Ancient Monuments

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Hill of Caldback, chambered cairn, Unst

A Scheduled Monument in North Isles, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 60.7386 / 60°44'18"N

Longitude: -0.8868 / 0°53'12"W

OS Eastings: 460804

OS Northings: 1206680

OS Grid: HP608066

Mapcode National: GBR S05C.67P

Mapcode Global: XHF7B.WCH0

Entry Name: Hill of Caldback, chambered cairn, Unst

Scheduled Date: 23 December 1977

Last Amended: 31 October 2012

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM4027

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Prehistoric ritual and funerary: cairn (type uncertain)

Location: Unst

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: North Isles

Traditional County: Shetland


The monument comprises the remains of a chambered cairn of the Neolithic period, built probably between 4000 and 2500 BC. It is visible as a partly turf-covered, sub-circular structure built mainly of large stones. The cairn stands at 105m OD on the level summit of the Hill of Caldback, in the island of Unst. The monument was first scheduled in 1977, but the documentation does not meet modern standards: the present rescheduling rectifies this.

The cairn measures around 7.2m NE-SW by 9.3m transversely and stands up to 0.4m high, with a passage aligned NW-SE leading to a central burial chamber. The passage is around 6m long and gradually widens into an approximately circular chamber 1.6m in diameter. The walls of the chamber stand up to 1m high and are constructed of large flat-topped boulders, which would have supported a capstone. Other boulders of similar size are found within the cairn, but the large kerb stones appear to have been robbed for the construction of a later enclosure. Many of the smaller stones that would have made up the body of the cairn have also been removed from the site. Parts of the outer kerb of the cairn are defined on the ground by a raised scarp.

The area to be scheduled is a circle on plan, measuring 30m in diameter. This 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 above-ground elements of the post-and-wire fences and a telegraph pole are excluded from the scheduling to allow for their 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. A considerable amount of the cairn material lies scattered on the ground surface and beneath the turf, while the passage and central burial chamber are clearly identifiable.

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 long period and often 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 commemoration of 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 the construction and use of the cairn.

Contextual characteristics

The circular plan of this cairn and chamber is typical of those found elsewhere in Scotland, but is relatively rare in Shetland where the majority of chambered cairns are heel-shaped. As such, this monument represents an apparent outlier in the geographical distribution of Neolithic circular chambered cairns in Scotland.

This example also has particular interest because of its location 1.9km to the NNE of another circular chambered cairn at Watlee, overlooking the Loch of Watlee. 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 at Watlee is likely to be significant and merits future detailed 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 six inch to one 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




Henshall, A S 1963 The chambered tombs of Scotland, vol 1, p 162-3, fig 4.

RCAHMS 1946 The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Twelfth Report with an Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Orkney and Shetland, vol 3, p 138, no. 1562.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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