Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath took part in DigIt2015! Scotland’s Year of Archaeology.

A Glimpse of the Past

The geology of the Outer Hebrides can be examined in a straightforward way. The entire 130 mile chain is predominantly formed of Lewisian Gneiss (pronounced ‘nice’), which is one of the oldest types of rock on earth. The defining features of these hard rocks are the layered bands of grey and white, interspersed at times with black or shades of pink crystallised mica. The complex science of geology states that large scale erosion occurred millions of years ago during a time known as the Tertiary Period. The rugged rock of the Highland zone was carved and shaped into a lower landscape by the forces of erosion and ice. Thus the low hill and loch landscape of North Uist was formed.

A Rising Tide

It is worth noting that the glacial environment that affected the Outer Hebrides differed from the west coast mainland.

Contemporary evidence suggests that the sea is steadily gaining on the islands. Estimates of a 1 metre rise in sea level per thousand years have been put forward – notably affecting the Uists and Benbecula. This regular nibbling away of cultivated land can be rather alarming as the shape of the coastline can be altered dramatically within a short space of time.

Coastal erosion appears to be happening at a faster rate on the islands than in the rest of Britain.

The relationship with the sea and the islands, particularly in North Uist, is constant. The intrinsic nature of the fertile ‘machair’ plain stretching along the west coast round towards the north of the island is very important, as it can reveal many clues to the lives of early people who settled the area thousands of years ago.

First Footsteps

The early people who arrived in Britain between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago are marked by their stone and flint tools, largely discovered from excavations in southern Britain. There is no material evidence yet existing in Scotland to confirm the presence of these Stone Age people in the northern lands.

As the climate altered the physical environment introducing larger areas of forest these scattered groups changed their methods of survival and became established as a hunter/gatherer society. The Mesolithic Period, identified with these nomadic dispersed groups, began in Scotland about 10,000 BC. The largest sites associated with Mesolithic people in this area appear focused on the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

There are indications discovered through pollen analysis, that hunter/gatherers groups did reach the Outer Hebrides. If so, their lives would have revolved around the seasonal availability of food sources at different sites. Described as being nomadic it is suggested that the temporary camps were set up to exploit a particular resource – fish and deer or berries and nuts. Once the food source had become exhausted, the hunter/gatherers would return to a larger group settlement away from the coast. ‘Midden’ or rubbish sites are largely all that remain of their occupation at these temporary coastal sites – shell, bone and occasionally stone or flint fragments make up the bulk of Mesolithic midden deposit.

Although little remains of a hunter/gatherer civilisation their methods of using natural and available resources on a seasonal rotation would appear to have survived until at least the Bronze Age.

A Change in the Weather

As the quality of the natural environment gradually improved in the Outer Hebrides, the Mesolithic landscape altered to accommodate new woodlands that in turn created better soil for cultivation by larger settled groups. The available improved land was used for agriculture by these early farmers and introduced a new era known as the Neolithic.

This development did not occur quickly but was a gradual process between the years c.6000 to c.8000 BC. Also, it is likely that Mesolithic hunter/gatherers would have coexisted alongside the farmers and their structured communities. However, the more efficient and largely reliable methods of annual cultivation would have finally absorbed the more random nomadic lifestyle central to the Mesolithic period.

A Time of Tombs

It is difficult to establish an accurate date for the arrival of these early farmers in the Western Isles. One very obvious feature of the Neolithic period are the large stone tomb or ‘megalithic’ monuments. These man made structures have survived through time, whereas the ordinary dwellings of the period, made of timber have long since decayed. Sites in the Outer Hebrides at Udal, North Uist and Northton in Harris both contain evidence associated with settlement during the late Neolithic period. However, the site that has revealed most about Neolithic activity in North Uist is Eilean Domhnuill (NF 747753) on a small islet in Loch Olabhat. In contrast, the amount of stone-tomb structures surviving in the islands number around thirty. Two-thirds of these tombs are situated in North Uist, notably at Langass and Carinish.

