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Burial mounds, 50m south east of Brecks

A Scheduled Monument in Shetland South, Shetland Islands

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Latitude: 59.9179 / 59°55'4"N

Longitude: -1.2931 / 1°17'35"W

OS Eastings: 439629

OS Northings: 1114976

OS Grid: HU396149

Mapcode National: GBR R25J.662

Mapcode Global: XHD49.KZQ4

Entry Name: Burial mounds, 50m SE of Brecks

Scheduled Date: 23 January 2024

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM13781

Schedule Class: Cultural

Location: Dunrossness/Dunrossness

County: Shetland Islands

Electoral Ward: Shetland South

Traditional County: Shetland


The monument comprises the remains of a probable Viking period ship burial, visible as an oval shaped mound with three smaller mounds surrounding it, likely the remains of an earlier group of burials. The site lies on sloping ground at around 30m above sea level and overlooking Voe to the northeast. 

The site is located at Huesbreck in Dunrossness, near the southern end of Mainland Shetland. It overlooks Voe, a rocky bay on the east side of the island. The main feature of the site is an oval shaped mound with a hollow in the centre, measuring around 20m by 11m.  Results of a geophysical survey suggests that this is likely to be a Viking ship burial. It is also possible that it is the remains of a Viking period house, although the form of the mound and the results of geophysical survey suggests this is far less likely. A further three smaller mounds, each around 3-4m across, are found within 15m of the main burial, to the north, northeast and east respectively, and are likely to be burials from an earlier period than the ship burial, potentially Pictish in origin. 

The scheduled area is rectilinear, measuring around 55m WSW-ENE by around 45m WNW-ESE. It includes the remains described above and an area around within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment is expected to survive, as shown in red on the accompanying map. The scheduling specifically excludes the above ground elements of all telegraph poles and post and wire fences, to allow for their maintenance. 

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

The national importance of the monument is demonstrated in the following way(s) (see Designations Policy and Selection Guidance, Annex 1, para 17):

a.  The monument is of national importance because it makes a significant contribution to our understanding or appreciation of the past, or has the potential to do so, as a potentially highly well-preserved example of a Viking ship burial with related, possibly earlier, burials.

b.   The monument retains structural, architectural, decorative or other physical attributes which make a significant contribution to our understanding or appreciation of the past. In particular, the visible survival of the apparent burial mound and the recorded presence of geophysical anomalies suggests a high degree of archaeological preservation of the site that is not found on other recorded ship burials on Shetland.

c.   The monument is an extremely rare example of a probable Viking ship burial, with less than twenty known examples across Scotland.

d.   The monument is a particularly good example of a relatively undisturbed Viking ship burial and is therefore an important representative of this monument type

e.   The monument has research potential which could significantly contribute to our understanding or appreciation of the past, in particular the early Norse presence in Scotland and their ritual and funerary practices. It is also has the potential to add to our understanding of Viking ship construction and use, along with the early period of Viking incursion and settlement within Scotland, for which excavated graves have proven to be one of the most valuable sources of information.

Assessment of Cultural Significance

This statement of national importance has been informed by the following assessment of cultural significance:

Intrinsic characteristics (how the remains of a site or place contribute to our knowledge of the past)

The monument is a well-preserved Viking period site, comprising a single large oval feature with additional small mounds surrounding it. Geophysical survey has revealed that the main element of the monument comprises an oval shaped feature with a distinctly pointed eastern end and with no apparent interior features within. Based on the visible remains, the geophysical survey results and comparisons from other known boat burial, this has been identified as a probable Viking ship burial. Research and excavation of other Viking ship burial sites, such as Scar in Orkney (Canmore ID 3494), have shown that such sites take the form of a ship buried within mound, with a stone setting surrounding the vessel or the part of it where the burials lay. These burials typically survive as an oval mound or feature with a hollow in the interior where the structure of the timber ship has collapsed. This form is seen in the main feature at Huesbreck, where there is clear evidence from field observations and geophysical survey of a mound with a stone setting, surrounding a boat-shaped hollow.

The nature of ship burials means that although the overall form will be similar, they can vary quite drastically in size based on the size of vessel used. For example, the two vessels excavated at Westness, Orkney (Canmore ID 2204) measured only 4.5m and 5.5m in length, while the examples from Oseberg and Gokstad and the recent find at Gjellestad, all in Norway, are each over 20m in length. Geophysical survey of the Huesbreck example indicates the vessel used was around 12m in length and 3.5m wide, which would make it the largest example thus far identified within Scotland. Ship burials can involve one or more individuals, with male and female remains of a wide range of ages known . Ship burials were inherently high status, and typically contain prestigious, high status grave goods.

Alternatively, the feature may represent the remains of a Viking house, which would also have a similar form and size to the visible remains at Huesbreck. However, this is not supported by the geophysical survey results from the site, both because it would be expected that more possible internal features would be visible, and because the geophysics indicate a pointed eastern end to the internal structure.

