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20 Jul 2020

Living the high life on Bronze Age Arran

Written by Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeological Services
Archaeologists surveying a roundhouse site on Arran, with mountains in the background.
Thistle Camp participants surveying and digging the roundhouse in Coire a’ Bhradain
Archaeologists have been investigating the remains of a small roundhouse located high up on Coire a’ Bhradain, above Glen Rosa on Arran. Around 6m in diameter, the roundhouse sits on the west-facing slope of the coire, at a height of about 390m above sea level.

The site was discovered in 2001 by Arran Mountain Rescue Team members Ali Hume and Henry Murdo. It was exposed by the huge wild fire of that year, which burnt off the tall heather to reveal a raised circle with two prominent ‘doorway’ stones. Kate Sampson, Head Ranger for Brodick Castle Country Park and Goatfell, said ‘we’ve been discussing an archaeological investigation of the site for a long time and it’s so exciting that we’ve finally managed to get a radiocarbon date for it’.

A roundhouse archaeological site in the foreground, with snow-covered mountains behind;
The roundhouse site in February 2017

In 2017, under my supervision, a team of intrepid Thistle Camp participants carried out an archaeological dig. The group surveyed and mapped the site, then dug three exploratory trenches.

This was a challenging site to investigate. It required a fit team to walk in for at least an hour and half each morning and then out again in the afternoon. All our equipment had to be carried in but thankfully we were very fortunate to have some beautiful weather.

A line of people walking in a mountainous landscape on Arran.
The long walk in

Digging through the surrounding bank revealed the stone walls of the roundhouse, which were around 1.4m wide and probably stood about 0.5m high. After digging painstakingly down through the peaty topsoil, we uncovered a central hearth area with remnants of charcoal and a small fragment of burnt clay – possibly fired daub. The charcoal was identified as hazel and was submitted to the Scottish University Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) for a radiocarbon date. The radiocarbon result suggests the roundhouse was occupied around 1400–1300BC, which places it in the Middle Bronze Age.

Maybe the Coire a’ Bhradain site was used as temporary shelter during hunting trips, perhaps pursuing the deer through the narrow aptly named ‘Bowman’s Pass’ at the top of the coire. Alternatively, it could have been used like a seasonal shieling site to keep grazing animals out on the summer hill pastures.

At 384m above sea level, this is the highest roundhouse to be excavated on Arran and is similar in altitude to some sites in the central Highlands. The date of the site indicates that it’s of a similar date to some of the larger roundhouses excavated at Tormore on the western side of Arran. The results from these sites, and from two roundhouses on Trust land in Glen Rosa, were used by the Brodick Country Park team to build a replica roundhouse in the woods just to the north-west of the castle in 2012–13. This work was co-ordinated by Corinna Goeckeritz, one of the Trust rangers at Brodick. The completed structure is now used as an educational element both for school groups and for wider events.

A replica Bronze Age roundhouse in woodland.
Replica Bronze Age roundhouse in Brodick Castle Country Park

Roundhouses are characteristic of the later prehistoric period in Scotland. Upstanding stone and earth roundhouses (or hut circles) generally survive in areas of less improved uplands and the Trust has quite a range of these types of sites in its care. For example, in addition to the sites on Arran, there are roundhouses at Balmacara, Canna, Mingulay, Kintail, Inverewe, Fair Isle and Unst. Excavation work has recently been conducted at Inverewe and Unst by Trust Archaeologist, Dr Daniel Rhodes.

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