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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 III


What conclusions can be made, from the evidence available, about the settlement on the western seaboard of Scotland between the years 300-800 AD? Logically, we should be looking for some form of clear material cultural differences between the incoming Scots and the indigenous people of the country that they invade. There is a distinct possibility however, that in many respects there were no initial differences in the material culture between the Celtic peoples Scot, Pict or Briton in the Argyll area. Distinct material cultural differences exist at the Udal, and point to the survival of a pre-Celtic population there.

It is this fact which may partly explain why it has been extremely difficult to identify and categorise early settlement sites. At present, there is no difficulty, archaeologically, in identifying whether a settlement is Bronze, early or late Iron Age. The problem we have, is that while we can identify subsequent occupation, we can't put a population group to it.

It seems that one of the principal reasons for this inability to identify, date and categorise settlement sites in this and other areas is the materials used to build the domestic and dwelling structures. It would appear that most, if not all, of the dwelling structures were constructed of stone foundations with wooden walls, uprights and supports. Few of these foundations now survive as they were robbed in antiquity to build other houses, or dykes or enclosures. Consequently, we cannot get that first 'fix' of where to look for settlement and therefore we cannot pin down settlement to any great extent.

One means of trying to pin settlement down is though place-name study. Nicolaisen has shown that the key forms that we should be looking for on the west coast are the generics, sliabh, cill, baile and achadh. The problem here is the separation of these terms from their later 9th and 10th century forms, and also the fact that in many parts of Scotland the original Gaelic or P-Celtic place-names were replaced by Norse names. We will never be able to completely say where all of the settlement sites were in Scotland, although the discovery of a few more would certainly help to shed some light on the societies of the west coast of Scotland during the early historic period.

To look at the evidence which I have produced here, it appears clear to me that there is a sequence of events which could be logically and I feel successfully put together.

Taking Argyll first, around the year 300, in the face of pressure from the the northerly migrating Uí Néill, some Scots leave Antrim and move across the north channel to Kintyre and its surrounding area. There they mix happily with the indigenous people of Celtic origin. Over the next few centuries the Scots population gradually increases their territorial area and appear to thrive through utilisation of the indigenous strongholds: the forts and fortified settlements of previous periods. The Scots gradually expand and explore along the sea routes both north and south of Kintyre. They settle in Galloway and investigate the Western Isles.

The people of Loch Glashan, situated not far from Dunadd, capital of the Dalriadic kingdom, enjoy both the protection of it and their crannog dwelling. There were few disputes to disturb them and life is prosperous. Occasionally their menfolk march off to battle in Ireland or against Pict, Briton or Angle. Success is generally with them until disaster strikes in 736 and 741 when the Picts attack and overrun Dalriada.

For the people who live around Dunadd, life is extremely prosperous. Not only do they take advantage of the wealth of the capital, through its production of jewellery, they also used the land routes to Loch Awe and the sea routes south through Loch Craignish to take their wealth to other parts of the Dalriadic empire and elsewhere. Foreign traders follow in their tracks bringing goods and pottery from Gaul and further afield, adding to the richness and diversity of life in and around Dunadd.

Religion plays an important part in the lives of the Scots of Dalriada. With the coming of Christianity to mainland Scotland through the energies of Ninian and later Columba, power, both religious and secular, was exercised and increased over the pagan peoples to the east.

The foundation of monastic communities in Pictland was a major achievement for the church in its missionary mode. Iona in particular was the base for the setting up of these monasteries, Maelrubai the abbot of Bangor used Iona as a base when he set up the monastery of Applecross in definitive Pictland while others set up communities on Rum and Eigg from early in the seventh century if not earlier. This ecclesiastical growth and the huge prestige gained from it was perhaps one of the major successes of the Columban church. One which reflected much glory on the kingdom of Dalriada.

While investigating the Western Isles, a group of Scottish settlers comes across a settlement on a peninsular of North Uist. The people of this settlement are descended from the original Neolithic settlers of the area and have formed a small thriving complex. The Scots see this and move in, either enslaving or driving off the indigenous people before settling down.

When they settle down they move away from the insert buildings of the wheelhouse and build themselves a new settlement at the end of the existing field system. These early settlers don't have a particularly good idea of how to build in sand, and so they dig their buildings in to a good depth and construct their homes in a figure of eight style brought with them from Antrim.

