skip to main page content

Scottish Odysseys: Archaeology of Islands (2005)

Western Infirmary Lecture Theatre, University of Glasgow, 28th - 30th October 2005


‘You’re My Island Now …….’ Local archaeology for local people?

Olivia Lelong & Ingrid
We examine the ways in which archaeologists have traditionally approached working on islands in Scotland, and our frequent failure to engage local communities in the exploration of their locale’s past. We consider why archaeologists are so strongly attracted to island groups, often acquiring a possessive attitude to them. We explore the preconceptions that archaeologists working on islands often bring with them – polarised expectations of utopia or dystopia, the search for the exotic and unique. We also examine the extent to which archaeologists working on islands involve (or fail to involve) local communities in the investigation and interpretation of local heritage. Our observations are based on historical examples and on conversations with residents of islands where archaeologists have been active. We conclude by suggesting a few potential strategies to negotiate the often complex relationships between local residents and groups and individuals working in small, geographically isolated communities.

“Scarcely a stone of it now remains” (M’Arthur, 1872, 18).

Carol Primrose:
The island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde has drawn visitors for many centuries. Travellers, geologists and antiquarians have left accounts of its rich archaeology. Reading these witnesses it is possible to identify some major structures which, today, have disappeared without trace. In other instances, the present state of a structure can lead to misinterpretation. These losses can have implications for hypotheses about distribution patterns, external influences and function.

Many stone circles have been destroyed including double circles and a possible triple circle. One single monolith is the sole survivor of a double circle in Sannox. How many others are the same? Auchengallon is frequently described as a kerb cairn but two witnesses from the early nineteenth century state that it had no cairn material in it then. Without the cairn it resembles a recumbent stone circle.

Arran has a large number of chambered cairns extant. But the total number built could be greater. At least three very large ones have disappeared completely and probably many more smaller ones. Additionally, there are many features which cannot be identified because they have been quarried for shielings, walls and houses. The extant examples are nearly all Clyde cairns, but one has the chambers set radially and one is a perfectly circular passage grave. How many others, now lost, departed from the norm?

Colin Renfrew’s theory that the cairns were territorial markers is based on the pattern of all the extant cairns at the time he was writing. It is less convincing when those known to have been lost and those discovered since (two definite and two possible chambered cairns) are factored in, especially when variations in size and clusters of cairns are taken into consideration.

Absence of archaeological evidence is not evidence of absence. There are only two Viking burials and one set of runes in Arran, but placename evidence suggests they held whole island in subjection for a long period. Similarly most cists have been destroyed but a name such as Kiscadale (Norse: the valley of the coffins) suggests they were once very frequently found.

Most megalithic structures were excavated in the nineteenth or early twentieth century; this may have destroyed data modern techniques could have retrieved but it has preserved much that could have been lost otherwise. Interestingly, a later excavation at Monamore was able to reveal much missed by the first excavator.

As an ironical converse to this story of loss and destruction, it is interesting to note that some features have been recorded only relatively recently: Carmahome in 1924 Torran Loisgte in 1976 and three cairns in North Sannox in 1993, for example. This reinforces my contention that it is dangerous to hypothesise about these structures without bearing in mind the likelihood that there were many more now lost, while one or two may still be waiting to be rediscovered.

'The sea is all islands and the land all lochs' an island history of North Uist during the Neolithic period

Cole Henley (RCAHMS)
Whilst we have thankfully moved on from the study of island as laboratories for studying cultural phenomenon in isolation (a la Renfrew's work on Arran and Orkney), my research on the island of North Uist highlights a tension in the historical narratives that we are encouraged to write.

On the one hand, in a shift towards the study of individuals and smaller scale processes, archaeologists have tried to blur and break down the impact of geographical bounadries on the communities of the past. But on the other hand we have seen a call for regional archaeologies seeeking to identify and define geographical concentrations of archaeological materials and traditions of practice. Therefore, whilst regionally sensitive interpretations of this period have been encouraged, interpretations which regard the sea as a barrier, whether to the movement of people, materials or ideas, tend to have been discredited. This cannot be constructive in examining an archaeology of islands. Examining the Neolithic period of North Uist I will consider the varying extents of both contact and insularity that are exhibited in its archaeology, situated within a broader history for this period. I propose that this particular archaeological record demonstrates that islands were not always bounded places, closed-off from other worlds through the borders of the sea. Yet at certain times and with certain conditions – social, cultural, historical and environmental – shorelines also encouraged the development of fiercely local identities, featuring localised forms of monument, settlement and material culture. We must not then be afraid to acknowledge that islands would sometimes have been bounded places in the past, presenting unique and challenging contexts for archaeological study.

