MHG11597 - Smoo Cave


A large cave at the head of the Geodha Smoo, near Durness, Sutherland. Midden deposits dating back potentially to the Mesolithic have been discovered, and partly investigated, on its eastern side.

Type and Period (3)

  • CAVE (Mesolithic to Early Medieval - 8000 BC to 1057 AD?)
  • MIDDEN (Mesolithic to Early Medieval - 8000 BC to 1057 AD)
  • HEARTH (780-1020, Early Medieval - 561 AD to 1057 AD) + Sci.Date

Protected Status

Full Description

Bone and stone objects resembling Obanian culture artifacts were picked up in a water eroded shell midden inside Smoo Cave. They have been retained by finder. <1>

The shell midden is just within entrance to Smoo Cave on E side of a stream which has eroded it, and is much flattened by foot passage. It measures approx 3m diameter by 0.2 m high. Visited by OS (J M) 11 April 1980.

No proper excavations have been done at Smoo Cave although a mound, thought to be a kitchen midden, was dug over in 1904. There seems to be no extant record of this, but Donald Macdonald of Sangomore, a schoolboy at the time, recalls that a number of bone pins were found. More recently Ian Keillar of Elgin came across two pieces of bone and a worked stone which had been exposed by action of burn on sandy cave floor. These were thought to be reminiscent of the mesolithic period, but Mr Keillar gave them to an itinerant 'expert' who subsequently disappeared. <2>

In 1992 GUARD were contracted to cut back, sample and record the eroding face of a shell midden situated immediately within the entrance of Smoo Cave. This controlled removal of material was necessary in order to accommodate the construction of a retaining wall which would protect against further erosion caused by the Allt Smoo as it runs through the cave to the sea. Several occupation horizons were identified. The shell midden, the earliest phases of which appear to be Iron Age, represented the latest phase of activity. This deposit post-dates and may be related to, structural elements revealed within the section, which included hearths and a post hole with possible stone walling related to it. The earliest deposits, which are substantially lower than the present cave floor, may represent Mesolithic activity. This evidence took the form of butchered bones and rough flakes of quartz situated on marine sands. Samples taken from throughout the section await detailed analysis and submission for radiocarbon assay. A quern stone was later recovered from this section, which is undergoing constant erosion by the sea. The investigation also brought to light a further shell midden deposit located in a former cave some 50m to the NW of Smoo Cave. <3> DES Entry for 1992 investigation <4>

Full environmental analysis from the 1992 investigation has been provided in the published account. A hearth or firepit, extremely rich in charcoal lay towards the southern end of the excavated section. Birch and hazel charcoal from this feature provided a radiocarbon date which fell within the range cal AD 780-1020. In order to establish the full depth of deposits, two small, sondages were dug along the base of the section. Excavation stopped where a surface was encountered that provided evidence for an earlier phase of human activity on the site; time did not permit excavation below this level. Six main archaeological horizons were identified although it was stated that this was certainly a simplified breakdown of the stratigraphy, the real picture is likely to be a great deal more complicated, with various layers separated by thin lenses of both clean and stained sands, the discolouration of the latter probably the result of human activity. <5>

Investigations were also carried out by GUARD in Spring 1995 at the two caves identified in 1992 to the northwest of Smoo Cave (see MHG29332 & MHG29334) and a third cave close-by to the northeast (see MHG29333).

Palaeoenvironmental analysis, carried out by C.P. Gleed-Owen in 1992. <6>

The Cave was designated as a Scheduled Monument by Historic Scotland in Dec 1992.

The cave was visited during a rapid coastal zone assessment of a stretch of the north Sutherland coastline by GUARD in 1997. The assessment had been commissioned by Historic Scotland. The survey noted that the measures put in place to protect the midden deposits partially excavated in 1992 were now failing and the deposits themselves were being eroded by water dripping from the roof of the cave exacerbated by the foot trample of visitors. See report for full detail. <7>

In 2012 investigation of a further chamber in the southeast corner of the main chamber was initiated by I McHardy at the request of C. Coventry. The chamber, although known about for some time, was little investigated and lay behind a flowstone tallus which fills the base of a large vertical faultline in the limestone. It was first confirmed that the chamber lay outwith the Scheduled area. Initial investigation in April 2012 confirmed that there was no trace of anthropomorphic activity in the area and that all the visible material which lies in the area has been deposited through natural processes. A second inspection carried out in Nov 2012 after C. Coventry had excavated roughly half-way up inside the tallus, also found that the material which underlies the tallus was also deposited through natural processes and no evidence of human activity was found. The material under the tallus consists of an orangey-brown silty, sandy, gravelly clay containing fist sized chert clasts. <8> <9>

The excavation assemblage from the 1995 excavations by GUARD is listed in the NMS catalogue under Acc. No. 2000.14. <10>

Sources/Archives (47)



Grid reference Centred NC 41880 67107 (84m by 76m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NC46NW
Geographical Area SUTHERLAND
Civil Parish DURNESS

Finds (2)

  • VESSEL (Undated)
  • PIN (Undated)

Related Monuments/Buildings (3)

Related Investigations/Events (3)

External Links (3)

Comments and Feedback

Do you have any more information about this record? Please feel free to comment with information and photographs, or ask any questions, using the "Disqus" tool below. Comments are moderated, and we aim to respond/publish as soon as possible.