Durness area is rich in archaeological features dating from pre-historic times (circa 3000BC) to post-war military installations.
This is an ancient land full of history and with many historical remains to be explored. Some sites are periodically exposed from the wind blown sand at some locations and accounts of finds of various artefacts are occasionally related. There has been very little detailed professional investigation into the abundance of sites.
In 1965, a party from Glasgow University compiled maps of the Durness peninsula to show eighty two archaeological monuments of apparent Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age date, plotted alongside a background of solid geology and superficial deposits.
Without detailed excavations, difficulties arose in relating particular monuments to a particular period. Evidence of Neolithic settlement is scanty but certainly represented by cairns. Funerary monuments account for the greater part of evidence of the Bronze Age in the peninsula, the weight of distribution on the Durness limestone. Six certain Bronze Age cairns and one probable cairn marked by standing stones stretch in a line from NC 38896151 to east of Keoldale. Each one is associated with good pasture and land easily cultivated. The cairns are often built on the shoulder of a ridge, not necessarily on the highest point and appear to be in a position relevant to once settled localities. The cairn at Sarsgrum NC 379 643 is some six metres in diameter and lies about three hundred and fifty metres north east of the shepherds house. Most of the cairn has been removed, exposing a cist consisting of three upright slabs and one fallen. The capstone measuring about one point five by one metre and twenty centimetres thick lies on top of the cist.
The cairns on the Quartz form a loose agglomeration. All the monuments are constructed of frost shattered quartz boulders. Vegetation is sparse and poor although in the Bronze Age a thin covering of till, since stripped by erosion, and is not impossible. The cairns are not readily associated with any form of settlement either temporary or as might be used by shepherds or cowherds. All the cairns lie above three hundred metres with views eastward across Loch Eriboll some visible from almost any point on the Durness peninsula. The most prominent is at Carn an Righ. It is suggested they may be associated with one of the easier routes across the peninsula. In the recent past Bealach Mor, a little to the north, was used in conjunction with a ferry by travellers journeying to Tongue. Before modern roads round sea lochs were built, a more direct route, which crossed lochs and peninsulas, appears to have been in general use.
Apart from funerary monuments the only definite evidence for settlement in the Bronze Age may lie in the numerous small heaps of loose stones, possible field clearance heaps centred on NC 38806525 and NC 38886578. From one of those mounds came a fragment of Bronze Age pottery.
Monuments attributable to the Iron Age are not only more numerous than those of earlier periods but also include well-attested dwellings. The three Iron Age sites outside the limestone belt are explained singly.
The most prominent feature of the distribution map is the concentration of sites on limestone. Hut circles are the most numerous class of monument and duns are represented. Of the ancient monuments recorded nine percent occur on lewisian and quartz which constitute some eighty percent of the total area. Pre-historic societies evidently favoured lighter, free drained, less acid soils which developed on the limestone. The pre-clearance townships which, existed on the east of the peninsula, not on limestone, appear to have been associated with fishing. Archaeology that is more recent, has included all the abandoned buildings erected by the military scattered around, especially at Faraid Head and Lerin.
Ancient Sites Accessible
Promontory Fort NC405 694
At Seanachaisteal on a cliff top are the remains of a structure on a rocky outcrop backed by cultivable or pasture land with a view to defence. The point of Aodan Mhor is about one kilometre due north of Durness. The cliff rises to about thirty metres where the summit measures sixteen point five metres by a little over eleven metres and is grass covered. The ditches and grassy mound where a fort was, is quite obvious. Towards the landward end, it presents a comparatively even grassy surface, while seaward it slopes away to the edge of the cliff, rugged with confusing masses of rock and crags. The neck of the promontory has been traversed by a high stony rampart with a trench on either side. To the outside, the rampart is about two and a half metres above the bottom of the ditch, highest on the west side and about two metres on the inner side. It is about eight metres wide at the base. The remains to the east where the ground slopes away are less distinct. The entrance has been through the middle of the rampart and to the west of the entrance, there is a circular depression on the inner side on the top of the rampart. There is a similar depression with signs of low enclosing walls about the summit.
The area of the parish on the west of Eriboll has a wealth of history and stories of antiquity to be examined. Many sites have not been investigated and information is patchy.
About two hundred metres south east of the farm steading of Eriboll in the middle of an arable field is a flagstone covering the entrance to an earthhouse. It is not now accessible. The following details are abstracted from a description written in 1865.
“The whole length of the passage is thirty three feet but is known to have been ten or twelve feet longer. The passage at its entrance is less than two feet wide and under four feet high. The average height of the passage is four feet, the average width two feet. At the entrance it curves for a few feet round to the right thereafter it is straight. It terminates in a pear shaped chamber at its widest three and a half feet. A width it retains for only three feet of its length. A spherical object of bronze showing numerous small hammer marks on its surface measuring one and five sixth inches in diameter is preserved in Dunrobin Museum and is said to have been found along with a spiral finger ring of the same metal.”
