Landscapes of Change: Archaeologies of the Rousay Clearances & the Westness Estate

The UHI Archaeology Institute is leading a partnership exploring long term environmental and landscape change on the island of Rousay, Orkney, focussing on the Westness estate (2015-present).

Working with community partners the Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre Development Trust (REWDT) and Rousay Heritage (RH) the project provides yearly seasons of excavation, geophysical survey, landscape survey, schools outreach and training placements for island residents. The ongoing fieldwork forms part of a wider partnership with the University of Bradford, the Swandro – Orkney Coastal Erosion Trust, Historic Environmental Scotland (HES) and the German Institute of Archaeology (RGK).

The aim of the project is to explore the farmstead at Skaill from the Norse period to its abandonment in the nineteenth century. The present farm at Skaill dates to the 18-19th centuries and was part of the Rousay clearances during the mid-19th century; however the name Skaill suggests the site was home to a Norse hall or drinking hall, and was a high status site. Westness is mentioned in Orkneyinga saga as the home of Sigurd, a powerful chieftain, so it is likely that a Norse settlement is located somewhere at Skaill.

Geophysical survey suggests the site could be a ‘farm mound’, similar to those found on North Ronaldsay and Papa Westray and so could contain a long history of settlement. The project is specifically interested in looking at the development of a high status Late Norse estate into the historic period through significant socio-cultural and climatic change to investigate long term occupation and change.

Of the 2018 excavations, co-Director Dan Lee said, “The discovery of such complex buildings at Skaill, along with the rich artefact assemblages from the medieval and post-medieval periods, provides us with a tantalising opportunity to understand life in Westness over the last few hundred years.”

UHI Archaeology Institute Staff engaged in this research project include: Dan Lee, Ingrid Mainland, Jen HarlandSarah Jane Gibbon