Jill Harden is an archaeologist with RSPB Scotland. She's been out exploring archaeological sites on our reserves...

Broubster – an archaeological haven

One of the standing stones overlooking Lochan Ealach and the Broubster reserve.

Having explored various parts of Caithness in the past, Wednesday’s visit to Broubster was one that I had been particularly looking forward to. And I wasn’t disappointed. What a fantastic reserve!

The signs were good as we arrived – first one and then a second kestrel flew over the open ground, repeatedly hovering and then moving on. Their review of the landscape proved to be similar to the approach that site manager Dave Jones and I took during our tramp across the waterlogged land. We found ourselves splashing to a historic site, stopping, exploring and considering, making notes and taking record photos, and then moving on. Time after time. We went from the long, low, stone farmsteads that were probably used until the 1960s, back through the millennia to the 2,000 to3,000 year-old remains of round houses and their field systems of the Iron Age or Bronze Age. We then passed even deeper into the past, visiting prehistoric standing stones and the remains of a stone circle that must be at least 4,000 years old.

The stones were the reason for the visit – assessing the site conditions as part of an RSPB historic environment project which is grant-aided by Historic Scotland. These monuments are amongst the list of Scheduled Ancient Monuments on RSPB reserves, and require particular consideration when developing site management plans or doing work. Here at Broubster they appear to be fine, although the area immediately around the site of the stone circle is now particularly wet.

While the area where the stones are is one of heather moorland today, it would have been an area of open grassland in later Neolithic times when they were erected. Perhaps there were areas of scrub and small patches of woodland nearby too. But it isn’t only the habitats that have changed through time. There is also no obvious evidence of the later-neolithic settlements associated with the farming communities who set the stones up. They must be buried under today’s farmsteads just to the west, or perhaps they’re under the peat closer by.

The flagstone stalls of the byre, part of the longhouse close to Torr a Chaise.

It isn’t just these scheduled sites that are of archaeological significance at Broubster. There are at least a couple of other areas that would seem to be worthy of recognition as nationally important monuments. Towards the north end of the reserve is a palimpsest of visible remains. On the heather moorland there are prehistoric round houses, a burnt mound (a prehistoric cooking site, although some interpret mounds like this as saunas!) and traces of fields. And close by, on the improved grassland, is a historic abandoned farmstead.

However, from a vernacular building perspective it is the farmstead by Torr a Chaise that is probably of greatest value. It is a classic Caithness longhouse, some 45m long and 4m wide. It is single storey, with a barn at the south end, living quarters in the middle and byres at the north end. There is a parallel range of buildings just to the east: storage sheds, I presume. Today none of the roofs survive – the Caithness flags have either fallen in or been removed. A quick glimpse at the outside of the longhouse suggests that the walls are of drystone construction, but they clearly aren’t. In places inside the clay bonding is still visible, holding the walls together. In the barn the slots for the timber crucks that held the roof in place can be seen. And an even closer look reveals that the farmstead has been altered over time, including adding extra spaces for stalling cows, and inserting dividing walls. And all of this just by casting a rapid eye over the place.

So much could be done to bring this small part of Broubster to life. Recording it accurately, speaking to local people and researching the archives to learn about the families that worked the farm back to the mid-18th century, seeing how the landscape looked before the river was re-routed. The wallheads could also be conserved so that the longhouse survives as both a useful habitat for nature and a vernacular highlight. Just because it is no longer roofed doesn’t mean it is of little significance. I feel that it is a gem that deserves our care.