Despite their name, earth houses were not dwellings but stone-lined underground passages. Where they have been excavated, as at Ardestie, associated buildings have been found at ground level. Earth houses are also known by their French name, souterrains (‘undergrounds’) and are found in Brittany, Cornwall and Ireland as well as Scotland.
Earth houses are found all up the eastern seaboard of Scotland, from Lothian to Shetland. There are distinct regional types. They range from the massive earth houses of Angus and Perthshire, averaging some 46m2 in area, to those in the Northern Isles providing a mere 5m2 of floor space. The latter date from around 400 BC, whereas the likes of Ardestie were most likely built in the first two centuries AD.
Ardestie Earth House is over 24m long, with a stone-lined drain in its floor. Excavation in the 1950s revealed a number of small, round stone buildings at ground level. One of these buildings gave direct access into the earth house below.