The Dunnet Bay area has many
archaeological sites dating from different periods. On the
Ordnance Survey map, these are described variously as mounds, brochs,
cairns and hut circles. the earliest of these probably date from
the Bronze Age.
About 11,000 years ago, Scotland was in the grip of the last
Ice Age. The ice sheets did not extend as far as Caithness, though
Dunnet would have been, effectively, an Arctic wilderness. So much
sea water was frozen, that the sea level was lower than today - so low
that Dunnet Bay and much of the North Sea was dry land.
THE FIRST SETTLERS
The first evidence of people dwelling in Scotland dates from
about 7000 B.C. The entire population of Scotland is thought
to have approximated 80 people, living in nomadic groups. Of these
about 10 - 20 persons were thought to be in the Dunnet Bay area.
They hunted, fished and gathered berries, nuts and various wild plants.
Little seemed to change for 3000 years, during which the climate reached
an optimum, and more of the land became covered in dense forest.
FIRST FARMERS (EARLY NEOLITHIC)
From about 4000 B.C. there is evidence of a rapid change in our
ancestors, lifestyle : from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers.
From Western Europe domesticated cattle, sheep, pigs, wheat and barley
were introduced. No evidence of actual farms has been found, but
traces of these early Neolithic peoples exist in the seventy burial
cairns scattered throughout Caithness.
Click here for
more details of Caithness monuments.
It is thought that early Neolithic farmers practised ancestor
worship. By 3000 B.C. people had begun to erect huge ritual
monuments. Henge monuments consisting of a ring ditch and bank
surrounding a circle of stones, are the most spectacular examples.
Settings of parallel or fan shaped stone arrays were constructed, and
single standing stones were also set in place. One of the best
examples of the fan shaped stones is at Hill
O Many Stanes about 15 miles away on the east coast of the county.
EARLY BRONZE AGE
The first evidence of settlement in Dunnet Bay area probably
dates from the Bronze Age beginning about 2500 B.C. A small group
of hut circles lies close to Dunnet forest. these circular huts,
of about 13 metres diameter, had low stone or turf walls with a wood and
turf roof. at this time, a change from communal burial to
individual, crouched, burials took place. in the new form of
burial, in stone built cists, (after kist - a box) the crouched body was
accompanied by a special funerary drinking vessel called a beaker.
At the same time, metal artefacts such as copper axes and daggers appear
and later, bronze axes, spear heads and leaf-shaped swords.
Two small mounds behind the sand dunes may be Bronze Age burials.
LATE BRONZE AGE
About 900 B.C. many settlements were abandoned, perhaps because
of deteriorating climate or possibly the eruption of the Icelandic
volcano Hekla and the consequent spread of volcanic ash over the
About 300 A.D. a new culture appears in the North East of
Scotland - the Picts. They are known principally for their
enigmatic carved stones and horsemanship. It is at this time
that evidence for the concept of Kingship first appears in Scotland.
About 800 A.D. the Vikings arrived. Their warriors came
from Scandinavia, at first to seek fame and fortune, not to settle.
Norse settlers came to Caithness in the 10th century A.D. These
were farmers, not warriors, and usually settled around sandy bays such
as Dunnet. Two sites of Norse farmsteads have been found locally,
one near Castletown and one in Dunnet. On the former site the body
of a Norse woman was found, along with a brooch, bone dress pin and
A small-scale excavation of the Dunnet site was carried out in 1995,
during which a fine bone comb and bone dress pin were found. At
Rattar, a hoard of Norse silver ring money was discovered. during
this period Caithness was ruled by Norway, with authority vested in the
Norse Earls of Orkney.
A small display of the archaeology of Dunnet Bay
can be seen in the Ranger Centre
Archaeology on Caithness.org