Durness Parish covers a vast area and the expanse has altered at different times in history but each leaving its imprint. There have been abundant social foundings, some lasting for hundreds of years. These have come and gone in a changing landscape. The blanket peat that covers most of the territory has not always been the hallmark. On close inspection, many remnants of time past can be detected. The immediate sites of pre-clearance settlements are numerous and after simple inspection can be readily identified although many are removed from any roads and tracts of today. Some are ruins of ancient townships that at one time were advanced and well organised. Definite old and elaborate but simple life styles can be assumed. The settlements at first when discovered can appear situated at random and remote locations. When considered away from the roads and transport of today the sites become more understandable. Many are close to lochs and rivers, situated in sheltered and fertile situations in the lee of hillsides. When plotted on a map there are apparent connective routes usually direct either by sea, loch or mountain pass. Before the 1800’s, at least twenty eight townships were in existence around the parish
The most noted are listed as archaeological sites and recorded monuments.
On May the 23rd 1991, after the shoreline had been pounded by fierce storms, a tourist reported human remains at the north end of Balnakeil Bay. The local Doctor and Police arrived and confirmed the remains human and dead. The sand had exposed the grave of a Viking about four metres above the high water mark. No coffin was found in the grave believed to be dated between eight hundred and eleven hundred AD. In addition, there was a body stain that suggests the remains could have been wrapped in a simple shroud. An Iron sword had been placed beneath the body, a wooden scabbard, three decorative beads two amber one white and blue glass, a spear ring pin, brooch, a comb made from bone, a shield boss, horn objects which could have been parts from a game and unidentifiable metal objects were present. The skeletal material of about one point three metres and the artefacts were removed to the Archaeology Department at Inverness and because of the fragile and poor state of preservation were taken to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for treatment. Owing to the discovery being declared treasure trove, the finder was rewarded financially.
The sand had exposed the grave of a Viking about four metres above the high water mark. No coffin was found in the grave Fortunately this was noticed in the sandy coastal area at Balnakeil Durness, in time for Highland Regional Council to mount a rescue-excavation, which recovered most of the remains. He was buried on a bedding of feathers and straw, with the boy was buried with various adult iron weapons including a sword in its scabbard and a shield boss. Also found was a range of other grave goods including a brooch pin, comb, beads and gaming pieces. sometime between 850 and 900.
The skull and torso uncovered were accompanied by grave-goods there was a body stain that suggests the remains could have been wrapped in a simple shroud. An Iron sword had been placed beneath the body, a wooden scabbard, three decorative beads two amber one white and blue glass, a spear ring pin, brooch, a comb made from bone, a shield boss, horn objects which could have been parts from a game and unidentifiable metal objects were present. The skeletal material of about one point three metres and the artefacts were removed to the Archaeology Department at Inverness and because of the fragile and poor state of preservation were taken to the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for treatment.
At map reference NC 4038 5409.
At the head of Loch Eriboll is Faoilin. In 1960 workers were excavating for the foundations to build a house and discovered an underground shelter. Opposite the sheep fold on the north east side of Loch Eriboll near the top and on the other side of the road.
Excavations in 1964 and 1965 revealed that it was about twenty metres long, curved almost at right angles and had no side chambers. The entrance at the down slope end had steps down to a souterrain and the entrance passage just over half a metre wide and was lined by large slabs surmounted by drystane walling. The souterrain itself had been formed by digging a trench into a glacial mound lining the slabs with drystane walling and roofing it with slabs. The average width was just over a metre. Associated surface structures, presumably dwellings were located at the upper end of the souterrain. Among the finds were querns and a glass bead probably dating from the Iron Age. At some period during or after the souterrian's use, the entrance passage was blocked by large stones. The centre portion is covered by a stratified midden composed mainly of mussel and oyster shells, and burnt material. A midden also blocks a possible entrance.
This find has been covered over and is not accessible.
The team of archaeologists, 2 dig directors, 3 supervisors and 7 students carefully revealed the delicate structure lying in a foetal position under a cairn. The discovery was made at the beginning of the second week of a four-week dig after clearing several areas of the midden. The vicinity has obviously been inhabited by diverse peoples over the centuries unaware that this grave was present from about the 6 or 7 century as early signs indicate. There have also been a lot of artefacts found including pottery from the late medieval period. The site at Sangobeg was identified in 1997 during a survey and was believed to accommodate possible Viking remnants. As the area is in a dynamic state of flux with the high tide water mark having moved considerably more inland over the years there is every possibility the area could reveal further sites worthy of investigation.
An archaeological dig at Sangobeg discovered a significant find. A pre Christian burial site, amongst a midden layer, was revealed. On a bed of white pebbles lying in a north south direction the skeletal remains of what was suspected to be an ancient Pictish inhabitant was uncovered. The fragile bones were easily seen but in an advanced state of decomposition.