(First printed in the Heb Magazine 2010)
By Deborah Anderson
Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Little Minch, with a coastline of more than two thousand kilometres, the Outer Hebrides have it all: beautiful scenery, big skies, white sandy beaches and turquoise seas, amazing wildlife and fabulous archaeological remains. It is a special place, unrivalled in the extent, variety and preservation of its archaeological sites, and has one of the most visibly historic landscapes in the UK. This has evolved through the interaction of its inhabitants with the environment over the last 9,000 years, and it is not beyond reason to consider the entire landscape archaeological.
Everywhere you look, you see the remains of blackhouses, duns, sheilings, stone circles, and the like. The islands’ archaeology is an incredibly rich resource, not only for its tourism value but also for its research potential. Most people who visit the Outer Hebrides will want to visit the Callanish Stones and the fantastically preserved remains of Dun Carloway broch; some may even venture out to Village Bay on St Kilda. There are, however, many more sites than these in the islands.
Up and down the island chain, there is archaeological evidence of how, through the ages, people have found their way to the Outer Hebrides, settled here, and made a living from its shores, machairs and moorlands – and it’s waiting to be discovered by those who are interested. So what sorts of evidence do we have about the people who lived here in the past, and what does it tell us about their lives?
Well, the archaeological evidence from a midden at Northton shows us the type of meal which was being consumed by the first Islanders some 9,000 years ago; the ceremonial Chambered Cairns like Barpa Langais tell us how our Neolithic ancestors honoured their dead, and how they divided their roles in ritual practices.
Standing stones like Callanish show us something of their profound relationship with the landscape and the heavens; settlements like Cladh Hallan in South Uist reveal amazing insights into the belief and mummification practices of these Bronze Age farmers. Brochs and Duns like Dun Carloway and Dun Vulan show the shift from building large ceremonial monuments to a landscape dominated by monumental inhabited buildings, reflecting the status of their inhabitants.
Wheelhouses, like the examples excavated at Cnip and Kilpheder, represent monumental building in sandscapes or inside the shells of earlier brochs, adapting current settlement design and construction to the problems caused by high winds, low temperatures and the lack of timber. The arrival of Christianity is testified by the simple crosses and early chapels at sites like Europie, Howmore, and the remote Island of North Rona.
Also, there is well-documented placename evidence of early Christian settlement in Pabbay (meaning ‘priest’) and the Norse suffix ‘ay’ (meaning ‘island’). Other islands would appear to be associated with saints; the Isle of Taransay, for example, is associated with the Pictish Saint Taran or Ternan.
Midden mounds like the one at Barvas preserve for us the remains of Viking Age buildings. They include a wide range of animal and plant remains, which allow us to construct a picture of the economy of a Norse farm. The succeeding medieval centuries are most easily remembered in the ruined walls of castles and tower houses like Kisimul Castle and the church at Rodel, which reflect the power and prestige of the Clans.
The building of castles on islands appears to echo the long tradition of islet occupation, rather than supporting the theory that these were built simply for defensive purposes. Then there are the ruins and earthworks of deserted blackhouses and shielings, and the lazy bed cultivation, which dominate the Hebridean landscape today and tell us of more recent lives that experienced clearance and emigration - a way of life which has shaped the way we are today. There are, however, other lesser known sites which tell us how people lived, such as Kelp Kilns, the World War II gun emplacements, the modern military installations of the MoD, field boundaries, middens, fish traps, boat noosts, burnt mounds and clearance cairns , to name just a few. Each period is built, layer upon layer, to create the character of the Western Isles that we know and love.
But archaeology in the Western Isles is more than just these individual monuments. It is the whole of the environment – the entirety of our landscapes, whether they be urban or rural, and anything at all which has been influenced by the day-to-day activities and habits of people right up to today. The grid street pattern in Stornoway, the prehistoric land surfaces at Hornish Point in South Uist , the coffin routes in Harris, the red telephone box sitting lonely at Crulivig in Bernera, the areas of relict peat cuttings at Carloway, the turf gardens at Port nan Giuran in Point, to the modern football pitch out at Back.
There are also invisible aspects of this historic environment which are just as important: the environmental evidence held in the peat, ceremonial landscapes and their settings, the historic landscape’s character and the local oral tradition attached to many of the sites we have here.
The historic environment of the Outer Hebrides is remarkable in the extent of its survival, and this is mainly due to the lack of land management pressures which you would see in other areas in the UK. There has been little large scale farming, or large scale commercial mineral or peat extraction, and much of the land is now under pasture, protecting our heritage for future generations.
Unlike on the mainland, the main pressure on the archaeological resource has not been, up to press, from development or large scale aggregate extraction - but from climate change. But this is not a new issue for the Hebrides.
Over the last 10,000 years, the landmass of the islands has shrunk considerably - most noticeably from the west, where up to 10km has been submerged by rising tides.
There are considerable areas of prehistoric land surfaces, including likely early settlements, which have been submerged during this inland coastline creep.
The abandonment of machair settlements in South Uist during the Little Ice Age (1500-1750AD) gives us evidence that water was rising then, and it will continue to rise. We believe that the sea is likely to rise by 69cm, or even up to one metre, by the end of the century. Further increases in storminess will increase wave and wind erosion on coastline sites.
We may lose many more sites in the future – but a concerted effort has been made to record, assess and prioritise further action on coastline sites before they disappear.
The associated rise in temperatures due to global warming is likely have a shrinking effect on the peatlands, which may cover sites predating the growth of peat during the Bronze Age. Peat holds the environmental record of the last 4,000 years, and can preserve organic materials - such as wood and skin - which would perish on dry sites. As up to 90% of human activity is organic in nature, the information held in peat resources can considerably add to our knowledge of past human activity.
The inland peat areas are largely unexplored by archaeologists, but these areas have the potential to tell us a great deal about how our ancestors lived, the crops they grew, and the impact people had on the environment. A survey has been carried out recording the visible archaeological remains for Ness, (Ness Archaeological Landscape Survey) and this is due to be published in 2010/11 alongside the Dun Eistean (stronghold of the Clan Morrison) Archaeology Project report.
More than 200 Outer Hebridean sites – only 1.5% of all listed on the Sites and Monuments Record for the region - are designated as Nationally or Internationally Significant. The remaining sites are no less important to those living in the islands, and local archaeology groups are doing sterling work recording new sites; every month, a few new pieces are added to the islands’ archaeological jigsaw. The preservation and conservation of sites relies on the interest and goodwill of landowners, and support from those who live on the islands.
Further interpretative information on the archaeology of the Outer Hebrides can be found at www.archaeologyhebrides.com. Books on the archaeology of Ancient Lewis and Harris, Ancient Barra and Ancient Uists can be bought from Museum nan Eilean in Stornoway and other outlets throughout the islands.
The Coastal Zone Assessments were funded by Historic Scotland and are available on the SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology Protection from Erosion) website. A database of all known archaeological sites in the Outer Hebrides can be viewed at www.cnes-siar.gov.uk/smr.