Rinyo Neolithic settlement, Rousay

“On the ground thus prepared we have exposed four chambers, proved by the presence of hearths to be occupational units. Not even these four are necessarily contemporary, and some of their walls cover fragments of others which must be earlier.”
Childe and Grant. A Stone-Age settlement at the Braes of Rinyo, Rousay, Orkney. (1938)
Plan of the excavated section of the Rinyo settlement. (Grant and Childe 1946)
Plan of the excavated section of the Rinyo settlement. (Grant & Childe 1946)
Rinyo map.

Before the discovery of Barnhouse in the early 1980s, there were only three known Neolithic settlement sites in Orkney – Skara Brae, Westray’s Links of Noltland and Rinyo, in Rousay.

In the 1930s and 1940s, most of Rousay was owned by the whisky magnate Walter Grant, who was actively looking for, and investigating, prehistoric sites on his land.

Copious amounts of flint and pottery around the farm of Bigland, in Rousay’s north-eastern corner, caught Grant’s attention so he tasked his employee, James Yorston Junior, to “prospect” the area.

In the winter of 1937/38, Jimmy was exploring the Braes of Rinyo – the terraced slope between Bigland and Faraclett Head – when he came across stone slabs protruding from the turf.

He went on to expose the outline of two structures (or “chambers”, as the excavators dubbed them) and portions of four others. [1]

Having seen Skara Brae, where work had ended less than ten years previously, Yorston noted similarities in the Rinyo buildings and stopped work.

Left: James Yorston Jnr (left) with his father, James Kirkness Yorston, in 1937. The pair are pictured right during excavations of the Midhowe broch, Rousay, between 1930 and 1933.

Chamber A, looking through the north-west doorway. (📷Grant & Childe 1938)

Clearly enthused by the discovery, Walter Grant called upon Gordon Childe, who had led the Skara Brae excavation and consolidation work.

A few months later, in June 1938, Childe was back in Orkney and a six-week excavation at Rinyo began. The Second World War interrupted the work, which resumed in 1946.

Going by the number of hearths, the excavation revealed the remains of at least seven buildings, some of which lay beneath later structures.

Later that year Childe described the site:

“Though the walls seldom survive to a height of more than 2 ft., the outlines of several chambers can be discerned and reproduce all the distinctive features of the [Skara Brae]. Chamber A, the best preserved, is some 15 ft long by 11 ft wide, entered to the right of the north-east end by a doorway of type I, 2 ft 4 in wide.
“In the centre is a hearth of which only two of the four kerb-stones survive. On either side are ‘beds’. That on the left is built out from the wall, as is usual at the classic site, while that on the right is recessed as in hut 9 at Skara Brae. In the left-hand rear (east) corner is a square box framed with slate slabs and found empty just like the so-called limpet-boxes at Skara Brae.
“In the rear wall are remains of a ‘dresser’ better preserved in chamber D. The wall-corners are rounded, as at Skara Brae, and, as there, a built drain roofed with flags runs under the floor.” [2]
Chamber A looking north. (Grant & Childe 1938)
Chamber A looking north. (📷 Grant & Childe 1938)

But it was not just the buildings that were reminiscent of the Sandwick settlement:

“[T]he surviving relics confirm the inference from the architecture that the culture of Rinyo is identical with that of Skara Brae. A polished stone axe, flint scrapers, Skaill flakes, a polished nodule of haematite and sherds of coarse, badly fired pottery, some decorated by means of applied ribs, were found in Chamber A.
“Larger quantities of the same decorated ware have been recovered from other chambers and show patterns, such as rhombus, and internally ornamented bases such as were typical of Skara Brae.” [2]

Other finds included two stone balls, pumice, a mortar, a “paint pot”, antler and “a good deal of whalebone”. [1]

An intriguing find was four marble-sized clay balls from Structures G and F. We have also found these at the Ness of Brodgar – 31 so far and counting – but the jury is out on what they were for? Could they simply be playthings? Counting tokens?

Two plain stone balls from Rinyo. (Grant & Childe 1938)
Two plain stone balls from Rinyo. (Grant & Childe 1938)

Childe noted that the Rinyo buildings also lay on top of “artificial deposits, presumably accumulated before their erection”.

These deposits of midden material came from earlier phases of occupation at the site and their depth prompted him to suggest a long and complex history of habitation. [1]

Over that time, the excavated buildings had seen multiple phases of use and modifications, apparently including stone robbing at the end of some of their lives.

In Chamber A, for example, the excavators found that the door “was found blocked up loosely with horizontal slabs as if it had gone out of use while [the building] was still occupied.” [1]

In addition, they noted that there were no large stones lying within the structure, which would have been the case had the walls collapsed over time. Instead, it seems that if the upper wall courses had not been dismantled, the building rubble was removed after a collapse:

“In clearing the chamber no large accumulation of fallen building stones was found cumbering the floor between the surviving wall stumps. Now, clearly, stones fallen from the walls would not have been removed by modern plunderers to a greater depth than the walls themselves.
“Hence if the masonry of the walls had once been carried higher (as at Skara Brae) and had collapsed into the chamber, the debris must have been removed either by the Rinyoans themselves or by their immediate successors, but in any case, before the ruins became grass grown.” [1]

A more extensive settlement could explain the condition of Chamber A upon excavation.