Strangers in a Strange Land? Archaeology and the South Uist Community

Kate MacDonald (University of Sheffield):
Communities that are geographically separated (but not necessarily isolated) have a distinct identity. The Outer Hebrides are divided from the rest of Britain by culture and language, as much as by the sea. Mainland archaeologists have been visiting the islands for many years. Their growing knowledge of the islands’ past was published for the consumption of a remote academic community, while the material they recovered was sent away to augment the national collection in Edinburgh. Only recently, with the publication of a long-term research programme (Parker Pearson et al. 2004), have local people had access to some of the information generated about the astounding quantity and quality of the archaeological remains in their islands. Almost invariably, they are delighted about the contribution we have made to the understanding of their history. Nevertheless, there is a growing sense of frustration about the continued disappearance of artefacts, and the lack of sites accessible to the public. There is little to show for all the excavation work.

People have a strong sense of pride about their islands, and want to be able to use their archaeology to teach future generations about their heritage, and to provide income from tourism. Encouraging communities to become involved is not enough. The power to determine the priorities for excavation, preservation and public presentation remains with individuals and institutions that are distant from the Hebrides, and with little appreciation of the unique nature of island life or culture. Archaeologists will always be outsiders or incomers, ‘strangers in a strange land’, digging to find answers to our own questions, unless we develop a locally led, distinctively Hebridean archaeology.

“All quiet on the Western Front?” Bringing Foula, Shetland, back from the fringe: Landscape investigations during 2004.

Helen Bradley (University of Sheffield):
Over the last decade or so, research into the archaeology and ethnography of Scottish islands has undergone a number of methodological and interpretive shifts. Some of these are the product of a much needed re-assessment of the concept of ‘marginality’. The realisation that geographical isolation is not necessarily accompanied by social, political or economic remoteness has altered the ways in which we approach the study of island communities and their pasts. Syntheses based on the relationship between perceived ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ areas have been largely rejected as historically contingent generalisations. Instead, island studies now recognise the importance of a more island–centred perspective, which stresses individual and community perceptions of the ‘outside world’.

Contemporary opinion within archaeology is that this debate has been, to an extent, resolved. However, it seems that a different sort of marginality (that imposed by archaeologists themselves) continues to impact upon the profile of some areas, and upon the relationship between archaeologists, islanders, and the wider public. We may have disarmed many preconceptions of the ‘wild, grim and uninhabitable north’, but are still clinging to old biases when it comes to those places considered just that little bit too inhospitable and remote. In this instance I am referring to the small island of Foula, lying 14 miles west of Shetland mainland, which remains conspicuous in its absence from archaeological literature. Extensive research has been conducted on other islands situated at similarly ‘peripheral’ locations (for example St Kilda and Fair Isle). Though this research has revealed the presence of long-lived, complex and viable communities on such islands, Foula retains its reputation for bird life and biodiversity, while its archaeological resource remains largely ignored.

This discrepancy provided me with the impetus to conduct a landscape survey during July 2004 with the aim of challenging pre-conceptions concerning the role played by Foula in the development of the Northern Isles both today and in the past. The survey was intended as a preliminary and broad-scale investigation of the entire island in order to characterise the distribution and extent of its archaeological remains. This paper presents the results of the first season of research in this ongoing project before going on to suggest what implications these findings hold for the people living on Foula today, for their mainland neighbours, and for the arena of archaeological debate within Atlantic Scotland as whole. So is it all quiet on the Western Front?

Initiatives at the Edge?

Mike Parker Pearson, Jacqui Mulville, Niall Sharples & Helen Smith (Universities of Sheffield, Cardiff & Bournemouth):After nearly tweny years of working on South Uist and Barra we thought it may be time to look back and see what we have achieved and learnt; our sucesses and our failures. The Sheffield Enviromental Archaeological Research Campaign in the Hebrides and associated projects have excavated a range of sites from the Neolithic to the Post-Medieval. A number of these sites have been published and we are in the process of completing the analysis and publication of the remainder. This paper will review the work of the projects since our first forays to the islands in 1988, and present our most recent research with particular reference to the perceived marginailty of the islands.

Islandscapes and Standing Stones: Changing Perceptions

Joanna Wright (University of Manchester):
Recent works have highlighted a tendency by those who have studied islands to interpret the chosen island itself in isolation, regarding it as a separate unit for study, abstract and independent from that which surrounds it. The sea has often been viewed as a natural barrier, separating one place from the next, and the island has therefore been used as a place to study an ‘uncontaminated’ culture or data set. This is a position I have become distinctly aware of during the course of my own research in the Western Isles, which concentrates particularly on the Isle of Mull. What has become increasingly clear is that this island cannot be studied exclusively and independently from the other islands and mainland to which it is closely geographically situated.

Despite the apparent isolated view of an island given by a map, it is often difficult to identify a specific area of study and to define or separate areas of contact or interaction. Although the sea can act as a divider of land I will demonstrate how it was and still can be seen as a bridge that connects different areas, allowing for greater access, contact and communication. The situation is vastly more complex than drawing lines on a map, with different parts of islands and mainland Scotland being either linked or separated in different ways, at different times in the past and for varying reasons. This situation can be defined by talking in terms of ‘islandscapes’, which can encompass areas of both land and sea. This term does not refer to fixed geographical locations but to constantly changing, fluid and flexible locales.

