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  • Janette Kerr

Punds Water, Shetland - walking lines

A first Friday walk, July 6th 2024


I am back in Shetland while the rest of the Walking the Land Group are following the line of the now defunct Honeybourne railway in Worcestershire for their First Friday of the month walk. In Shetland there are no railway lines – neither old nor new - so in response to the prompts I've been sent:


How is the changing role of the line you walk connected to the evolving history and landscape changes of its surrounding area? Are there visual signs in the landscape and/or architecture that reveal a past life of the line?  Are there local groups or individuals who can share their local knowledge of the line? Does a local perspective offer insight to the heritage within the landscape and architecture connected to your line?


I decide that my walk will involve walking to a Neolithic archaeological site, to find signs of history and architecture in the hills above the hamlet of Mangaster, near Punds Water HU324712

 

Parking up we accost a man living in one of the two houses who tells us to follow the farm track and fence past the farm sheds upwards and then turn left. Having struggled to open a large farm gate, and with sheep scattering before us, we walk the line of the wire fence, which peters out as we climb. A small wind turbine spins wildly and a mobile phone mast towers over the landscape from the top of the hill. We find the odd faint sheep track through the heather to follow as we descend.



The landscape opens out to small lochs and peat moorland. It's a fantastically wild place, with views across to open sea.


Punds Water, above Mangaster

4,000 years ago people inhabited the area fishing and farming, probably hunting the wildlife, now it’s covered in ankle-catching heather and long grass concealing rabbit holes and rocks. In places lines of large stones seem to mark a rough path to follow. As we skirt round the hill a chambered cairn comes into view ahead of us as a large unruly pile of rocks, sitting on a low knoll below the hill, close to the shore of a loch. On the far side of the loch we see another pile - the second cairn.




Apparently this first cairn is one of the best-preserved heel shaped (oval) cairns in Shetland mainland.


Plan of Punds Water chambered cairn borrowed from Exploring Scotland's Heritage p167



It’s probably survived because of its remoteness – stones often being repurposed later and used the build houses and stone sheds.  The chamber is now roofless, stones tumbled down from its walls, but there are substantial stones still standing over a metre high trace the original kerb and trefoil-shaped sides. We crawl through the passage under the one remaining stone slab and crouch in the cramped chamber.


 Looking back through the entrance can be lined up with the top of the large hill opposite.

Is that significant? According to an archaeologist, cairns were often found in peaty areas, but they don’t know exactly how they were used – maybe the grave of one person. Maybe used many times with bodies being removed and replaced by another… maybe just bones were laid inside after being picked clean by the birds and wildlife… maybe bodies were burnt and ashes laid inside.




I make a few fast wild sketches, then we sit and ponder and eat sandwiches. We consider ancient and modern boundary lines; while the man in the house indicated the line of fencing as a navigational aid for us, they also mark boundaries - the division between who owns which tract of land, as well as keeping animals in fields. The lines of large stones we see on the track marking our route here are old, although we have no idea how old; did more ancient cultures use these to find their way? They probably had no need for boundaries or restraining animals.

 

We follow more sheep’s tracks and lines of stones for about 300 meters to the second cairn (HU32275,71444).





This one has five small benched cells in its interior. Was this a burial chamber or a house? There seems to be uncertainty. Again, we can line up the entrance with the higher hill.



We look across the landscape, imagining it lived in. I touch the stones and think of how long they’ve been standing here, who shaped and laid them, and who lay within the walls. Nothing more is left, any bones or artefacts have long been removed.

 

We discuss the idea of these chambered cairns being a kind of metaphor, a passageway between life and death – the cairn with its passage into the interior chamber being configured like a womb - the dead taken through and laid out, maybe curled on their sides foetal-like in the womb. We crawl back out into life present-day. Overhead a lark sings.






ref: Information from Exploring Scotlands Heritage: Orkney and Shetland, pub HMSO1993

and www.shetlandamenities.org/off-the-beaten-track-1-punds-water. pub 2020 Val Turner, Regional archaeologist

 Janette Kerr and Steve Poole

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