But where’s the trees? Gathering and using timber in Neolithic Orkney

“The peats [at the Moss of Broonalanga, Firth] were difficult to cut owing to there being … what had evidently been the remains of an ancient forest, trunks and branches of a large size, bearing the name of scroggs, being found deep buried in the moss.”
John Firth (1838-1922) Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish.
Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

By Sigurd Towrie

In 2021, the discovery of wood surviving in two post-holes in Structure Twelve reignited visitors’ questions regarding the availability and use of timber in the Orcadian Neolithic.

This has been a commonly asked question for a long time, particularly given the scale of the Ness of Brodgar buildings and the extent of the complex. Not to mention Orkney’s current, almost treeless, landscape.

Because of Skara Brae, it is also a question that predates the discovery of the Ness complex by over 150 years.

The answer, however, is relatively simple. And probably not what you’ve heard or read…

The Orkney encountered by the first farmers, around 3700BC, was very different. Not only did lower sea levels mean more lowland areas, but Orkney was also home to woodland containing birch, hazel, rowan, willow, oak and pine. [1]

These wooded areas became a harvested resource – perhaps even managed – and this, together with other environmental factors, saw it all but wiped out over the next two millennia. [1]

Antiquarian insights

“There is a general and strong tradition that the harbour of Otterswick in Sanday was once a forest, which was destroyed by inundation. [It] may be observed that roots, or at least parts of trees, much putrified, half buried in the sand … present themselves to view at the low-water or spring tides.

“Deerness is also reported to have been anciently a considerable forest, which deluge overwhelmed.”
Rev George Barry. The History of the Orkney Islands. (1805)

Surveyed in 1847-48, the remains of prehistoric woodland on the west side of Otterswick, Sanday, appeared as a “submarine forest” on a hydrographic chart of the area.

It was also documented by the Sanday historian Walter Traill Dennison, who wrote:

“It is an melancholy sight to look into the open grave of what had one time been an umbrageous forest, blooming in all the sylvan beauty of stately trunk, spreading bough, and green; leaves; where beasts roamed and fair birds sang.”

Despite this, the Otterswick woodland continued to be labelled a “tradition” until 2003, when excavation revealed it to more than just a folktale.

The site of the submarine forest at Otterswick, Sanday, as shown on the 19th century Admiralty chart of the area. (Map courtesy of National Library of Scotland)
The location of the submarine forest at Otterswick, Sanday, as shown on the 19th century Admiralty chart of the area. (Map courtesy of National Library of Scotland)

Lying beneath a metre of sand, the excavator revealed a 10-15cm layer of peat along with tree branches. Twelve samples were taken and identified to be willow – substantial specimens which once stood to about three metres high. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the trees had flourished in the Mesolithic, around 5500BC. [1a]

Otterswick is just one of many “submerged forest” sites across Orkney, many of which were documented in the 19th century – although many of these, like Otterswick, probably relate to pre-Neolithic woodland.

At the north end of the Bay of Skaill, opposite Skara Brae, for example, The Orkney Herald of August 24, 1886, reported that unusually high seas had:

“[R]emoved the beach below the church for some distance to reveal forest remains in a considerable depth of peat moss, near where deer horns have been found.”

Earlier in the 19th century, Rev George Barry had no doubt that Orkney was wooded in antiquity:

“Since, then, it must be admitted that wood in considerable quantity grew here in a former period, and that the islands are now entirely stripped of that beneficial ornament, an inquiry into the cause becomes, if not a matter of consequence, at least of some curiosity.” [1b]

He concluded, entirely correctly it now seems, that:

“In whatever places, therefore, woods are on the decline or wherever they have disappeared totally, it may have been owing to their having been cut down and made use of for [various purposes].” [1b]

But this antiquarian insight, and other evidence, appears to have been completely ignored in the following decades, presumably dismissed as fable.

Making do with stone

Passageway and entrance. Skara Brae, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Passageway and entrance. Skara Brae, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

It was the advent of palaeoenvironmental analysis that confirmed the availability of timber in prehistoric Orkney. But back in the early 20th century it was confidently declared that Neolithic Orcadians were forced to build in stone because it was the only material available.

