Off the Beaten Track 12 - Noosts
Published: 19 June 2020
Until quite recently, a croft which had a coastline was also likely to have a boat noost, a landing-place for the boat. A noost was a simple boat-shaped trench scooped out of the edge of the banks. Sometimes it was lined or built up on the landward side with a low wall of stones. Noosts were a concept introduced by the Vikings, which means that if you come across one when out for a walk the only way of guessing the age is by association. However, if a noost is Viking there’s significant chance that there won’t be much of it left.
Dating a boat noost is pretty challenging too. Marc Chivers and Esther Renwick are currently collecting information and stories associated with noosts in Burra through the Moder Dy Caain da Noosts project, but even that may not conclusively date the noosts. The problem for archaeologists is how to date an empty hole.
Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) is a method of dating when quartz grains were last exposed to light. David Sanderson (Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre) used it to date the sand immediately under the noosts at Underhoull, Unst. The east noost was dated to roughly 1200 AD. The west one had a much wider range of results, averaging about 1540 AD. This would make sense of previous suggestions that the second one had been reused (and therefore disturbed) more recently as a sawpit. However, a word of caution is necessary since the dates can only be taken on the sand under the noost - so while it is very likely, it is not certain that the date can be applied to the building of the noost. The Underhoull examples are Shetland’s only dated noosts so far and they are on the route for today’s walk.
Moder Dy are creating an interactive map of noosts in Shetland, if you find one when out for a walk please collect the information they need and send it on, find out more at https://www.moderdy.org/.
Underhoull – Lund
Every inch of the beautiful landscape between Underhoull and Lund was once inhabited by Vikings. If you have two cars I suggest parking one at Lund, making this a linear walk and avoiding the steep climb that you otherwise need to do on the way back.
The Upper Underhoull longhouse (HP 5755 0444) is right beside the road. It was excavated as part of the Viking Unst project. The walls have been consolidated and the floor lined with gravel which, together with an interpretative board, make it easy to find. It has the distinction of being the only longhouse with indisputable Viking dates. Given its location, quite high on the hillside, the excavators assumed that it was later. Zoe Outram carried out a statistical assessment of the dating which, incredibly, showed that it was built between AD 880 – 100. Intriguingly, although the wall facing the sea was built of stone, the back wall (now facing the road) was built in turf. The main central room had a wooden sprung floor, which we know not only because we found the stone supports but also because ash had fallen through the floorboards onto the bedrock below. Another hint of an early date was that one of the finds was a soapstone fishing weight carved into the form of the Norse god Loki.
In the next field, Underhoull broch (HP 5745 0445) has some of the best surviving defences of any broch anywhere. From the bottom of the ditch, the bank looms above your head. On the far side, the broch is right at the edge of steep slope. It is hard to identify features in the broch itself, apart from the entrance passage on the north side. The broch also provides an amazing view to Lund, the other end of our walk. A rectangular building attached to the outer bank could be a Viking chapel given its location, but this broch has never been excavated.
The easiest way to walk down the hill is to stay in the field to the right and then cross at the stile on flatter ground. As you descend, notice the remains of fields which have been used repeatedly over time. These “garden plots” may first have been used as early as the Iron Age and are unusual in Shetland.
The Lower Underhoull longhouse (HP 5734 0435) was excavated in 1960. Unusually it is aligned along the hill slope, although it seems to have had a byre at one end. The alignment hints at a later Norse date, although the excavator, Alan Small, thought it was 9th century. Interestingly it is almost parallel to the upper longhouse and is a very similar size. It was built over what everyone had assumed was an Iron Age souterrain (small underground storage place), but it is just possible that it could have been built over (or beside) a much earlier chambered cairn.
From the longhouse, follow the coast south and find the dated noosts in the banks above Burga Sands (HP 5725 0424). The drop of a few metres to the beach, as well as the fact that only a short length of the noost survives, shows how much coastal erosion has taken place since Viking times. The noosts would originally have been at the same level as the rest of the beach and would have been much the same length as the Viking ships they were built for. At the south end of the beach there is what may be a tsunami deposit visible in the banks.
Leaving the bay, cross Vinstrick Ness, a promontory which lay between two Viking territories. Some of the mounds on the headland might be Viking graves, although geophysical survey suggested that there was nothing inside them. Vikings often buried their dead at the edges of their farms and since this headland falls between the Underhoull and Lund Viking settlements it is typical of the type of place which they would have chosen.
I recommend walking round Lunda Wick on the beach, to avoid the thistles. Leave the beach at the far end through the gate and head to St Olaf’s chapel (HP 5669 0409). There are four distinctive Viking stone crosses on the south side of the chapel, although one had eroded badly over the past 1000 years. Curiously, a lintel stone over one of the chapel windows has a Pictish fish or serpent cut into it. The stone predates the chapel and would once have been in a more visible location. You need to be inside the chapel to see it but unfortunately access is now fenced off. The chapel itself is pre 12th century and was probably built for the occupants of a nearby Viking settlement.
The final stop on the walk is that settlement. It is an unexcavated, but complex, group of three Viking or Norse houses. Follow the track/road away from the chapel and, just before the second gate across the road, enter the field to your left by the field gate. Please leave all the gates as you find them, whether open or closed. The longhouses are at the bottom (north-west) end of the field (HP 5700 0374) and two of them have side rooms. Being a group and having a chapel so close, suggests that this was a head farm with higher status than those at Underhoull. This is the biggest group of longhouses discovered in Unst – so far.
Dr. Val Turner, Regional Archaeologist, Shetland Amenity Trust
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