Ancient Monuments

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Dam of Helliers Water, square cairns and stone setting 90m west of

A Scheduled Monument in North Isles, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 60.7248 / 60°43'29"N

Longitude: -0.8864 / 0°53'11"W

OS Eastings: 460848

OS Northings: 1205145

OS Grid: HP608051

Mapcode National: GBR S05D.6DT

Mapcode Global: XHF7B.WPML

Entry Name: Dam of Helliers Water, square cairns and stone setting 90m W of

Scheduled Date: 31 October 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM13133

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Prehistoric domestic and defensive: field or field system; Prehistoric ritual and funerary: cairn (t

Location: Unst

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: North Isles

Traditional County: Shetland


The monument comprises the remains of a series of probably funerary monuments: a square cairn, another possible square cairn and a boat-shaped stone setting, all dating probably to between AD 200-900. These features are located within a circular stony area, approximately 12m in diameter, while the remains of an oval enclosed field, 22m E-W by 17m transversely, lie immediately to the west, suggesting that the probable funerary monuments may overlie prehistoric remains. The monument stands about 80m above sea level, on the summit of a small low hill that lies between the larger Hill of Sobul and Hill of Colvadale, overlooking Helliers Water.

The area to be scheduled is oval in plan 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.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

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

Intrinsic characteristics

The square cairn is visible as a low stone-built structure, measuring 2.5m NE-SW by 2.5m transversely. The cairn is well defined by large edge-set kerbing stones on its NE and NW sides; the other sides are less well defined, with the kerbing stones no longer in their original settings. The interior is filled with smaller stones and is partly turf-covered. Adjacent to and NW of this cairn are the remains of another possible cairn consisting of a levelled stone-filled area, measuring around 3.5m NW-SE by 4.2m transversely. To the SE is a boat-shaped stone setting consisting of large edge-set kerbing stones. The setting measures 2m by 1m transversely, with its long axis aligned NNW-SSE, and it is pointed at its SSE end. This feature is also filled with smaller stones and partly turf-covered. All three features are sited on a low stone-covered hill. To the west is an oval enclosed field, 22m E-W by 17m transversely, with the enclosing dyke built mainly of turf and evenly-spaced stones. The probable funerary monuments may have been built over the remains of a prehistoric field system or settlement.

Excavations elsewhere have demonstrated that square kerb cairns were often used to cover and mark human burials and are normally early medieval in origin, dating most commonly from the mid to late first millennium AD. There has been little disturbance to this cairn and archaeological information is highly likely to survive beneath its surface. The excavation of similar cairns elsewhere shows that square cairns often incorporate or overlie graves containing long cist settings, and skeletal remains in the form of inhumations. Excavations of other square cairns have revealed one or more long cist burials beneath the cairn. One or more burials may survive beneath the cairns, positioned centrally or away from the centre. The boat-shaped stone setting may also mark a grave as it is similar in form to Viking graves from Denmark and Norway.

These buried deposits and human remains can help us understand more about the practice and significance of burial and commemorating the dead at specific times in the early medieval period. 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 land surface that could provide evidence of the immediate environment before the monument was constructed, while 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 the climate, vegetation and agriculture in the area before and during construction and use of the cairn.

Contextual characteristics

Cairns are well represented in the Shetland Islands, but this example is of particular interest because of its later date. Burials from the early historic period are relatively rare in Shetland and the north of Scotland. This cairn bears similarities to the square cairns in the cemetery at Ackergill, Caithness. Closer to this site, the two square cairns discovered during excavation of the Norse settlement at Sandwick, which lies 3km to the SSE, are also very similar. Given the relative lack of comparable sites in the area, this monument has the potential to further our understanding not only of funerary site location and practice, but also of the structure of early historic 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 the early historic period and later society. Buried evidence from cairns can also enhance our knowledge about wider society, how people lived, where they came from and who they had contact with. 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 the early historic period.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland




Ashmore, P., 1980. Low cairns, long cists and symbol stones. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 110, 346,55.

Bigelow, G.F., 1984. Two kerbed cairns from Sandwick, Unst, Shetland, in Pictish Studies: Settlement, Burial and Art in Dark Age Northern Britain, eds. J.G.P. Friell & W.G. Watson. (British Archaeological Reports British Series 125.) Oxford: BAR, 115, 29.

Close-Brooks, J., 1978, 80. Excavations in the Dairy Park, Dunrobin, Sutherland, 1977. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Scotland 110, 328, 45.

Edwards, A., 1925, 26. Excavation of a number of graves in a mound at Ackergill, Caithness. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 60, 160, 82.

Edwards, A., 1926, 27. Excavation of graves at Ackergill and of an earth-house at Freswick Links, Caithness, and a description of the discovery of a Viking grave at Reay, Caithness. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 61, 196, 209.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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