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Field System (Prehistoric), Ritual Building (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age), Settlement (Prehistoric), Standing Stone(S) (Prehistoric), Beaker (Pottery)(Bronze Age)(Possible)

Site Name Stanydale

Classification Field System (Prehistoric), Ritual Building (Neolithic) - (Bronze Age), Settlement (Prehistoric), Standing Stone(S) (Prehistoric), Beaker (Pottery)(Bronze Age)(Possible)

Alternative Name(s) Stanydale 'temple'

Canmore ID 387

Site Number HU25SE 1

NGR HU 28535 50240

NGR Description Centred HU 28535 50240

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


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

  • Council Shetland Islands
  • Parish Sandsting
  • Former Region Shetland Islands Area
  • Former District Shetland
  • Former County Shetland

Archaeology Notes

HU25SE 1 centred 28535 50240

(HU 2852 5025) Cuml (OE)

OS 6" map, Shetland, 2nd ed, (1903).

An alleged Neolithic 'Temple' with presumably contemporary Neolithic houses and field systems.

The 'Temple' - so designated because the so called 'Temples' of Malta appear to offer the closest parallel - is a well-built structure, oval in plan with a concave facade. Its walls average 12' in thickness, enclosing an area 40' by 20'. Two large post-holes show that it was timber-roofed.

The site was excavated by Calder, in 1949, who recovered pottery, (PSAS 1951-2), including large flat-based storage vessels and probable 'B' beaker fragments.

It is clearly not a house, nor is it a chambered cairn, although it is related architecturally to the heel-shaped cairns.

The stumps of six standing stones apparently aligned in two sets of three on separate arcs, remain in situ at distances ranging from 40' to 115' from the temple on the north. They are probably the remains of Bronze Age circles or ovals which may have surrounded the 'temple'.

The 'temple' lies within a large field which also contains the site of two Neolithic houses.

'A'. One impinges on the field wall 75 yds WNW of the 'temple'. It is oval in outline and measures about 44' by 34' over the surrounding grass-covered bank of wall debris, which contains many large stones either embedded or loose. A gap in the north west end probably marks the position of the entrance.

'B'. The other house lies 50 yds south of the 'temple' and is less distinct. The hollow interior is the most pronounced feature, but there are a few stones in curving alignment on the NE arc of the shallow bank where an outer wall-face is to be expected. The house measures approximately 48' by 38'.

'C'. Impinging on the field boundary at a distance of 40 yds north of the 'Temple', there are several earthfast stones in a low mound which is evidently the remains of a contemporary structure, but without excavation its category is indeterminate.

'D'. Another house lies in what has now become marshy ground 235 yds WSW of the 'temple', in the NE corner of the more westerly of two adjacent fields which adjoin the SW side of the large field. The overall measurements are 40' by 28' and there are slight traces of the usual bank surrounding a hollow and also indications of an entrance at the eastern end. A trench, dug on the north side, revealed the inner face of the chamber and peat-ash and two quartz scrapers were found.

'E'. Yet another house lies at HU 288 503 just over half-way from the bridge over the Burn of Scutta Voe to the 'Temple'. This site was excavated by Calder in 1950. It is unusual in that it has a 'porch' in front of the entrance with an enclosure attached. In the vicinity of the house, particularly westwards, there are several field-clearance heaps and at a short distance ot the north some stones in an alignment of dyke foundations have been exposed, but no true field boundaries are observable.

Finds from both excavations are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS).

C S T Calder 1952; C S T Calder1958; R W Feacham 1963; S Piggott 1963.

Centred at HU 285 502, a Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement comprising Stanydale Temple, the four houses (A,B,D,E) and an associated field system as described. The feature 'C' is too amorphous for survey or classification. Only five of the six standing stones were located.

Resurveyed at 1/2500.

Visited by OS (NKB) 16th June 1968.

Exton gives evidence to support his theory that the standing stones at this site were used as a megalithic lunar observatory.

H Exton 1990.


Field Visit (9 July 1931)

Indeterminate Structure, South of Stanydale.

This remarkable monument is situated on comparatively low ground, in a hollow sheltered by ridges of higher ground, between a quarter and half a mile S. of the crofters' houses at Stanydale. It is marked on the O.S. map as a "cuml," but it possesses features that mark it off clearly from any sepulchral monument observed elsewhere in the Islands. Like most other prehistoric structures, it has suffered a considerable amount of damage, but the main features of the ground-plan have been determined, though with difficulty. They show a structure of altogether unusual character, which, so far as can be traced, finds its closest analogy in certain of the early domestic sites.

