Department of Archaeology

River of Stone

John Barber (AOC Archaeology Group) and Jon Henderson (Nottingham)

The 'River of Stone' is a Caithness-wide heritage programme that, building from projects already underway, forms an umbrella under which archaeology and heritage projects are delivered in Caithness that are:

  • community-led
  • appropriately scaled
  • revenue generating
  • ethically and professionally rigorous
  • providers of educational and training opportunities (with appropriate partners)
  • profile raising for the project and for Caithness
  • enterprise generating

The 'River of Stone' flows through the prehistory and history of Caithness and surfaces in structures ranging from the chambered cairns of the Neolithic to the brochs and wags of the Iron Age, from the medieval castles to the stone houses of the past few centuries and the stone quarrying and exporting industries that fuelled the Caithness economy for over many centuries. The subtitle to the theme is 'The Early Architecture Project' emphasising the Caithness-signature status of Caithness stone and stone building through the ages.

The programme aims to address community gain, economic gain and academic gain by organising and coordinating appropriately scaled projects throughout Caithness within an appropriately designed framework.



The landscape of Caithness is characterised by the finely laminated flagstone which underlies it. This ideal building material has been used for over 5000 years to form impressive monuments that have survived the ravages of time in large numbers in the county. Through the prehistory and history of Caithness this River of Stone flows from the formation of the bedrock to its present and continuing use.

Caithness from space: a view from Landsat satellite imagery shows the varied landscape of Caithness.

Image: Caithness from space: a view from Landsat satellite imagery shows the varied landscape of Caithness.


A development programme

The River of Stone Programme is a development programme that aims to use the heritage of Caithness, ethically, in the development of:

  • the local rural economy
  • the existing community structures
  • the academic body of heritage knowledge of the county's sites, monuments, people and places

 Opportunities for rural economic development arises from two sources:

  • the capital directly invested in research and presentational programmes of work - including direct employment of some 5 persons
  • use of the heritage assets created by the fieldwork for revenue generation by tourism and by raising the international profile of Caithness as a cultural tourism destination

Opportunities for local community development arise from

  • direct hands-on engagement of communities and community organizations in heritage projects
  • provision of appropriate training in heritage skills, locally and nationally
  • community ownership of heritage assets and the skills needed for their management

Academic development arises directly from the programme of archaeological works undertaken to the highest professional standards which in turn will produce

  • Academic, specialist and popular publications
  • National and International conferences held in (and on) Caithness
  • European collaborative studies with EU funding


RoSP, the programme

Following an analysis of the distribution of the known sites and monuments in the county, RoSP identifies five areas within Caithness and two county-wide themes. These are listed below and identified on the map:

The Museology of Landscape sub-programme

Prepares monuments and trails for visitor access, develops supporting documentation with web and Internet services and builds into an interlocking set of tourist trails.

The Broch Coast sub-programme

Excavates and surveys one major broch site and samples five subsidiary sites, prepares up to 15 further sites for visitor access and ultimately builds back into the museology of landscape programme

The Viking and Norse Coast sub-programme

Explores the northern coast for on and off shore evidence of Viking and Norse settlement, midden sites, burials and shipwrecks and ultimately builds into a management programme for these remains into the indefinite future.

Heritage and community development in the Forsse Valley sub-programme

Builds a local support base for archaeology and history in this crucial region and depending on initial progress, can be added to either of the above sub-programmes or evolve on its own as a microcosm of Caithness' heritage.

R&D at Spittal sub-programme

Continues the experimental work in early architecture at the A&D Sutherland quarry Spittal. Will serve as a base for the architectural programme - redevelopment of Caithness longhouses and be the site of a full scale broch reconstruction to provide a fossil museum.

Wetland Studies sub-programme

This is a SWAP programme to explore lake, bog and riverine archaeology in Caithness. It has the potential for local community involvement and this part of the SWAP programme will be run in conjunction with RoSP.

Maritime Caithness sub-programme


Caithness coast.

There are records of several hundred shipwrecks and foundering vessels along the Caithness coast since the 16th century. Maritime archaeology is an excitig new branch of archaeological studies and holds the potential for the development of a cultural diving enterprise on the model of those operating in Scapa Flow.

Image: Caithness Coast.


The Flagship Site

One flagship site will be extensively excavated over a five year period. It is proposed that this should be the massive broch and associated 'village' at Keiss Road. The excavation will form a public presentation in its own right and, following consolidation and necessary conservation, the complex will be made more accessible to the visiting public.