The additional visible element of the site comprises three small roughly circular mounds. These mounds are all similar in size, and geophysical survey has revealed the presence of distinctly square anomalies in the easternmost two examples, while the third example shows a more circular anomaly. Although the precise nature of these mounds is uncertain, the presence of apparent man-made features on the geophysical survey results and their proximity to the ship burial suggests they may be additional burial features, supporting the interpretation that this site is ship burial rather than a house site. In Scotland, there is a wider pattern of the location of pagan Viking burials, including ship burials, on the same site as earlier prehistoric or Pictish cemeteries; this pattern can be observed at Cladh Aindreis, Ardnamurchan (Canmore ID 22360), Westness, Orkney (Canmore ID 2204), and Cnip, Lewis (Canmore ID 4007). In this case, the apparently square features revealed during geophysical survey would be consistent with burials from the Pictish period.

The Huesbreck burial site has significant potential to enhance our understanding of both the Pictish and the Viking period within Scotland. Ship burials can involve one or more individuals, with male and female remains known and with a wide potential range of ages, placed within a ship along with a range of grave goods, often of high-status. Pictish burials, meanwhile, rarely include grave goods, but often include important organic material that can further enhance our understanding of this period of Scotland's history. The evidence suggests that the site has a high potential to be a relatively undisturbed Pictish cemetery, later reused for a Viking ship burial. This would be an exceptionally rare undisturbed example of this type of site within Scotland on our current knowledge, and it has high potential to enhance our understanding of both Pictish and Viking era funerary and ritual practices within Scotland.

Contextual characteristics (how a site or place relates to its surroundings and/or to our existing knowledge of the past)

The site is located towards the southern end of Mainland Shetland, around 7.5km north of Sumburgh Head. It lies at around 30m above sea level on the northeastern slope of Gallow Hill and overlooks Voe, a small rocky-shored bay on the eastern side of the island that opens into the North Sea.  The coastal location is common for a ship burial, partially driven by the practical concern of utilising an existing ship within the burial, but also with a likely ritual significance through the continued connection of the ship to the sea.

There is substantial evidence for Norse trade, occupation and settlement throughout the north and west of Scotland. Shetland is  believed to be one of the earliest parts of what is now Scotland settled by the Norse and there is abundant evidence of the prolonged period of Norse settlement and influence in the islands from at least the early 10thcentury through to the late 15th  century.  There are very few known ship burials in Scotland, with only around a dozen recorded in the National Record of the Historic Environment (NHRE), of which three are in Shetland at Ling Ness (Canmore ID 1163), Wick of Aith (Canmore ID 1405) and Burn of Setter (Canmore ID 104525). Further afield, the majority of known ship burials are found within Scandinavia, but examples have been found in Iceland, France and Russia.

Other types of Norse burial are also represented in the NRHE, with around 170 "Viking graves" recorded across Scotland, including at Clibberswick on Unst (Canmore ID 157), which was excavated in 1863 and revealed the burial of 9th century female, and an undated male burial discovered during construction at Sumburgh Airfield in the Second World War (Canmore ID 552). These numbers suggest that Viking graves may be underrepresented in the Scottish archaeological record, although this could relate to other factors such as the transition to Christian burial practice, and many of the currently known sites have been previously excavated or destroyed by other means, making the seemingly well-preserved Huesbreck example a potentially exceptional example of the type. In addition, ship burials are known to be extremely rare even within the wider context of Viking graves, further heightening the exceptional rarity of the Huesbreck site.

The presence of potential additional burials around the main mound suggests the site had multiple phases of use, with an earlier, potentially Pictish burial site, reused for the Viking era ship burial.  The dates and purpose of these mounds are potentially significant for their ability to enhance our understanding of both Pictish and Norse era ritual and funerary practice in Scotland.

Associative characteristics (how a site or place relates to people, events, and/or historic and social movements)

There are no known associative characteristics.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland



Shetland SMR Reference 587.

Graham-Campbell, J. and Batey, C.E. (1998). Vikings in Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Harris, O J T., Cobb, H., Batey, C E., Montgomery, J., Beaumont, J., Gray, H., Murtagh, P and Richardson, P 2017 'Assembling places and persons: a tenth century Viking boat burial from Swordle Bay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, western Scotland.' Antiquity 91, 191-206

Ostberg, René. "Oseberg ship". Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Jun. 2023, [Accessed on 1/11/2023].

Owen, O A and Dalland, M 1999 Scar – A Viking boat burial on Sanday, Orkney, Tuckwell Press: East Linton

Price, N. 2012 'Dying and the dead: Viking Age mortuary behaviour' in Brink, S. & Price, N. 2012 The Viking World, Oxford: Routledge, 257-274

ScARF (2012) 'Norse Scotland' in Hall, M. and Price, N. (eds) Medieval Scotland: A Future for its Past Scottish Archaeological Research Framework: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, p 15-20 Available online at [Accessed on 1/11/2023]

The Gokstad Boat, The Viking Ship Museum. Available at: [Accessed on 1/11/2023].

The Gjellestad Ship Excavation, Museum of the Viking Age. Available at: [Accessed on 1/11/2023].

HER/SMR Reference


Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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