Old Scatness

Situated in the sweeping South Mainland of Shetland, Old Scatness Broch and Iron Age Village is a complex and fascinating archaeological site. The broch and surrounding village were accidentally discovered in 1975 whilst building a road to the airport.

Excavations began in 1995 by Shetland Amenity Trust, who bought the site, and Bradford University. Their findings were to change how we viewed the broader Iron Age period in Scotland.

Old Scatness is an Iron Age settlement with a broch at its centre surrounded by a series of roundhouses. The whole settlement is enclosed by an impressive protective (or defensive) ditch. The site did have a later Viking settlement but, on show today, are the Iron Age remains which have been carefully excavated and preserved.

The broch and wider excavation of Old Scatness have drastically changed how we view this period. To a certain extent, it has rewritten the history of the Broch Period in Scotland. Radiocarbon dates have pushed back the timeline of the brochs to 400 BC, much earlier than initially thought. These dates give Shetland the earliest datable remains suggesting that, perhaps, the tradition of broch building began in the north and trickled south and west, rather than starting in the south and moving to the north.

Brochs, unique to the north and west of Scotland, are double-walled giant round towers built in the Mid Iron Age, about 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists still don’t know why they were built, but the defensive ditch at Old Scatness might suggest that they had, if not an offensive role, certainly they had a defensive one.

The South Mainland of Shetland, in general, was highly fortified, with fortifications or brochs at Jarlshof, Toab, Sumburgh Head, Eastshore, Burgi and Clevigarth, there is little doubt that this would have been an imposing and intimidating area to approach.

Old Scatness, like much of the South Mainland, is an ideal location for settlement. With fertile soils, abundant access to birds, eggs, mammals, fish and freshwater as well as fantastic building stone, it’s little wonder that prehistoric people populated this area to such an extent.

One of the most remarkable finds to come out of Old Scatness was the Scatness Bear, a stone carving depicting a bear. This is interesting because bears have never been native to Shetland, so whoever carved it, must have seen a bear at some point.

Shetland was, as we know, on the periphery of the Pictish Kingdom. The Picts, known as the painted people, were a kingdom in the north of Scotland and they were renowned for their intricate carvings.

At Old Scatness, visitors can see a reconstructed Pictish wheelhouse, complete with a smoking peat fire, adding to the site’s ambience and allure. It’s little wonder that Old Scatness is on the tentative list for World Heritage Status for its incredibly well-preserved wheelhouses.

Written by Laurie Goodlad

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