Writing A Site Description

People discussing a site

Writing a site description

For every site you survey, photograph and draw, it is very useful if you can also support your record with a written description of the features you find at the site and its setting in the landscape. This can be quite brief - two or three sentences can summarise the key information about a site - or you may prefer to make a more detailed written record, especially if a brief record already exists. There are specific pieces of information about the site which should be included in your written description and the notes below will guide you. You may also find it helpful to look at site descriptions in RCAHMS - Canmore database - to get you started, we have included three examples at the end of this document.


The more you can understand about a site, the easier it will be to write a description, so it is worth spending some time exploring the various structures and working out their relationship to each other. This can be very revealing as you unfold the story of the site. The technique does get easier with experience, so it is worth persisting! Your reward will be a well-crafted and concise site record.

When planning your site description, imagine you are approaching the site from a distance and noting its setting in the landscape. As you get closer to the site, you can describe its layout and the relationship of the buildings. As you get closer still, you are able to identify and describe individual structures and features. In line with the RCAHMS database records, your written site description should aim to include the following, in this order:

Setting and surroundings

This is a brief description of the site's orientation, aspect and physical surroundings. Assessing the relationship between the site and natural features can help us understand the function of the site and it is where it is. For instance, is the site on a slope, a prominence or terrace? Is it close to a burn? Is it south facing? It is a good idea to include the site altitude in the summary description - take your reading from the contours of a 1:50,000 or 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map, rather than a GPS (altitude readings from GPS have a very wide tolerance level and can be misleading).

Summary

This should include information about the number, general appearance and shape of the buildings and any related features (enclosures, middens, kilns, etc.). You should mention how high any surviving remains stand (knee height, head height) etc as it might be a factor in being able to locate them again if they are obscured by vegetation. You do not need to describe the functions of the buildings and features - what we are looking for is an accurate description of what presently exists on the ground.

If you want, your site description can stop here. Even this short record, if accurate and well written, is immensely valuable for our understanding of the site. However, if you would prefer to explore and record your site in more detail, you can start to add information about each structure to your written description.

Details

Useful details to include are:

  • For buildings, use the terms external and internal rather than exterior and interior.
  • Any distinctive or unusual features, such as fireplaces, cruck slots, or wall cupboards.
  • Any indications of phasing, such as blocked doorways and windows, inserted walls, etc.
  • Building functions (e.g. byre-house, barn, mill, kiln). Beware, as functions may change through time - if so, include this in your description.
  • Building materials (turf, stone or both; if stone, dressed or undressed, and what sort).
  • Descriptions of enclosures and other features, such as garden plots, middens, or kilns, noting their relationship to the buildings. For features distributed across a wide area (e.g. cultivation remains, peat stacks, track-ways), try to give an indication of the area that they cover.
  • Stone-robbing is the correct term for evidence of the removal of stone from a building.
  • For consistency walls, banks, etc. are referred to as being thick whereas ditches, gates, entrances, gaps, etc. are wide and broad.

Examples of site descriptions (see Canmore database for more)

Enclosure

Site name: Kiltyrie
Map reference: NN 6347 3638
Survey date: 11 March 2004
Surveyed by: RCAHMS (SDB)

This rectangular enclosure stands on a SSE-facing slope in enclosed pasture 600m SE of Kiltyrie farmhouse. Bounded by a drystone dyke, it measures 42m from ENE to WSW by 22m transversely, and the entrance is on the NNW. Several mature trees grow along the line of the enclosing dyke, and along its SSE edge the level of the interior has been raised above that of the ground outside. No evidence of any buildings could be seen within or around the enclosure.

Farmstead

Site name: Balnreich
Map reference: NN 6425 3745
Survey date: 28 November 2000
Surveyed by: RCAHMS (SPH and MFTR)

This small farmstead is situated about 450m SW of Carie farmsteading, on the W bank of the Allt Coire a' Chonnaidh. It comprises three buildings (one of them a former smithy) and two enclosures, all of which stand in poorly drained ground, waterlogged on the date of visit.

