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Settlement on the Western Seaboard c. AD300-800: Dalriada and North Uist

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot

© 1993

Synopsis:  This essay describes the settlement patterns on the western seaboard of Scotland from AD300-800.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

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Chapter I

The Mid-Argyll Evidence3

Let us look now at the Scots of Dalriada, their social customs and organisation, and see if it can lead us to any conclusions regarding settlement. There have been very few documented sites that can be firmly and completely associated with the Scots of Dalriada and I shall look at some of these, situated in Mid Argyll within the territory of the Cenél Loairn.

The first of these sites is a crannog in Loch Glashan (map 3 no.60). This site yielded important information about the Scots and their culture, for many artifacts survived that are normally missing from dry land sites. Not only was there evidence of metal working in the form of crucibles and slag, but also leather and wooden objects point to other manufacturing processes. There were also examples of imported class E pottery vessels (E-ware) from the Atlantic coast of France whose date would be between the 6th and 8th centuries.

The crannog was investigated when low water levels associated with the building of a dam revealed part of it. It was constructed using layers of brushwood on top of mud on the landward side, while seaward layers of logs and revetted stones overlay brushwood. There was a thin scatter of stones across the site with indications of a hut on the north-west side. A rectangular structure 25ft x 15ft was defined by a series of massive oak timbers with flattened tops suggestive of the floor of a house. The hearth seems to have been constructed from stone slabs and sherds of Rhineland pottery were associated with it. As only part of the site could be excavated at the time there was no attempt to investigate the indications of an older structure underlying the other two buildings.

The large numbers of wooden objects included troughs, bowls, a paddle, scoop, worked timber pegs and pins, together with scrap leather. Also found were sheaths, shoes a jerkin and a dug-out canoe. A bronze brooch with a possible amber setting gives an approximate date for the abandonment of the site at around 850. In addition a 'bearded' iron axehead and large numbers of quern stones, both whole and broken, were found.

When we link this with evidence from Dunadd and the somewhat enigmatic site of Brouch an Druimein (nos 18 and 67), we can get a picture of a fairly dynamic and sufficient society with trade links to the Continent. A fact which is borne out by Adomnan in his life of Columba.4

Brouch an Druimein is a contemporary to Loch Glashan although the evidence here is slight due to destruction by gravel workings. Discovered here were two timber buildings overlying one another which had at one time been destroyed by fire, it was at least partially enclosed by a ditch and evidence of metal-working and again imported pottery was produced. It is fairly safe to presume from the evidence here that several periods of reconstruction over a considerable time span is involved.

The next and possibly most important site is Dunadd. Several excavations here have produced a wealth of material and together with its source references and carvings give it a possibly unique place in the history of the region. Dunadd was a centre for the production of jewellery and the working of precious metals, as the quantity of moulds and trial pieces testifies. Imported pottery of class D (D-ware) comprising wheel made bowls and E-ware jars, beakers, bowls and pitchers were discovered, indeed, the assemblage of E-ware is the single largest known from any site in Britain.

The structure of Dunadd consists5 of some 5 plateaus each of which is defended by dry stone walling. At the top is the upper fortress that was extended at a later date to the original building giving it a curious kink in the north-west wall. Access was on the north-east where an uneven path had been cut into steps allowed access to the summit. Only a short stretch of the walling to this earlier fort is revealed today (see plate 1) some 4m thick and overlies earlier occupation. Possibly about the same time as this alteration was carried out, the shelf that lies some 5m below the fortress was surrounded by a wall some 2m thick linking rocky outcrops. It is well preserved on the north-east (plate 2) where four irregular courses can be picked up and standing to a height of 0.6m. This wall encloses the important group of carvings and inscriptions of the fort (plates 9,10 &11). Deposits in this area in the 1904 excavations were up to 5ft deep in places and produced many fine finds -although no record of stratification exists and there is no clear indication available where exactly finds were made. On the north-east side of B there exists a rectangular stonework structure, originally described as a buttress. The outer facing stones are still visible and it overlooks the east side of the interior of the fort. (plate 4).

The largest area of the fort occupies the irregular terrace outlined by the walls that run from the natural rock in the north in a series of straight sections with right angled turns round to the base of the rock below the summit fort. Parts of this wall are still well preserved, although much of it exists as tumbled ruin (plate 6). Excavation of the wall showed two phases of construction on it. Originally the wall was constructed between 2.6 and 3.1m thick with battering on both faces. A later phase increased this thickness to some 4m and in places nearly 5m.

