Archaeology in Sutherland
Sutherland is an area of outstanding archaeology which for the most part is a well-kept secret. From the earliest times man has exploited the resources around the shores and up the straths. Until the time of the Clearances when many of the straths and glens were depopulated, people lived throughout Sutherland and we have been left with a wonderful asset to help us understand Scotland’s heritage.
Durness on the North coast has one of the most easily accessed and earliest occupation sites in Sutherland. Smoo Cave with its dramatic narrow inlet and enormous cave was an ideal place for the very first people, or Mesolithic, to shelter and catch shell fish. Just at the mouth of the cave is a large shell midden the result of many years of the Mesolithic people discarding shells while the cave must have been occupied by them whilst they fished along the shore up to 9000 years ago.
Strathnaver has evidence of the presence of the next phase of people, the Neolithic, to leave archaeology in Sutherland. The long cairns beside the Skelpick road were used for burying the dead of these ancient people and it seems that they also used for ceremonies at the entrances. The cairns were excavated in the 19th century exposing the chambers but the work the Neolithic people did to create these structures was huge and we can still marvel at them 4000 years later.
We do not know where the Neolithic people lived but by the time of the Bronze Age 3000 years ago and the later Iron Age we know the people lived in round houses or hut circles. The remains of these round houses survive all over Sutherland. The round houses are now only low banks about half a metre high and two metres wide round a hollow about nine metres in diameter, rather like a large doughnut with a gap in the bank which is the entrance. 2000 years ago these houses would have had stone and turf walls with a wood and thatch roof supported by a central post. It is likely that each house would have been occupied by an extended family and possibly even some of their animals. Some round houses are found in groups, others are on their own but both kinds often have small mounds of stones nearby. These stone heaps tell us that the occupiers of the round houses were farmers. They gathered up loose stones into piles around their fields to make life easier when they used their hand ploughs or adzes. Although there are hundreds of round houses in Sutherland they are difficult to find; the best way is to look on an Ordnance Survey map where they are marked as ‘hut circles’. There is a group beside the Lairg to Bonar Bridge road and many groups beside the road from Helmsdale to Kinbrace. Finding them is exciting and gives one a sense of how the ancestors lived in the landscape.
By the Iron Age 2000 years ago although the ordinary people lived in round houses the more powerful people were building brochs. There are many examples of these towers in Sutherland especially along Strathnaver and Strath Halladale. It is thought that these were built at a time when the climate was getting colder and wetter so they may have been a response to aggression from other family groups or tribes. Like round houses they are circular but much taller judging by the amount of tumbled stone around the base of the surviving brochs. The thick walls have steps within the wall to provide access to the upper levels of the broch, sadly the upper levels have now fallen down but the steps can be seen in some of the brochs. The entrances are often passages four to six meters long, and have a small cell half way in possibly for a guard to sit in to greet, or stop, visitors. Before the visitor arrived at the entrance they would have to cross an outer bank and ditch so brochs have been thought to be defensive. But as many of the Sutherland brochs have no water source inside the tower they were not very defendable. However, if ever a structure said ‘look at me, my owner is the power around here’ a broch does. Carn Liath just north of Dunrobin on the A9; sits on a promontory, an excellent example of the strategic position of many brochs occupy. Kintradwell is another good example also overlooking the sea. Kintradwell has a range of cellular structures around the central broch, possibly a later Pictish village using the broch as a focus.
The Picts have not left a written history but we know about them from their fine caved stones. Many of the Sutherland Pictish stones were collected in the 19th century and can be seen in the museum at Dunrobin Castle. There is another very good example in the churchyard at Farr. This stone combines the traditional Pictish knot work with Christian symbols. The Earl’s Cross stone near Dornoch takes us from the Pictish period and the so called ‘Dark Ages’ into historic times. The Cross is thought to indicate the edge of the sanctuary of Dornoch Cathedral founded by Gilbert de Moravia in 1274. The Cathedral represents the Christian period but also the time when Sutherland had become an area overseen by the Sutherland family whose chief the cousin of Gilbert, lived in Dunrobin. The name ‘dun’ suggests an Iron Age fort and the site itself would have been ideal for a broch but of course we will never know with the present castle covering any evidence. The castle at Skelbo , now an unstable ruin only suitable for viewing at a distance is another example of the new rulers who were in favour with the early kings of Scotland. These early castles are based on the Norman style of castles, a visible example of power but also defensive. At this time we know that the Vikings were still a threat to the population as shown by the effigy of Sir Robert de Moravia, brother of Gilbert, who was killed at the Battle of Embo and buried in Dornoch Cathedral.
By the time Dornoch Cathedral and Dunrobin were being built the ordinary people were settling into small settlement around their agricultural plots. These settlements in time became known as ‘fermtouns’ and generally consisted of family or extended family groups is simple stone and turf houses. These houses were now rectangular rather than round but often occupied the same type of ground as the round houses of their Iron Age ancestors. The rectangular houses became known as ‘long houses’ and in Sutherland they are particularly long sometimes over forty meters long. The houses provided shelter for the family but also their animals. In the winter the animals lived at one end and of course helped to keep the houses warm. The houses were built of turf and stone with turf roofs and sometimes are called ‘black houses’. The families farmed the land around the houses and kept cattle and a few sheep and goats. These settlements continued in use until the beginning of the 19th century. At this time many of the families were moved to the coast and settled in the new town of Helsmdale were they were expected to earn their living by fishing. Sadly the fishing industry is now declining and we are left with the new archaeology of disused piers and ice houses. However to return to the ‘fermtouns’ they are one of the most important kinds of archaeology in Sutherland. Again the Ordnance Survey maps of the county provide many opportunities for people to discover their own favourite site. There are too many to list but three more accessible sites are Rossal, Strathnaver and Grumore, Loch Naver where there are paths leading round the villages. Once again these atmospheric places give an idea of the lives of the people whose life was hard but the surroundings are still breathtakingly beautiful.
This gives a brief summary of the easily found archaeology in Sutherland and after following the Strathnaver Trail which takes one to many of the sites mentioned or travel round Assynt with great examples of many of the kinds of monuments described everyone will be inspired to visit some of the many other sites in the area.