Old Scatness

Old Scatness

Old Scatness - aerial view

Old Scatness - aerial view


Old Scatness is an archeological site in the parish of Dunrossness in the South Mainland of Shetland, near Sumburgh Airport consisting of mediaeval, Viking, Pictish, and Iron Age remains. The site was discovered during the construction of the airport access road, which cut through a grass-covered mound and exposed part of the broch. The excavation began twenty years later. Eleven summers of excavation revealed an Iron Age broch, surviving to nearly 4m in height, and a substantial post-broch village built around it. Curiously, the broch had two doorways, one of which was blocked up very early on. The other has a huge triangular lintel stone above it but it was built for show: the stone is large but very thin. A date from a barley grain found in the construction debris and another from bone found within the first course of the broch demonstrate that it was built between 400-200BC. This puts the date of broch construction earlier than archaeologist had previously belived.


The houses around the broch were single walled, unlike the broch and had an upper storey, perhaps for storage. One had an outer staircase. Their diameters were similar to the broch however. Another of the houses was subdivided during its use and an Iron Age corn-drying kiln was inserted. The last time it was used the grain caught fire and the charred grain was left in it.


Five Pictish (later Iron Age) structures were built into the top of this Middle Iron Age village, some of which have now been removed. These include a clover-leaf structure added to the centre of the broch which is still visible and some small "figure of eight shaped buildings" which have been removed. A Pictish carving of a bear was discovered on the floor of one of the wheelhouses. When it was in place it was possibly on an orthostat (large upright stone) found opposite the door to a wheelhouse. It is now in the Shetland Museum. A Pictish boar, an arch and V rod and a number of "painted pebbles" were found in the houses. The infill of the Pictish buildings included Viking soapstone artefacts. These and the remains of a Viking floor and hearth indicated that occupation continued into the Norse period. Old Scatness therefore provides archaeologists with a rare opportunity to understand elusive Pictish-Viking transition in Shetland.


Archaeological information discovered during excavations has been used to create reconstructed buildings beside the site. The recreations include two of the Pictish buildings - one of which has now been completely removed from the site in order to excavate the buildings beneath - and one of the aisled roundhouses. When the site is open to the public, the fires are lit and the house dressed daily, so that visitors can feel what it might have been like to live in the Iron Age. Using the skills of experienced dry-stone workers and other craftspeople, demonstrations are given to allow visitors to learn more about how the structures were built and would have functioned.


The development of Living History demonstrations began because objects unearthed during the excavation were usually too fragile for visitors to see, far less, handle. Living History demonstrators were engaged to replicate items and their use. They also learnt a lot about ancient crafts through trial and error, learning soapstone quarrying and working, metal working, carving siltstone, etc. On-site guides would give visitors the opportunity to try some of these things, with occasional specialist craft workers on site: their skills ranging from metal and jewellery working, pottery, textiles, rope making, soapstone working… all the facets of life in Shetland 2000 years ago.


Other Pictish buildings were created by a string of linked “cells”, or rooms. The broch was remodelled with a seven leafed clover-shaped building inserted into it, linked to the Pictish Village by a passage. Some of the Pictish Village has been removed by excavation but reconstructions have been built off to the side of the site and are used for Living History demonstrations. The excavations uncovered traces of a longhouse, and the Vikings reused at least three of the Pictish buildings: one as a weaving shed. Soapstone weights were still in the line that they would have been in when they weighted the warp threads of a Viking upright weaving loom. The small wheelhouse was littered with fish and bird bones and had been used as a “skeo” to wind dry, and perhaps also to smoke, food to help preserve it.


Older disused houses were built on top of by later generations of people. There is evidence for later post-medieval and crofting activity including a 17th century corn-drier, coins and the remains of a croft house and outbuildings, both of which were removed by the end of the 19th century. The croft house to the southeast of the site was restored by Shetland Amenity Trust in 1994 as a camping bod. One reason why this house was selected for restoration was because of the it had been the home of Betty Mouat. In 1886 she set out on her first visit for 14 years to Lerwick to sell knitted shawls she and her neighbours had made. Roads in 1886 were not what they are today, so Betty travelled on a 50 foot sailing boat, the Columbine. Unfortunately the skipper fell overboard en route, and the crew, who jumped in to save him, then lost contact with the boat. For eight days Betty Mouat lived on some ships biscuits and a bottle of milk, before the boat ran aground on the coast of Norway. Betty returned home a minor celebrity and was even sent a letter by Queen Victoria.


Old Scatness is situated about 1 mile from the Airport. Follow the main road towards Lerwick and find the site on the right-hand side of the road just before the airport runway traffic lights. Parking is on the left, by the sea. Assistance dogs are welcome. The site ivisitor centre is wheelchair accessible. There is disabled access to the toilets. The site is wheelchair accessible with assistance, so it is advised that a companion accompany the diabled visitor. Living History staff dressed in period costume will show you what life was like in Iron Age and Viking times. It is Family friendly with Viking games such as Kubb, Hnefatafl and dressing up. Group bookings are welcome, by prior arrangement and will be charged at £100 per group of up to 25 people. An additional £50 will be charged for multiples of 20 people above this. Payment is required in advance, so please supply billing address at the time of booking. Receipt of payment confirms the booking, which is fully refundable provided cancellation is confirmed at least 48 hours prior to the visit.


Location : Old Scatness, Shetland ZE3 9JW

Transport: Aberdeen (National Rail) then ferry to Lerwick. Bus Routes : 6 stops close by.

Opening Times : 13th May - 2nd September, Every Friday, 10:15 to 16:30

Tickets : Season tickets, Adults £5.00;  Children (5 - 15) £4.00;;  Visitor Centre Free

Tel. : 01950 461869