My Lord Essex
Old stones and the sea
Riding into history
The folk that lived in Liverpool
So tyger fierce took life away
Editor Mike Pitts
Old Stones and the sea
Few of us imagine our homes to be remote, yet islands – whether north Atlantic or tropical – conjure images of isolation. Joanna Wright (here) and Kate Seddon (over) say we need to rethink our attitudes if we are to understand ancient Scotland
There is a growing wealth of evidence for sea travel, contact and trade between the Northern and Western Isles of Scotland and mainland Britain through most of prehistory and history. Yet these islands have been seen since antiquarian times as one of the most remote areas of Britain, isolated and somehow unsophisticated compared to the mainland.
The Northern and Western Isles encompass some of the greatest concentrations of standing stones and some of the most diverse Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments in Britain. The most well known of these include a unique stone circle, cairn and avenue at Callanish, Lewis; a complex of stone circles, standing stones and cairns at Machrie Moor, Arran; and the spectacular sites of the Ring of Brodgar, Maes Howe and the Stones of Stenness, Orkney. There are hundreds of other chambered cairns and standing stones and several stone circles across the islands.
After a number of visits to various islands I have realised there is evidence for a direct connection between monuments and the sea. In many places standing stones are near or overlooking the coast, often with rising ground behind and with a clear view of a bay or beach. An example is one of Scotland’s largest standing stones, Clach An Trushal or The Thrushel Stone. On the west coast of Lewis this 5.75 m giant has a spectacular view out to sea. Strangely, the slope rising up behind it when approached by land almost hides this enormous stone.
Some of these stones may have been intended to be seen from offshore. However, in other places they are just too small or too far away to be visible from the sea, and can perhaps be better explained as placed deliberately to look out towards it. For example, the small stone of Kildonan, Arran appears to reference in shape the rock of Ailsa Craig which it faces from its hillside position. In contrast, stone circles tend to be further inland on flattish ground surrounded by higher ground or hills in the distance, as at the Ring of Brodgar, Garynahine (Callanish IV), Lewis or Suidheachadh Beag, Benbecula, to name a few.
Oral traditions associated with monuments suggest contact and exchange of ideas between the islands and the mainland since the Neolithic, 6,000 years ago. Along the north-west coast of Britain, megalithic sites were commonly associated with mythical giants or were giants turned to stone. In Orkney, the rock-cut chambered cairn known as the Dwarfie Stane was supposedly the resting place of a giant. Legend dictates that on New Year’s Eve solitary standing stones, said to be giants turned to stone, walk down to the nearest body of water to drink. Further south, on Arran, there are chambered cairns called the Giants’ Graves. In Cumbria pairs of standing stones are given the same title.
The distribution of artefacts can also show past relationships between different areas. An interesting example of this came to light in 1982, when an axehead still set in its wooden shaft was found at Shulishader on Lewis. The porcellanite used to make the axe is found in Northern Ireland, and other items of this stone have been found on Lewis. Similarly, Arran pitchstone has turned up in Ireland and Orkney, highlighting the complex exchange networks between these places.
The ease with which we now travel over land has led to a great disparity between prehistoric and modern perceptions of islands. In the western world, the sea has come to be regarded as a barrier, restricting our movements. It can appear dangerous, wild and unpredictable, perceptions shaped by modern technology and two-dimensional maps.
In the past, however, far from cutting people off from the wider world, the sea would have allowed for regular contact between different people and areas of Britain. During the Neolithic there was extensive movement throughout the landscape. The monuments must have played a highly visible and interactive role in this experience.
On a recent visit to Arran, I talked to an elderly resident who recalled that during her childhood there were small puffer boats that people could hop on to travel short distances around the coast, rather than travelling overland. She told me that earlier last century the occupants of each side of the island were practically unaware that the other existed, and instead had greater contact with those on the adjacent mainland. A different way of viewing the landscape would also have occurred on Mainland (confusingly, the name of the largest Orkney island) where, 100 years ago, the route-ways across the islands would become impassable in winter, with parts of the same island physically separated from each other.
I have frequently been asked whether or not the Scottish isles have electricity or television, or even if it is safe to drink the water. There still exists a very strong conception of islands as places that are different, removed from ‘modern civilisation’. Our interpretation of their archaeology suffers. The idea of a bounded area implies we have a control over it and that we can see it objectively and from a distance, but islands were, until recent times, accessed and experienced in very different ways. They were not closed off from resources, ideas or outside contact. They were not seen or experienced as bounded, isolated entities and therefore their archaeology can not be studied as such today.
In island areas we need to think differently about the monuments as, for example, referencing the sea – or vice versa. We need to understand and break down modern conceptions of bounded places, and think of ‘islandscapes’ – not landscapes, nor even ‘seascapes’ – encompassing both land and sea.
