Travels to Thurso, Caithness and Brochtoberfest!

Travels to Thurso, Caithness and Brochtoberfest!

This blog post comes a fair bit delayed as I’ve been so busy travelling to different events over the last month (and now settling back into scan processing in the office at Bradford), but I wanted to say thanks to Iain McClean and Ken McElroy of the Caithness Broch Project for inviting me up to Thurso to speak at their fantastically-named Brochtoberfest seminar – an annual event where broch-related researchers and enthusiasts gather to hear about the latest in broch-related studies and archaeological work. It was a sell-out event, and located in the wonderful Caithness Horizons Museum – well worth a visit to see its impressive collection of carved Pictish stones.


Dan Harris talks about building the Lego Broch


It was great to meet other broch researchers and be informed on the many interesting activities being done to study and present these sites and their archaeology. I also got to see the impressive Lego broch model on display in the museum, which was fun (much heated discussion was heard about the features the model includes, and also the technical difficulties of modelling a round tower using square bricks…!). Dr Samantha Dennis also brought some artefacts from the Old Scatness Broch excavations with her, for her presentation on cataloguing the finds in the Shetland Museum, which were great for the attendees to handle.


The famed Lego Broch on display at Caithness Horizons! The level of detail is fanastic – note the smoked fish inside, and intra-mural galleries between the walls!


I must add a thank you to the owners of Pennyland House B&B for their kind hospitality during my stay in Thurso. I explored the town and nearby Scrabster the day after the festival, before I caught the train back down south (main image at the top shows the view of the island of Hoy, Orkney, from outside Pennyland House, plus some rather sleepy sheep!). An interesting fact: Thurso station is the most northerly in the UK, so I travelled quite literally to the end of the line! It’s a very scenic journey, spotting many deer and birds of prey on the way. I must visit some of Caithness’s broch sites the next time I am in northern Scotland.


The historic Pennyland House B&B



Laser scan processing at The Engine Shed, Stirling

Laser scan processing at The Engine Shed, Stirling

Last week I’ve been in Stirling to work on my Shetland laser scans at Historic Environment Scotland’s shiny, new Conservation Centre: The Engine Shed! I had a play with the interactive virtual and augmented reality displays that give you a background on the specialist work that goes on here, digital documentation being one of them. The huge map of Scotland comes alive with AR – you can borrow an iPad and see models of historic sites placed in the landscape and find out more about them. Maybe my work can add to the Shetland sites!

Model of Mousa Broch that appears when the iPad is aimed over Shetland

I’ve been registering the laser scan data from Mousa for a week, which has given me a good amount of time to practice doing this with the data from the Z+F 5016 scanner (with kind help from HES colleagues!). I’m looking forward to putting all of it together and seeing the broch in a completely new way – already seeing the way the cells’ beehive-shaped ceilings and how the spiral staircase winds up the sides looks brilliant, but this data needs a bit more tidying up before I can show it! When I’m back from Orkney next week this’ll be my next step.

The long way home… Return to Mainland Orkney

The long way home… Return to Mainland Orkney

How time flies! I’m aware I’m blogging two weeks late but internet access has been quite patchy, so here’s the rest of my Orkney trip summed up… from Bradford!

Me and Andy left Rousay on Friday morning to visit the Mainland on Orkney. Immediately we were able to head to the Broch of Gurness, which is visible from Midhowe on a clear day across Eynhallow Sound. Sailing between these two imposing towers must have been quite an experience in the past. The remains of the settlement at Gurness are extensive, just like at Midhowe, and it is clear that this entire area would have been thriving with activity during the Iron Age.

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After this, we travelled back in time as we headed towards the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, with a quick stop off at the Standing Stones of Stenness – the oldest part of the site, dating from 5400 – 4500 years ago (Historic Environment Scotland 2017). The size and scale of the stones only sink in when you stand right next to them!