In this paper I intend to show, through the use of both historical and oral accounts, how the sea itself may have been viewed differently in the past. I will also demonstrate how parts of the Isle of Mull may have been seen as both connected and disconnected to other areas of the island itself and to other islands and to the sea in the past. It will also become clear that this situation is somewhat altered in the present.

These changing views of islands, mainland connections and the sea throughout the ages have also affected the ways in which we have studied and interpreted their archaeology. With a study of the locations of standing stones I intend to show how past perceptions of the island may have affected their interpretation and show how, by looking outside the geographical box, they may be approached differently today. Standing stones remain something of an enigma, but by examining the ways in which their surrounding islandscapes may have been viewed and used in the past, I believe it is possible to gain some insight into some of the various meanings given to these monuments and the ways in which they were viewed in prehistory.

At the crossroads: the historical archaeology of Rathlin Island

Wes Forsythe (University of Ulster):
Rathlin Island lies between the coasts of Co. Antrim and Kintyre at the northern entrance to the Irish Sea. Its geographical location has resulted in it being the most Scottish of Irish islands, through socio-political, linguistic and material influences. These ties become most visible in the Medieval period when the island was granted to the de Galloway brothers. By the sixteenth century McDonalds controlled and defended the island and the Antrim Glens from Irish and English rivals. A more politically stable era in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries resulted in the ties being economic in nature. This paper introduces recent archaeological survey work on Rathlin, with a particular focus on the maritime landscape. It will explore post-medieval cultural interaction with Scotland and Ireland through aspects of the kelp industry, smuggling and settlement amongst others. These reveal links with Ballycastle, Campeltown and Glasgow and the wider island archipelago of western Scotland.

An island of fluctuating perceptions: the landscape and archaeology of Bute

Gordon Noble & Fay Stevens (Universities of Durham & University College London):
This paper presents a preliminary exploration of the landscape and associated archaeology of the island of Bute. Situated on the west coast of Scotland, Bute is one of a number of islands nested between the kyles and lochs of the Kintyre peninsula and mainland Scotland. Our research aims to are to consider the landscape and archaeology of Bute within a framework that will re-consider finite definitions of islands. Outcomes of fieldwork conducted during spring 2003 and 2005 initially suggest that Bute comprises a myriad/mosaic of islands defined by distinct topographic locales, within which the archaeology of the Mesolithic to the Bronze Age is situated. These temporal trajectories contrast in the social and ritual constructions of the cultural landscape of the island. Using a sample of visual and non-visual cultural markers we will present an argument that suggests Bute at times acted as an insular island, while at others it functioned as part of a complex interplay of communication networks between the mainland, islands and the sea. These characteristics structure how the island may have been perceived, in particular, the movement of local and imported material culture onto the island at varying levels over time, may have modified concepts of what defined the island, or for that matter whether it was thought of an island at all.

Late Bronze Age Metalwork and Metalworking in the Scottish Islands

Brendan O’Connor and Trevor Cowie (National Museum of Scotland):
This paper will use evidence of metalwork and casting debris from the Late Bronze Age (essentially Ewart Park phase, c.1000-800 BC) as a contribution towards assessing the place of the islands in Scottish later prehistory. Several strands of evidence combine to suggest that Late Bronze Age communities in western Scotland were participating fully in wider networks of contact.

The assessment will refer to the evidence from the Isle of Man, where swords can be linked to those found in the Hebrides, and an old find of an exotic sword from Skye will be introduced. The wider significance of several new and old finds of metallurgical debris will be discussed. Axe moulds from the island of Eigg will be the basis for speculation about the scale of socketed axe production, while recent finds of moulds and other casting debris from Cladh Hallan, South Uist, will be among the material considered from the Western Isles. Shetland will be discussed with particular reference to the large assemblage of casting debris from Jarlshof. In the light of this evidence, it will be suggested that relatively restricted inventory of metal finds recovered from the Scottish islands may not reflect the range and quantity of metalwork originally produced and circulated there.

West Voe : A Late Mesolithic and Mesolithic – Neolithic transition site in Shetland

Nigel D. Melton (University of Bradford):
This paper describes recent work undertaken on a midden exposed by coastal erosion at West Voe, Sumburgh in the south of Mainland Shetland. This site has provided the first direct evidence of Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers on Shetland and has also yielded early ceramics and a cow tooth, indicating that it spans the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

The site was visited in 2002 when a short section of an eroding oyster midden was cleaned and sampled and an overlying cockle midden was sampled. Shells from these middens were radiocarbon dated to 4320-4030 cal BC and 3750-3520 cal BC respectively, and a sample from a layer of aeolian sand separating the two middens yielded an OSL date of 4830+/- 430 BC.

An archaeological evaluation carried out in 2004 revealed that the lower midden contains evidence for the extensive exploitation of not just.oysters, but also seal and seabirds, especially shag. Occupation surfaces were present and a small number of quartz flakes and cores and potsherds were recovered. The upper midden was found to be composed entirely of cockle shells, mostly fragmented, and to butt a double faced drystone wall. Additional structural evidence in the form of a large stake hole was also noted. Also present were features cut into the layer of sand separating the middens. Further work is planned for 2005, targeting the occupation surface and the pre-midden ground surface.

