Case Study: Brotchie’s Steading, Dunnet

Grace Woolmer-White

Brotchie’s Steading (MHG46260; EHG1048) is a ruined croft house situated just west of Dunnet Church, on a platform, dropping steeply away on the west side, east of a burn. Since the original discovery of worked whale jaw bone within the building, later identified as the cruck blades that supported the roof, archaeological investigations have revealed this croft house to have a long history of development, and to be built on an artificial mound that shows evidence of occupation since prehistory.

Archaeologists excavating a hillside with stones protruding.
Figure 1: Brotchie’s Steading during excavation

The steading comprises a rectangular building with five compartments and walls standing to no more than 1m in height. Initial excavation work in 2001 was mainly concerned with examining the structure and the role of the whale bone cruck blades within it. The cleaning of the exposed section of walling within the steep slope to the west of the building also revealed 1.5m of intact stratigraphy, and within this, at least four other phases of building. Further trial trenching in 2003 clarified the phasing of the croft house, revealing that in its earliest form, it may have consisted of two separate buildings which were then incorporated into a more typical longhouse structure, with no internal partitions between the living area and the assumed byre area, downslope. Subsequent phases saw the building undergo gradual compartmentalisation (See Illus 6, Holden et al 2008 for reconstructed phases). This work shed much light on the development of a typical croft and on the fact that such structures could have undergone significant modification in their history of use.

Four drawings of mandibles with their features marked.
Figure 2: Detailed drawings of the whale bone mandibles
Drawing of a cutaway view of house with the support structure showing.
Figure 3: Section through room A indicating how the cruck couple might have worked

The 2003 work also aimed to assess and characterise the archaeological deposits below the building, consisting of 1.5m deep humic sediments. Although there were no features to illustrate the nature of the occupation demonstrated by these deposits, it was clear that there was some form of Iron Age activity at the site with the focus of the settlement possibly being a substantial stone structure, likely lying beyond the excavation area.

These Iron Age deposits were sealed by a series of organic-rich sediments. These layers were deep and covered a wide area. However, with the exception of a hearth feature, there were also a few structural features associated with these layers. Cereal grains and grass-tempered pottery were recovered, and medieval redware fragments were also found in the upper layers. Radiocarbon dates indicate occupation in the Early Medieval and Medieval periods. Soil thin section analysis has shown that the layers were likely derived from turf, and therefore could be related to construction for walling and roofing, and reflect repeated construction, demolition and levelling followed by years of reworking by human and biological agents. The resemblance of these deep, extensive organic layers to ‘farm mounds’ identified in areas of Norse settlement in the North Atlantic has also been suggested. At some point after the 15th century the croft house was constructed, on top of what has proved to be part of a very old and extensive archaeological area around the Kirk.

A range of carbonised remains were recovered, and the good stratigraphic sequence allowed them to be dated (see chart in Holden 2008, 285). The faunal analysis, although limited, provided information about diet, animal husbandry, fishing and hunting.

The full extent of the site at Brotchie’s Steading is currently unknown and it would benefit from further work. Local tradition describes a broch surviving to the north of the steading, which is based on the investigations of Sir Francis Tress-Barry and John Nicolson, the latter of whom described the remains of the alleged broch and recovery of prehistoric remains from the area in his notes. This does fit with the large quantities of building rubble and Iron Age finds recovered from the earliest levels of the settlement mound. Strong associations between Iron Age settlements and later ecclesiastic sites exist on sites in Orkney and Caithness and since there is good evidence of Iron Age settlement at Brotchie’s Steading and the later medieval deposits also discovered are likely to be contemporary with the earliest Kirk, Brotchie’s Steading may also fall into this category of site. The multi-period environmental evidence, pottery and Norse dates are also highly significant as they demonstrate the survival of early and long-lived settlement remains below later settlements, including that of Norse and Medieval settlements.

Further information

Holden, T., Franklin, J., Hastie, M., Henderson, D., & Walker, B. (2009). Brotchie’s Steading, Dunnet, Caithness: a 19th-century croft house and earlier settlement moundProceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland138, 267–292.