We then made our way to the Ness of Brodgar excavations, for a site tour. It’s a very impressive place (see main blog image at the top!). The stone-built Neolithic structures that are being revealed are immense in size, with some outer walls 5 metres wide. Check out their website for updates on their work:

Andy had to return to mainland UK that day, so I made the most of the weekend to see more of Orkney’s World Heritage Sites, chatting to other visitors and staff. It’s amazing to see how enthusiastic and knowledgeable they are about Orkney’s archaeology. I certainly learned a lot! It was to the famed site of Skara Brae on Saturday (on a most scenic, relaxed bus journey from Kirkwall).

The reconstructed houses are excellent at giving a sense of how the houses would have been organised and used originally. I particularly liked the (fake!) lobster and fish kept fresh in the stone-lined tank. It was very busy at the main site, as many people like myself had decided to make the most of the sunshine and see Skara Brae and walk along the beach. I also visited Skaill House, which was included in the admission price, and was surprised at how large and grand it was! There are some interesting exhibits on the original excavations of Skara Brae inside. Next time I must go on an evening tour to see the structures up close, after hours! On the way back, the bus stopped off at the Ring of Brodgar, so I had time to walk all around the stones in the late afternoon sun, AND visit the Stones of Stenness again, with a spot of seal watching on the opposite side of the water.


The famous Neolithic houses at Skara Brae, with stone shelves


I was initially worried the main buses to the famous archaeological sites don’t run on Sunday, but with a bit of detective work and kind help from the Kirkwall Tourist Information Centre (thanks so much!!), I established a bus route to the Maeshowe visitor centre in Stenness (not the old one across the road from the cairn itself, which as of July 2017 is closed). The trick is to book early, especially if in a group, as it was amazing at how quickly tickets get snapped up for this site. After puzzling out the bus timetable (buses run once every two hours from Kirkwall to Stenness – just ask to get dropped off at the Maeshowe visitor centre), it was a pretty quick journey to get to the visitor centre (don’t go to the cairn itself as no one is there to let you in!). Once there, you get on a small bus with the tour guide, which shuttles you to Maeshowe itself. Another tip – tours run on the hour, so make sure you get to the visitor centre with time to spare, so the bus isn’t late, as it can hold up the next tour!

As for Maeshowe itself… wow. Seeing images and videos of the interior cannot match the experience of really being there! The guide was very knowledgeable and talked about the history of the site, showing us some of the key runic inscriptions and the famous Maeshowe “dragon” carving. There’s a swallow nest inside too, and it’s cute to see the adult birds swooping through the entrance passageway to reach the chicks inside, although they do dive-bomb dramatically (I may have worn a hat to cover myself!).

Back at the visitor centre, there’s a Samsung Gear VR headset you can try on, to view the Maeshowe virtual reality app which was created by Historic Environment Scotland and Glasgow School of Art. It uses laser scanning data conducted as part of the Scottish Ten project and is available on iOS and Android (click here for link). I liked seeing the English translations of some of the runes placed in 3D beside the location of the carvings! It would be fantastic if something similar can be designed for the three brochs I am researching… perhaps?


Maeshowe in virtual reality, courtesy of data from the Scottish Ten project


Monday was my last day in Kirkwall, so I headed to the Orkney Museum, which has some great exhibits on display, featuring artefacts from the Norse burial from the Broch of Gurness, beautiful Pictish carvings and a great many prehistoric finds, including stone maceheads and those mysterious carved stone balls. I also explored the impressive red sandstone St Magnus’ Cathedral, the most northerly in the UK, which dates back to the 12th century and was founded by the Viking Earl Rognvald. The town takes its name from the Norse Kirkjuvágr, which is mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga. I thought its large round columns look very similar to those at Durham Cathedral, also founded in the Norman period. Both are free to visit and well worth a look to get a good understanding of the history of Kirkwall and Orkney!


Pictish carvings at the Museum of Orkney, including an eagle, mirror and more abstract symbols


It was farewell to the Northern Isles late that evening as I caught the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. I had a wonderful time here, got even more survey data than I expected and the weather has been (mostly) absolutely fantastic (apparently it’s been more sunny than Cornwall this July!). I’m looking forward to heading back up next month for the ‘Our Islands, Our Past’ conference being held by the Archaeology Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands.


