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By Alastair HamiltonNovember 1st 2020
Alastair Hamilton

When Kristian Leith, of Scalloway, began preparing the ground for a new shed in his garden, he discovered that he wasn't the first to build on that site: there were the remains of ancient Pictish structures, with the possibility of important archaeology over a wider area.

Shetland is generously endowed with archaeological remains, spanning the 5,000 years or so from the stone age to the conflicts of the 20th century. There are exceptional multi-period sites, notably Jarlshof and Old Scatness, together with scores of the stone towers known as brochs, including the best example anywhere, on the island of Mousa.

Thousands of other reminders of ancient settlement exist, too, like the field systems in the west mainland, less dramatic but equally valuable. There is industrial archaeology in the form of prehistoric soapstone quarries, hundreds of water mills and even traces of a surprising number of small industrial railways. There are military remains from relatively recent times.

Among the many archaeological excavations that have taken place was one on a ridge in the northern fringe of the village of Scalloway, long known as Shetland’s ancient capital. The archaeological investigation became necessary when, in the late 1980s, new housing development was planned in that area, where bones from an ancient cemetery had been uncovered.

In 1989 and 1990, as well as the cemetery, the team discovered evidence of a Bronze Age cremation; the base of a particularly large broch measuring 20m in external diameter; and at least seven late Iron Age or Dark Age buildings. Finds from several periods were discovered, ranging from gaming pieces to painted pebbles and a spearhead. Once the evidence had been extracted, the area was levelled and now forms a car park and parts of surrounding house sites.

Which brings us, after the passage of forty years, to Kristian Leith and his proposed new shed.

When I met him on site, Kristian explained that he needed more space for storage and had decided that a shed was the answer. Kristian was well aware of the archaeology in the neighbourhood, so he thought carefully about the best place to build it. He reasoned that the chances of encountering archaeological remains would be reduced if he kept the shed as close as possible to areas that had already been developed, where the ground was likely to have been disturbed during construction, so he selected a site adjoining his existing parking area. The Google Earth image above shows the area and its features.

It was an entirely sensible approach; but, as soon as he removed some of the turf, he realised that this area, too, was packed with ancient remains, some of them human. Kristian alerted all the relevant people and Historic Environment Scotland sent a specialist company, AOC, from the mainland to remove the human remains. These will be analysed and then sent back to Shetland for burial in the kirkyard at Tingwall. Kristian meantime cleared more of the turf, revealing further evidence of past occupation, including structures.

When the team got to work, they removed – over six weeks – no fewer than 26 human skeletons, ranging from a baby to people who may have been in their fifties.

Kristian and his family helped riddle the excavated soil, which led to the recovery of a range of artefacts including many fragments of pottery.

There were many other items, including hand axes, weights for looms or fishing, bone needles, a comb, gaming pieces and a decorated whale’s tooth. It’s thought that the skeletons may date from around 1400, but the structures and many of the other items may be much older, probably dating back to pre-Norse, Pictish times. By the time the dig concluded, the team had collected enough material to fill two vans; it was taken to the Scottish mainland for analysis.

So far, so impressive. However, Kristian suspects that what has so far been uncovered may be just a small part of a much larger ancient settlement that extends from the ridge all the way down to the main road and possibly the shore. He decided to undertake some investigations himself and borrowed a set of equipment that archaeologists use to search for underground structures. He conducted a geophysical survey of the sloping field.

Even to the non-expert, the images suggest that there may be structures in the area, including possibly one or two wheelhouses of the form familiar from Jarlshof. There also appear to be several straight sections of wall, which might suggest structures from the Norse period. However, Kristian awaits expert analysis of the images and doesn’t want to jump to conclusions.

An Orkney-based archaeological company, ORCA, who had been doing other work in Shetland, offered to assist with interpreting the images and they also undertook the task of protecting the Pictish structures.

Kristian points to the distinct advantage of this area for human settlement. There’s easy access to the sea, and a productive inshore fishing ground – known as the Burra Haaf – is within reasonably easy reach. There’s fresh water from a stream at the bottom of the slope and there is an abundance of peat for fuel in the hills on the other side of the valley.

For the same reasons, it could also have been a very attractive location for Viking settlers, with the added benefit that the site used by Shetland’s Norse-period parliament, the Lawting Holm, is within easy walking distance, just a couple of miles to the north. Kristian adds that the name of Scalloway means the bay of the big hall, and he’s intrigued by the possibility that the remains of the big hall – which is mentioned in the Norse sagas – might exist in this area.

Were Kristian’s suspicions to be confirmed, this area could be revealed as perhaps the largest settlement site in the northern isles. It’s hoped that some further excavation work can take place in 2021, but a full excavation would clearly be very expensive. In these straitened times, there is little hope of the necessary funds being available from Shetland sources, so Kristian has been spreading the word about the site, in the hope that that will demonstrate public enthusiasm for an excavation. He’s set up a Facebook page – Skailway – where you can find lots more information about the site and the finds, and there are many photographs, too.

The village of Scalloway has always taken quiet pride in the fact that it was the ancient capital and we wish Kristian success in his efforts to reveal the site’s secrets.