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Yesnaby, Brough Of Bigging

Building(S) (Medieval) - (18th Century), Burial Cairn (Prehistoric)(Possible), Promontory Fort (Prehistoric)

Site Name Yesnaby, Brough Of Bigging

Classification Building(S) (Medieval) - (18th Century), Burial Cairn (Prehistoric)(Possible), Promontory Fort (Prehistoric)

Alternative Name(s) Yescanaby

Canmore ID 1693

Site Number HY21NW 7

NGR HY 2194 1574

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Orkney Islands
  • Parish Sandwick
  • Former Region Orkney Islands Area
  • Former District Orkney
  • Former County Orkney

Archaeology Notes

HY21NW 7 2194 1574.

(HY 219 157) On the neck of the peninsula of Brough of Bigging, at a point where it is only 70' or 80' wide, two rows of stones, about 4' apart, protrude from the turf over a distance of about 25'. They begin not far from the S side of the isthmus and end approx. 35' from the N edge. A slight ridge about 30' nearer the mainland strengthens the idea that the neck may be defended. On the other hand there are no indications of any structure on the summit of the peninsula except for a few stones said locally to mark the graves of shipwrecked sailors.

The Rev. Clouston, possibly misled by the name, suggested that this peninsula was the site of a broch and, by analogy with other broch sites, postulated a ditch here. There are no signs of a ditch.

RCAHMS 1946; New Statistical Account (NSA) 1845.(C Clouston).

The slight remains of a promontory fort (R G Lamb 1979) formed by two widely spaced walls drawn across the narrow neck of a peninsula.

The outer wall consists of a slight grassy scarp (0.5m high and spread to about 5.0m) containing a few intermittent outer facing stones. A gap about 3.0m wide near the E end may be an original entrance.

The inner wall, about 50.0m to the N, is merely a slight grassy scarp averaging 0.6m high in which four or five outer facing stones survive. 6.0m to the S are a number of upright stones forming no intelligent pattern, but possibly denoting a former gatehouse or forework to the wall.

Possible traces of internal occupation are suggested by (i) two stones on edge in a vague circular turf- covered bank about 5.2m in diameter; (ii) further settings of two slabs on edge, and a single slab on edge, all of which just protrude through the turf. These are probably what the RCAHMS refer to as sailors graves, but this explanation cannot be verified.

Outside the fort and running NE-SW along the SE brink of a gully are the remains of a wall, (turf-covered and about 1.5m thick) which joins (at its NE end) the remains of a probably contemporary rectangular structure. These appear to be later than the fort, but their purpose is obscure.(Visited by OS(RL) 18 May 1966).

Surveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS(ISS) 23 May 1973.

'The Orcadian' mentions the Brough of Bigging in 1910. It describes how the narrowest point of the brough was a traditional place for sailor burials.

M Howe 2006


Field Visit (February 1981)

As described. The slabs just visible around the navigation cairn on highest point of promontory do seem to represent structures. The drift cap here is being eroded but the sections show only a narrow covering of peaty material above the bedrock. The OS vague circular bank which is at HY 2183 1572 was clearly visible is Feb 1981 when grass was low and is a hut-circle of

4.5m internal diameter, with 3 erect earth-fast slabs at intermittent positions suggesting internal wall-face, within walls some 1m thick but their outer limits indeterminate. [R3],

Information from Orkney SMR (RGL) Feb 81.

Publication Account (2002)



Unlikely possible broch near Yesnaby, Sandwick, Despite the name of this short sea promontory no traces of a broch-like structure have been identified, though the neck may once have been defended'

Sources: 1. RCAHMS 1946 1, 269, no. 730: 2. Cursiter 1923, 52.

E W MacKie 2002

Geophysical Survey (April 2008 - November 2011)

HY 22945 16391 (centred on) An extensive walkover survey, covering c750ha, was undertaken between April 2008 November 2011 over an area of Yesnaby and Skaill Bay on the W coast of mainland Orkney, as part of PhD research. More than 200 sites were identified ranging from Bronze Age burnt mounds to post-medieval buildings and enclosures. Most significantly an extensive upland field system was identified around the probable Bronze Age roundhouse on the Peerie Hill. A targeted gradiometer survey was undertaken on three sites within the survey area.

The gradiometer survey of c2.2ha covering the Peerie Hill roundhouse and surrounding field system was of limited success due to the effect of peat growth and soil erosion. However, it did suggest that the roundhouse had at least two phases of occupation. A survey of a c3.75ha area inland of the Broch of Borwick (HY21NW 1) recorded responses indicative of rig and furrow, and a series of post-medieval field boundaries were also noted. However, the level of magnetic enhancement suggests that these features are reworking substantial deposits of anthropogenic soil, which appear to be associated with the broch. A survey of c1ha on the promontory fort at the Brough of Bigging (HY21NW 7) revealed clusters of apparently non-domestic responses, which seem to be related to the cist-like features and deposits of burnt material that are eroding from the NW side of the promontory.

