The Dunnet Bay area has many archaeological sites dating from different periods. On the Ordnance Survey map, these are described variously as mounds, brochs, cairns and hut circles. The earliest of these probably date from the Bronze Age.
About 11,000 years ago, Scotland was in the grip of the last Ice Age. The ice sheets did not extend as far as Caithness, though Dunnet would have been, effectively, an Arctic wilderness. So much sea water was frozen, that the sea level was lower than today - so low that Dunnet Bay and much of the North Sea were dry land.
POST-GLACIAL ( FLANDRIAN )
By 8300 B.C. climatic temperatures began to rise, and by 7500 B.C. the weather was warmer and drier than today. New soils had been formed, grasses and other plants had become established, though there as yet no deposits of peat - or heather! Much of Caithness, and most of what is now Dunnet Beach, would have been covered by Birch and Hazel.
THE FIRST SETTLERS
The first evidence of people dwelling in Scotland dates from about 7000 B.C. The entire population of Scotland is thought to have approximated 80 people, living in nomadic groups. Of these about 10 - 20 persons were thought to be in the Dunnet Bay area. They hunted, fished and gathered berries, nuts and various wild plants. Little seemed to change for 3000 years, during which the climate reached an optimum, and more of the land become covered in dense forest.
FIRST FARMERS ( EARLY NEOLITHIC )
From about 4000 B.C. there is evidence of a rapid change in our ancestors' lifestyle : from nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers. From Western Europe were introduced domesticated cattle, sheep, pigs, wheat and barley. No evidence of actual farms has been found, but traces of these early Neolithic peoples exist in the seventy burial cairns scattered throughout Caithness. Because of the farmers' use of trees for building and fuel, together with the increasingly prevalent wet and windy weather, great areas of blanket bog began to form.
It is thought that early Neolithic farmers practised ancestor worship. By 3000 B.C. people had begun to erect huge ritual monuments. Henge monuments, consisting of a ring ditch and bank surrounding a circle of huge stones, are the most spectacular examples. Settings of parallel or fan shaped stone arrays were constructed, and single standing stones were also set in place.
EARLY BRONZE AGE
The first evidence of settlement in the Dunnet Bay area probably dates from the Bronze Age, beginning about 2500 B.C. A small group of hut circles lies close to Dunnet forest. These circular huts, of about 13 metres diameter, had low stone or turf walls with a wood and turf roof.
At this time, a change from communal burial to individual, crouched, burials took place. In the new form of burial, in stone built cists, ( after kist - a box ) the crouched body was accompanied by a special funerary drinking vessel called a beaker. At the same time, metal artifacts such as copper axes and daggers appear and, later, bronze axes, spear heads and leaf-shaped swords. Two small mounds behind the sand dunes may be Bronze Age burials.
LATE BRONZE AGE
About 900 B.C. many settlements were abandoned, perhaps because of deteriorating climate or possibly the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla and the consequent spread of volcanic ash over the Northern lands.
THE IRON AGE
This period sees a dramatic increase in the construction of fortified sites. About 600 B.C. a large number of Duns, Crannogs and Brochs were built all over Scotland. At Marry Geo, a small promontory near Brough, the site is fortified by a ditch and bank and may date from this period.
One type of structure unique to Caithness and Sutherland is the Wag - possibly derived from vaigh : a tomb. These semi-subterranean, rectangular, aisled structures were associated with farming. Their purpose is not known, but it is possible they were for storing food or for animals.
About 300 A.D. a new culture appears in the North East of Scotland : the Picts. They are known principally for their enigmatic carved stones and horsemanship. It is at this time that evidence for the concept of Kingship first appears in Scotland.
About 800 A.D. the Vikings arrived. Their warriors came from Scandinavia, at first to seek fame and fortune, not to settle. Norse settlers came to Caithness in the 10th century A.D. These were farmers, not warriors, and usually settled around sandy bays such as Dunnet. Two sites of Norse farmsteads have been found locally, one near Castletown and one in Dunnet. On the former site the body of a Norse woman was found, along with a brooch, bone dress pin and bangle.
A small-scale excavation of the Dunnet site was carried out in 1995, during which a fine bone comb and bone dress pin were found. At Rattar, a hoard of Norse silver ring money was discovered. During this period Caithness was ruled by Norway, with authority vested in the Norse Earls of Orkney.
A small display of the archaeology of Dunnet Bay can be seen in the Ranger Centre in Dunnet.
in conjunction with
Caithness & Sutherland Enterprise