It would be convenient to leap over all the issues relating to Neolithic life, purely for the lack of material evidence. However, the proliferation of megalithic structures in the area suggests a more complex civilisation that respected status and took part in rituals within their communities. In brief, the Neolithic period can be recognised as a growth area for the Outer Hebrides. The improvement of climate and land combined with the abundance of natural resources created an excellent environment for the early farming communities.

Bronze is Beautiful

Sometime around 2000BC a new element appeared on the scene that introduced early people to the use of metals. The spread of this ‘new ‘technology during the so-called Bronze Age did have an effect on the structure of the Late Neolithic society. However, a more dramatic change occurred due to the deterioration of the climate in Northern Europe. Temperatures lowered and conditions in the Outer Hebrides became colder and subsequently wetter. The effect on the landscape was immense. The formation and spread of peat across once fertile land resulted in a shift away from the occupied hill sites as the soil on these inland upper slopes became unproductive.

One important aspect of the Early Bronze Age, before the incursion of the peat, was the influence of the Beaker People, so named after their unique patterned pottery. Their rapid spread northwards from Mediterranean Spain to Scandinavia is marked by the production of a new style of decorative earthenware. In addition to the pottery of the Beaker Folk one important change in the social pattern of Bronze Age people was their chosen method of burial. The Neolithic tombs contained many different human remains, whereas the Bronze ‘cist’ burial held a single individual. The stone slabs that created the box-like structure of the cist (pronounced kist) were normally recessed in the ground and covered by earth or small stones in the shape of a cairn. Occasionally accompanying the burial would be artefacts derived from Beakerware and crafted from Bronze.

The introduction of metal working by the Beaker Folk to communities more used to working with non-mineral material had a profound effect on their society. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. The process involved in making a new metal involves a very high temperature and a specially built furnace. Fragments of these metals and the structures used to create the ‘new’ Bronze metal have survived at a number of sites in the Outer Hebrides. The nature of the Bronze allowed it to be used in a decorative way. Moulds were designed to produce finer status symbols such as solid axes and daggers – altogether a very flexible metal.

Structures that have survived from the Bronze Age are the stone circles. Particularly notable is the Callanish system on the West side of Lewis. Likely to be the focus for a religious ritual these stone circles are visible reminders of an island community which has had to cluster together on the remaining areas of arable land. The stone ‘circle’ at Langass known as Pobull Fhinn represents a similar story as that at Callanish. Particularly interesting is its close proximity to the Neolithic chambered tomb Barpa Langass.

A Broken Circle

Moving towards the late Bronze Age c. 1200 BC – 800 BC there appears to be little remaining of any settlement sites in the islands. Evidence from excavation suggests that houses became larger and laid the foundations for the stone built Atlantic roundhouses that are associated with the Iron Age settlements in the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles.

Brochs and Duns

The early and middle Iron Age c. 800 BC – AD 400 in the Outer Hebrides is associated with a defined change in the way people used the land and built their dwellings. Distinctive stone Brochs or Dùns are the markers that remain today, the most notable being Dùn Chàrlabhagh in Lewis and the excavated shoreline site at Dùn Mhulan (NF 715297) in South Uist. In North Uist, Dùn an Sticir (NF 897776) and Dùn Torcuill (NF 888737) are two of the best preserved brochs that can be accessed with care across stone causeways. However it is the wheelhouses that are a unique construction from this era and examples have only been discovered in the Outer Hebrides and Shetland.

Subterranean Living

Construction of wheelhouses built on the machair would require a large circular hole dug out of the ground and the sides lined with drystone with the sand acting as a support for the walls and providing an excellent layer of insulation. Internally several small stone piers or walls would be built from the outer wall towards the centrally located hearth of the circular house – similar to the hub and spoke design of a cart wheel. Wheelhouses would have been very discreet in the landscape with only the thatched or turf roof visible above the ground.

Wheelhouses date from the early/middle to the late Iron Age 800BC – 400AD and were occupied for extended periods of time being adapted and rebuilt according to developments in lifestyle and introduction of other cultural influences. The best examples of wheelhouses in North Uist are at Cleitreabhal (NF 749713) and Cnoc a’ Comhdhalach (NF 771741).