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Off the Beaten Track 1 – Punds Water

Published: 02 April 2020

Punds Water House

It’s a well kept secret that Shetland is full of archaeological treasures.  In these strange times of Coronavirus driving long distances to go for a walk is now discouraged.  However, one of the glories of Shetland’s archaeology is that it survives so well across the islands that nowhere is very far from remains worth visiting.  For those near Punds Water this may walk be of interest this week, for those farther afield it is maybe one to plan a visit too once we are free to move around more.

There is a remarkably well-preserved chambered-cairn at Punds Water (HU 32454, 71246), in the hills above Mangaster.  If you are approaching from the main road heading north, take the first road after Mavis Grind.  (There is plenty of parking alongside the main road, just before the turning.)   A short distance in, there is a double fence on the right.  Walking up this way keeps you off the enclosed land.  Once the fencing ends, bear right (roughly southwest).  The chambered cairn is much easier to find now that there is a wind turbine to aim for.  From the wind turbine you can more or less look down at the cairn, nearby.

Once you leave the enclosed land on the hill above Mangaster and start to descend on the other side, it is like entering another, almost magical, world.  The landscape is full of small lochs and peat moorland with no modern habitation in sight.  It is hard to imagine that 4,000 years ago people lived, fished and farmed this land.

The chambered cairn sits on a low knoll not far from the summit of the hill.  It is about 15 metres across at the widest point, and is nearly the best preserved heel-shaped cairn in Shetland mainland.   (The very best is in Vementry but that one is much more difficult to visit.)  When archaeologists talk about something being heel-shaped, they mean that it is oval, with the front curving inwards, resembling the heel of a shoe.  Punds Water cairn has a pair of “horns” on either side of the curving face.  Both the front and the back are outlined by a clear kerb of stones, many of which are substantial.  In some places the kerb has more than one course of stone. The entrance is right in the centre of the curving front.  The passage would have once been covered with stone slabs.  It ends at a small cross-shaped, or trefoil-shaped, chamber which is barely big enough to lay one body in.

Since cairns are usually found in peaty land and were often dug into in the past, bone and artefacts rarely survive.  Archaeologists don’t know exactly how they were used.  Perhaps it was the grave of just one person.  If so, who?  Judging by the much bigger cairns in Orkney, it is very possible that the cairns were used many times, with bodies being cleared aside or even totally removed before the next was put in.  Or perhaps people were laid out for the birds and wildlife to eat the flesh, with only a few bones ever making it into the cairn.  Even so, it is unlikely that the majority of the population were ever buried in the cairn.  What happened to the other bodies is a bit of a mystery.  Were they buried in the peat or thrown into the sea?  Whatever happened, there is little evidence left.

As with most chambered cairns there is a good view from this spot, and from here you can probably make out another archaeological site, about 300 metres away, on the west side of Punds Water (HU 32275, 71444).  Charles Calder excavated it in 1957 and thought it was another cairn, but chambered cairn expert Miss Audrey Henshall, and most of the archaeologists who have visited it since believe that it is a prehistoric house site, broadly contemporary with the cairn.  Inside it has 5 or 6 “cells” or small rooms which were probably roofed individually with corbelled (beehive-shaped) roofs of stone.  Perhaps turf was laid over the top to keep the insides dry.  There is a massive bank outside the building – maybe it provided shelter for the doorway.  However, the entranceway is very strange.  It is curving, like the cairn entrance, and also has a cairn-like low passage way.  It almost looks as if there are two early prehistoric sites, one on top of the other.  But which came first?  Only a meticulous excavation could sort that one out.   Meanwhile, why not see what you think.

It’s easy to get lost in this landscape.  I can vouch for that.  So, ideally, go prepared with a map or GPS.  This walk will take you 2-3 hours, so I’d recommend taking a flask and please don’t attempt it in fog or low cloud.

Remember that (at the time of writing) the Government guidance is that we stay at least 2 metres from anyone who doesn’t live with us.  Please also remember the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and be responsible – shut any gate which you open, keep your dog under close control or on a lead where there is livestock, leave nothing but footprints, take only photos and memories.

Regional Archaeologist, Val Turner of Shetland Amenity Trust

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