Ancient Monuments

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Watlee chambered cairn, 1,400m north east of Gunnister, Unst

A Scheduled Monument in North Isles, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 60.7243 / 60°43'27"N

Longitude: -0.9071 / 0°54'25"W

OS Eastings: 459721

OS Northings: 1205073

OS Grid: HP597050

Mapcode National: GBR S03D.8YG

Mapcode Global: XHF7B.MP9Y

Entry Name: Watlee chambered cairn, 1,400m NE of Gunnister, Unst

Scheduled Date: 17 March 1976

Last Amended: 7 June 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM3821

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Prehistoric ritual and funerary: chambered cairn

Location: Unst

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: North Isles

Traditional County: Shetland


The monument comprises a chambered cairn of the Neolithic period, built probably between 4000 and 2500 BC. It is visible as a partly turf-covered spread of stones in a low mound, with numerous large stones including orthostats. The cairn stands at 50m OD on a level terrace overlooking a steep slope which descends westwards to the Loch of Watlee, 360m to the west. The monument was first scheduled in 1976, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The cairn measures around 11m NE-SW by 9.5m transversely and stands up to 0.4m high. It is adjoined by a later oval enclosure to the NE, measuring 7.5m NE-SW by 9.5m transversely. There are four orthostats up to 1m high in the centre of the cairn, indicating the presence of a circular chamber approximately 2m in diameter. Other boulders of similar size are found within the scattered cairn material, but the kerb stones appear to have been robbed. Most of the smaller stones of the cairn have also been removed.

The area to be scheduled is rectangular on plan, measuring 35.5m NE-SW by 27m NW-SE, and includes the remains described above and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduled area runs up to but excludes the modern roadside fence to allow for its maintenance.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

The monument is in a stable condition and retains its form to a significant degree. Much of the cairn material is likely to be undisturbed beneath the ground, and the circular nature of the burial chamber remains clearly evident. Circular cairns with chambers of this form are rare in Shetland. The adjacent enclosure is clearly later than the original cairn, but its precise date and function are unknown and it could represent a prehistoric development of the cairn to form a forecourt.

Chambered cairns are Neolithic in origin, dating most commonly from the third and fourth millennia BC. Excavation elsewhere suggests that they were used over a lengthy period and housed the remains of multiple individuals. Despite the removal of stone from this cairn, significant archaeological information is likely to survive beneath its surface. The excavation of similar mounds elsewhere in Scotland shows that cairns might be adapted over time and might also form a focus for burial in later periods. Buried deposits associated with cairns can help us to understand more about the practice and significance of burial and commemorating the dead at specific times in prehistory. They may also help us to understand the changing structure of society in the area. In addition, the cairn is likely to overlie and seal a buried ground surface that could provide evidence of the immediate environment before the monument was constructed. Botanical remains, including pollen or charred plant material, may survive within archaeological deposits deriving from the cairn's construction and use. This evidence can help us to build up a picture of climate, vegetation and agriculture in the area before and during construction and use of the cairn.

Contextual characteristics

The apparently circular plan of this cairn and chamber is typical of those found elsewhere in Scotland, rather than being heel-shaped like the majority of chambered cairns in Shetland. As such, this monument represents an unusual type in Shetland and may be an outlier in the geographical distribution of Scottish Neolithic burial monuments.

The Watlee cairn is also of interest because it lies only 1.9km SSW of another circular chambered cairn on the summit of the Hill of Caldback. Across Scotland, cairns are commonly positioned to be highly visible and are often inter-visible. The position and significance of this cairn in relation to that on the Hill of Caldback is likely to be significant and merits future analysis. This monument has the potential to further our understanding not just of funerary site location and practice, but also of the structure of early prehistoric society and economy.

Associative characteristics

The site is denoted 'Cairn' on the 1st edition of the 6 inch to 1 mile Ordnance Survey map.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, particularly the design and construction of burial monuments, the nature of burial practices, and their significance in prehistoric and later society. Buried evidence from cairns can also enhance our knowledge about wider prehistoric society, how people lived, where they came from and who they had contact with. This monument is particularly valuable because it lies in a landscape where there is a wealth of prehistoric monuments. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand the placing of such monuments within the landscape and the meaning and importance of death and burial in prehistoric times.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



RCAHMS records the site as HP50NE 1.


Henshall, A S, 1963, The Chambered Tombs of Scotland, vol 1, 182, fig 108 (406).

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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