be pushing on with the work of analysing the artefacts, environmental remains, samples and the masses of data already acquired.
    An archaeologist’s work is never done….

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