Case Study: Pullyhour Henge

Grace Woolmer-White with contributions from Susan Kruse

Pullyhour Henge (MHG1368) is located on the side of a valley, overlooking the Thurso River, in Caithness. It survives as a well-preserved earthwork, comprising an extant external bank and internal ditch with a small oval interior. A single entrance is situated to the southwest, and it is aligned towards the remains of a large cairn (Leosag Cairn; MHG1489) on the opposite bank of the river. It is one of a number of smaller earthwork monuments in the north and northeast of Scotland described as ‘henges’ or ‘hengiforms’. The site was partially excavated in the spring of 2008 by Richard Bradley, as part of planned research designed to investigate and date one of these monuments from the north of Scotland.

Circular sunken area in a grassy field.
Figure 1: Pullyhour Henge. Image by Andrew Puls ©Highland Council

Before the construction of the henge, the site had been used by Late Mesolithic people, as shown by a lithic scatter. The henge was built in two phases. In the first, it was circular, with a broad and shallow ditch, 3m wide and c 0.5m deep, with an entrance 1.25m wide to the south, which would have held water. Surrounding the ditch was an external bank, c. 2m wide and 0.5m high, which had a narrow entrance only 0.4m wide. The area enclosed in the centre was 7m in diameter. Charcoal from the buried soil beneath the bank was radiocarbon dated to 1620–1460 cal BC, indicating construction of the monument to be no earlier than this.

The second phase of use occurred after a period of inactivity, as indicated by the development of a soil horizon over the original bank. Charcoal from this layer was dated to 1369–1126 cal BC. After this date, the ditch, bank, interior and entrance underwent remodelling. The exterior bank was enlarged, and the ditch was recut inside on the east and west side altering the enclosed area to an oval shape 7m by 6m. A horseshoe shaped bank was also constructed in the interior, only 0.5m wide and 0.1m high, further reducing the enclosed area which was cobbled with small fragments of white sandstone. A small posthole was discovered in the centre of this enclosure, and two others were located outside the entrance of the henge. The larger of these, which cut through the primary bank and thus is of later date, was c. 1m in diameter and 0.6m in depth, and contained the stump of a pine post, a species which had become extinct in Caithness at the end of the Neolithic period. It was radiocarbon dated to 2573–2348 cal BC, indicating that it must have been extracted from a bog and was a relic of some antiquity when erected.

Due to the lack of internal features, little was discovered about the use of the henge. The only observations that could be made were that the interior would have been clearly visible from the outside, and so any activity within the enclosure was not made to be concealed. The small size of the interior and single, narrow entrance meant that it could not have involved large number of people. The lack of archaeological traces within the interior, and absence of wear to the entrances may indicate that the use of the monument was brief or sporadic. The closing of the monument was likely to have been a significant event, involving the removal of the post alignment and symbolic blocking of the entrance.

There are currently 29 possible henge sites recorded in the Highland HER, but Pullyhour is one of only three, smaller, hengiform type monuments that have seen investigation within recent years in northern Scotland, the others a much-disturbed site at Achinduich, Lairg (MHG12804; McCullagh 2011) and a partial excavation near Loch Migdale, Sutherland (MHG10021). Unlike Pullyhour, Achinduich contained Bronze Age burials within the henge, but it is unclear whether this was contemporary with the henge use or later. The radiocarbon dates obtained from Pullyhour and Achinduich are important; henges had generally been regarded as Neolithic monuments, but both returned Bronze Age dates. This has interesting implications for the dating of this group of monuments. Other well-preserved henges survive in Easter Ross, for example at Achilty (MHG7792), Conon Bridge (MHG9059) and Culbokie (MHG9064) (Woodham 1955). Future work at other small henge sites in the Highlands is needed to place these monuments in context, to determine if they are contemporary, and to determine if others have funerial deposits.

Further information

Lamdin-Whymark, Hugo and Bradley, Richard 2011 ‘The excavation of a small henge monument at Pullyhour, Halkirk, Caithness’, in Bradley, Richard 2011 Stages and Screens. An investigation of four henge monuments in northern and north-eastern Scotland, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: Edinburgh, 118–141.