Surveying Swandro excavations and the archaeology of Rousay

Surveying Swandro excavations and the archaeology of Rousay

Last Monday we arrived late into Kirkwall, so had an overnight stop before heading across to the island of Rousay on the local ferry. The site was abuzz with media coverage from the exciting news of a Roman coin being discovered in a trench over the weekend (only the fourth ever found in Orkney). Here’s the BBC article (click).

Over two days me and Andy helped to scan the newly revealed contexts inside the trenches as well as wide-ranging contextual laser scans of the complete site at Swandro, with its Neolithic chambered tomb, Iron Age roundhouses and Pictish buildings. The stony shore made for some interesting stability challenges in finding secure places for tripod legs! Our latest scans are important as they are a record of the present condition of the site. The Knowe of Swandro is greatly under threat of coastal erosion, which is why the Swandro – Orkney Coastal Archaeology Trust are excavating and recording the site before it is completely claimed by the sea. Their great website has a daily blog as the season continues:


transporting the anvil
On Wednesday this stone anvil was lifted from Structure 3. The Bradford Visualisation trolley makes a good lithics transporting device! Julie looks pleased!


It will be very interesting to examine the extent of erosion over the last few years by comparing this season’s scans to those of previous years (many thanks to Mark Littlewood for sharing his previous scans at Swandro with me).


scanning from photo platform
Setting up a long range scan from the top of the photography platform at Swandro


Even though we were rained off site on Thursday, me and Andy made a determined attempt to see a lot of the archaeology of the island up close, only after we were finally torn away from the lovely local arts and crafts (and ice cream) sold at The Craft Hub. I’m now the proud owner of a locally made “Rousay” souvenir mug complete with Viking longship!

In the afternoon we drove around the island and walked along the Westness coast, stopping by Midhowe Chambered Cairn – a monumentally-sized Neolithic cairn that is now housed inside a protective structure. There is a walkway directly over the exposed interior, which is quite an experience. I recommend stout boots with good grip walking down there from the car park – it’s quite steep and slippery! Very close by is Midhowe Broch, which is very well-preserved and in a dramatic setting between two steep-sided creeks right along the coast. The buttresses are a very quirky feature of the broch. They had to be added soon after construction as the walls began to slump. Unfortunately the weather meant it wasn’t possible to take many recording shots of the site, but it is very unusual as huge stone slabs had been installed at a later date within the broch, to form partitions.

We walked past the Skaill excavations being run by the University of the Highlands and Islands and the site of ruined farm buildings, a Norse hall and burial site, before heading down the road to Blackhammer Cairn and Taversoe Tuick Cairn, both of which date to the Neolithic period. The latter is really unusual as it has two storeys!

I’ll post photos when I can take them off my camera.

Many thanks to Dr Steve Dockrill and Dr Julie Bond for their kind hospitality and arranging our stay on Rousay, and to the site staff and volunteers for all your help, advice and witty banter (especially the crew at Cedarlee – Bronwyn, Alice and Joe)! I really enjoyed being on this little island for the last week and hope to come back soon. Next time I’ll bring windproofs!

First visits to Old Scatness Broch and Jarlshof

First visits to Old Scatness Broch and Jarlshof

On Thursday I visited Old Scatness and Jarlshof for the first time. Compared to Mousa, the scale of these archaeological sites are staggering: many roundhouses of different periods surround the central broch at both. As my supervisor Dr Val Turner showed me and colleagues around Old Scatness, James was busy getting laser scans around the site (once you start, you can’t stop scanning)!

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Val interviewed me, Lyn and Andy for Radio Scotland about my PhD project and the vision for all three of these amazing Iron Age sites. Her recording was broadcast later that day and on Friday – first claim to fame! I’ll post here and on Twitter when I find out the exact time her more in-depth interview is broadcast.

After data swapping and backing up during lunch at the Sumburgh Hotel, we headed to Jarlshof. The HES team even had time to take a few initial laser scans around the site, following the permanent survey markers that Mike recently installed so the condition of the site can be monitored with accuracy in the future. The long history of Jarlshof is amazing (much more detailed info here:, but the fact that just half of the broch has survived to present highlights just how under threat many archaeological sites are from coastal erosion. The defences put in place at Jarlshof are strong, but it will be useful to monitor them over time and laser scanning can do this with great detail.