Kate Seddon is impressed by Scottish Iron Age architecture
When I tell people I live in the Outer Hebrides (more properly the Western Isles), they either think me eccentric, or that I am pulling their leg. If you read most accounts of the islands’ archaeology, you would probably agree. We give the impression that people have had to cope with hardships imposed by the climate and remote location.
A very different picture of island life comes from a poem written some 50 years ago by a South Uist man:
Grain-laden ears swaying, ripe crops rippling,
Cut corn, sheaf and stook
Waiting their place in the stack,
Hay drying on the meadow,
Well-fed cattle in folds
(Dòmhnall lain MacDhòmhnaill, from The Uist Year, trans B Innes, Chì Mi)
The Atlantic Ocean has created a sandy plain, known as machair, which blankets the west coast of the whole island chain, providing some very fertile soils. The weather certainly can be inclement, but long hours of summer sun and the warmth of the Gulf Stream compensate for wet and windy winters.
Even were climate not always the disabling factor that archaeologists have assumed, common sense tells us that islands, by their nature, lie isolated on the margins of society. Island life offers limited access to public services, the labour market and shopping opportunities. Our ideas about past life on the Western Isles have been coloured by these contemporary experiences. In prehistory, there were no road networks, centres of industry or national institutions on the British mainland from which people could be isolated. It is modern society, not the sea, which cuts off the islands. From this perspective, the archaeological remains start to reveal a very different picture.
Years of digging in the Western Isles have uncovered numerous prehistoric sites. One of the most surprising finds came from Cladh Hallan, South Uist. Excavation of a row of three stone-built roundhouses, built on the machair sands around 1,000 BC, revealed deep floor deposits, accumulated during 600 years of occupation. Several human skeletons had been buried in pits within the lowest floors. Analysis showed that one body had been artificially preserved, and was centuries old before it was interred. The skeleton turned out to be a composite of three individuals, the head and lower jaw having been replaced during the mummy’s long history. It is possible that this is not unique to this site, but was only recognized because of the exceptional preservation in the limey sands.
By the last few centuries BC, some extraordinarily complex structures were being built in the north and west of Scotland. From Shetland to the southern end of the Hebrides, the coastline was dotted with circular, tower-like structures, now referred to as brochs. Their grandeur and sophisticated architecture make them the most impressive prehistoric dwellings in northern Europe. In a few cases, the massive dry-stone walls were so skilfully built that they have resisted the ravages of weather over the last two millennia, and still stand many metres high.
The walls were featureless on the outside, and access could be gained only through one narrow opening. Controlling entry seems to have been important, as the passages sometimes had one or two small side chambers, accommodated within the thickness of the wall, as if to guard the doorway. Within each broch, further intramural chambers and galleries surrounded the open central area. Some have a narrow ledge running around the inside wall, 2 m above ground level, to support a second, wooden floor. The walls are a feat of engineering, with short flights of stairs within the hollow cavity reaching higher galleries.
What was life like inside a broch? They may appear to be small castles, but there are virtually no signs of conflict. All evidence points to normal everyday life; we know that people were keeping cattle and growing cereals. Archaeologists still debate why communities would have gone to such lengths to create these elaborate structures, even if they housed local elite families.
Equally enigmatic dwellings follow the brochs. Dating to the start of the 1st millennium AD, wheelhouses are stone roundhouses, with solid radial piers dividing the interior space into compartments around a central area, giving the characteristic wheel-shaped plan. Like brochs, they are also found in the Northern Isles, with particular concentrations in North Uist and the south of Shetland. However, in complete contrast to the early tower-like structures, many of these houses were semi-subterranean, built by lining a large pit with dry-stone walling. In the few fully excavated examples, the floor was riddled with small pits, many containing animal burials. Another curious detail was unearthed at A’ Cheardach Bheag wheelhouse, North Uist, where a kerb of c 20 red deer jaw bones was carefully arranged around the hearth.
We are still a long way from understanding the details of life in the Western Isles in later prehistory, but the broad patterns are illuminating. The reasons behind the development of elaborate structures are still not known. Throughout Britain at this time, the focus of activity was the settlement and the house, and the sophisticated architecture found on the Scottish islands seems to be an expression of this ideology. The grand scheme of the British Iron Age is constructed around southern hillforts and interaction with continental Europe. The impressive archaeology of the north has been sidelined as an interesting, but slightly irrelevant, curiosity.
It is apparent from the main concentrations of brochs and wheelhouses on Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, that the islands were where people were innovating new styles and building techniques. The mainland coast was on the fringe of these core areas. During the Iron Age, as in earlier times, the sea, far from isolating, would have provided a natural communication route between the chain of islands from the Northern Isles and along the west coast of Scotland.
Kate Seddon is studying archaeology for her PhD at the University of Sheffield
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005