Vere Gordon Childe, who led the excavation/consolidation of Skara Brae, wrote in 1931:

“[At Skara Brae] a gigantic sand dune has embalmed a whole complex of huts and lanes, preserving even their walls to a height of eight or nine feet; lack of timber had obliged their builders to translate into stone, and thus perpetuate, articles of furniture usually constructed of perishable wood…” [2]

Seven years later, following the discovery of the Rinyo Neolithic settlement in Rousay, he declared:

Skara Brae gives a unique picture of the domestic architecture and furniture of a stone-using, self-sufficing community, a picture that would be also applicable to contemporary communities where lack of trees did not compel the translation into stone of structures normally made of wood. [2a]

In 1962, over 30 years after he oversaw the Skara Brae operations, Childe blamed the weather:

“Gales had cleared of encumbering trees most of the islands as well as the adjacent plains of Caithness. Since forest constitutes the gravest obstacle to settlement by farmers equipped only with stone tools, the open heaths and machar (sic) lands were particularly attractive to cultivators.” [2b]

Conceding that pockets of “stunted woodlands” survived in the Neolithic, he informed his readers that these “would hardly have sufficed to keep the islanders in firewood, still less in building timber.” [2b]

Childe’s beliefs, like many of his Skara Brae interpretations, were tenacious, as Carey highlighted in 2012:

“This view of a largely treeless Neolithic has come to dominate the discussion of the period as a whole and continues to be taken as a given, even in recent interpretations.” [2c]

And you’ll probably still hear it today.

Central to this notion is the sheer numbers of known stone-built, Neolithic structures in Orkney and that the islands’ present treeless landscape was the same in prehistory. These were flawed assumptions for two reasons:

  • Stone survives. Timber structures would not.
  • In the late 19th and early 20th centuries nobody was actively looking for the ephemeral traces left by wooden buildings.

As the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Early timber buildings

“To everyone’s surprise, the primary occupation of Wideford Hill was found to be represented by a series of structures or houses of timber construction.”
Colin Richards and Andrew Meirion Jones. Houses of the Dead (2016)

It was not until the 21st century that evidence for timber-built, Neolithic structures first saw the light of day. In 2003, a settlement was discovered at the foot of Wideford Hill in the centre of the Orkney Mainland. [3]

Dating to around 3600BC, the earliest houses were found to be wooden, post-built structures. Nothing survived above ground, so the only evidence of the circular buildings were the post-holes and central hearths scooped into their floors.

The wooden buildings discovered in the excavated area at Wideford Hill. Timber Structure One (red), Timber Structure Two (green) and Timber Structure Three (blue).
The wooden buildings discovered in the excavated area at Wideford Hill. Timber Structure One (red), Timber Structure Two (green) and Timber Structure Three (blue). (Richards and Jones 2016)

Excavation suggested the lifespan of these wooden houses was relatively short and that they were replaced rather than refurbished at the end of their life. But where was the wood for these structures coming from? The fact the posts were not being reused also suggested there was a plentiful supply of construction timber.

For decades driftwood was cited as the major (or sole) source of timber in Neolithic Orkney.

Following archaeological work at Skara Brae in 1972/73, the excavator wrote:

“A considerable number of pieces of wood were found, a small number of which had been fashioned into objects, including part of a finely made handle, while other fragments show tool-marks. Much of this wood was in the form of twigs which were probably collected locally but other, more substantial pieces are likely to have been acquired as driftwood.” [4]

In this case, we now know that some of the timber came from driftwood. Elsewhere, in the few instances where wood has survived, it is clear that driftwood was an exploited resource in the Neolithic – as it remained throughout history.

Spruce, which is not found in Scotland, is known from Skara Brae [4] and also the Stones of Stenness, where fragments of birch, alder and pine were also recovered. [5]

At the latter:

“[T]wo conifers came from outside Orkney, probably the alder did too and perhaps even the same applies to the birch. The most likely explanation is driftwood…” [5]

This 1976 conclusion was echoed in 1992:

“[M]ost, if not all, of the occurrences of foreign coniferous wood in the archaeological layers of the Scottish Islands is driftwood of North American origin.” [6]

Analysis of charcoal has certainly shown driftwood – spruce and larch, most likely from North America – was being used for fuel. It has also suggested that local woodland (birch, willow, cherry-type and willow) survived until at least 3500BC [7] – and probably later.