A programme of scientific research currently being undertaken is investigating aspects such as the date, duration and seasonality of the occupation of the site, its relationship to its local environs, and the Middle-Holocene climate and environmental history of the site.

top of page up arrow

Looking beneath Islands: The subterranean places of the Atlantic Scottish Iron Age

Martin Carruthers (University of Manchester):
For the modern visitor to the islands of Orkney a trip to see some of the Iron Age souterrains, such as Rennibister or Grain, or other underground built places like the recently rediscovered Mine Howe structure are often on the heritage holiday itinerary. Visitors frequently report a sense of awe, mystery and perhaps bemused confusion after having been inside these dark, ancient and enigmatic underground places. Visitors’ emotions may be similar to those experienced when entering some of the Orcadian Neolithic, ‘underground’ roofed monuments such as the great tombs of Maes Howe, Unstan or Isbister.

I would argue that this sense of wonder and intrigue has been sustained in academic research dealing with the Orcadian Neolithic chambered tombs. It is strange then to reflect on the relative paucity of work that has been carried out on the Iron Age subterranean places of Orkney. While the literature on the Neolithic tombs is very large and varied - testament, I would argue, to the enduring power that the tombs exert over the imagination, Orcadian Iron Age subterranean sites on the other hand have had very little impact on the archaeological consciousness even within Scottish Iron Age studies. Moreover, the extensive literature on Orcadian Neolithic tombs can be read as a barometer of Neolithic theoretical and methodological development. Reading that literature is almost like viewing a chart of the passage of wider intellectual and theoretical threads running through the history of British prehistoric archaeology as the study of the tombs have figured strongly in the development of new ideas themselves (e.g. Childe 1940, Renfrew 1979, Richards 1993). In Scottish Atlantic Iron Age studies there has been no attempt to incorporate the subterranean structures of that period into wider syntheses.

Why is that in British Neolithic studies an Island group like Orkney can be happily examined as a significant region, relevant to wider Neolithic studies, while the Iron Age of Orkney by contrast is regarded almost as a backwater in comparison to other British regions? It seems that Neolithic Orkney is an active, dynamic archipelago of islands that encouraged and facilitated contact and the spread of ideas possibly even originating novel forms of material culture that spread across substantial parts of the British Isles while Iron Age Orkney is more likely to be characterised as isolated and fairly passive. Orkney in the Iron Age is influential only within its Scottish Atlantic province and here only to a debated degree.

What intellectual influences and impulses are responsible for these divergent cultural narratives? I would like to begin to examine this historiographical problem by highlighting the significance of the often-overlooked underground built places of the Iron Age in Orkney and other parts of the so-called Atlantic Iron Age province. While the disparate archaeological discourses of Scottish Neolithic Studies and Scottish Iron Age research have in recent years come closer in theoretical aims and priorities I would argue that they remain neighbouring Islands mutually visible but still full of difference and local custom. In this paper I want to set sail for a brief tour of the shores of both Islands to take on supplies for the longer passage we all must undertake into un-chartered waters when we explore under valued and little studied archaeological phenomena such as the souterrains of Iron Age Orkney.

The Irish Sea – an island world

Professor Gabriel Cooney (University College, Dublin):
The Irish Sea is sometimes discussed as an ‘inland sea’ to stress its linking role between the littorals of eastern Ireland and western Britain. The role of the Irish Sea in maritime links with the Scottish islands is also frequently acknowledged. But viewed from a distance, for example as a satellite image, it is a sea that looks to be relatively island-free, with the exception of the central hub of the Isle of Man. Interrogated at a more detailed, localised spatial level it is apparent that there are a significant number of small islands in the Irish Sea. This paper will consider the archaeology of these islands, particularly during earlier prehistory.

Their location close to the coast of Ireland or Britain raises issues of the complex connections between islands and mainlands. Some of the islands are in the vicinity of river estuaries and potential harbours. This location, allied to the pattern of currents in the Irish Sea which would have facilitated movement along the coasts, suggests that such islands would have been key places in earlier prehistoric seascapes, both in the context of everyday life and contact and as sacred places.

Lambay island, part of a group of islands off the east coast of Ireland in the vicinity of Dublin will be discussed as a case study. Here excavation and survey have provided an image of life on an island during the Neolithic period which suggests that a very strong sense of island identity was articulated in the context of links with a wider maritime-based world, including Scottish islands.

