Seven massive Neolithic cairns and 300 new Bronze and Iron Age sites have been found in Caithness following the first large-scale survey of its kind to be undertaken in Scotland.
The discovery – described as “an invaluable contribution to the archaeological record of Caithness” – was made using an advanced technology which can map ancient sites in fine detail and reveal three-dimensional visual images of their shapes, size and content.
The £100,000 archaeological project was funded by the developers of the Baillie Wind Farm and used a system known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging).
The seven “horned” cairns date back 5000 years and were discovered in a well-preserved state at the Hill of Shebster near the wind-farm development. But the survey also covered an area stretching from Dounreay to Loch Calder and found a further 300 new archaeological sites.
They are mainly hut-circle settlements from the Bronze Age (1800 to circa 600 BC) and Iron Age (circa 600 BC to 500 AD).
Consultant Dr Graeme Cavers, of Edinburgh-based AOC Archaeology, who was involved in the project, is delighted with the results.
“The Shebster area is an unusually good example of a well-preserved cluster of sites. The cairns are essentially burial and ritual monuments, much like the chapels and shrines of more recent times and each of them is likely to have been used exclusively by individual local groups or communities,” he said.
Dr Cavers pointed out that Stone Age “horned” cairns have projecting arms of stone wall at their entrances, creating small courtyard areas in which ceremonially buried artefacts are sometimes found.
He told the Caithness Courier yesterday he was surprised when the wider survey found 300 new sites.
“I expected we would find about 10 sites. To get 300 is amazing. Some of the sites contained roundhouses, while others had walls or enclosures. It was quite exciting,” said Dr Cavers.
He hopes further work can be carried out in the area in the future.
“We would really like to excavate some of the sites at a later date. That would be the aim,” he said.
“The survey makes an invaluable contribution to the archaeological record of Caithness, and is really the first large-scale survey of its kind undertaken in Scotland.”
The cairns will be depicted in on-site visual displays, with provision of a visitors’ car park and development of a dedicated website within the next two months.
Baillie Wind Farm is a joint venture between European energy company Statkraft and local landowners Tom and Steve Pottinger.
Company director Tom Pottinger said: “Though the cairns are not on the wind-farm site itself, our aim is to ensure that they are preserved and interpreted for local people, visitors and researchers.
“We are putting in a sizeable car park for about 12 cars close by them, along with a short linking path giving access for walking or cycling on Baillie’s extensive wind-farm tracks.”
Earlier this month, the company revealed that the wind-farm development had moved ahead of schedule, with the bases for its 21 turbines completed nearly three months early. Contractors are set to move in to lay several miles of cables before the towers go up in a few months’ time.
Sergio Castedo, director of Statkraft UK and Baillie Wind Farm, said: “This project is yielding significant local economic and community benefits in Caithness, as well as contributing to national and global environmental aims through generation of renewable power.”
Once operational, Baillie will provide a West Caithness Community Fund yielding an expected £100,000 annually for local initiatives, plus a further £25,000 a year for a new business development fund to be managed by the Caithness Chamber of Commerce.
Its maximum generation capacity of more than 50 megawatts is sufficient to power several thousand homes.
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