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Caithness Archaeology

Dunnet Bay Area

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 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.

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.

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.

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 Northern lands.

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 bangle.
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 in Dunnet.

More Archaeology on Caithness.org