At the Stonehall settlement, a short distance to the west of Wideford Hill, excavation found a much greater diversity of charcoal in the Early Neolithic contexts than the later occupation layers [7]. This suggests that woodland availability was decreasing through the Neolithic and that, in this area at least, timber was becoming scarce.

The Stonehall charcoal corroborated previous environmental evidence [8] pointing to a substantial decline in Orkney’s woodland. As a result the conclusion was that, by the Bronze Age, “Orkney was virtually treeless”. [7]

A re-evaluation of palaeoenvironmental data in 2014, together with new samples, painted a slightly different picture. It suggested that although Orkney’s woodland was disappearing throughout the Neolithic, the rate of decline was not uniform across the islands. This meant that wooded areas persisted in some locations into the Bronze Age. [1]

Whatever the scenario, timber was clearly becoming harder to source.

Timber to stone

Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)
Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Around 3300BC, the timber houses at the Wideford Hill settlement began to be replaced by stone-built dwellings – structures that replicated the architecture of the only stone buildings erected by this time, chambered cairns.

The switch from timber to stone architecture at Wideford Hill was subsequently noted at the nearby Smerquoy settlement [3] and the Braes of Ha’Breck on the island of Wyre. [9]

This change, it was argued, was unrelated to dwindling woodland:

“Even if a decline in available timber in Orkney was a factor in this process (and judging from recent research, it is not) this does not account for the complete change in architecture between the timber and stone houses as witnessed at Wideford Hill.” [11]

Although the rate and extent of Neolithic woodland decline has been questioned [1], there is no doubt that timber was a dwindling resource. Clearly wood was still required for the new, more substantial, stone dwellings and it may be that the importance of driftwood increased as woodland disappeared.

Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

At the same time, it is likely that timber became a more valuable resource. This ties in with excavation evidence pointing to a growing reliance on turf as a fuel source with wood perhaps too valuable to burn. At Stonehall, for example, turf was the primary fuel by the Late Neolithic. [7]

This also suggests that available wood had become something to be kept and re-used – a situation perhaps seen, for instance, within Structure Twelve at the Ness of Brodgar. When this building was abandoned the deliberate destruction of its stone-tiled roof was perhaps to allow its timber frame to be salvaged. [12]

Likewise, in Structure Five, which was built around 3300BC, the substantial wooden posts lining the inner wall were carefully removed – presumably for reuse elsewhere.

Compare this to the Early Neolithic wooden structures at Wideford Hill. When they went out of use excavation showed the timber posts were left in place to rot. Clearly securing trunks suitable for new posts for the replacement buildings was not an issue.

The two Structure Twelve post-holes with wood remaining. (Sigurd Towrie)
2021: The two Structure Twelve post-holes with wood remaining. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Cleaned, defined and ready to lift. The Trench T timber. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
2023: Cleaned, defined and ready to lift. A worked timber plank in Structure Twenty-Seven. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

With the decline of native woodland – and depending on the availability of driftwood – suitable timber for construction must have become harder to source.

The inclusion of large, and increasingly rare, timbers in structures perhaps added to their prestige:

“…timber was still essential to the building process and may have even become an expression of conspicuous consumption on more elaborate projects.” [13]

This may go some way to explain the huge wooden frames required for the Ness of Brodgar’s stone-tiled roofs. It may also introduce a new element into the Neolithic construction repertoire in Orkney. Large wooden structures, such as timber circles and halls, are known throughout the rest of Neolithic Britain [14] but are, so far, absent from Orkney.

It is undoubtedly a stretch to suggest the Orcadian landscape was dotted with timber monuments but could there have been one or two? Remember that the presence of Neolithic timber houses was unknown until 18 years ago.

In a society obsessed with the glory and visual impact of monuments, what better material to use than valuable and increasingly rare timber.

It has been suggested that in the third millennium BC Orcadian society was caught up in the unsustainable, and ultimately self-destructive, pursuit of prestige, social status and influence [15]. This scramble for social standing was manifested, in a highly visual manner, through monument construction. This saw the creation of increasingly large and elaborate stone “tombs” as different groups sought to outdo each other.

