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St Mary's, Loch Of Ayre

Broch (Iron Age)(Possible), Die(S) (Bone)

Site Name St Mary's, Loch Of Ayre

Classification Broch (Iron Age)(Possible), Die(S) (Bone)

Alternative Name(s) St Mary's Holm

Canmore ID 2387

Site Number HY40SE 6

NGR HY 4702 0136

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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

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

Archaeology Notes

HY40SE 6 4702 0136

(HY 470 013) Broch (NR)

OS 1" map, (1959).

Excavations in 1901-2 revealed the complete outline still visible, of a broch, and traces of internal detail and external subsiding buildings.

A S Graeme 1914; RCAHMS 1946, visited 7 August 1929.

The external wall (18.0m diameter) of the broch at HY 4702 0136 exists to a miximum height of 1.3m. The inner wall is fragmentary. The internal detail can no longer be seen, and the only sign of possible external buildings is vague traces of dry stone walling in two excavation trenches.

Resurveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (NKB), 31 August 1964.

In the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) from this site, is a bone dice (Accession no L.1948.35) and a fragment of incised pottery (Accession no L.1948.49).

A Young 1955; D V Clarke 1970.

Two bone dice found: RMS L.1948.35. Two surfaces and one end damaged. Numbered 3, 4, 5, 6 (or possibly 3, 6, 5, 6). 52 x 22mm. From the lowest level in a passage of an outbuilding. Associated finds were 'a large quantity of pottery', two riveted antler plates, a bone awl, a long-handled comb, and a whale vertebra cup.

Royal Museum of Scotland L.1948.36. Solid bone. Numbered 3, 4, 5, 6; one end is also marked with a single dot enclosed by two concentric circles. On all faces there is evidence for the dots having been enclosed by two concentric circles, but no example survives complete. 44 x 18mm. Find spot unknown.

D V Clarke 1970; E J Mackie 1971.

(There is a description of the broch in 'The Orkney Herald', August 25 1908).

M Howe 2006.


Orkney Smr Note (May 1979)

Broch and outbuildings excavated 1901. [R1]

Broch cleared to floor level, inner face visible for height of 4ft 6in, outbuildings fragmentary and incoherent. [R2]

Tigh Talamhanta report includes discussion of chevron-incised pottery. [R3]

Discussion of bone dice. [R4]

External walls standing max. ht. 1.3m, inner wall fragmentary, internal detail no longer visible. Only sign of

possible external buildings is vague traces of drystone wallingin two excavation trenches. OS visit Aug 64.

As described by OS.

Information from Orkney SMR (RGL) May 1979.

Publication Account (2002)

HY40 1 AYRE ('Loch of Ayre', ‘St. Mary’s Holm’)


This probable solid-based broch in Holm stands next to the Loch of Ayre close to the shore in a gently rolling field among modern farms. There is little to see now at the site and, in spite of the exposed situation, there are no visible traces of outer defences. The site was excavated from December 1901 until the following year and information about the structural details come from the excavator's description [2].

1. The broch

The main wall was found to be 1.07 m (3.5 ft.) high when it was first exposed, but no coherent description is given of the excavation of the broch itself; the work evidently proceeded by following exposed walls and in complete ignorance of the possibilities of stratigraphical observation. Signs of something described as a “casing of masonry” 24 - 30 cm (9 - 12 in.) thick was found built against the outer face of the broch on the SW side.

The entrance passage, faced SE and contained a large broken lintel; the first set of door-checks were 61 cm (2 ft.) down the passage and 1.07 m (3.5 ft.) apart. There was a pivot stone set in the floor behind the one on the left side (looking in), and a bar-hole was found behind the one on the left with a socket for it in the opposite wall on the right. The passage widened to 1.37 m (4.5 ft.) behind the checks. An inner set of door-checks was found later, but these are not marked on the plan.

The guard cell is on the right side, is slightly diamond-shaped and has a floor 30 cm (12 in.) above the level of the entrance; the door to it presumably had a sill the same height above the passage. The passage floor was paved and had a stone drain under it which was still "conveying water" when discovered. It drained into the loose earth outside.

The interior was partitioned by “standing stones” in straight rows into several distinct areas [2, fig.1]. Three or four socket stones were found near these upright slabs, which are presumably secondary, in the interior and they probably marked the doorways to several living cubicles there. A well 60 cm (2 ft.) square with two steps leading down into it was found near the wall opposite the entrance, and there was water in it when it was uncovered; it was partly roofed with a flat stone slab. There seems to have been a secondary wall around at least part of the interior face, though the description is not altogether clear; the face "curved round on the right hand side of the entrance and was built out a little way on top of the standing stone ..." The plan shows how the main wall at this point turns inwards to join the row of slabs which project into the interior in line with the right wall of the entrance, and this must surely be a secondary arrangement.

The description of the mural stair -- the door to which is at 9 o'clock and evidently at floor level -- states that "these seemed to lead down below the floor level of the broch, terminating in a cavity roofed by overlapping slabs"; the stairway was 75 cm (2 ft. 6 in.) wide. Only three steps were found, 23 cm (9 in.) deep (the steps are actually described as 30 cm (12 in.) wide which seems highly unlikely). This cannot be the normal broch intra-mural stair and the description appears to mean that a few steps lead to the left down into the stair-foot cell shown on the plan which may have been some kind of sunken chamber. Intra-mural stairways always rise to the right of their access doorways in brochs.

