6.6.3 Ritual and Special Places


While other areas of Scotland have medium to large henges no excavated examples are known from the Highland Region. However, a number of small henges, sometimes termed ‘hengiform’ monuments, have long been known in the Highlands; some of these monuments have upstanding remains and others are suspected to exist from crop-mark evidence. Most of these small henges are in areas not in current arable use, so there is the possibility there were more to the south and east of the known distribution in areas that are now cultivated (Bradley 2011, 161). The excavation by Bradley at Pullyhour in Caithness (MHG1368) was crucial in providing evidence that these monuments date to the Bronze Age and could have extended periods of use in Highland Scotland (Lamdin-Whymark and Bradley 2011; Bradley 2011, 118–141; Case Study Pullyhour Henge). At Pullyhour two periods of use were revealed. Charcoal from the buried soil beneath the bank was radiocarbon-dated to 1620–1450 cal BC, indicating that construction of the monument was no earlier than this. After a period of inactivity, the site was used again in 1369–1126 cal BC. The stump of a bog pine post was found  just outside the structure; the  date of this (2563–2463 BC) suggests it is a reused Neolithic timber carefully positioned to create a sight line.

Henge monument located in a village and surrounded by houses.
Aerial view of the henge at Conon Bridge (MHG9059). James S Bone Collection ©NoSAS

The function of these monuments has been much debated, and Bradley (2011, 163) felt there was little to suggest they were primarily funerary in use. No evidence for funerary activity was found at either Pullyhour or Migdale (ibid), although the small henge at Achinduich near Lairg, Sutherland (MHG12804), enclosed two deposits of cremated remains, one inside a late version of a Cordoned Urn (McCullagh 2011). It would be useful to excavate other similar sites in the Highland Region to assess whether they had a funerary function and to determine whether this was a primary feature of the monument or a later re-use.

More radiocarbon dating is also needed to determine whether the Highland small henges are contemporary with each other and for how long they were in use. There is also potential for confusion with roundhouses, especially if the latter have few finds. It is also possible that some roundhouses which went out of use were adapted for a new function as a henge (Bradley 2011). Some of the Highland small henges may have links to Irish Late Bronze Age ring barrows, which, despite their name, are earthwork enclosures. They share a number of attributes, for example, size, external banks and internal ditches, dates, and associations, and some enclosed graves. The Highland links to Ireland have been long recognised (see Chapter 6.7). Irish ring barrows, however, gain new roles in the late first millennium BC, whereas northern Scottish small henges seem to die out by around 1000 BC (Bradley 2011, 175).

The distinction between ritual and domestic activities may not have been clear-cut during the Bronze Age. The excavations at Achinduich Farm, part of the Lairg survey area, suggested that this henge functioned within a landscape of domestic buildings and was an integral, special element of the lived-in landscape (McCullagh 2011; ScARF Case Study The Lairg Project).

Caves as Ritual Sites

Although High Pasture Cave (MHG32043) on Skye is primarily an Iron Age ritual site (Chapter 7.6), there is also evidence of pre-Iron Age activity at the site, including ritual deposition during the Bronze Age and perhaps as early as the Chalcolithic (Case Study High Pasture Cave). A complex suite of features located at the surface to the northeast of the cave entrance provided evidence for activity during the Early Bronze Age. The features comprise a fallen standing stone and associated socket hole, the displaced and partially robbed remains of a boulder kerb and stone fill surrounding the stone setting, ard marks and a group of pits and stake-holes. The thin plough soil covering and filling the ard marks and other negative features contained charcoal and a small assemblage of flaked stone artefacts and potsherds, including one or more sherds from a Beaker. Radiocarbon dates on samples of hazel charcoal from the ploughsoil horizon overlying the ard marks (2140–1920 cal BC), hazel charcoal from the backfill deposits in the socket hole for the standing stone (1880–1690 cal BC) and hazel charcoal from a pit feature located to the west of the cave entrance (1730–1510 cal BC) indicate activity during the Early Bronze Age (Birch et al forthcoming).

Evidence for activity in the cave during the Bronze Age is confined to the deposition of a cache of ceramic sherds in the darkest recess at the north end of the Bone Passage. The seventy-one ceramic sherds recovered in the cache are representative of ten vessels, including four plain and six decorated, the latter of which included a variety of decorative techniques. Fragments of animal bone, including burnt and unburnt material, were also recovered from the context with the ceramics, along with several small pieces of charcoal, three lithics comprising simple flakes, a degraded bone awl and a bone needle fragment. A single radiocarbon date on a sample of hazel charcoal associated with the ceramic cache produced a Middle Bronze Age date (1320–1110 cal BC).

Viewed alongside the features recorded at the surface, these objects may be interpreted as the earliest surviving traces of depositional activity taking place at the High Pasture Cave complex. The placement of objects within the darker recesses of caves during the Bronze Age has been identified elsewhere in the United Kingdom and Europe. Dowd (2015, 125) has noted the continued ritual usage of Neolithic sites during the Bronze Age in Ireland, with a record of human remains and caches of both ceramics and metalwork deposited at a number of sites. She suggests that by the Late Bronze Age, many caves had become highly charged foci of ritual activity, possibly representing places of spiritual retreat and sites of pilgrimage (Dowd 2015, 160).

Through these early interactions with the cave, including repeated visits and the deposition of material culture and oral tradition, the cave would have continued to be marked out as a special place that provided a focus for mobile forms of social and economic organisation. Such actions would establish relations of meaning between place, things and the activities that took place there, creating an anchor point within the landscape where memory would ensure future visitations and the repeated use of the cave through. High Pasture Cave and its immediate environs witnessed renewed and extensive activity, both practical and ritual, during the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition (Birch et al forthcoming).

The detailed evidence and dating from High Pasture Cave suggests that other caves with dated Bronze Age activity (see Chapter 6.3) would be worth further investigation. Investigation must be combined with sea level analysis in order to determine how far the caves would have been from the sea during their period of use. We are unlikely to find Bronze Age occupation at the Rosemarkie Caves on the east coast due to their relatively low heights above Ordnance Datum (see the Rosemarkie Caves Project; Case Study Rosemarkie Caves Project). The caves would have been flooded during the Holocene maximum marine transgression, only becoming available for use again during the later Bronze Age (Steven Birch, pers comm).

Stone and Timber Circles

Stone circles are notoriously difficult to date, and they take different forms in different areas (ScARF Bronze Age section 5.4.2). They are generally not found in the southeast part of the Highland Region; where antiquarian traditions speak of ‘Druidical circles’, these have generally turned out to be the circles surrounding Clava-type cairns. Further work at some of the small circles in the north and west would provide evidence of function and dating for these enigmatic monuments.

From Armadale, Skye (MHG60879), excavations have provided good evidence for a sequence of a timber circle, followed by a stone circle and then a series of cist and pit burials; a situation reminiscent of Kilmartin Glen (Peteranna 2011b; Case Study Armadale Cist Burial). On the east coast at the Mound near Golspie, a deposit of cremation remains was found in the centre of a stone circle with a cist below it (MHG11621).


Case Study: Pullyhour Henge


Case Study: The Lairg Project


Case Study: High Pasture Cave


Case Study: Rosemarkie Caves Project


Case Study: Armadale Cist Burial

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