The sand dunes at Brora, Sutherland, on Scotland’s north east coast, are over four metres high. Buried within them are the remains of the late 16th / early 17th century saltpans. Over the centuries, the wind had blown sand over the site, completely covering it until it became forgotten about.
In recent years, coastal erosion had exposed part of the front wall of one of the buildings, and on the Day of Archaeology, we finished machining and started cleaning up the site.
We knew that masonry remained buried in the dunes as we had uncovered half of a building in 201. Although we had seen the front wall of the buried portion, we did not know how much would survive.
In order to uncover the site, we had to remove hundreds of tons of sand and had spent the previous two days landscaping the dune. Removing the sand would allow us to work safely , but we had to make sure that the wind would not blow away the reshaped dune, so were replacing the turf on the remodelled dune as quickly as possible.
We were finished with the machine by 9:00am (the machine driver had another job to go to so started early, one of the benefits of long summer days up in the north!). The machine had taken out the bulk of the sand while we dug close to the walls to ensure that the machine bucket didn’t damage the masonry.
When the machine had gone, the walls plotted with the EDM, and loose of unsafe masonry was drawn, photographed and then removed.
There was also much collapsed masonry within the building, and once the machine had left, this had to be removed by hand.
We also spent time videoing Calum, a young volunteer who helped us out last year also, and had been inspired to use the Brora dig for a school project.
By the end of the day, we had cleared enough sand to reveal a small room, roughly 4 m x 4.5m, with a doorway facing the sea and a fireplace in one wall. While machining we had seen the lintel of the fireplace and it seemed to have initials carved into it. As we removed more sand from around it, we could see that there were further initials on one of the jambs; the other had nicks etched into its edge, perhaps where people had sharpened their knives.
The project had been initiated due to Jacqueline Aitken’s passion for, and concerns about, the archaeology of Brora. Jacquie remembers playing on eroding masonry (now long gone) when she was a child and was worried that Brora’s industrial heritage was being washed away by the sea. A member of the Clyne Heritage Society, she contacted SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) and a joint project, (also involving the University of St Andrews where Jo and I are based), was established. Thanks to funding from Historic Scotland, a small bit of Brora’s past is being recorded before it is lost forever.