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Thurster Community Excavation

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In 2022 Yarrows Heritage used money committed by a local windfarm trust for a community project to search for the remains of a “lost” towerhouse, Thurster Tower. There are numerous historical references to this tower, but it was probably destroyed in the early 17th century. Its exact whereabouts are unknown, although local tradition locates it to a field just north of Ulbster.


In April 2023 AOC Archaeology led a preliminary community excavation of a structure in this field, involving community volunteers and local schoolchildren. The excavation was led by Andy Heald of AOC who has extensive knowledge of Caithness. This superficial excavation uncovered part of the structure revealing a complex multi-period building with an earlier more solid structure underpinning later additions. This did not have the appearance of the looked-for towerhouse but did look as if it would provide the opportunity to investigate a Caithnesian vernacular building.


The building in the field at Thurster, an interested landowner, our enthusiasm, the possibility of national and local funding, and an archaeologist with a track record of excavating in Caithness together provide an opportunity to advance our understanding of the Caithnesian vernacular.


Our aim this year, 14-28 April, is to return to the site in order to do a longer (ie two-week), more extensive excavation of the structure, with ample opportunity for community involvement and post-ex analysis.


This excavation is important to the archaeological community in northern Scotland.

Geoffrey Stell of RCAHMS undertook a pioneering 1970’s survey of dwellings about to be destroyed by road-building around Latheron. There have been isolated surveys of Caithness vernacular buildings since. To our knowledge, there has been no excavation using modern techniques and post-excavation analysis of a vernacular building in east Caithness in the last fifty years. The 2021 Highland Archaeology Research Framework notes that that “the vernacular heritage in Caithness is unique and a diminishing resource that is currently at risk. Some of the building types are unique to the area.”


This excavation has the potential to be important at a national level as a comparator to other vernacular buildings in northern Scotland. This excavation is also important to our local community. Although it is just a building in a field – one of many in Caithness – and therefore nothing unique – the preliminary excavation in April 2023 saw an outpouring of community interest. Over 30 local volunteers came to help during the week of the excavation. In particular, three local schools were involved in digging – not just looking – with one local primary school coming each afternoon during the week. Comments from the children were insightful, reflecting their enthusiasm at being part of the excavation and seeing it change over time.

We'd like to thanks local landowner Peter Stewart for allowing this excavation to take place on his land and also thanks Foundation Scotland and the Lybster and Tannach fund for help with the funding of this dig.

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