There seems little doubt the building had been dismantled, but not razed to the ground, and robbed of stone. The recycling of building material is noted across Neolithic sites in Orkney and is suggested created links to the past and symbolised continuity. [3]

What Structure A’s dismantling may represent is either the practical removal of building material for use elsewhere or, as we see elsewhere in Orkney, the deliberate decommissioning of a Late Neolithic structure. Or probably both.

Plan of the hearth and oven inside Rinyo’s Chamber C (Grant & Childe 1938)
Plan of the hearth and oven inside Rinyo’s Chamber C. (📷 Grant & Childe 1938)

Although the similarities to Skara Brae were abundant, there were notable differences.

Oven base in Chamber A. (Grant & Childe 1938)
Oven base in Chamber A. (📷 Grant & Childe 1938)

Adjacent to the south end of Chamber C’s hearth was a clay oven resting on a stone slab embedded into the floor.

This discovery was hailed by the excavators as “the first pre-Iron Age oven to be discovered in the British Isles.” [1]

Its walls stood c. 23cm high and enclosed a “perfect square” measuring 38cm by 38cm.

A possible second candidate was found in Chamber A – although it had been badly damaged – and the base of a third was found within an orthostatic box in Chamber E in 1946.

As regular readers will know, one of the first elements constructed in a Neolithic occupation site were its drains.

Rinyo was no different. But fragments of hazel bark stuck to drain coverings led to the suggestion that some of the drainage channels were lined. [1]

Stone roofs?

The remains of the oven adjacent to the hearth in Chamber C. (Grant & Childe 1938)
The remains of the oven adjacent to the hearth in Chamber C. (📷 Grant & Childe 1938)

At Skara Brae, rubble within the buildings saw Childe propose that they had corbelled, beehive-like, roofs.

He conceded, however, that his excavation team had not found enough to cover the entire span of the structures, prompting the tenacious theory that, because nothing had survived, the buildings’ roofs were made from a variety of organic material.

“The excavation of [Skara Brae] Chamber No. 2 has added little evidence of the construction of the upper walls, and the method of roofing is still a matter of conjecture.
“The chambers may have been covered with a domed roof of small stones, as in beehive structures, or by some method of lintelling with large slabs… If by the former, one would have expected to find a great mass of fallen stones among the debris excavated, but no such mass was found in any of the chambers recently exposed, nor were many slabs found which would have been necessary for the other method.” [4]

At Rinyo, however, the evidence pointed to something else.

In the first ecavation season, Childe referred to an irregular “pavement” of thin slabs on the floor of some of the buildings. Back on site in 1946, he noted that few of the slabs were laid flat, with “quite a number” leaning up against wall and furniture features. [4]

His conclusion was that “it is not unlikely that the alleged pavement is nothing more nor less than the collapsed roof of that dwelling.” [4]

So it seems that, at least some of the Rinyo structures, like those at the Ness of Brodgar, were roofed with stone tiles.

One cannot help but wonder if this discovery prompted him to rethink the situation at Skara Brae.

Rinyo Chamber G. (Grant & Childe 1946)
Rinyo Chamber G. (📷 Grant & Childe 1946)

In 1931, Childe described conditions in House Seven at Skara Brae:

“Scraps of bone and shells were lying scattered promiscuously all over the floor, sometimes masked by broken slates laid down like stepping stones over the morass”. [5]

Had Childe already stumbled across roofing tiles? Tiles that he had his labourers clear out with the rest of the “rubbish”?

It is also interesting to note his repeated references to fragile paving at Skara Brae that broke under the excavators’ feet – hardly the best material to cover a floor. [6]

Occupied for centuries?

Stone mortar. (Grant & Childe 1938)
Stone mortar. (📷 Grant & Childe 1938)

Unlike the structures encountered at Skara Brae, however, Rinyo’s “Chamber A” had two entrances – one in each of the sub-rectangular building’s western and eastern walls.

Childe recognised the doorways may not be contemporary. From what we have encountered at the Ness of Brodgar – with building entrances going out of use and new ones added – Chamber A’s blocked door might have represented a new phase of activity which saw a new doorway added.

A long period of occupation was also suggested from the pottery recovered on site.

A sherd of Beaker pottery — “the most important single vase from Rinyo” — prompted Childe to hail Rinyo a “complete settlement of Beaker Age or earlier”, dating from between 1800BC and 1400BC. [1]

By 1946, however, he had rethought this and placed Rinyo firmly in the Neolithic.

The Rinyo beaker sherds. (Grant & Childe 1938)
The Rinyo beaker sherds. (📷 Grant & Childe 1938)

Beaker pottery is comparatively rare in Orkney and, as we’ve seen, its presence at Rinyo was interpreted as evidence of occupation in the Bronze Age.  

