As excavation finishes, work begins to open Viking age house remains to the public

Aerial view of Quoygrew Viking longhouse, Westray, Orkney

The Quoygrew excavation from the air, showing the layout of the structure, with the byre nearest the shore. (Picture: University of York)

The final season of excavation at a Viking house in Westray finishes this week, paving the way for the local community to develop the site as a tourist attraction.

Back at Quoygrew to complete the excavations was Dr James Barrett of the University of York .

The shoreside site was occupied continuously from the ninth century until the 1930s.

Originally made up of two mounds, coastal erosion led to the discovery of archaeology in an eroding bank by Caroline Wickham-Jones in 1977.

Excavation work on the mound nearest the sea has since revealed a 50-metre long series of buildings moving inland, representing different phases of use and reuse covering a period of 900 years or so.

This year’s primary aim was to complete the archaeological work at the structure closest to the sea, a 13th century byre, attached to a dwelling that has been the focus of attention for the past few years.

Now, with the archaeological work on the house complete, plans are afoot to construct a wall on the bank beneath the site to protect it from the further ravages of the sea.

Work to consolidate and interpret the remains will then begin.

Quoygrew Viking longhouse, Westray, Orkney

The excavation of the byre. The lower walls of an earlier building, which is suspected to have had a turf wall, can be seen running at an angle to the latter structure. (Picture: University of York)

This summer’s dig has revealed that under the byre lie the remains of a suspected 11th century structure.

The lack of building rubble around this structure has led Dr Barrett to think it was a turf-built structure, resting on a stone foundation.

“We can see that they levelled the floor of the old building with clay and some midden material,” he said. “They then built the byre on the top.

“But there is very little rubble which could indicate the original structure had a turf wall.”

“It could be argued that the builders reused the stone from the original, but there’s just not the chippy wall core or fragments you would normally expect to find around a reconstruction site.”

So at Quoygrew, the small, possibly turf-walled, house was replaced by a much larger house in the 13th century – a structure which then saw numerous changes over the years. Viewing each of these architectural changes is like turning the page of a book, each revealing more about the life of not only the building, but those who lived there.

“What is particularly good about this site is the visitor can literally walk from living memory back into the Viking age,” said Dr Barrett.

With the Westray Development Trust, working with Orkney Archaeological Trust, finalising funding from the Lottery Heritage Trust it is hoped that work on the site can begin next year.

From its seemingly-humble origins, to its reconstruction as a hall for an apparently wealthy bondi – a member of the Norse free farming class – and subsequent alterations and developments, the site will be available to islanders and visitors to view and gain an invaluable insight into Westray life through the centuries.

The project has been supported by Historic Scotland , Orkney Islands Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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