The Prehistoric Roundhouses of Gairloch
People have been farming in the Achtercairn area, above Gairloch Museum, for nearly 5000 years. In prehistoric times communities built roundhouses with walls of stone and turf and roofs of wood and thatch. The ruins of these roundhouses, built by Bronze and Iron Age farmers, can still be seen in the landscape as low circles of collapsed stonework. In total, nearly 200 of these 'hut circles', or roundhouses, have been found within 20 miles of Gairloch village.
Roundhouses were a common type of dwelling in Bronze Age and Iron Age Scotland. In this area their circular walls were made of stone, sometimes capped by turf, and about a metre high and thick (in other parts of Britain, where stone was unavailable, the walls were made of wooden posts filled in with wattle-and-daub). A conical thatched roof was supported on a wooden frame inside the walls.
These stone-walled houses are known as 'simple Atlantic roundhouses'. In other parts of Scotland, there are larger 'complex Atlantic roundhouses' which include Brochs and Wheelhouses, but these are not found in the Gairloch area.
Broken potboiler stone
The stone circles at Achtercairn range in diameter from 5m to 17m. The walls of prehistoric field systems associated with the occupation of the roundhouses can also be seen. Archaeological excavations conducted by the Wee Digs Project in 2012 and 2015 carbon-dated four of the Achtercairn stone circles. Two of these proved to be houses, dating to the Late Bronze Age (726 BC) and Middle Iron Age (477 BC). The other two circles were not houses: one is thought to have been a huge Iron Age ceremonial circle (254 BC), and the other was a Neolithic tool-making area (2769 BC), with Early Bronze Age re-use (1491 BC). A number of stone tools were found during the excavations, including a hammer stone and a rubbing stone which had later been used as a pot boiler. Pollen analysis confirmed that farming started in the area in the Neolithic period.
In 2020, an excavation was organised of Roundhouse 10 – the closest to the museum. An L-shaped trench were dug by volunteers from the local community under the direction of Dr Tom Gardner of Historic Environment Scotland.
The dig confirmed that Roundhouse 10 was a prehistoric house, probably Iron Age, with a substantial stone wall, topped with turf, and a timber roof. This house was built on the footprint of an earlier structure which had a clay floor, and although no trace of this earlier structure's walls was discovered in the 2020 excavations, it is likely to have had a wall of stone or turf, and was directly replaced by the current Roundhouse 10. Roundhouse 10 may have been destroyed by fire, as a thick charcoal-rich layer extends across much of its floor, preserving the floor deposits of the earlier house. It is hoped to carry out further excavation of the site.
A scenic archaeology trail has been created above Achtercairn. Winding for three kilometres, it allows visitors to see the archaeological features of this prehistoric settlement, while also enjoying the views and the nature of the area. A trail guide can be purchased from the museum and a basic version can be downloaded below.