The result was a competitive and unstable society [16] in which rivalries were played out as people invested “time and labour in monuments relating to deities, ancestors and origins that stretched well beyond the shores of Late Neolithic Orkney”. [15]

Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (Sigurd Towrie)
Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

An element of this highly competitive rivalry was the ability to source and secure the necessary resources.

If, as has been suggested [1], pockets of woodland survived in parts of Orkney until the Bronze Age, timber was presumably a commodity that could be traded between those who had it and those who did not.

The acquisition of wood – presumably from multiple sources – must therefore have visibly highlighted the influence, connections and “wealth” of any group.

We can perhaps see something similar in the historic period, when wood was brought into Orkney from Norway.

“Flatpacked” timber structures – known as “stock-stove” houses were among the imports and were of such significance that their locations were preserved in Orkney’s “Stove” placenames.

A Sanday placename change between 1502 and 1593 saw the farm “Gardemeles” become “Stove”, suggesting “it had acquired on of these prestigious wooden houses, once the status symbol of the wealthier Orkney people.” [17]

Returning to Late Neolithic Orkney, the act of gathering resources and erecting a monument has been argued to be more important than the finished monument. The more difficult the task, the greater the prestige. [16]

If this were the case, accruing suitable timber – perhaps requiring connections and negotiations with areas throughout Orkney – would surely have an effect on the perceived significance and impact of the completed project.

In addition, the rush to raise bigger – but not necessarily architecturally better – monuments led to a situation where appearance, rather than structural stability, was key. [16]

With this emphasis on surface grandeur a wooden structure would not only have stood out but its construction a striking and highly visible show of its creators’ influence and power.

Whether this was even possible or just fanciful speculation remains to be seen.

Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney.  (📷 Sigurd Towrie)
Binscarth Woods, Firth, Orkney. (📷 Sigurd Towrie)

Posts and standing stones

Leaving aside the wood required for the equipment to transport and raise them, another role for timber may have centred on Orkney’s two known stone circles and perhaps the myriad standing stones dotted across the landscape.

Plan of the Odin Stone socket (bottom) and its two companions. (Challands et al. 2005)
Plan of the Odin Stone socket (bottom) and its two companions. (Challands et al. 2005)

At some sites south, timber post settings preceded the stone megaliths erected with the same footprint (e.g Kilmartin [18], Avebury [19] and Machrie Moor [20]). At others the timber and stone circles stood concurrently, the best-known examples being Stonehenge/Woodhenge/Durrington Walls [21].

Lack of excavation around the stone settings in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site means we cannot say whether the megaliths were preceded by timber posts. However, the excavation between the Stones of Stenness and Barnhouse settlement that located the site of the fabled Odin Stone also found the sockets for two other megaliths.

At the base of one socket-hole was a circular post-hole, leading to the suggestion that its standing stone was preceded by a timber upright. [22]

To the excavators, the post may have acted as a marker for a future megalith but the depth of the cut, into natural bedrock, was “suggestive of something more permanent and enduring”. [22]

If the socket did originally hold a wooden post, “we may be glimpsing evidence of a longer ritual cycle involving the erection and decay of a wooden post before its replacement by a megalith.” [22]

Why raise a post? Stone is permanent and durable while wood decays. Just as flesh decays to bone, perhaps rotting wood being replaced by stone was regarded a potent metaphor of transformation. [22]

Around Stonehenge, Parker Pearson has proposed that stone constructions were for the dead, while timber was for the living. [21]

This symbolism, he suggested, explains why certain timber monuments are transformed into stone in later life – they are:

“[P]assing from the realm of the living to the realm of the ancestors… [T]he changing of a monument from wood to stone is a marking of the movement of the living through death to ancestorhood, as the ceremonial places which were once associated with the living became places devoid of living people, where the ancestors now reside.” [21]

