ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 32, March 1998


Monumental homes of the Hebrides

Continuing our series on recent archaeology in the regions of Britain, Ian Armit discusses new research on the Iron Age of the Western Isles

The popular vision of the Western Isles, or Outer Hebrides, as a sleepy Gaelic backwater is very much a product of our time. If the islands are peripheral today, it is more because of the social and economic neglect of recent centuries than any inbuilt conservatism.

It was not always so. In the medieval period the Hebrides were the centre of the Lordship of the Isles, a maritime dynasty regarded by some scholars as virtually a second royal house in medieval Scotland. Moreover, the dense concentration of chambered tombs on North Uist, and the majestic standing stones at Calanais (Callanish) on Lewis, hint that the Western Isles were well-populated by complex and accomplished communities from early prehistory onwards.

It is in the 1st millennia BC and AD, however, that our former assumptions about the Western Isles have been most comprehensively overturned by recent research.

Over the past ten years or so, Professor Dennis Harding of Edinburgh University and others have initiated several major excavations on Iron Age sites in Lewis, including the Loch na Berie broch tower; Sheffield University have been equally busy in South Uist and Barra, for example at the roundhouse of Dun Vulan and the wheelhouse at Kildonan; while, in between, a whole range of excavations have been undertaken under the auspices of the Loch Olabhat Research Project in North Uist.

Focusing on the area's penchant for monumental houses in this period, the new work has revealed a society operating within the mainstream of Scottish Iron Age culture, but which nonetheless produced its own distinctive and remarkable cultural achievements, as impressive as any found elsewhere in Britain.

The great symbol of the Atlantic Scottish Iron Age is undoubtedly the broch tower, the massive, ragged ruins of which continue to dominate the Hebridean landscape.

These circular towers - found throughout most of North and West Scotland and the Northern Isles - were built out of two concentric windowless stone walls with a conical thatched roof, and a living space in the middle sometimes two, three or more storeys high. In between the walls were several storeys of `galleries' running around the building, the height and width of a man, with steps rising to the gallery above. The function of these dark galleries - not always at the same level as the living spaces inside - remains unclear, though recent thinking suggests they provided insulation, and channeled heat around the building.

The Western Isles are also littered with the robbed-out remains of other contemporary stone roundhouses, less monumental and elaborate than brochs but structurally similar. As a group these `Atlantic roundhouses' seem to have dominated the islands for several centuries: the date of their inception is unclear, but they probably ceased to be built in the first centuries BC or AD.

It is easy to see why these structures, with their visual resemblance to later stone castles, have been regarded as the fortified homes of chiefs. Yet recent studies have shown that there were large numbers of these buildings evenly spread across islands like Barra and North Uist, mostly occupying naturally-defined blocks of cultivable land. Some of these patches of land, notably on the small islands south of Barra, struggled to support three families during the crowded conditions of the pre-Clearance period in the late 18th century. It seems far more likely that, instead of the homes of chiefs, Atlantic roundhouses were the standard dwellings in these islands during the Iron Age, and that each landholding family owned one.

In other parts of the Western Isles, such as South Uist and Lewis, however, there seem to have been fewer, and perhaps rather grander, Atlantic roundhouses (the great broch towers of Dun Carloway and Loch na Berie in Lewis are prime examples). In these cases land-holding seems to have been differently organised and possession of a roundhouse may have had greater implications for social status. The broch owners cannot have been the only inhabitants of these islands but at present it is unclear where the lower-status people lived. Dating evidence is frustratingly sparse, but what we may be seeing in South Uist and Lewis is a few individuals beginning to build up their own areas of land at others' expense, and the early emergence of a social hierarchy.

After the demise of the Atlantic roundhouses, monumental roundhouse-building had one last gasp, the wheelhouse, named after its distinctive floor plan. The nature and precise date of the transition between the two house forms is a matter of debate, but wheelhouses were certainly being built in the 1st centuries BC and AD, and probably originated rather earlier. There seem to have been as many wheelhouses as there had been Atlantic roundhouses, and it is possible that in some cases there was a direct replacement of one form by the other.

Like Atlantic roundhouses, wheelhouses were monumental buildings, but this monumentality took an altogether different form. The recently excavated wheelhouse at Cnip, in Lewis, had its roofing partially intact and has helped to show how they were put together. Sunk into the ground, with only the thatched roof and upper walls visible from the outside, circular wheelhouses could only be appreciated from within. Here, the `spokes' of the wheel were formed by radiating stone walls, thin at the base and thickening as they rose up, before arching over to support roofs 20ft or more above the floors.

Wheelhouses, found only in the Western Isles and Shetland, and puzzlingly absent from Orkney, show a society still wedded to the idea of the monumental house. Clearly, however, a social change had occurred to reverse the focus of monumentality from the external to the internal.

From recent excavations we now know that wheelhouses were used not only as homes but also for religious and ritual activity. Below the floor of the wheelhouse at Sollas in North Uist a mass of inter-cutting pits was found holding a whole menagerie of mutilated and cremated animals. At Cnip, complete pots, bird heads and animal body parts were carefully placed in the walls, and the abandonment of one wheelhouse was marked by the burial of a partial human skull. The survival of these extraordinary deposits owe much to the soil conditions of the shell sands, or `machair', where wheelhouses are most common. It is possible that similar domestic rituals had taken place in the earlier Atlantic roundhouses, although evidence does not survive.

Traditionally, brochs and wheelhouses were regarded as curiosities, unrepresentative of the Iron Age in Britain as a whole. We are now beginning to see them as variants of a recognisable pattern. Atlantic roundhouses were just one manifestation of a trend towards elaborate roundhouse building in Iron Age Britain, albeit one that lasted longer and developed in more complex ways. The timber roundhouses of southern Scotland, for example, would probably have been no less monumental in their day than most Atlantic roundhouses.

Similarly, it now seems that much of wheelhouse architecture accords with that of other British Iron Age roundhouses, for example in the orientation of entrances. Ritual deposits in wheelhouses also have much in common with practices in Iron Age Wessex, where favoured environments like hillfort ditches and storage pits provide comparable bone preservation.

Nonetheless, the especially impressive monumentality of Hebridean buildings needs to be borne in mind. Monumental houses were a characteristic of the Iron Age elsewhere, but while some areas developed hillforts, others proto-towns, the Hebridean islanders continued to lavish increasing efforts on their homes. Why? Partly these buildings seem to have marked out rights to land, but their dual role as domestic and religious structures may also have fuelled the perception of their importance.

The apparently even spacing of wheelhouses across the landscape, and their remarkable uniformity, suggests little differentiation in status between Hebridean households in the later Iron Age. By contrast, in Orkney, by the 1st century BC, nucleated villages were beginning to be built around broch towers - a development that never took place in the Western Isles - and this, together with occasional references to Orkney in classical literature, suggests that Orkney may have been forging ahead as a power centre. It may be that, by the later Iron Age, the Western Isles had fallen under the influence of Orkney and that the conspicuous status-display of a broch tower was no longer deemed possible or appropriate.

Dr Ian Armit is an Inspector at Historic Scotland, and author of The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (EUP, 1996)


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