Continuity Vs Change in the Northern Isles: Households and their Communities from the Bronze Age to the Viking Period

Caroline Russell (Queen’s University, Belfast):
This talk will examine changes in the size of households and multi-household communities in the Northern Isles from c. 1800 BC to AD 1000. Although households tend to be small overall, the most obvious change reinforced by this study is the appearance of large, tight-knit communities that occupy the broch villages of the Middle Iron Age. Prior to this, communities within the study period were smaller and more dispersed. Households also generally appear to have a high degree of economic independence, even when they are apart of a community. This will be shown by comparing the interior plan and furnishings of Bu, the ‘single-household’ site of an Atlantic roundhouse in Orkney, with those for the houses in the Orcadian broch villages of Gurness and Howe. This finding may suggest that households did not congregate in broch villages for purely economic reasons, for example so that they could help each other when additional people were required at particularly demanding times of the agricultural year. This is not altogether surprising considering that before and after the Middle Iron Age, households could cope sufficiently well alone in an environment that has changed little in terms of its harshness. As the household in the Atlantic roundhouse of a broch village may be more economically dependent than any other within it, political considerations are likely to have some bearing on why broch villages were built. The question that subsequently arises, therefore, is why high status households did not arise in other periods.

Peeling Back Time: Using the Visible Layers of Archaeology to Reconstruct a Vanished Iron Age Landscape

Deborah Lamb
The Iron Age in the Atlantic seaboard of northern and western Scotland, is marked by the presence of monumental dry-stone buildings which, in the Shetland Islands, take the form of brochs. The display and the scale of this architecture imply the ability to control and mobilise the resources necessary for construction.

There are nearly eighty brochs spread throughout the archipelago, differing in size, defensibility and convenience, as well as in design and quality of construction. The diversity of archaeological detail may simply reflect the varying opportunities for economic subsistence offered by the immediate environment, but such complexity and subtlety at a narrow typological and geographical compass, prompted Richard Hingley to propose that a series of locally-based studies should be carried out in Atlantic Scotland, to examine the potential reasons for this variety.

This is one such study. The locality chosen is three small islands on the west side of Shetland. With a combined area of sixteen square kilometres, East Burra, West Burra and Trondra form a geographical unity. The first two exhibit a remarkable degree of archaeological survival, whilst both West Burra and Trondra contain brochs.

Visitors and natives alike, comment upon the apparent continuity of life and settlement in Shetland, illustrating that the responses of people to climate, geography and geology are similar over long periods of time, with the same sites being occupied and re-occupied at different periods. The depth of soil in certain settlements certainly suggests long-lived occupancy. It has been said that in some places the islanders’ economic response to the nineteenth century landscape is likely to have been little changed from a response made 1,000 or even 2,000 years earlier. This is, however, too simplistic; neither climate nor society have remained the same over two millennia.

This study seeks to understand the development of the landscape from the Neolithic to the present day, in order to interpret the Iron Age remains in the context of their contemporary environment.

Starting with the modern landscape, this study moves back in time using historical information to chart the foundation, expansion and abandonment of settlements in the three islands. Political considerations such as ownership, colonisation, taxation, security and the influence of the market, have altered the pattern of occupation several times since the Iron Age, and the history of each period must be built into the model and disallowed in order to reconstruct the landscape which preceded it. Even the geography of the three islands has not remained constant.

From the period before the Iron Age, a similar technique is used, taking the comparatively well-studied Neolithic landscape of the three islands, and using current archaeological theory to come forward in time to the Iron Age.

The archaeological evidence of occupation in the Iron Age is then assessed in the context of its past, the Neolithic and Bronze Age, and its future, the Picts, Vikings and the Scots yet to arrive. This is the landscape with which the brochs on West Burra and on Trondra interacted.

The Economics of an Iron Age Infrastructure in the Northern Isles

John R. Hunter (University of Bradford):
This is a presentation about three contemporary sites on three different islands. All three sites exhibit different types of settlement, but all may be part of the same infrastructure.

At Pool on Sanday, Orkney, excavation revealed a farming settlement founded in the early centuries AD and which continued through into the Viking period. Although initially a farmhouse, the settlement developed into a more substantial community consisting of interconnecting cellular buildings and large areas of paving. Mixed farming occurred but there is strong evidence to suggest that dairying was dominant and that the farm functioned as a specific part of a wider farming community. Centralised authority is indicated and there is evidence for subsistence surplus.

On Papa Stronsay, and Fair Isle, monastic communities were established, probably on land allocated through wealth accumulated on the model in which Pool was an element. ‘Papa’ names have been the subject of much debate and Papa Stronsay is likely to have been a focus of interest since early Christian times. On the island the medieval foundations of St Nicholas’ chapel are underlain by earlier structures which appear to represent a late Iron Age monastic community. The island itself has a further medieval chapel (St Bride) as well as other features and may have been of wider ecclesiastical significance. A centre such as this may also have been the focus for outlying eremitics, perhaps those inhabiting the cell-like structures located on a former promontory fort on Fair Isle. This was a remote and isolated location where copper alloy working was carried out and which later housed a medieval chapel.

This paper considers the three very different sites, discusses possible infrastructure and considers level of contact.

