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Keiss, Birkle Hills

Long Cist(S) (Early Medieval), Pictish Symbol Stone (Pictish), Shell Midden (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Keiss, Birkle Hills

Classification Long Cist(S) (Early Medieval), Pictish Symbol Stone (Pictish), Shell Midden (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Wic 119

Canmore ID 9131

Site Number ND35NW 5

NGR ND 3392 5847

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number AC0000807262. All rights reserved.
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Administrative Areas

  • Council Highland
  • Parish Wick
  • Former Region Highland
  • Former District Caithness
  • Former County Caithness

Early Medieval Carved Stones Project

Birkle Hills, Caithness, Pictish symbol stone fragment

Measurements: H 0.97m, W 0.53m, D 0.08m

Stone type: Old Red Sandstone

Place of discovery: ND 3392 5847

Present location: National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh (IB 188)

Evidence for discovery: Sir Francis Tress Barry excavated the smaller of the two Birkle Hills in 1894-5, and this stone was found acting as a paving stone in a rectangular stone structure in the top of the mound.

Present condition: broken and mounted in ‘cement’.


This roughly trimmed fragment is part of a finely incised symbol stone, bearing the triple disc and an unusual design which Allen identified as a mirror but which has more in common with the triple disc symbol, lacking only the second ‘handle’. Within the large disc is a rosette design.

Date: seventh century

Desk-based information compiled by A Ritchie 2016

Archaeology Notes

ND35NW 5 3392 5847.

(ND 3392 5848) Long Cist and Symbol Stone found 1864 and 1894 (NAT)

OS 1:10,000 map, (1975)

The site of a probably post-Mesolithic food-gatherers' encampment is indicated by a shell-midden which forms the basis of the more northerly of the Birkle Hills. Into this, long cists were inserted, probably between the 8th and 10th centuries; and in the top of the mound was a chambered structure with an incised symbol stone re-used as a paving slab.

The shell-mound lies on a raised beach and is covered with blown sand which forms a mound about 100yds long, 30yds wide and 30ft high, whose surface is strewn with limpet and periwinkle shells, animal bones and teeth. On the summit and around the base are small cairns of massive stones which seem to be the remains of roasting hearths. Evidence of fire-action is widespread.

In the E base of the mound was a long cist containing a skull-less skeleton, and the remains of three or four other cists lay scattered around the base. Laing described them as being identical to ND36SW 5 (ie about 6ft long composed of upright slabs and unpaved), except that they 'seem to have had two memorial pillars or small standing stones about 3ft high, one on each side of the head-stone of the cist.' One of the cists contained stones which Laing identified as implements, but, since he compares them with the 'implements' found with ND36SW 5, which Edwards (1926) could not accept as such, this identification is doubtful.

The structure in the top of the mound was excavated by Laing about 1864, and by Sir Francis Tress-Barry in 1894-5. It appears to have been a rectangular chamber 8 by 5ft, lying E-W, and approached from each direction by a gently-descending passage 6ft long and 3ft wide. It was carefully built with upright flags, the interstices being filled with smaller stones. 'Between the upright flags were placed, in several instances, oblong stones about 3ft high similar to the memorial stones of the cists.' There was no trace of a roof, but the floor was carefully paved. The E entrance was blocked externally by a massive boulder. The W passage, which was angles slightly southwards, was not blocked but was partially ruined. Midden material lay both over and under the paving of the chamber as well as outside the W entrance. From the interior came whorls, chipped flints, a grooved sandstone block, and a hammer-stone. The refuse matter and pavement showed signs of fire, which became more intense in the central chamber where many of the stones were split by heat and the bones were all charred. From the upper strata of the outside midden came a bone skewer and a bone pin which seemed to be a copy of a metal original. At a depth of 2ft in the overlying layer of clean sand was an iron nail and fragments of rusted iron, and on the surface pieces of iron ore were found but there was no indication of iron furnaces or slag. No pottery was found not was there any indication that fishing was found nor was there any indication that fishing had contributed to the diet of the inhabitants. Laing's finds from the site were donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) in 1865 (Accession no. GJ 174-191). The re-used symbol stone was recovered in pieces during Tress-Barry's excavation and was also donated to the NMAS in 1895. It is a slab of Old Red Sandstone, 3ft 2ins, by 1ft 9ins, by 3ins thick, incised on one face with a decorated mirror symbol and a triple oval figure ornamented with intersecting arcs of circles. (In Royal Museum of Scotland, accession no. IB 188)

The remains of the structure were still visible in 1910.

It seems to bear comparison with the more complex structure which underlies Viking houses at Point of Buckquoy, Orkney (HY22NW12), and is dated to 8-10th centuries AD. This would agree with the dating of the long cists, assuming that their comparison with those at Ackergill (ND35SW 12) and those at Rough of Stain (ND36SW 5) is valid.

S Laing 1866; Proc Soc Antiq Scot 1870; National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (NMAS) 1892; F Tress-Barry 1895; J R Alland and J Anderson 1903; RCAHMS 1911; A J H Edwards 1926; A D Lacaille 1954.


Field Visit (22 April 1963)

The top of this sandhill is strewn with large stones from which a small modern shelter has been constructed. There is no trace of the structure described above, nor the remains of any cists.

Visited by OS (R D L) 22 April 1963.

Field Visit (13 July 1982)

This site is on the summit of a sand-blown rise. Over an area some 30.0m N-S by 20.0m is an irregular area of stones, some of which appear to have been artificially placed. Near the centre is a setting approximately 2.7m square of loosely-laid, smallish slabs edged by single course of mainly earthfast stones. This is undoubtedly the remains of the structure excavated by both Laing and Tress-Barry; it is not a modern shelter as suggested by the previous field investigator. No shell midden, nor anything else of note, was seen.

Revised at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (J M) 13 July 1982.

Reference (1997)

Class I symbol stone.Triple oval with,to its left,a symbol considered to be either the remnants of a mirror or a triple disc.

A Mack 1997.


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