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Tafts of Coppister, Norse farmstead, Unst

A Scheduled Monument in North Isles, Shetland Islands

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Coordinates

Latitude: 60.7241 / 60°43'26"N

Longitude: -0.9552 / 0°57'18"W

OS Eastings: 457097

OS Northings: 1205004

OS Grid: HP570050

Mapcode National: GBR R0ZD.BXH

Mapcode Global: XHF79.ZQQ4

Entry Name: Tafts of Coppister, Norse farmstead, Unst

Scheduled Date: 31 October 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM13146

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Prehistoric domestic and defensive: settlement; Secular: Viking settlement, Norse settlement

Location: Unst

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: North Isles

Traditional County: Shetland

Description

The monument comprises a Norse longhouse, built and occupied probably between AD 800 and AD 1300, overlying an earlier cellular structure or structures, probably of late Iron Age or early historic date (around AD 200-800). The longhouse and the other structures are visible as mainly turf-covered wall footings, with some protruding stones and orthostats. The monument lies about 10m above sea level immediately north of the Point of Coppister, on the E shore of Lunda Wick, Unst.

The longhouse measures 15m E-W by 4m transversely, but its W end has been lost to coastal erosion. Its walls are about 1.5m wide and incorporate regular stones set on edge, with the wall faces visible intermittently. The surviving N and E walls are reasonably straight, while the S wall appears slightly bowed. There is an entrance in the approximate centre of the S wall, and another possible entrance towards the NE corner. An internal division is indicated by several large stones towards the upper end of the structure. A possible annexe to the south is 8.5m E-W by 5.7m transversely and appears to incorporate part of an earlier cellular building or buildings. The cellular structure is partly obscured by the later longhouse, but appear as a series of conjoined arcs of walling. Its SW corner is delimited by large orthostats and a low bank; the remainder is defined by a low bank up to 1.5m wide. A line of orthostats bounding the adjacent cliff overlies the eroded W end of the longhouse and is probably relatively recent.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan, to include 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

This monument survives in good condition, although it is suffering from coastal erosion to the west. Significant buried archaeological remains are expected to be preserved beneath and around the visible upstanding structures. This house recalls a site excavated at Underhoull, only 650m to the SE, which revealed evidence of Iron Age and broch-period occupation beneath a later Norse longhouse. It is highly likely that foundation walls, pits and floor surfaces may exist beneath the turf at Tafts of Coppister. The buried remains may include artefacts and ecofacts that can help us understand how people lived at this site, how they farmed and used the natural environment, and how they exchanged goods with other groups. It is likely that the monument exhibits a development sequence and could show how this settlement evolved over time. Researchers may be able to date the buried remains more closely, and ascertain the date and nature of pre-Norse use of the site, as well as the date of establishment of the Norse farmstead and its duration of use. There is also potential to examine how the inhabitants managed the landscape in their immediate vicinity and how this changed over time.

Contextual characteristics

Norse houses are rare in Scotland, but Unst contains many of the best-preserved examples with upwards of 30 identified across the island. This Norse longhouse can be compared with a number of others in Unst, including examples at Belmont, Hamar, Haroldswick, Gardie and Underhoull, the latter located only some 650m SE of Tafts of Coppister. The style of construction, the size and shape of the houses, the presence of an annexe or annexes and, sometimes, yards or enclosures, are relatively similar across this group. Together, the Norse houses in Unst have exceptionally high group value, with the potential to teach us much about the rate and process of Norse colonisation of Unst and Shetland, the settlement pattern established by the Norse settlers, their way of life, and the nature of any interaction with the native inhabitants. A number of other Norse settlements are known in Shetland, not least at Jarlshof in south Mainland, but the picture in Unst appears distinctive ' not only in terms of the density of settlement, but also in that some of the houses are located inland and not on the coast. The Tafts of Coppister house, however, occupies a typical site for a Norse farmstead, on good grazing land immediately adjacent to the coast. It is likely there was a contemporary field system, as at Underhoull, which here may have been obscured by later activity.

The traces of an earlier structure or structures recall Iron Age dwellings in style and form, such as those excavated at Bayanne, Yell, and Kebister, Dales Voe, but they also resemble early historic or Pictish cellular structures. Unfortunately, not enough of this earlier settlement is visible to allow us to ascertain its type and date, but there is clearly high archaeological potential in this multi-period site.

Associative characteristics

The place name element, 'Tafts', derives from the Old Norse 'toft' meaning house or settlement, but no structures are evident within 200m of the site on any edition of the 6-inch OS map for Unst. This suggests that the Ordnance Survey's local informant in the 19th century was aware of the former existence of a house within the field here.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of Norse settlement and land-use in Unst and Shetland. It can also enhance and augment our understanding of the function and wider setting of Norse houses in the landscape. It has the potential to improve our understanding of the distribution of Norse settlement, the structural techniques used to build houses, changes in the nature of settlement over time, and the relationship of Norse houses and farmsteads to those of the native and earlier inhabitants. Its potential is enhanced because the monument overlies the remains of an earlier settlement, giving a time-depth to the sequence here. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand Norse and earlier settlement in Shetland.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Sources

Bibliography

RCAHMS records the site as HP50 NE8. The Shetland Amenity Trust SMR references are MSN122 (PrefRef 122).

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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