Together with apparent Unstan Ware pottery [7] in the earlier levels, this suggested occupation from the Early Neolithic right through to the Bronze Age.

This is open to debate, however, for the simple reason that the Rinyo excavation reports lack firm stratigraphic detail.

All that can be said about the beaker sherd, for example, is that it was recovered from the doorway of Structure A “some six inches above the paving slabs” and beside a fragment of Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery. [1]

While this could be the result of the mixing of deposition layers witnessed at Crossiecrown, can “sherds of a Beaker”, i.e., a single vessel, truly represent Bronze Age occupation?

The few sherds appear anomalous as the excavators clearly pointed out:

“… save for the Beaker sherds from [Structure] A, the decorated pottery collected from the floor deposits of all four chambers belonged exclusively to the class described as A ware at Skara Brae.” [1]

In light of Bronze Age artefacts encountered at the Ness of Brodgar, one cannot help but wonder if the Rinyo sherds were part of a single, later deposit.

The sole radiocarbon date from the site, 2650-1950BC [8], came from a single cattle bone. While it strengthens the case for Bronze Age activity in the area, the context of the bone is also unclear.

So, although Bronze Age occupation is questionable, Rinyo does seem to have been used from the latter centuries of the fourth millennium BC through to at least the Late Neolithic, c.2900-2500BC.

However, and this is the important bit – only a tiny fraction of the entire Rinyo site has been excavated [9] and it may well be that evidence of Bronze Age occupation lies elsewhere. Just waiting to be found.

A more extensive settlement

The Braes of Rinyo are formed by a series of flat terraces. The Neolithic settlement sat on the lowest of these, sheltered by the rock face to its rear.

Around 300 metres to the north-west is the Bigland Round stalled cairn, while another, Bigland Long, lies on low ground c450 metres to the west.

2010 Gradiometer survey results from Rinyo. (ORCA)
2010 Gradiometer survey results from Rinyo. (📷 ORCA)

As is the case at Skara Brae, we now know that only a fraction of the Rinyo settlement was excavated.

Geophysical scans carried out by the UHI Archaeology Institute in 2010 suggested the occupation site covered an area around 2,000 square metres. [9]

The gradiometer survey covered an area of around 1.2ha, extending across the terrace. The results were similar to those noted around Skara Brae, suggesting further structural remains as well as increased magnetic responses probably resulting from Neolithic midden-enhanced soils. [10]

An interesting element was that the geophysics data suggested that Rinyo was an enclosed settlement, bounded by a curvilinear feature that may represent a wall, bank or ditch. [10]

Additional survey work in 2018 identified new features to the north and south of the excavated site, including a large oval structure, 20-22 metres in diameter, around 40 metres to the north-west. [11]

To the south-east, a cluster of several circular structures and linear anomalies suggest settlement activity. More activity suggesting activity was was detected c. 100 metres to the south-east of Bigland farm but without excavation, the date of this anomaly and how it related to Rinyo, if at all, remains unclear.

With the conclusion of the excavation in 1946, the site was backfilled and little is visible on the surface today.


  • [1] Childe, V.G. and Grant, W. (1938) A Stone-Age settlement at the Braes of Rinyo, Rousay, Orkney. (First Report). Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 73, pp. 6–31).
  • [2] Childe V.G. (1938) A New Skara Brae. The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 18, Issue 4
  • [3] Jones, A.M. and Richards, C. (2005) Living in Barnhouse. 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. 23-56.
  • [4] Childe, V. G., Paterson, J. and Bryce, T. (1929). Provisional Report on the Excavations at Skara Brae, and on Finds from the 1927 and 1928 Campaigns. With a Report on Bones. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 63, pp. 225–280).
  • [5] Childe, V. G. (1931). Skara Brae: a Pictish village in Orkney. Kegan Paul: London.
  • [6] Childe, V. G. (1930) Operations at Skara Brae during 1929. In Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 64, pp. 158–191).
  • [7] Childe, V.G. and Grant, W. (1946) A Stone Age Settlement at the Braes of Rinyo, Rousay, Orkney. (Second Report). Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (Vol. 81, pp. 16–42).
  • [8] Canmore C14 Radiocarbon Dating – Index – Rousay, Rinyo. [online] Available from https://canmore.org.uk/c14index/2717.
  • [9] Mainland, I. & Moore, J. (2010) Rinyo Geophysical Survey. Discovery and Excavation in Scotland, Vol 11. Council for Scottish Archaeology, 121.
  • [10] Brend, A., Card, N., Downes, J., Edmonds, M. and Moore, J. (2020) Landscapes Revealed: Geophysical Survey in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Area 2002-2011. Oxbow Books, Oxford.
  • [11] Survey carried out by Römisch-Germanische Kommission, Frankfurt (RGK) of the German Archaeological Institut (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut) as part of the Brodgar to Boyne project.

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