Whithorn Roundhouse : Iron Age Grand Design


Building owner/client:

The Whithorn Trust

Architect or lead designer:

Hazel Smith

Local Authority Area:

Dumfries & Galloway

Nominating Body:

Whithorn and District Community Council

Project Description

The Whithorn Trust conceived the idea of building a full-size Iron Age roundhouse, after working with AOC Archaeology over the last two years in excavating the remarkably preserved Iron Age loch-side settlement at Black Loch of Myrton. The water-logged conditions ensured unprecdented preservation of architectural detailing, including woven hazel flooring and large oak timbers, especially those forming the doorway and an impressive facade to the house. The idea for the project was to build the reconstruction in an accessible location at the Whithorn Trust’s visitor centre. The roundhouse was of particular interest to the Trust in that two roundhouses had been found on its site in the 1980’s, though little understood at the time; it was felt that this was an opportunity to illustrate the native wooden architecture hinted at in Bede’s famous words about Whithorn, that the stone-built Christian church ( traditionally believed to have been built on the cusp of the 5th Century AD) was built “in a manner to which the Britons were unaccustomed”. The roundhouse was built exactly to the scale of the original and only native green timber which was available in the Iron Age and authenticated by archaeologists was used: oak, alder and hazel were all donated for the project from local farms and estates. The idea was to employ locally based craftsmen to create the structure and train them in specialist skills such as thatching. Alongside them, volunteers and students helped with bark stripping, hazel harvesting, weaving wattle, and thatching. The apex of the structure is 10 metres tall, and is, like the original, just over thirteen metres across. It consists of an oak entrance, main timbers of alder, a double wattle wall, filled with clay, is roofed with alder purlins and thatched with water reed. The aim of the project is not only to give new insight into the prehistory of the Machars and to explore the Iron Age architecture based on details from the excavation far better than are preserved anywhere else, but also to provide a brand new venue for the Whithorn Trust for guided tours, demonstrations and workshops linked to ancient crafts, performance, a prehistoric classroom for schools, and unusual space hire. All of these functions will assist the Trust in maintaining its viability as a museum and in attracting new audiences, particularly a younger generation. To provide flexibility, electricity has been brought in and a new smartphone app gives visitors information about the build and the later Christian era. Six short films, linking different Whithorn buildings from six different periods of its history, beginning with the roundhouse, were filmed, acted and directed by local young people. A documentary was made about the roundhouse construction, with timelapse and drone footage, highlighting the crafts involved; this is blended with interviews with craftsmen whose family traditions relate back to the early 20th Century, including vintage photographs and oral history relating to woodwork, blacksmithing, forestry, weaving and farming, which allow a comparison and contrast of ancient and modern craft skills..

Supporting Statement

Councillors nominated this project because of its blend of the ancient and the 21st Century, which is reflected in the project title, “Iron Age Grand Design”, and because of the way in which the building acts as a new venue while itself being part of Whithorn's story and an aesthetic piece of architecture; and one which essentially involved all sections of the community in its construction. The Trust's outdoor site is highly protected land, belonging to Scottish Ministers and being both within a Georgian Outstanding Conservation Area, underlain by a mediaeval town layout, and also part of a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The site is of importance to the story of Scotland as the earliest and most historic Christian settlement in Scotland, and has been the subject of important excavations for over 130 years. The challenge was to locate the building so as not to obtrude into Priory ruins, nor impinge on the archaeology of the site. The choice was made of an overgrown low-lying area, behind the 1980's excavations' spoil-heap, which now acts as a viewing platform and a visual break between the Christian site and the prehistoric reconstruction. Trees behind give scale and act as a backdrop, screening the Georgian townhouses behind. Engineers recommended a concrete floating raft to protect the existing archaeology. While the original roundhouse of 450BC was supported by timbers buried several meters in the earth, designers had to find ways of stabilising the structure above ground : this was dealt with by increasing the size of the timbers, creating a modern shear wall within the double wattle walls, and installing four earth-fast rafters. Commitment from volunteers was critical : they ranged from SRUC Countryside Management students to Historic Environment Scotland technicians, as well as local unemployed people, and were trained on the job, assisting local craftsmen. Donations of clay, the 1-ton hearthstone, several thousand hazel rods, over 100 alder trees, and use of a farmyard as depot, were crucial to the build. The local schools learnt about Celtic life and tried out wattle and daub construction. Three craftsmen were trained by a master thatcher and, remarkably, finished the entire roof within a month; all locally based, they are now fully capable of effecting any repairs. With the exception of the protective raft, all the materials were derived from local woodland, using methods like coppicing which will promote renewal. The Trust now has a venue for local schools for prehistoric learning, for visitors to understand Iron Age architecture, and a place where local makers and crafters can demonstrate ancient crafts. The local economy will be supported by the increased visitor numbers anticipated, keeping the Trust sustainable and also growing incomes of local artists, food producers and accommodation providers in the area. The story of Whithorn, named after a building (Candida Casa), can be told through its architecture : the addition of the roundhouse allows an insight into a hitherto obscure part of this 2500 years of construction and skill which have built and rebuilt Whithorn.