The principal building measures 12.7m from ENE to WSW by 4.1m transversely within rubble walls 1.8m high at the sides and up to about 3.5m in height at the gable ends. There are two entrances in the SSE side and a small outshot at each end. The building stands on the NNW side of a rectangular yard, in whose E corner there is a small pen, or possibly a sump, fed by a drain running from the yard.

Standing about 25m to the SE, the second building measures 8m by 4m within rubble walls up to 1.5m high, though the SSE side has been robbed out. One infilled cruck-slot is visible in the NNW wall, there is a later pen in the WSW end and immediately to the SSE of the building there is a circular stone platform, measuring 2.5m in diameter and 0.1m in height.

The third building stands to the SW of the second. It has measured internally 8.2m from NNW to SSE by 3.4m transversely, but only the WSW side and the SSE end survive, the rest having been destroyed. There are two cruck slots in the WSW side.

Township

Site name: Druim Reamhar
Map reference: NN 6333 3681
Survey date: 11 March 2004
Surveyed by: RCAHMS (SDB) 11 March 2004

This township stands at the N edge of a pasture field 350m ENE of Kiltyrie farmhouse. It comprises nine rectangular buildings, a corn-drying kiln and three enclosures, and there is a small grass-grown quarry scoop to the W, at NN 63265 36838. The buildings are overgrown with bracken and nettles, and a large static caravan, now derelict, stands at the centre of the site. The visible remains appear to belong to at least two phases of occupation. In its later phase the settlement comprised three buildings grouped around a roughly rectangular yard, with two additional buildings and two enclosures to the NW. A sixth building and a kiln to the SE of the main group may also belong to this phase, but the other three buildings, of which only slight traces remain, may be earlier.

The principal building that defines the NNW side of the yard is a byre-dwelling measuring 21.5m in length by 3.8m in breadth within rubble walls up to 0.7m in height. It has been divided into four compartments, and there are two entrances in the SSE side. A byre-drain runs the length of the E compartment, leading out beneath the SSE wall towards a scooped midden. The WSW side of the yard is formed by the second building, which measures 16.5m in length by 4m in breadth within walls up to 0.8m in height. It has been divided into two compartments, and there is an outshot at the N end. A farm track now runs across the S compartment, almost obliterating the sidewalls. The third building stands at the ENE side of the yard, immediately W of the midden. It measures internally 7m by 2.3m, the SSE gable stands up to 1.5m in height, and it has an entrance in the centre of each side, which suggests that it served as a barn. The SSE side of the yard is defined by a drystone dyke, now partly obscured by dumps of field-cleared stones, which appears to incorporate a fragment of an earlier building. To the SE of the yard, abutting the SSE gable of the barn, there is a corn-drying kiln with a bowl measuring 1.9m in diameter and a lintelled flue opening to the SSE, and 10m the SE of the kiln there are the grass-grown footings of a small outbuilding.

There is a second enclosure to the NW of the yard, bounded on its N side by a trackway approaching the township from the NW. Just beyond the NW corner of this enclosure there are two buildings facing each other across the trackway. The larger (N) building measures internally 18.8m from E to W by 3.5m transversely, and is divided into three compartments, each with an entrance on the S. It has stone gables, one of which survives to a height of 2m, and two cruck-slots can be traced in the N wall. The S building measures internally 9.2m from E to W by 3.2m transversely, and has a small stone-walled enclosure attached to its N side.

Two further buildings lie side-by-side to the NE of the main yard. They have both been severely robbed, and a later drystone dyke crosses both. One occupies a platform set into rising ground and measures 12.3m by 3.4m within a stony bank from which a few large grounders protrude. The other is even less-clearly defined; its walls have been reduced to slight grass-grown banks, though large stones appear to mark the four corners. It measures 10.8m by 3.9m overall

© Historic Environment Scotland - Scottish Charity No. SC045925.