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Off the Beaten Track 8 - Burnt Mounds

Published: 22 May 2020

One of the sites on this week’s walk is a substantial burnt mound.  In the Northern Isles these mounds are usually crescent-shaped, but when I first came across one, in a park in Birmingham, it was just a lens of heat-cracked stone in the bank of a stream.  Some of the Shetland examples have been disturbed in the past - a convenient quarry for road-stone.  Although the mounds are usually grassed over, small heat-cracked, often fire reddened, stones may peep through the vegetation.  Frequently, there is a central trough made of stone slabs visible between the arms of the crescent.

There are over 300 burnt mounds in the Shetland Sites and Monuments Record, but they are easy to overlook.  Unexpectedly, every example which has been excavated in Shetland has proved to have small “rooms”, described as cells, around the trough, buried under the heat shattered stone.  Although there is usually an associated hearth, these sites do not look like domestic houses.  In fact people lived some distance away from burnt mounds.  Interestingly, they are always found close to fresh water.  Burnt mounds appeared during the Bronze Age and continued into the Iron Age but, as yet, their use is still a mystery.

Thirty years ago archaeologists thought that their purpose was obvious.  As happened in 17th century Ireland, burnt mounds were assumed to be places where a hunted animal was killed.  The community would come to a feast where the meat was put in the trough and boiled by heating the stones in the fire and then adding them to the water filled trough.  But there are many reasons why that doesn’t make sense in Shetland –most significantly, there were no wild animals here to hunt. 

Secondly, the top of the trough is large compared with its depth, and lost heat rapidly.  Archaeological experiments 20 years ago, using an excavated burnt mound at Tangwick, demonstrated how difficult it is to bring a trough to the boil and keep it going.  By the time we had finished we had a trough half full of heat shattered stones and dirty ashy water.  (The stones crack and sometimes fly when heated, so experimenting was hazardous.)  And why boil meat in a culture where people roasted animals over the fire, which would have been much more tasty? Archaeologists have found little by way of pottery or any other indication of cooking at these sites.

So what were they for?  Regrettably, we don’t know for certain.  Perhaps they were for a process which may have smelt unpleasant, such as tanning or fulling or felting.  Robert Leask once suggested to me that they were for de-hairing grice (pigs), a process which involved scalding the carcass in water of about 60°C and scraping the hair off with a scraper or sharp blade.  If the water was too hot it would cook the skin; too cold and it wouldn’t loosen the hair in the follicle.  That is certainly plausible.  Another possibility is that wood was softened and bent over the steaming water, and so shaped for boat building.  Lauren Doughton experimented with that outside the Bressay Heritage Centre.  My favoured theory is that, instead of boiling water, the water was poured over the heated stones in order to create steam, for use as a sauna.  Implausible as that may seem, in “War and Peace” such a process was employed by soldiers in order to delouse themselves – a very practical purpose.  

The Ness of Hillswick

A walk around the coastline of the Ness of Hillswick is about 7km.  The Council have created a Core Path around the coast, which is well provided with stiles and gates, but not all the archaeology lies around the coast. 

The Ness has been well-used since prehistoric times, littered with lumps, bumps and ancient field boundaries.   This walk takes you to the highlights, but you may well spot other traces of the past on your walk.

The north-western branch of the A970 ends at Hillswick’s waterfront.  Three cutch kettles have been restored at the north end of the bay.  In the 19th century the kettles were used to boil the bark of acacia catechu trees (found in the Far East).  It produced a brown dye which was used for tanning, dying and preserving fishing nets and sails.

Following the east coast, you will pass building foundations at Tur Ness (HU285 764) which perhaps have Viking origins.  Continue south, until you reach a small burn which flows into the Bight of Niddister.   A Neolithic chambered cairn (HU 280 755) lies about 200 metres inland, on the south side of the burn.  The outside edge is well-defined.  Inside the cairn, two earth fast blocks and several displaced slabs are probably the remains of a central burial chamber. 

The burn rises at a small loch.  West of this loch, there is an enormous burnt mound, 17 metres long and 1.7metres high (HU 278 756).  Some of the heat shattered stones in the mound and the remains of the central trough are visible through the grass. 

Head up the hill to the north, and cross the remains of an earthwork enclosure. The building remains inside could be those of a Viking longhouse (HU 279 757).  Although it would take excavation to prove it, the dimensions (20 metres long and 7 metres wide over the walls) make it fairly convincing.  In more recent times, someone used the walls as a handy source of stone to build a plantiecrub at one end. 

Returning to the coast, soapstone was quarried from the cliffs above Queen Geo (HU279, 749).  (For more information about soapstone, see last week’s Shetland Times.)  Unusually for steatite, the Hillswick soapstone is pink.  The Vikings cut both circular and, later, rectangular bowls here and the scars they left when they removed the blocks are still visible in the cliff edge.

On the return journey, head for the west side of the Ness.  A little north of the Head of Grevasand, a small oval prehistoric house nestles in a dip on the ridge (HU 274 761).  The walls survive as banks up to 2m high, although the inside detail is less distinct.  Its’ doorway faced south.  The remains of field boundaries and cairns around the house were once part of this prehistoric farm.

Back on the enclosed land, there are two more possible candidates for longhouses (HU 275 766) and (HU 276 766). Both are wider than longhouse remains usually are and so these may be crofting remains.  Again, it is difficult to know without excavation.

Arriving back at Hillswick, on the west side of the neck of the Ness, at the top of the storm beach, there is another which appears and disappears due to coastal erosion.  The SCAPE Trust and Archaeology Shetland excavated here in 2015, uncovering two walls and the floor of a building, which had later been used as a midden (waste dump).  The team found fishbone, shells and pottery but nothing ancient.  Four Iron Age weaving combs and deer bones were found here in 1870, part of an Iron Age midden.  That midden has not been relocated in recent times, but if you find any evidence, please do get in touch.

Dr. Val Turner, Regional Archaeologist, Shetland Amenity Trust

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