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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 II

The Udal Evidence

The site of Coileagan an Udail situated on a peninsular on the north side of North Uist, marks a watershed in the settlement history of the western seaboard of Scotland. The sites there show an unbroken settlement pattern from the Neolithic until desertion in 1697, and as such are invaluable for dating evidence of other sites on the west coast.

The period around 300 marks a watershed concerning this site as with mainland Scotland. In 1972, underneath early Viking levels and overlying late Iron Age field systems and 'cremation platforms' a settlement of immense importance was discovered. It lay within the stratigraphic sequence of an hitherto unknown period in settlement terms, that period from AD 300 to 800. The only other excavated site existing in Scotland is at Buckquoy in Orkney, where there are problems due to a lack of stratigraphy. The evidence from the Udal site points to a possible tribal or political centre only some 75km north of the main Dalriadic heartlands.

The settlements at Coileagan an Udail are set into a shell sand machair landscape. In antiquity, a ridge ran from the tell Udal South (US), some 200m North to the tell Udal North (UN). In the Iron Age, the cultivation fields ran down this ridge, at the bottom of which were situated burning ghats of a ritual funerary purpose. The US sites hold the late Iron Age and Bronze Age foci with the UN tell consisting of the post Iron Age through until 1697 when the site was abandoned due to severe sand blow.

There is evidence to show that while there was settlement continuation there may well not have been an Iron Age population continuation, as the structures and artifacts change character abruptly and drastically. In all there were excavated some 8 'figure of eight' buildings with associated 'four poster' minor outbuildings, surrounded by palisading (see plan I).

The buildings themselves are almost unique in Scotland, and are constructed in an entirely new manner and form. They were sunk much deeper into the ground than the techniques for sand building normally require, suggesting the builders were unfamiliar with the matrix and building techniques required for it.

There appears to have been several phases of style and building custom at the Udal. The earliest buildings were constructed during the period XIV-XI.310 and consisted of simple oval structures (see plan I: buildings h, j, and c and the primary form of ST) with single cell 'satellites'. Slab lined hearths lay along the long axis together with a single 'sleeping' platform. A second phase of design saw the symmetrical placing of a satellite on the end of a large oval chamber 6m long. There a slab lined hearth in a long narrow floor of trampled peat ash was framed by two revetted platforms -probably 'sleeping platforms'- (n3.63 in its primary form and later phases of ST). The third and most complex phase was XI.1. This phase saw the basic 'figure of eight' heavily embellished with minor satellites11 (n3.1 and z). This phase must represent the growth of a fairly successful and growing settlement around the late eighth century before it is violently and finally wiped out by a Norse invasion around the year 800.

These later buildings were flanked by extensive palisading, shown up by the remains of post holes. This palisading was very important for N3.1 as it was replaced at least 10 times and on one occasion with 30cm squared timbers -in an area likely to have been without major timber stands.

Throughout these periods, small '4 poster' structures existed 2.4m square. These show slight slab lined hearths, trampled floors and post hole settings for roof support.The perimeters of these buildings however, are rarely well defined and no walling evidence exists. The possibility of outhousing or servant quarters is the conclusion which possibly has to be made here.

The drastic change in material culture around the fourth century associated with these buildings does tend to compel an invasion theory. A key indicator of this, is the drastic change in the style and quality of the pottery associated with them. Whereas the pottery associated with the late Iron Age occupation horizon is well fired, decorated and of fine quality, that associated with the new inhabitation is of very poor quality with simple undecorated shapes. It does exist however, in enormous quantities -probably due to its quality! An indicator of new practices comes from level XII where there was a heavily grass-marked and impressed pottery horizon that can be associated with similar Irish and Cornish examples and dated to the 6th century AD.12

Apart from pottery, other artifacts indicative of manufacture were uncovered including crucibles and metal casting moulds. Produced from level XI.11 was a gold gilt penannular brooch pin head. From level XII iron double-pronged and socketed forks and a decorated penannular silver ring were discovered. Worked bone was produced in copious quantity with indications of a bone pin industry. There were also bone gaming pieces, buckles and composite combs -another indicator of material culture change as during the late Iron Age here, the combs used were invariably of bone only.

What does all of this evidence suggest then? Can we say, as has been argued,13 that what we have is an example of the baile bíataigh of Irish documentation? Or do we have to look for other possible scenarios?

It is possible to argue the case for a baile bíataigh and we may indeed have here the settlement of a noble (aire déso) of the Dalriadic Scots with his client dóer-chéli. The number of buildings at the Udal corresponds to the division for rent and tribute laying (tech) and the division for naval recruitment (ceathramh) detailed in the Senchus fer nAlban.14 In both cases the lowest number is five and it is conceivable therefore, that we may indeed have a baile bíataigh here.

This may be of course, (and is likely to be) simply coincidence. The likely and logical answer seems to suggest a settlement of a small farming community on the outer arm of the kingdom of Dalriada, although no doubt participating in its affairs to an extent. It must always be kept in the forefront of the mind that the Udal is not actually all that isolated. In terms of sea transport it is very well located. Indeed there are good anchorages close to the site itself, with future excavation possibly likely to prove that this situation had existed back into Bronze and possibly earlier periods.

The importance of the Udal is not just in terms of this particular period. The ramifications of the knowledge and artifactual evidence from here in all periods from the Neolithic until the late Middle Ages are huge and incalculable. The scope for further investigation and insight into the history of the western seaboard of Scotland is greatly enhanced by this site and it is to be hoped that full publication will soon be forthcoming.15

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