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The Outer Hebrides: Archaeology & Pre-history

A Glimpse of the Past

The geology of the Outer Hebrides is relatively straightforward. The entire 130 mile chain is formed mainly of Lewisian Gneiss (Pronounced nice), one of the oldest and hardest types of rock on earth. The defining features of this material is its layered bands of grey and white, interspersed at times with black or shades of pink crystallised mica.

Large scale erosion occurred millions of years ago during a time known as the Tertiary Period. Over eons, the rugged rock of the Highland zone was carved and shaped by these inexorable forces and gradually the low-lying patchwork of hills and lochs we see today in North Uist was created.

A Rising Tide

The relationship of the sea and the islands, particularly in North Uist, is intimate and one of constant, ceaseless change and evolution. The sea steadily encroaches onto our islands and regularly nibbles away areas of cultivated land. Our coasts are eroded more quickly and more dramatically than most other parts of the UK. This is only set to accelerate over the coming decades.

First Footsteps

We know from excavations of stone and flint tools in southern England that these British islands were first inhabited between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. As yet there is no clear evidence to show that these Stone Age people reached Scotland at this time.

Around 10,000BC during the Mesolithic Period, the climate started to alter and became more benign. As a result, forests spread across the Scottish landmass, providing the means by which larger groups of hunter-gatherers could survive and thrive. The most abundant remains of these people’s way of life have been excavated throughout the Inner Hebrides. On the Outer Hebrides, the unique habitat and nature of the fertile machair plain, which stretches along the western coast of these islands, also offered a relatively gentle environment within which early peoples also started to settle.

Through pollen analysis we know that the lives of these hunter-gatherer groups on the Outer Hebrides revolved around the seasonal availability of various food sources harvested at different sites around the islands. Being nomadic, these peoples moved regularly between temporary encampments, each of which was set up to exploit a particular resource – fish and deer or berries and nuts. Once the food source had become exhausted for that season, the hunter-gatherers would move on. Middens, or rubbish sites and their remains – shells, bones and occasionally stone or flint fragments – are largely all that remain of their occupation of these temporary coastal sites.

Although little survives of this hunter-gatherer way of life, through their methods of using natural and available resources on a seasonal rotation, they would appear to have survived and thrived successfully for thousands of years until at least the start of the Bronze Age.

A Change in the Weather

As the natural environment of the Outer Hebrides gradually improved, the Mesolithic landscape and its productivity altered for the better. Woodlands started to be cleared for cultivation by larger, settled groups of people. These early farmers heralded a new era, the Neolithic Age.

This development was a gradual process, taking place between 8,000 to 6,000 BC. Most likely, through much of this time, hunter-gatherers continued to coexist alongside farmers and their structured communities. However, the benefits of more efficient and largely reliable methods of annual cultivation finally negated the more random nomadic lifestyle central to the peoples of the Mesolithic period.

A Time of Tombs

While it is difficult to establish an accurate date for the emergence of these early farmers on the Outer Hebrides, one very obvious feature of their culture during this period are the large stone tomb or megalithic monuments scattered throughout the islands. Unlike ordinary timber-made dwellings which have long since decayed, these robust structures have survived well through time.

Many sites across the Outer Hebrides, including Udal, North Uist and Northton in Harris, contain rich amounts of evidence associated with late Neolithic period settlements. The one that has revealed most about this time is Eilean Domhnuill (NF 747753), situated on a small islet in Loch Olabhat, on North Uist. Of the more than thirty significant stone-tomb structures surviving on the islands, two-thirds of these tombs are situated on North Uist, most notably at Langass and Carinish.

The proliferation of megalithic structures across the islands suggest the development of an organised, successful civilisation of some complexity and sophistication within which spirituality and status was recognised and celebrated through communal beliefs and rituals. Throughout the Neolithic period the evidence suggests that the improvement of the climate, combined with the abundance of natural resources and fertile land, created an excellent environment within which early farming communities flourished and left their mark on the islands.

Bronze is Beautiful

Around 2,000BC these early people began to fashion and use metal. The steady spread of this new technology, coupled with the inexorable deterioration of the climate in North Europe, had a dramatic effect on Bronze Age society. Average annual temperatures lowered and, as a result, conditions on the Outer Hebrides became colder and significantly wetter. The effect on the landscape was immense. The formation and spread of peat across once fertile land necessitated emigration away from formerly prosperous hill sites as the soil on these inland upper slopes became unproductive.

Through the early part of the Bronze Age, before this disruptive incursion of peat across once fertile lands, the Beaker People – so named after their unique patterned pottery – had spread rapidly northwards from Mediterranean Spain to Scandinavia, evidence for which is marked by the discovery across this vast swathe of Europe of large amounts of the new style of decorative earthenware these people created.

In addition to their pottery, one important change in the social customs of Bronze Age people is indicated by the Beaker People’s chosen method of burial. Earlier Neolithic tombs contained many different human remains, whereas the Beaker cist burial holds 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 materials had a profound effect on these societies. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. The process involved in making a new metal requires very high temperatures created in a specially built furnace. Fragments of these metals and the structures used to create the bronze have been discovered at a number of sites in the Outer Hebrides. The easily malleable nature of bronze allowed it to be used to create intricate-wrought decorative objects. Moulds were also used to produce finer status symbols, such as solid axes and daggers easily and in great numbers.

Some of the most prominent structures which have survived from the Bronze Age are stone circles. Particularly notable is the Callanish system, on the western side of Lewis. Most likely the focus for organised religious and fertility ritual, these massive sites are visible reminders of island communities clustered together to make best use of the remaining areas of arable land. The stone circle at Langass, known as Pobull Fhinn, in close proximity to the Neolithic chambered tomb Barpa Langass, is the largest on North Uist.

A Broken Circle

From 1,200 to 800B little remains of settlement sites in the islands. Those that do, provide evidence that houses became larger and evolved into the stone-built Atlantic roundhouses associated with the Iron Age settlements in both the Outer Hebrides and the Northern Isles.

Brochs and Duns

From the early to middle Iron Age (800 BC – AD 400) people in the Outer Hebrides built their dwellings and used the land in new ways. Remains of distinctive stone Brochs, or Dùns, a wheelhouse building style unique to the Outer Hebrides and Shetland, are scattered across the islands. The most notable are Dùn Chàrlabhagh on Lewis and on the excavated shoreline site at Dùn Mhulan (NF 715297), on South Uist. On North Uist, Dùn an Sticir (NF 897776) and Dùn Torcuill (NF 888737), are two of the best preserved and can be accessed with care across original stone causeways.

Subterranean Living

Construction of wheelhouses built on the machair required the digging of a large circular hole and the sides lined with drystone. The sand supported the walls and also provided an excellent layer of insulation. Internally several small stone piers or walls were 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 were discreet additions to the landscape, with only the thatched or turf roof visible above the ground.

Wheelhouses date from the middle to late Iron Age onwards, 800BC – 400AD. Occupied for extended periods of time, they were adapted and rebuilt by successive generations according to changes in lifestyle and the introduction of other cultural influences. The best examples of wheelhouses on North Uist are at Cleitreabhal (NF 749713), and at Cnoc a’ Comhdhalach (NF 771741).

Excerpts from research and publications generated by Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist a Tuath (CEUT) during DigIt2015! Scotland’s Year of Archaeology.