The building has a roughly horse-shoe-shaped outline with the curve turned towards the W., and the massiveness of many of the undressed stones used in its construction (Fig. 596) has no doubt helped to preserve it from complete ruin. These large stones are particularly noticeable along the S. margin of the inner forecourt, where they have been sunk into the ground. The main wall is dry-built and has an average thickness of at least 12 ft. The outer face, however, has been reduced to ground level, and the present ruinous condition of the whole precludes any attempt at determining the character of the higher levels and the nature and extent of the roofing. On the E. side an entrance passage, approximately 3 ft. wide and 10' ft. in length, affords access to an open forecourt, measuring roughly 20 ft: by 21 ft. 6 in. In the W. half of the structure the inner face of the main wall has been recessed at fairly regular intervals, so as to form six alcoves, which measure approximately 7 ft. to 7 ft. 6 in. in length by 3 ft. to 5 ft. in depth. At present these alcoves are filled with debris, and it cannot be stated whether the floor here is paved or, like the forecourt, left bare. The latter seems the more likely, for across the open space in front of the alcoves a semi-circular setting of stones has been inserted at a later time, apparently for the purpose of converting the structure into a sheep-fold. Further evidence of this conversion is seen outside at the N. side of the entrance-passage, where a wall has been carried roughly eastwards from the front of the opening, evidently to facilitate the driving of sheep. There is a ruined sheep-fold near by, on the N. side.

So far as can be traced, there is no record of any relics having been found within the actual precincts of the buildings, but a large and miscellaneous collection of rude stone implements has been found in the neighbourhood.

At irregular distances from the structure on the S. there are six standing stones, varying in height from 10 in. to as much as 4 ft. 9 in., but it cannot be said that these are in any way associated with the structure, or that, in themselves, they represent the remains of an independent monument.

RCAHMS 1946, visited 9 July 1931.


Excavation (1949)

At Stanydale a megalithic structure, now reduced to the lower courses averaging some 3 feet in height, comprises a large oval chamber within walls, 12 feet thick. The chamber measures 40 feet by 21 feet on the axis and open to it, around its inner half, a contiguous series of six large recesses is contained in the walling. The floor of the chamber and the recesses consist of the natural gravelly subsoil and spaced along the main axis two deep pestholes have been sunk to carry timber supports for a wooden roof. Exteriorly the outline is a somewhat elongated heel-shape with a shortened concave facade in which is the entrance. The relics include Bronze Age pottery, plain and decorated, two Bronze Age porpghry knives, a whetstone, pumice stones and many rude stone implements presumably of later date.

Mr C S T Calder on behalf of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (DES 1949, 11-12).

Aerial Photography (October 1973)

Oblique aerial photographs by John Dewar in October 1973.

Publication Account (1997)

The focus of this group of monuments is an astonishing structure known as the Stanydale 'temple', a house so large and so clearly related in design to heel-shaped tombs that it must be allowed a special status, perhaps as the hall of a chieftain, a tribal assembly-house, or a temple (colour photograph on p.29). It is accompanied by four smaller houses of the normal oval type, a system of field-walls and many clearance cairns; given the blanket of peat that has developed in this relatively low-lying pocket of land, the complex may well be more extensive than is visible on the ground today. The 'temple' and one of the smaller houses have been excavated, though only the ' temple' has been partially restored, and the excavated house is the first monument encountered along the footpath.

It lies beside the third route-pole, and its plan is very clear, with walls surviving to a height of about 1m; the entrance is downslope at the south and, entered through a porch, which would provide extra storage space as well as acting as a windbreak. Within the thick walls, which have an earthen core between stone faces, the house interior consists of a large room with a small cell at the far end, two alcoves built into the east wall, an almost central hearth and a stone bench along the west wall.

Some very large boulders were used at the base of the house wall, but in comparison the architecture of the 'temple' is on an altogether more massive and truly megalithic scale. It presents a daunting facade, a smooth curve of drystone walling broken by a central entrance passage. The wall has been restored to a height of about 1.5m, and the internal face includes some huge boulders estimated to weigh over 300kg. The entrance passage is furnished with substantial inner and outer sillstones, and it is likely that a portable wooden door would have been barred against the inner or outer end of the passage as required. Inside there is a single large hall, with two large axial post-holes for timbers supporting the ridge-beam of the roof, probably a turf-covered timber-framed roof. Fragments of wood surviving from one of these posts proved to be spruce and must have been driftwood borne across the Atlantic from North America. The wall is oval, and its inner half is furnished with six alcoves, symmetrically arranged and separated by stone piers; there is no central hearth but a series of small peripheral hearths (no longer visible). Stone tools and pottery were found, but no real hint of the purpose for which the building was designed apart from a pile of burnt sheep bones, which might perhaps point to some ritual activity (bone does not normally become charred in the cooking process).

The clearest section of field-wall is crossed by the footpath just downslope from the 'temple'; it leads away to the south-west where a series of enclosures are visible. Stanydale is separated from the Gruting School settlement (no. 52) by a high ridge known as The Hamars, on the crest of which, and visible from Stanydale, there is a large cairn surrounded by a megalithic necklace of boulders. Many stones have been robbed to build the adjacent sheep stell but the site remains impressive (HU 284500).

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Shetland’, (1997).

Aerial Photography (5 June 2003)


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