The entrance to the fort is through a rather dramatic natural cleft in the rock on the south-east. The entrance is about 3m wide and has sheer sides of about 2.3m and presumably had a very substantial timber gateway at the junction of the cleft with the defensive walling.

Many walls were traced during the successive excavations in the interior of the fort. Most of these are now no longer visible on the surface. To the west there is a small cell or chamber (e) although quite what relation this had with the walling is unclear. In the area of wall D, there were discovered copious quantities of charcoal-rich black soil with large quantities of clay mould and crucible fragments. Indications are that wall D was demolished about the eighth or ninth century after this period of manufacturing was over.

Dunadd, it is clear, was not constructed in one period but over several periods although the precise relation one to the other will probably never be known satisfactorily.

Artifactual evidence abounds from Dunadd, although the lack of stratigraphy does not help us to date accurately objects from elsewhere. One of the most interesting aspects of these artifacts is the numbers of moulds and templates for the making of jewellery. Pieces of slate have been used as drawing boards for the working out of designs. One slate has animals, a bird and rosette motifs engraved onto it with one design drawn using compasses. Although known to be from the 'Upper Ridge-fort', it lacks stratigraphy and remains a datable problem.

There were large numbers of elaborate metal finds including a high quality 6th-7th century Anglo-Saxon example. A garnet in gold setting with filigree. Ironwork was also produced in large quantity, including weapons, knives, and tools. The pottery found here included large numbers of imported ware from the late 6th century to the 8th. Other pottery of later date was also found. Indications of a literate, probably ecclesiastic population at Dunadd were provided by an incised stone with the inscription I(N)NOMINE ('in the name of the Lord') of possible 8th century date and a piece of yellow arsenic sulphide used in the illumination of manuscripts.

A look at Map III shows to what extent Dunadd was one of many forts within a small area. The chain of forts and monuments up Loch Craignish, along the valley of the Add and up towards Loch Awe via Kilmartin and Ford, point to a highly able warrior aristocracy during the Iron Age, and it would be unlikely if these fortifications were not utilised by the incoming Scots. The lack of surviving settlement sites in Dalriada and wider afield in Pictland may indicate a penchant for building in wood, a material that will not last except on crannog sites, which is why the Loch Glashan site is so important. To look at other sites within the Mid-Argyll area but not on the map we can see a few cases of surviving indications of post-holed wooden buildings. At Auchategan (NS000643) we have a site with a possible long term occupational history.6 The interesting point to be made here is that a C14 date was taken from the hearth of a structure relating to period 4 (on-site terminology) gave a date of AD 660 ± 100 with involvement in iron working indicated. Two sites at Ardnadam (NS163791 & NS163789) again showed signs of industrial activity during this period. These seem to prove a scenario where recoverable and datable settlement is related to industrial and not necessarily undefended activity.

Two interesting sites to keep in mind regarding 'figure of eight' style buildings are at Brenfield Hill (NR822827, NR823829) and at Allt na Sac (NM989048)7 in Mid-Argyll. Both are at present on Forestry Commission land and access was impossible when I went to look at them, however Campbell and Sandeman in their survey8 noted that they bore a 'figure of eight' plan, and were alongside several others. Of particular interest here is the Brenfield complex which Campbell and Sandeman described as consisting of:

A large group along the hillface, with some of types E [small ovals, ave. 18ft x 13ft] and G [sub-rectangular, ave. 23ft x 15ft], and one rectangular foundation overlying. A typical pair is 25ft x 15ft 6in max., and consists of an oval 10ft x 8ft (int.) with walls 3ft to 4ft thick, touching at one end an oval 6ft x 4ft (int) with walls 2ft thick.

The Allt na Sac site is described thus

"A group of about six pairs, near a burn, with a large spread mound containing charcoal."

From the descriptions and the geographical position of them these are vitally important sites and cry out for detailed investigation. They are also important for another reason. If archaeological evidence can be produced dating these to the same period as the Udal settlement we will have proof of Dalriadic settlement on North Uist.

It is more than likely that many other examples of this type of building or settlement complexes await discovery, and investigations of the machairs of Islay, Tiree and others may well turn up examples. Further detailed archaeological and field investigation is desperately needed to solve this problem.9

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