2. The outbuildings

The next phase of work at the site took place in June 1909 when some of the outbuildings were explored for finds. The description of the excavation is brief and inadequate even by the standards of the time, and the more surprising therefore is a remarkable appendix at the end of the report (perhaps by another hand) which describes with care and in detail the stratified layers in passage I in the outbuildings and the finds from it [2, 50ff.]. Judging from the plan the passage seems to have been an entrance, having door-checks and a pivot stone near its inner end next to a pathway round the broch, the door was evidently intended to close a passage leading outwards from this pathway, presumably to some chamber which was not explored.

Between the two walls of this passage -- which only stood about 60 cm (2 ft.) high -- was a floor layer of laminated occupation debris covered by fallen masonry rubble [2, fig. 16];this basal layer also contained charcoal. At intervals within the rubble fallen from the walls were clay layers containing peat ash. The contrast was noted between the char-coal in the lowest level and the peat ash in the post-collapse deposits and it was suggested that this indicated a change of fuel. The artefacts found in the bottom layer -- which presumably date from the earliest occupation of the outbuildings, either during the primary occupation of the broch or (perhaps more probably) during a secondary phase -- were carefully listed and described.

3. Discussion

Little in the way of useful conclusions can be drawn about this site, the excavation of which seems -- with the striking exception of one trench in the outbuildings -- to have been ill-planned and ill-recorded. One cannot even be sure from the evidence presented that the structure is not the remains of a ground-galleried rather than a solid-based broch; the wall head does not appear to have been explored, and the nearness of the doorway to the outer end of the main entrance is characteristic of ground-galleried Hebridean. On the other hand -- and despite its shape, size and proportions -- the structure may not have been a hollow-walled broch at all (though such seem to be rare in Orkney).

Dimensions: external diameter c. 17.69 m (58 ft.) [3], or 18.0 m and 17.8 m (59 ft. and 58.5 ft.) in line with and at right angles to the entrance respectively (writer's measurements): the wall is c. 4.27 m (14 ft.) thick [3] or nearer 4.88 m (16 ft.) along the entrance diameter: walls proportion (by writer's measurements) 54.2%.

3. The finds

Most of the finds have no exact provenance: those marked with @@ are the ones from the passage in the outbuildings listed above [2, 38 ff]. Detailed descriptions have been prepared [4].

Pottery: [2, figs. 13-15]: There was "much pottery", unfortunately unidentified but which doubtless included some of the decorated sherds illustrated in Mackie 2002 Most of it seems to have been found in the base layer in Passage I in the outbuildings [2, 51]. Attention has been drawn to the similarity between some of these incised sherds and some Hebridean pottery [4, 7].

Iron: 1 lump of conglomerate (burnt clay, pottery and iron) on the floor level, inside and under the north wall of the broch: 2 iron spearheads (one in the guard cell): 1 axe head (under turf outside the broch): 1 “shank” in a 'spherical bone handle' – almost certainly a ball-headed iron pin.

Bronze: 2 pins, one with an "expanding, flat-topped head (nail-headed?): 1 small ring, now lost.

Bone: Many fragments of cut red deer antler were found, together with an awl of a sheep's leg-bone: 1 polished bone cylinder [2, fig. 6] and half of another; 1 antler handle plate [2, fig. 7]; 1 long-handled comb with teeth missing, another of fish-tail type with the teeth missing [2, fig. 8], and possible fragment of a third; 2 pieces of riveted antler plates with some of the bone rivets or pegs in position, together with pieces of similar ones [2, fig. 7] -- some of the long, rectangular plates with one hole at each end may be knife haft plates: 1 sheep shank with a central perforation, probably a bobbin: 2 polished blade-like tools; some pins, including 1 nail-headed and 3 spatula-headed examples [2, fig. 10]: 3 awls; a grooved toggle; 1 needle with pointed butt [2, fig. 10]; a vessel or cup made from a whale vertebra [2, fig. 9]; 2 dice marked 3-4-5-6, one hollow with slightly convex long sides and with incised dots and the other solid with slightly concave long sides and dot-and-circles [2, fig. 10]. This assemblage of contemporary artefacts is a valuable one and has not hitherto been given the attention it deserves.:

Stone: 1 triangular vessel, probably a lamp [2, fig. 4]: several mortars [2, fig. 4]: 2 upper stones and 1 upper or lower stone of rotary querns: a saddle quern and its rubber: 2 socket stones [2, fig. 4]: 1 flat discoid sinker with a deep notch in one side from which a groove of the same width runs back across each face [2, fig. 5], another, 5 cm in diameter and perforated; 3 whetstones: 2 whorls: a grooved fragment of pumice; some pebble hammer-stones or pounders and polished oval stone.

Food debris: bones of ox, pig and sheep, many of them splintered, together with crabs' claws and shells and some water-worn, white quartz pebbles.

Sources: 1. OS card HY 40 SE 6: 2. Graeme 1914: 3. RCAHMS 1946, 2, no. 360, 102-3 and fig. 153: 4. MacKie 1983, 121 and fig. 2: 5. Hedges et al. 1987, 76-7 and pl. 3.6 (plan from Graeme 1914): 6. Cursiter 1923, 50. 7. Young 1953, 94 and pl. 9.3:.

E W MacKie 2002


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