Inchmarnock: The Archaeology of a Small Island

Dr Christopher Lowe (Headland Archaeology Ltd):
Inchmarnock – the island of St Marnock, the Gaelic Mo-ernan – is a small island in the Firth of Clyde, lying off the west coast of Bute. The Inchmarnock Project is a study of the archaeology and history of the island from the earliest times down to the Improvements of the late 18 th and early 19 th centuries. Within this long chronology some periods are better represented than others. Not surprisingly, the most recent period – the Improvement Period landscape of the last two hundred years – is the best preserved, represented in the stone dykes, hedges and model farmsteads of the island’s three ‘parks’. Nonetheless, some of the fields and enclosures of the island’s pre-Improvement landscape can still be recognised on the ground, whilst excavation has revealed some of the island’s lost medieval structures. Much earlier activity – possibly associated with hermits – has also been identified in the caves and rock shelters that stand at the back of the raised beach at the south end of the island. The high-light of the project, however, has been the excavation in and around the medieval church which lies in the stack-yard at Midpark.

Excavation to the north of St Marnock’s church has revealed the remains of what is interpreted as an early monastic enclosure, together with a number of workshops and an exceptional number of pieces of inscribed slate. Provisionally dated to the 8th or 9th century AD, possibly continuing later, this is the largest assemblage of such material known from Scotland. Additional pieces of early medieval sculpture, carved in a variety of different techniques, have also been recovered during the course of the present excavations.

The decorated and inscribed slate assemblage includes examples of abstract designs and casual graffiti but also what are clearly practice pieces for the composition of more complex designs. Much of the assemblage is poorly stratified; a handful of pieces, however, were recovered from well-stratified deposits associated with metalworking and other activities. As ‘pattern books’ for the creation of designs in other media, the site potentially offers the opportunity of understanding better the context in which this material was produced. Meanwhile, literacy at the site is attested by a number of fragments with practice writing, as well as one example with a piece of readable text. Among the inscriptions are examples of Gaelic, Latin and ogham script. Other inscribed slates from the site provide insights into the dress, weaponry, buildings and ship technology of the time.

top of page up arrow

A Progress Report on the 'Papar' Project

Barbara E. Crawford, Ian Simpson & Beverley Ballin Smith (Universities of St. Andrews, Stirling & Glasgow)
The aim of the project has been to acquire a better understanding of the geographical and environmental factors underlying the choice of the 'papar' places by the priests of the Celtic church: to understand the impact these communities had on established land management and agricultural practices, and to elucidate the fate of the Celtic priests on the arrival of the Viking raiders in the ninth century, and ensuing settlement.

There have been two main elements to the project s far: -

  • the collection of historical documentation and archaeological evidence from all Papay/Pabbay islands and Papil/Payble places, with an additional place-name component in the Hebrides

  • Preliminary field-work on Taransay and Pabbay (Harris) and more detailed excavation and sampling on Papa Stour (Shetland), concerning assessment of soils around possible early Christian church sites.

The three project leaders will report on the findings so far:

  • the collection and analysis of documentary evidence, both historical and archaeological, from the Northern Isles and Caithness, which is forming the basis of a web-based report (expected publication date June 2005),

  • a progress report on analysis of the Hebridean documentary material ,

  • the results of archaeological field-work on Papa Stour in 2004, involving the excavation around a supposed early chapel site, detailed soil sampling near the medieval church, and survey of a ‘leper colony’.

  • the planned project of Pabbay, Harris in 2005, to combine excavation in the vicinity of the medieval chapel with detailed soil sampling.

Lismore in Dál Riata: Recent archaeological work on an Island landscape of the Cenél Loairn

Megan Meredith-Lobay (Cambridge University):
The Island of Lismore lies off the coast of Oban in the centre of Loch Linnhe. Its position at the mouth of the Great Glen and the presence of a major early medieval monastery indicates that this was a location of some importance during the early historic period. However, the importance of this island within the structures of secular and religious power during the sixth to the tenth centuries has never been fully explored. Recent work on the island by the University of Cambridge; Lismore Landscape project has begun to reveal the development of the geopolitical landscape from the early Iron Age right through to the middle ages. In the summer of 2005, the project will be excavating a series of major Iron Age/early medieval structures. Along with areas of settlement, the team will be excavating areas within the proposed monastic vallum of St. Moluag and what has been known as an ‘Early Christian burial enclosure’ north of Kilandrist. This fieldwork will allow an unprecedented look at chronological relationships across the whole spectrum of settlement forms in a well-defined area. This work will provide us with a microcosm of the whole of Argyll during the middle and late Iron Age, perhaps allowing more general conclusions about field monuments notorious for a lack of chronological data.

This paper will highlight some of the preliminary results of the fieldwork from the 2005 season of fieldwork on the Island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe as well as the past two seasons. I will then focus upon the early medieval period and discuss the place of Lismore within the institutions of power, secular and ecclesiastic, within the kingdom of Dál Riata. The crux of my argument will be that Lismore formed a seamless part of what was considered the mainland of the Cenél Loairn, and that its status as an island was probably not recognised as such in a purely physical way. I will look at evidence from the Senchus fer nAlban for the organisation of the Cenél Loairn in the seventh century and determine whether or not we can begin extrapolating a possible place for Lismore within this organisation. I will demonstrate the overall importance of the islands of the Dál Riata and how we must begin to rethink the relationships between them and the mainland using Lismore as a model for the wider area.

