Bronze Age houses in the Sutherland glens

The most common prehistoric houses visible in the landscape today are hut circles. This rather antiquated term encompasses a wide variety of architectural forms that need share little more than a tendency to decay into a ring-shaped earthen bank. Many were originally imposing and elaborate buildings to which the rather disparaging term 'hut' does little justice. These roundhouses are among the most common prehistoric remains in the Scottish landscape, with more than 2000 known in Sutherland alone. They often occur in loose agglomerations straggling across extensive areas of moorland, where they have escaped the ravages of later ploughing, surrounded by the remains of various irregular field plots and clearance cairns (10).

Some of the earliest hut circles yet known were excavated recently at Achany Glen, near Lairg in Sutherland. Between about 2000 and 1500 BC this glen, like many in Sutherland, was home to

15m numerous families living in large timber roundhouses and farming the surrounding land. Construction methods varied from house to house: some were of 'wigwam' design, with the rafters of the conical roof supported directly on the ground; some had circular walls founded on a bank of earth and faced with wattle panels; while others had roofs supported on internal rings of posts. The designs probably evolved gradually over time, but we have too few dated examples for this early period to be able to detect such changes.

Inside these houses the available space was divided by means of timber partitions set around the periphery, while the central floors were left open to form the communal focus of the house for cooking and eating. The peripheral bays seem to have been floored with timber planks and probably served as sleeping or working areas.This sort of radial division was to be a recurrent feature throughout the Iron Age. appearing in its clearest form almost 2000 years later in the wheelhouses of the Western Isles and Shetland (see below).

Hut circles dating to the Later Bronze Age have been excavated at Kilphedir in Sutherland. One of these (hut circle I) had a floor area of around 11 by 10m (36 by 33ft); significantly larger than some of the rather later broch towers (11). A ring of internal posts probably held an upper floor as well as supporting the roof, the rafters of which rested on walls of stone and earth. This building was occupied long enough to require major remodelling of its internal posts on at least two occasions. As before, domestic life was centred on the large hearth towards the middle of the building while the periphery may have been partitioned off, as at Lairg. When occupied, this

Bronze Age House Sutherland Glen

12 Hut Circle I til Kilphedir probably dales to the Ltiter Bronze Age (judging from the 'flat-rimmed' pottery found within it) and was a long-lived and imposing building to which the rather pejorative description 'hut circle' seems ill-suited. Reconstructions, such as this cutaway view, are based on a combination of building experiment and deduction from the excavated evidence. 77te internal post-ring, which was replaced at least twice during the lifetime o f the building, probably carried an upper floor as well as helping support the roof. Like most roundhouses, the building would have had a conical thatched roof with a pitch approximating to 45° to aid the run-off of rainwater.

substantial house, one of two almost identical structures at Kilphedir, was probably at least as impressive as many later brochs (12).

During the first millennium BC the Sutherland hut circles seem to have become rather more complex in design, although their overall numbers may have reduced, and instead of clustered villages we tend to find isolated farmsteads. There was a tendency for the walls of these later buildings to incorporate more stone and for doorways to be lengthened to create more formal entrance passages. Some even had cells and galleries within their walls, mirroring the development of broch architecture, as Horace Fairhurst, one of the excavators of Kilphedir. observed.The last of the Kilphedir houses (hut circle V), occupied in the later centuries BC, typifies these changes with its stone-faced wall at least 1.5m (5ft) high, an intra-mural gallery, and an entrance passage around 4.5m (15ft) long.

13 An iirtist's reconstruction o f a luil circle settlement in H(>/)Wi></ Park, Edinburgh

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