In collaboration with the North Highland College RoSP will hold an architectural and building technology competition for the design of a modular package that can be fitted within abandoned Caithness long houses with minimum intervention in their historic fabric and with appropriate provision made for their ethical conservation using traditional skills, training in which will also flow from the North Highland College. This project will be undertaken in collaboration with North Highlands Initiative.



The Camster Cairns.

The individual projects will be funded by means of research funding from government and local government agencies, charitable sources, the Heritage Lottery Fund and private subscription. The funding package has been designed by economic consultants Jura Consulting Ltd, for deployment by CAT, the Caithness Archaeological Trust, who will be the 'client body' for the programme.

The single largest funding stream will be required for the flagship site, the excavation of Keiss Road broch. This is likely to cost something in the region of £2m to excavate, analyse and publish. Our aim is to maximise spend within the county and to use the presence of the flagship project to provide, develop and enhance resources, including human resources for heritage in Caithness.

Image: The Camster Cairns


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rorganisational flow chart.

We propose to organise and administer the programme through a not-for-profit company (the 'Management Company'), formed and wholly owned by Caithness Archaeological Trust. The organisational flow chart sets out the processes by means of which the Management Company will:

  • Liaise with CAT
  • Receive advice and direction on community, financial and academic matters from three specially created committees
  • Contract in specialist services in IT and Archaeological Project Management
  • Appoint and operate local management personnel and groups to undertake projects


CAT would be responsible to ensure that the agreed strategic aims of the River of Stone Programme, as set out in the report are fully met. It would act as the financial controllers of the management Company and its works. The Management Company would be responsible to ensure that projects meeting with local community approval, that were good value for money and consistent with the research aims of the programme were carried out to the requisite standards.

Image: Organisational flow chart


Project selection

Ballachly, Dunbeath.

Image: Ballachly, Dunbeath.

Dunbeath broch, one of the best-preserved structures of its kind in Northern Scotland.

Image: Dunbeath broch, one of the best-preserved structures of its kind in Northern Scotland.


The processes by means of which individual projects are selected in each area must be transparent and the reasoning behind every decision to accept or reject a project must be made clear to the applicant. The project selection flow chart, below, may appear complex but is essentially very simple. To be accepted into the River of Stone Programme, a project must firstly fit the general profile for RoSP projects, e.g. must be in Caithness, for example. Then it must win the approval of the local community committee, the academic committee and the financial committee. If successful, it will then be scheduled into the programme of works at a time that does not overburden local resources. The Management Company will reveal the decisions of the committees to the applicants in all cases.

Project Selection.

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Profile raising

International conferences and study trips will raise the profile of Caithness archaeology..

The work of RoSP will be publicised locally, regionally and nationally, as the programme progresses. Its academic and community profiles will be enhanced by involvement in comparable national and international programmes and international conferences will be held in Caithness every two years. The first, to be held in Lybster in 2007, will concern Art and Archaeology with a focus on glass. Projects will be published annually in professional journals and relevant information will be placed in visitor publications and locations, at three levels of presentation. All of this information will be available through a website, linked to the websites of existing agencies involved in the promotion of Caithness as a cultural visitors destination.

Image: International conferences and study trips will raise the profile of Caithness archaeology.


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Each sub-programme will develop heritage assets, tangible and intangible:

  • conserved monuments for public display
  • publications,
  • museum displays,
  • heritage infrastructure for each area
  • training provision (planned in collaboration with the North Highland College in Thurso)
  • some direct employment opportunities for local personnel
  • significant spend in the local economy, making indirect employment opportunities
  • enhanced and empowered local community groups
  • local ownership of local heritage assets
  • enterprise generating, appropriate to each area and sub-programme


RoSP's legacy will subsist in

  • a tourist-ready heritage landscape made up of trails of sites and monuments prepared for public presentation
  • a local community that has taken ownership of its own heritage
  • a local infrastructure of human and other resources that is capable of running conservation management programmes into the future
  • a generous bibliographical legacy in all of the available media and across an information scale that ranges from the professional to the benignly interested
  • international links between Caithness communities and other European communities involved in similar programmes
  • a framework within and from which local involvement in and development of the use of our heritage can be progressed into the indefinite future and an interested and committed network of advocates for this living locally.

The River of Stone programme will run, as designed,

for five years after which, the future of heritage in Caithness should be re-assessed and a new programme initiated. The second quinquennial programme may introduce a change of emphasis with more projects dedicated to conservation and management of the resource and possibly, with a more direct emphasis on increasing cultural tourism while mitigating its inevitably adverse impacts.


Caithness research projects at Nottingham include

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Department of Archaeology

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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