Iconic and Mythic Islands

Andrew Fleming (University of Wales, Lampeter):
An innocent might regard an island as simply a good site for the writing of local history of a rather interesting kind, dealing with landscape and seascape and with the extra dimensions provided by ‘isolation’, maritime lifeways and resources, etc. But certain islands have become focal points for the expression of philosophical propositions and views of the nature of the world. Powerful mythologies develop, which exert influence upon subsequent narratives. The symbolism which pervades their histories, often assisted by striking visual imagery, creates ‘iconic’ islands. Such has been the fate of the St Kilda archipelago, where I have worked; but there are comparable iconic islands around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, not to mention mythical islands which have had no geographical existence, but have been called into being by the compelling attraction of certain narratives and propositions. This paper explores some of these themes, in relation to St Kilda and other islands around our coasts.

“Splendid Isolation? Changing perceptions of Dùn Èistean, an island on the north coast of the Isle of Lewis.”

Rachel Barrowman (University of Glasgow):
Seen in the past as a romantic and isolated site on the margins of Britain, the fortified sea stack of Dùn Èistean on the Isle of Lewis has become a symbolic place for the international Morrison community. Many Morrisons consider Dùn Èistean to be their ancestral home and feel they know it intimately from pictures on the world wide web, despite never having set foot on the shores of Lewis. With the building of a bridge to the stack, and the beginnings of a five-year archaeological research project centred on the site, all of this has changed. To the archaeologists who have worked there over the last five years and been attracted to its wildness and inaccessibility it has become a tamer and more familiar site. To many Niseachs, most of whom still have Gaelic as their first language, Dùn Èistean has always been part of their landscape – well-known to many as another of the Dùn sites of which there are many in the townships in Ness, frequently visited by some since childhood for fishing and adventures, never visited by others although still familiar to them.

Many perceptions of the site have changed since the current work first began in 1999 with the initiation of a Dùn Èistean committee by members of the local Ness community, the Western Isles archaeologist and the Clan Morrison Society. In 2005, after five years of planning and initial archaeological investigation, work started on the Dùn Èistean Archaeology Project (DEAP), which includes the Ness Archaeological Landscape Survey (NALS). The remit of DEAP is not just to excavate the site, but to locate the site back into the local landscape and community. It also encourages the wider international community to access the site in Ness, often through the medium of Gaelic - a particularly important aspect of the project that is crucial to the understanding of the history of Lewis over the last four hundred years. Ness is no longer to be investigated only by visiting archaeologists. There are many different groups and individuals with an interest in Dùn Èistean, and the challenge for DEAP is to embrace them all.

Entire of Itself … or Part of the Main? The Mentality of Crannog Use in Late Medieval Scotland

John A. Raven & Matthew Shelley (Universities of Glasgow & Edinburgh)
Crannogs are often seen as separating their inhabitants from the world around them, but to what extent were they merely detached, where the watery setting simply provided an extra measure of security when times were troubled? In the later medieval period (AD 1000-1650) in Scotland it is evident that crannogs had a considerably more developed significance and occupied a central place within local, lordly mental geographies, whilst serving a myriad of political, social and economic functions. Although they often had houses, halls, ecclesiastical buildings and castles built upon them, crannogs were not merely semi-fortified dwellings: their occupation and use exemplified more than rights to exploit surrounding pastures and fishing grounds and were often tied into rights to demonstrate the rituals of lordship over a the populace of a surrounding area, such as the control of access to justice, imprisonment and execution, and the redistribution of food renders. In many cases this was mediated through the re-occupation of islands with associations of antiquity, which had considerable importance in this period. Similar associations may have also extended to the continued use of a building style which actively manifested and recreated the links between late medieval occupants and their prehistoric, or early historic, forbears. Throughout an analysis of crannogs it is hard to disassociate these roles from their artificial island settings, but in what ways could this have been significant to later users? This is particularly poignant given the continued construction and maintenance of crannogs throughout the Middle Ages, when nearby, natural islands were frequently ignored. This paper will explore several methods of accessing the mentalities of medieval crannog use.

The Lairds’ Houses of Early Modern Shetland: Where Did They Come From?

Sabina Strachan (Historic Scotland):
The houses of the landowning class of late medieval Shetland are particularly elusive, primarily because there were few resident landowners and, of those that were, evidence is scant. Shetland was governed in the style of a Norwegian ‘sysle’ (county) rather than sharing Orkney’s earldom status. The holdings of the major landowners tended to be managed by their respective representatives in Shetland. In contrast to Orkney, a number of Scots only became landholders in Shetland after the 1472 annexation of the Northern Isles. However, it is not until the second half of the 16th century when sources suggest that they undertook any significant land acquisitions. Of the houses built at that time, the influences are likely to have come from the lairds’ homelands.