Report: Orkney SMR and RCAHMS (intended)

Funder: Orkney College UHI

Orkney College UHI, 2011

Magnetometry (9 October 2010 - 12 October 2010)

HY 2194 1574 Approximately 1ha of gradiometer survey

was undertaken 9–12 October 2010 over the interior of the

promontory fort as part of ongoing PhD research into the later

prehistoric landscape of Orkney. Both of the ramparts were

visible in the data as discrete linear groupings of enhanced

anomalies. Several small clusters of magnetically enhanced

anomalies were also visible in areas that correspond to

the visible orthostats and eroding burnt material on the

coastward side of the promontory. The rest of the interior of

the fort was magnetically quiet, although an igneous dyke

runs E–W through the centre of the area.

Report: Orkney SMR and RCAHMS

Field Visit (8 May 2013)

The Brough of Bigging is a coastal promontory, measuring about 170m from NE to SW by 60m transversely, the grass-grown surface of which generally slopes down to the SE from a flattish summit. It is accessed by an isthmus (25m wide) at the NE end of its SE side, which has been cut off by three grass-grown banks drawn across its width. The inner bank measures up to 4m in thickness and 0.5m in height and stands immediately NW of a shallow natural depression that marks the NW end of the isthmus. At the SE end of the isthmus, some 40m from the inner bank, is a second, stony, bank which runs along the NW edge of deep a natural gully. Running from cliff-edge to cliff-edge, this bank measures up to 5m in thickness and 0.4m in height but there is no obvious entrance gap. The third bank, which lies on the SE side of the same gully, measures up to 3m in thickness and 0.5m in height.

Situated on the flattish summit area of the peninsula are three structures. A prominent cairn (HY 21861 15735) and enclosure are of relatively recent build and were not recorded in detail. However, just 20m to the SW of the cairn (HY 21843 15728) are the possible remains of a small burial cairn which is visible in the eroding clifftop. With no discernible surface profile, the cairn is marked only by a spread of stones measuring about 3.7m across and 0.65m in depth. Two edge-set stones appear to indicate the limit of the cairn.

There are also two rectangular buildings. One (HY 22013 15671), measuring 13m from NE to SW by 8.4m transversely over grass-grown walls spread up to 2m in thickness, partly overlies the NE end of the outermost bank across the isthmus. The second building lies immediately SE of the innermost bank. It measures 5.5m from NE to SW by at least 2.5m within a wall 1.5m in thickness formed from large edge-set stones.

Visited by RCAHMS (GFG) 8 May 2013.

Note (23 February 2015 - 18 May 2016)

This fort occupies a cliff-girt promontory which has almost been reduced to an isolated stack by the erosion of the narrow neck linking its NW end to the mainland. Some 60m long, this neck is now no more than 25m wide at its seaward end, where a wall reduced to a bank about 4m in thickness by 0.5m in height cuts across its spine behind a shallow natural depression. At the landward end of the neck on the SE a deep natural gully that descends almost to the level of the shore has been adopted as a ditch outside a second wall, which has again been reduced to little more than a grass-grown bank and measures up to 5m in thickness by 0.4m in height. Another bank on the landward lip of the gully may be the remains of an additional rampart, though Raymond Lamb thought this was the remains of a later wall associated with a rectangular building at its NE end (1980, 77). The exact position of the entrance through the defences is uncertain; Lamb again thought there was a gap in the centre of the inner (1980, 22, fig 7), but the upright slabs the OS surveyor interpreted as part of a gatehouse or forework in front of it have been identified more recently by RCAHMS investigators as the remains of a rectangular building and the gap may be no more than disturbance. Both Lamb and the OS surveyor placed the entrance through the second wall in a gap towards its NE end. The interior is largely featureless, measuring about 180m from NE to SW by 75m transversely (1.21ha), rising westwards to a broad summit surmounted by a marker cairn and a modern drystone enclosure, but a small structure with two kerbstones can be seen in the cliff-edge 20m SW of the modern marker cairn on its summit. This was interpreted by the RCAHMS investigators as the remains of a cairn and geophysical survey by Orkney College revealed anomalies here and where burnt material was observed eroding out of the cliff.

Information from An Atlas of Hillforts of Great Britain and Ireland – 18 May 2016. Atlas of Hillforts SC2837

Orkney Smr Note

Gradual erosion of drift cap on sea side threatens vestigial buildings.

There are in the parish at least 5 burghs, which their name and situation prove to have been of old places of defence. Two of these are on promontories at the precipice at Yeskenaby.

(The other is presumably the Broch of Bigging). [R1]

Information from Orkney SMR


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