About Howe

Howe near Stromness, Mainland, Orkney was a known broch site excavated from 1978-1982. The total excavation of the site revealed a history spanning 4 millennia which included both Neolithic structures and an Iron Age sequence in which an early settlement evolved into a large broch. After this, the site became a farmstead which was abandoned in the 8th-9th Century A D.

Environmental samples were collected from the site contexts throughout the excavation process, and the evidence of the plants found on the site, carefully identified and researched by the late Camilla Dickson, has added greatly to the information available to us about the site and the life of its occupants.

The Howe Environmental project is an element of The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme, which has enabled the Orkney Museum to catalogue the environmental remains from the Howe excavation and provide public access to the data.

Plant use research

As a part of this project, ‘Ways with Weeds; the forgotten plant uses of Howe’ takes the opportunity to look at the plants found at an archaeological site in a different way. Instead of discussing the cultivated crop plants such as wheat barley, oats or flax, it looks at the ways that the other plants identified at the site could have been used.

There are more than 70 of these plants at Howe, and they comprise flowering plants, mosses and seaweed. They include a number of plants which have often been referred to in archaeological reporting as ‘weeds of cultivation’, ‘settlement weeds’ or discussed elsewhere in terms of how they contribute to the understanding of soil conditions or land use. Often they are ignored altogether.

Tiny amounts from three plants found together in an otherwise empty stone wall cupboard in the broch were identified as coming from plants known to have medicinal value. Discussion of this feature as a possible ‘medicine cupboard’ led to the question of how many of the other plants may have had uses in the past.

Only 4 of the 70 plants researched turned out to reveal no known usage. All but 14 of them have an established food or fodder usage somewhere where they occur, 54 of the total number have medicinal usage evidence while 27 species are known to have been used in dye work. Between 15-20% of these plants found at Howe have documented usage as either fuel, lighting material, cordage, bedding, basketry or as building material. Some of their further uses could be predicted, such as tanning, waterproofing, insulation or as fertiliser. Less obvious potential uses found include leather polish, whistles, insecticides, charms, narcotics and even a hygrometer!

Most of the things used in daily life through the occupation of Howe would have been made from organic materials which have not survived. By exploring the ways that plant matter may have been turned into objects and buildings, or used for food or lighting or as medicine, it is possible to get closer to the day-to-day existence of the people of Howe

Methodology and sources

This study does not discuss the nature of the plant evidence, or the relative amounts of it, beyond the fact that evidence of the plant, or at least some part of it was found at Howe.

The research has consulted a wide range of sources. These include archaeological assemblages, archaeobotanical reports, oral history collections, herbals through the ages, modern herbalists, basket-makers, traditional craft practitioners, natural history organisations and histories of farming, fishing and building.

Three sources have been of particular value for this particular type of research; firstly, the database of Plants for the Future (http://www.pfaf.org/user/default.aspx)
which in its comprehensive data includes the pharmacological values of a vast number of British plants, Secondly, Flora Celtica, (edited by William Milliken and Sam Bridgwater, Birlinn, 2004 and online an invaluable record of the traditional uses of plants in Scotland, and thirdly, The Scots Herbal, The Plant Lore of Scotland by Tess Darwin ((Birlinn, 2008) an inspirational and accessible starting place for the study of plant uses.

Plant usage has been studied wherever in the world each of the plant species have been found and used. Thus there are references to the plant-use traditions of First Nation peoples in North America and Canada as well as past and present communities in Scotland, Scandinavia and the rest of Britain.

The data

Each plant data page is subdivided into use type sections with references for information sources alongside.
Latin names and local names (often several) are given for each species, followed by a summary of the evidence for its presence at Howe based on Camilla Dickson’s plant report in the excavation monograph- Howe; four millennia of Orkney prehistory edited by Beverley Ballin Smith (1994).


For a few of the plant remains, Camilla Dickson was unable to identify the exact species. In these cases, the species researched here have been those she has suggested as closest.
The plant uses of the tree species present at Howe have been included for their recorded uses beyond providing timber. For example, a look at the data for birch (betula) demonstrates over 30 uses including shampoo and mattress stuffing. Spruce and larch were not introduced into Britain until post-medieval times, but fragments of both were found at Howe. It is likely that these woods arrived as driftwood, and therefore their possible usage at Howe would be restricted by the form and condition in which the timber arrived.

In this website, the plant data are searchable under the most common plant uses found. Further uses are described in the ‘More uses’ section for each species.
Apart from the obvious things we think of in relation to plant use such as the making of clothing, cordage and basketry, a closer look at the plants of Howe helps to paint a fuller picture; of people who needed to sweep out their houses, scrub their pots, and cure their worms and wind. They needed to waterproof their fishing nets, make sails for their boats, attach their arrowheads, fill the gaps in their draughty walls, tether their animals and make cradles for their children.

Plant usage as a resource for interpretation

This research has been carried out within time constraints and it is acknowledged that further information on the potential uses of these plants may be available and could be added to the data. Discussion and further contributions to the data would be welcome; please contact Lynda Aiano (l.aiano@exeter.ac.uk).


Ways with Weeds, researched by Lynda Aiano at Orkney Museum, owes grateful thanks for support to the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme, and to the staff at Orkney Museum. Andrew Purdy did a magnificent job with the IT side of the project and Dawn Grieve, and Mirella Arcidiacono, Rosemary and Neil McCance have put time and care into the cataloguing of the plant remains. Liz Gilmore’s formidable data checking skills have been invaluable throughout the Howe Environmental project. Thanks also to Roger Davies and the Orkney Field Club, and Sydney Gauld for information and help and to Jenny Taylor for images used.


The information presented in this website is not intended to encourage the consumption of any of the parts of the plants described. Users of this website are warned that many of the plants described contain toxins which would be harmful if ingested or applied externally. It is also an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981, as amended) to uproot wild plants without the landowner’s permission, whilst some species have strict protection under this Act.”
An image of Achillea ptarmica.
An image of a pot base.
An image of a heather basket.
An image of Arctostaphylos alpinus.
An image of baskets and a brush.
An image of Elytrigia repens.
Subscribe to Ways With Weeds RSS