It would seem that most Scots came to Shetland as connections and assistants of Robert Stewart after 1565 (later earl of Orkney, lord of Shetland in 1581), a few others were clerics. By the early 17th-century 25-30% of recorded surnames were of Scots descent. The introduction of heritance by primogeniture, bolstered by ‘odal’ (a system of tenure under Norwegian law) acquisitions, allowed larger holdings to develop. There would have co-existed some Shetland odallers, though the form of their dwellings is highly conjectural due to the lack of surviving evidence, though a few tantalizing references survive. A towerhouse ‘tradition’, similar to that of mainland Scotland did not exist, houses of this type are confined to Muness in Unst, built for Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie, 1598 and Earl Patrick Stewart’s Scalloway of 1600-02. In Orkney, both as the seat of the medieval earldom and with a significant number of clerics, there were more resident landowners. Useful parallels can be drawn from survivals, such as Tankerness House, Kirkwall, 1574 which has low courtyard ranges incorporating Renaissance features.

William Bruce, probably a younger son of a laird from Crail parish, Fife came to Shetland as an assistant of Laurence Bruce. He married Marjorie Stewart, illegitimate niece of Earl Robert in c.1589 by which time he resided at Sumburgh, perhaps occupying the head farm on the lordship’s estate. His house is the present day ‘Jarlshof’. The 16th-century houses of Fife, “…whether entirely new or inclusive of an earlier tower-house,… developed for the most part on the lines of the long, comparatively narrow type of structure which had made its appearance in the preceding century... round the sides of a courtyard or ‘close’…,” and Jarlshof follows this formula. The form persisted throughout the 17th century; examples include The Haa of Brough, Yell from 1672.

The second most important influence on the lairds’ houses form was trade. ‘Stockfish’ (dried and salted cod and ling) were exported through the Hanseatic League (a German trading body). From the late 15th-century Dutch merchants and itinerant fleets also factored. Site requirements for trading booths or ‘böds’ were twofold; firstly its proximity to the inshore fishing grounds, the ‘haaf’, and secondly an appropriate shingle beach, an ‘ayre’, to dry the catch. English and Scottish fishermen also operated in Shetland; though on a considerably smaller scale.

Around Sumburgh, at the southernmost tip of the main island of the Shetland archipelago, a series of ‘voes’, inlets or bays, provide good anchorage, the surrounding headlands vantage points, fertile land and beacons for vessels. William Bruce entered into agreements with the commissioners of Crail and the neighbouring burghs for fishing rights and lodgings. Lairds’ houses, such as Jarlshof, often also functioned as böds with secure storage for stockfish, salt and fishing equipment on the ground-floor and lairdly accommodation above.

Isles of the North: Greek and Roman knowledge of the North Sea with a focus on the Orcades, Haemodes and Ebudes

Søren Skriver Tillisch
There is a strange note in Plutarch. That Calypsos island is supposed to be placed 6 days of sailing away from Thule, the farthest north of ancient geographers. Intriguingly Thule is also six days and nights of sailing from the northernmost British isles according to Pytheas the Massaliote who explored the farthest north around 350/325 BC. He also names the islands of the Ebudes, the Orcades of which there are 30 and the Haemodes. It is not quite clear as to which archipelago is meant by the denominations, but the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Shetlands appear to be the most logical construct.

Now Thule is normally considered as either the Shetlands, Iceland or Norway. For a number of reasons (prevailing winds, currents and archaeology), Norway seems to be the best bet. Further south, according to the presumed journeys of Pytheas was the island of Abalus, most probably Thy in Denmark, who was at that time indeed an island, parted from the eastern part of North Jutland by the Sløj, a narrow strait.

The evidence from the written sources thus suggests some sort of North Sea periplous on the part of Pytheas the Massaliote – a periplous he is unlikely to have attempted without help from natives.

In this Scottish context we may therefore rise the questions as to how the outsiders (Greeks og Scandinavians) approached the islands, and of course: does this show in the archaeological sources on either side of the North Sea.

Out of the West: Atlantic Islands and the Forging of Gaelic Identities in the 19th and 20th Centuries

Aidan O'Sullivan (University College, Dublin):
Since the Middle Ages, the Atlantic islands off the western shores of Ireland and Scotland have been sources of literary metaphor and cultural inspiration. In the early medieval imagination, heroes could travel on the western ocean encountering otherworldly phenomena and forces, before returning transformed and renewed. In the late Middle Ages too, the mysterious island of Hy Brasil was a paradise in the Atlantic, depicted on Portolan charts up until the fifteenth century. Islands have long then been seen as places of innocence and spiritual renewal. By the 19th and 20th century, Gaelic cultural and political nationalists also began to see these western islands as places of potentially extraordinary power. Initially, 19th century antiquarians depicted these islands as places where a racially-pure, ancient Gaelic people dwelled, where people lived essentially prehistoric lifestyles within unchanging, living museums. Inspired by this, 20th century artists, poets, playwrights and linguists produced images of heroic islanders stubbornly enduring a harsh, Homeric existence. By the 20th century political nationalists, particularly in Ireland, saw the western islands as places where a true Gaelic culture had survived and that they could be the well-springs for the renewal and transformation of a larger island that had itself fallen from grace.

This paper tacks between archaeology, literature and history to explore how such images of 'islandness' have long been used to forge cultural identities in the so-called Celtic west.

top of page up arrow