For the fifth segment of my Scottish travels, I will head west to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. As a reminder, these columns on Scotland are dedicated to the memory of Katharine MacDonald (1976-2022), an old friend, outstanding archaeologist, and proud Scotswoman, who had a particular love of the Highlands and Islands, even spending time participating in fieldwork on South Uist while a student.
An excellent starting point for my journey around this region are two multi-period maritime surveys that featured in CA 219 and 258 (June 2008 and September 2011). In the former, two old friends and collaborators of mine, Colin and Paula Martin, examined the maritime landscapes of North Argyll, especially around the Isle of Mull (see also CA 197, May 2005, on shipwrecks of this area). In the latter, the Martins returned to explore further north along the coast by air, resulting in spectacular images and discoveries alike, especially of the Viking Age on and around Skye. CA 342 (September 2018) then told the most-recent twist in this tale, when a Viking Age anchor was reported from Camuscross, also on that island, shedding further light on the ‘maritime superhighway’ that existed there in this period.
Let’s begin the column proper in the Inner Hebrides, with some splendid Mesolithic sites. I head first to Jura, where CA 90 (January 1984) reported on fieldwork there led by John Mercer – in that issue, his research collaborator Susan Searight outlined the array of sites and finds made there by their team across the 1960s-1980s, prior to John’s premature death. Then CA 119 (March 1990) is a fine counterpoint to this, moving south to Islay and work led by Stephen Mithen at Gleann Mòr as part of a wider landscape survey of the north-west of the island. CA 166 (December 1999) returned to Islay and to neighbouring Colonsay, providing a full report on the outcome of this work, demonstrating a diverse range of site types, which can be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle to provide a detailed picture of Hebridean life in the Mesolithic.
Chronologically, the archaeological trail in the Inner Hebrides then goes quiet for many centuries, at least in terms of Current Archaeology’s coverage. If anyone is undertaking fieldwork on the later prehistoric periods in these islands, then do please drop the magazine a line, as we would love to fill this gap. For now, however, I will head further north to Iona, and its medieval religious communities. CA 292 (July 2014) made the magazine’s first pilgrimage there, followed more recently by CA 378 and 381 (September and December 2021). The first of these visits paints a wonderful portrait of the history of the site, both ancient and modern; the second examines the extraordinary flourishing of the artistic community on Iona in the early medieval period; and the third of these busts some of the myths that cluster around its survival in the Viking Age, challenging the traditional story of a community ending in tragedy and bloodshed. Together, these three issues provide an illuminating insight into an area that is, even by the standards of this region, especially magical.
Current Archaeology’s coverage of the Outer Hebrides over the years is impressively diverse, featuring everything from deep prehistory to the 20th century. The Selkirks and later editorial teams have also managed to visit all of the main islands, and even voyage further afield to St Kilda in the far west, a location that I suspect many readers have, like me, long wished, but not yet managed, to visit. Working from north to south down the island chain, there is a fine array of prehistoric coverage first from Lewis and Harris. The standing stones of Callanish feature in CA 64 (December 1978), and again in CA 147 (April 1996) – the latter as its cover-star in an issue that is nearly a ‘Lewis Special’. Both issues are worth exploring in-depth by anyone interested in Callanish as a site and its context in the wider landscape of the island, and both showcase community-led fieldwork of the best type, the kind of grassroots activity that Current Archaeology has promoted and celebrated from its inception. It would be remiss of me not also to mention CA 91 (March 1984), which saw the same teams of local volunteers working at Dalmore on the exposed north-west coast of Lewis, including ‘rescue’ archaeology under tough and sometimes frankly dangerous conditions – see the terrifying photo on p.232 of that issue.
Moving south, Current Archaeology’s visits to North Uist have been brief but memorable, featuring two equally stunning sites: one Neolithic (Loch Olabhat in CA 127, December 1991), the other Viking (the Udal in CA 147, April 1996). The former is a superbly well-preserved lake-dwelling (known as a ‘dun’ in this region), examined by Ian Armit as part of a large-scale survey of this site-type, for which more than 200 examples are known. The latter is similarly well-preserved, a wonderfully rich and atmospheric coastal site, right on the beach, that includes many fine worked-bone objects.
Further south still, we come to South Uist. There is too much there for me to go into detail – do have a look at the general surveys in CA 175 and 369 (August 2001 and December 2020) – but the star of the show is undoubtedly Cladh Hallan in the south of the island, famous for its Bronze Age ‘mummies’, the earliest evidence of deliberate mummification found in Britain. This site first featured in CA 179 (May 2002), and in-depth in CA 265, 368, and 382 (April 2012, November 2020, and January 2022). The most-recent visit examines the latest thinking both on the mummies and the community whence they came, a stunning survey of the dead and the living in this unique place.
Finally, and all too briefly, I want to mention two other Hebridean islands: Barra and St Kilda. The former is the cover-star of CA 152 (April 1997), when it was the subject of a large-scale survey led by the University of Sheffield. The latter, alas, was not the cover-star of CA 263 (February 2012), when it too was the subject of an intensive field-survey, but this issue is well worth a read for anyone interested in one of the most remote, and dramatic, archaeological locations anywhere in the British Isles.
In the next issue I will take a different pace in a different landscape, moving from the wild western islands to Glasgow and Strathclyde, Edinburgh and the Lothians: big cities and central farmlands with sites, and sights, that I hope will please and surprise in equal measure.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of the articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive397. They will be available for one month from 2 March. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI397’.