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Stanydale 'Temple'

A Neolithic hall

Stanydale 'Temple'

Neolithic temple or village hall?

Stanydale ‘Temple’ is the only truly megalithic structure surviving from prehistoric Shetland. This extraordinary site comprises a wall of large boulders, 3m to 4m thick, enclosing an oval area 14m by 10m.

This is not unlike the prehistoric houses nearby, but twice the size. Around the inner wall faces are alcoves or cells, similar to the bed recesses in prehistoric houses, but larger.

Two large post pits in the centre show that the space was once covered by a great timber-framed roof. Fragments of spruce from one pit can only mean that the roof was made of driftwood from North America – an important building material for prehistoric communities on the Atlantic coast.

The entrance passage still retains evidence for its two heavy timber doors. It opens on the outside into a concave façade, reminiscent of Shetland’s heel-shaped burial cairns.

What purpose did this structure serve? It certainly seems too big to have been an ordinary house, even of a wealthy family. The archaeologist who investigated the site suggested it was a temple. But it may have served as a village hall, courtroom or chieftain’s hall. Perhaps it was all or none of these.

Whatever its function, this is a remarkable building in a landscape littered with prehistoric structures. Shetland lacks the great stone circles and chambered tombs found in Orkney.

An ancient farming landscape

As you walk towards the site, you pass through a landscape rich in prehistoric remains. Stone burial cairns top the summits of the low hills, while tumbled masses of stone in the valley mark the sites of houses.

Archaeologists found these sites to consist of one large, oval main room, with alcoves and cells set into the side walls. These alcoves and cells were interpreted as bed compartments. At the centre was a hearth. The entrance was at one end, flanked by a stone porch forming a windbreak.

The houses date from at least 3000 BC down to around 500 BC. Beside them, scattered low stone mounds are clearance heaps. They were created by the inhabitants as they tilled the thin soils to grow cereal crops. Stretches of tumbled field walls can be seen running off up the hillsides.

Highlights
  • The walk – an invigorating hike up from the small car park through a fascinating prehistoric landscape.
  • The house by the marker pole – excavations in the 1950s revealed a typical house of Shetland’s first farmers.
  • The ‘temple’ – an extraordinary, puzzling structure.

Location

Region – Shetland

3m South West of Bixter on West mainland off the A971. Follow marker poles, route can be very wet.

Grid reference - HU 285 502.

Access

Telephone 01856 841815.