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Isleburgh, chambered cairn 745m SSW of

A Scheduled Monument in Shetland North, Shetland Islands

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Coordinates

Latitude: 60.3986 / 60°23'54"N

Longitude: -1.3944 / 1°23'39"W

OS Eastings: 433474

OS Northings: 1168453

OS Grid: HU334684

Mapcode National: GBR Q1X7.V3T

Mapcode Global: XHD1Y.7WPN

Entry Name: Isleburgh, chambered cairn 745m SSW of

Scheduled Date: 20 December 1974

Last Amended: 5 July 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM3573

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Prehistoric ritual and funerary: chambered cairn

Location: Northmaven

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: Shetland North

Traditional County: Shetland

Description

The monument comprises a heel-shaped chambered cairn of the Neolithic period, built probably between 4000 and 2500 BC. It is visible as a low turf-covered mound with most of the facing stones visible. The cairn measures around 8m SW-NE by 5m transversely and stands 0.85m high, and has a well-defined concave façade, 8m wide and facing southeast. The entrance to the passage, 0.4m wide, is slightly off-centre in the façade. The passage is 1.4m long and runs NW-SE before joining the chamber. The chamber is roughly square in plan, 1.2m long by 1.5m wide, with its sides constructed from a single large flat stone, which would have supported the now absent capstone. Aside from the stones that make up the chamber, the largest boulders occur in the façade, with smaller stones forming the curbing around the sides and back of the cairn. This has the effect of heightening the overall impressive visual impact of the façade. The cairn stands 3.6m above sea level on a knoll that overlooks the Holm of Culsetter and Mavis Grind, which is located 500m to the east. The monument was first scheduled in 1974, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The area to be scheduled is circular on plan with a diameter of 30m and is centred on the monument. The scheduling 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.

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 very significant degree: in fact it is a textbook example of a heel-shaped cairn. The monument retains several interesting features, including the curving line of the façade which tapers out to points on either side and resembles 'horns' on plan. Some of the stones that make up the façade partly block the passage to the inner chamber. The floor of the passage and chamber are paved with stone and, in the NE half of the chamber, the floor is slightly raised and forms a slight bench or shelf. This chamber with its stone shelf has similarities with the chambered cairn on Ronas Hill. The Isleburgh cairn was partly excavated in the late 1950s, but is still likely to preserve evidence for its development sequence. The excavation uncovered the full extent of the façade and revealed a small pit at the end of each of the 'horns'. Both of these pits contained pecked stone tools, possibly plough shares. Such finds are common from prehistoric houses and indicate a tangible connection between the inhabitants of the houses and the construction and use of the burial cairns.

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 periods 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

Heel-shaped cairns are a rare and distinctive form of chambered cairn found in the Shetland Islands. Heel-shaped cairns share several similar traits with prehistoric houses in Shetland, specifically their elaborate well-built façades. The large prehistoric house at Stanydale, which is often referred to as a 'temple', has a very similar heel-shaped façade. Heel-shaped cairns are believed to be a variation of the ''Orkney Cromarty' cairn type, as identified by Henshall, but their size is typically much smaller.

This example also has particular interest because of its location in a landscape rich in prehistoric monuments, including other cairns and settlement remains. There is another cairn 1km to the south and prehistoric houses 125m to the WNW, 1.3km to the north and 900m to the south. 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 contemporary agricultural land and settlement is likely to be significant and merits future detailed analysis. Given the many prehistoric sites in the area, 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.

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, including settlements. 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

Sources

Bibliography

RCAHMS records the site as HU36NW 1.

References

Calder, C S T, 1958 'Stone Age house-sites in Shetland', Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 89, 367.

Calder, C.S.T, 1965 'Cairns, Neolithic Houses and Burnt Mounds in Shetland', Proc Soc Antiq Scot, Vol. 96:45-7.

Henshall, A S, 1963 The Chambered Tombs of Scotland, vol 1. Edinburgh.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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