Notes

  • [1] Farrell, M., Bunting, M.J., Lee, D.H. and Thomas, A. (2014) Neolithic settlement at the woodland’s edge: palynological data and timber architecture in Orkney, Scotland. Journal of archaeological science, 51, pp.225-236.
  • [1a] Rennie, A. (2003) The submarine forest of Otterswick finally gives up its secrets. Earth Heritage 23.
  • [1b] Barry, G. (1805) The History of Orkney.
  • [2] Childe, V. G. (1931) Skara Brae: a Pictish village in Orkney. Kegan Paul. London.
  • [2a] Childe, V. G. (1938) A New Skara Brae. In The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 18, Issue 4.
  • [2b] Childe, V. G. (1962) The Earliest Inhabitants. In Wainwright, F. T. (ed) The Northern Isles. Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd: Edinburgh.
  • [2c] Carey, G. (2012) The domestic architecture of Early Neolithic Orkney in a wider interpretative context: some implications of recent discoveries.
  • [3] Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.
  • [4] Clarke, D.V. (1976) The Neolithic Village of Skara Brae, Orkney: 1972–1973 Excavations. An interim report. HMSO: Edinburgh.
  • [5] Dickson, C. and Dickson, J. (1976) Macroscopic Plant Remains from the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. In Ritchie, J.N.G. The Stones of Stenness, Orkney. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 107 pp.40-43
  • [6] Dickson, J.H. (1992) North American driftwood, especially Picea (spruce), from archaeological sites in the Hebrides and Northern Isles of Scotland. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, 73(1-4), pp.49-56.
  • [7] Miller, J., Ramsay, S., Alldrit, D. and Bending, J. (2016) Bay of Firth environments from the 2nd to 4th millennium BC: the evidence from Stonehall, Wideford Hill, Crossiecrown, Knowes of Trotty, Varme Dale and Brae of Smerquoy. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.
  • [8] Bunting, M.J. (1994) Vegetation history of Orkney, Scotland; pollen records from two small basins in west Mainland. New Phytologist, 128 (4), pp.771-792.
  • [9] Thomas, A. and Lee, D. (2012) Orkney’s first farmers: early Neolithic settlement on Wyre. Current Archaeology 268, 12–19.
  • [11] Richards, C. and Jones, A. M. (2016) Houses of the Dead: the transition from wood to stone architecture at Wideford Hill. In Richards, C. and Jones, R. (2016) The Development of Neolithic House Societies in Orkney: Investigations in the Bay of Firth, Mainland, Orkney (1994–2014). Windgather Press.
  • [12] Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [13] Ackerman, N. (2020) A roof over their heads. In Card, N., Edmonds, M. and Mitchell, A. (eds) The Ness of Brodgar: As it Stands. The Orcadian: Kirkwall.
  • [14] Cummings, V. (2017) The Neolithic of Britain and Ireland. Routledge: Oxon.
  • [15] Bayliss, A., Marshall, P., Richards, C. and Whittle, A. (2017) Islands of History: The Late Neolithic timescape of Orkney. Antiquity, 91(359), pp. 1171–1188.
  • [16] Richards, C. [ed] (2013) Building the Great Stone Circles of the North. Oxford: Windgather Press.
  • [17] Thomson, W.P.L. (2008) Merchant Lairds and the Great Kelp Boom. In The New History of Orkney. Birlinn Ltd: Edinburgh.
  • [18] Cook, M., Ellis, C. and Sheridan, A. (2010) Excavations at Upper Largie Quarry: new light on the prehistoric ritual landscape of the Kilmartin Glen. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 76, 165–212.
  • [19] Pollard, J. (1992) The Sanctuary, Overton Hill: a re-examination. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 58, 213–26.
  • [20] Haggarty, A. (1991) Machrie Moor, Arran: recent excavations of two stone circles. Proc Soc Antiq Scot 121, 51–94
  • [21] Pearson, M.P. and Ramilisonin (1998) Stonehenge for the ancestors: the stones pass on the message. Antiquity, 72(276), pp.308-326.
  • [22] Challands, A., Edmonds, M. and Richards, C. (2005) Beyond the Village: Barnhouse Odin and the Stones of Stenness. In Richards, C. (ed) Dwelling among the monuments: the Neolithic village of Barnhouse, Maeshowe passage grave and surrounding monuments at Stenness. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, pp. 205–227.

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