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After our Historic Environment Scotland colleagues departed on Thursday, me and Andy returned to Old Scatness on Friday to acquire some more scans and take photography for SFM photogrammetry. I laser scanned areas of Old Scatness with the FARO Focus X330 that the long range Leica P40 may not have covered, and by the end of the day much of the site has been scanned and recorded. With permission from Sumburgh Air Traffic Control and DJI, Andy piloted the DJI Mavic SUA over Old Scatness to take aerial photos across the site, giving us excellent coverage which will help to feed into the terrestrial scan data and photos for photogrammetry.

Overall the amount of data acquired on this fieldtrip has exceeded all my expectations! It’s going to look amazing once it’s all been processed (my next major step in the PhD). Tomorrow I’ll be visiting Shetland’s Archives and Museum, run by my external partner Shetland Amenity Trust ( to investigate historic records of my three sites. I’m hoping to get a better sense of their history from past researchers and their notes and images.


Days 2 and 3 at Mousa

Days 2 and 3 at Mousa

Things stepped up a gear in the last few days. We were able to safely access the intra-mural galleries inside Mousa broch – certainly not something to do without hard hats and safety gear! Deep in the heart of the broch you are very up close and personal with the meeting storm petrels – you can hear the chicks tweet within the walls.

Team photo (top): James Hepher, Mike Jack, Marta Pilarska, Dr Lyn Wilson, Li Sou, Dr Val Turner, Dr Andy Wilson

The path to Mousa broch (wheeled trolley in the distance!)


Me and Lyn recorded the broch interior with the Z+F 5016 – a scanner with intergrated lighting and HDR imaging, which made it ideal for recording in dark areas, like the intra-mural cells built into the base of the broch, and for very clear colour data of the wall tops (bottom right). James and Marta took many exterior scans of Mousa using the Leica P40 while Andy and Mike scanned the galleries and passageways. We also used a giant tripod to scan from high inside the broch ( below left).

We were all glad we brought our “on-site vehicles” (aka garden trollies) for moving kit across Mousa. It’s less than half a kilometre away from the ferry drop off point and a very leisurely stroll for those exploring the island without survey equipment, but we had the true “Shetland pony” experience of pulling and pushing our carts along with full loads of tripods, cameras and scanners! Many thanks to the kind staff of the Mousa Boat ( for helping us with moving kit, taking us over to the island over the last few days and for sharing the fascinating history of Mousa.

Taking survey kit to site on wheels

On the final day at Mousa my PhD supervisor at Shetland Amenity Trust, Dr Val Turner, visited to see us in action. It was great to discuss this exciting project together, and the next day she showed us around one of the other Iron Age sites I am researching: Old Scatness (I’ll talk about this in my next post!). In the evening we visited St Ninian’s Isle and Sumburgh Head, where we saw many puffins (we might have taken as many photos of puffins as of the broch… they seem to love being photographed!!).

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PhD surveys begin!

PhD surveys begin!

It’s the end of my very busy but absolutely fantastic first day (and first ever visit) in Shetland for my PhD fieldwork. Together with Andy from University of Bradford (who took the photo above of me pulling our equipment trolley!) and Lyn, James, Marta and Mike from Historic Environment Scotland, we crossed to Mousa with much kind help from the staff of the Mousa Ferry. Instantly we were greeted by Arctic terns and a curious seal! I’m crossing my fingers that we might spot an orca, dolphin or whale over the next few days on site, but the birds that nest within the walls of Mousa broch are delightful!

Island of Mousa from the Shetland mainland.

Nothing prepared me for the ridiculously dramatic landscape. As Mousa broch loomed ever closer, it’s sheer size and age really struck me. It’s an architectural marvel and the 3D data we’re collecting will be fascinating to investigate. We’ve already done quite a lot of scanning, which will continue over the next few days. Maybe with time to hire a Shetland pony to carry our scanning kit over the track to the broch! Fingers crossed the lovely weather continues too.

Mousa broch’s entraceway and west face being scanned by the Leica P40. Photo by James Hepher