Over the years, this settlement thrives and, no doubt, is involved with the political situation to the south. The arrival of Fergus mac Erc in Dalriada around the year 500, sees the population become part of a new political state. The lord of the Udal settlement is no doubt subject to overlords in Loairn and they undoubtably provide military service in the form of men for seven bench warships.

The period until the late eighth century appears to have been quite good for the inhabitants of the Udal, there is slight evidence of some adverse climate change,16 but things appear to have been generally prosperous for them. Then, around the year 800 Norse longships draw through the narrows of the sound of Harris and descend upon and destroy the settlement.

These new arrivals also see the advantage of staying on the fertile machair lands. They build over the buildings of the previous inhabitants, placing walls along the long axis. To protect themselves they also construct a polygonal fort at the site and begin their own manufacturing in metals and bone. A new epoch in the history of the western seaboard begins.

A factor of settlement along the west coast which was as true in the Neolithic as it was during the Norse period was maritime communication. The ease of navigation along the chains of islands that make up the west coast of Scotland and the ease by which access to the interior of the country can be made by boat facilitated settlement.

It is quite clear that the use of the Great Glen throughout the prehistoric and into the early historic period enabled communication and trade to be carried out. The Great Glen was, before the construction of the Caledonian canal, navigable by boat for most of its way with only a small number of portages required. It has been described as the "main communication route between Scottish Dál Riada and northern Pictland"17 a route which was to be used by the Norse with even greater proficiency in later times.

Looking at the evidence which has been presented here, we can see that it is possible, to a certain degree, to detail and discover a lot about the settlement patterns and society of the western seaboard from the archaeological evidence. Yet problems present themselves. The antiquarian interest of the late eighteenth and more especially nineteenth centuries led to the discovery of many fine and beautiful artifacts. It was not however, interest in the knowledge which could be gleaned from meticulous and careful excavation of the sites that was at the forefront of many antiquarians minds, rather, fortune hunting was the order of the day.

Many of the most important sites which could have given us so much rich knowledge were, unfortunately, disturbed and in many cases 'vandalised' by these antiquarians. Had they remained undiscovered, we could, with our improved techniques and knowledge on dating, greatly increase our meagre knowledge. Instead, we are left with collections of artifacts with little real information about where and when these artifacts came from or how they came to be where they came to be.

One example of this type of situation can be looked at by studying the great antiquarian Erskine Beveridge. Much of the collection of Dark Age finds in the National Museum of Antiquities in Queen Street was bequeathed by him during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He bought the island of North Uist around the turn of the century, and lived on the tidal North Uist island of Vallay not far from the Udal. In addition to much excellent work on the Island he explored and documented many other parts of Scotland.

His excavation technique was quite simple; he hired labourers to dig in likely, easy to dig spots until they found something! Occasionally he would visit the site to check on their progress and draw or photograph any interesting structures or finds. If they didn't produce anything exciting after a few weeks, he would move them on to another site to try his luck there.

An example here is his work at the Udal, on US. Beveridge knew that there was a great possibility of finding a site of importance as there were many artifacts here which could be picked up as they eroded out of the sand hills, and so he set his labourers to work. In due time they picked up the outer wall of a wheelhouse and souterainn. They didn't however, produce much in the way of artifacts and consequently Beveridge abandoned the site. He left a double wheelhouse complex and bronze smithy untouched, plus several other buildings and structures with their artifacts. The knowledge now gained from the Udal would have been considerably lessened had he continued to dig here.

We must not however, place too much blame on early archaeologists. Many closer to our own time have contributed to the disastrous direction which studies of settlement, and other sites underwent. The successive digs at Dunadd were conspicuous not only for the finds produced but also for the complete lack of any scientific or orderly procedures for execution of the dig. Reference to the excavation notes show that little attempt was made to stratify the site and so gain more knowledge from it.

So, where can we take settlement study to in the future? I feel that an extensive multi-disciplinary campaign of investigation involving archaeologists, historians, onomasticians and government bodies is seriously required. It is a disgrace that we continue to accept the paucity of present evidence and blithely repeat it without any concerted attempt to investigate even known or suspected sites for further evidence. If we continue to go along the lines where sites are only investigated or excavated when development or damage is threatened we will ultimately lose much of the evidence which must be, and is, out there for us to find.

In particular, I feel that the machair and westerly sites of the inner and outer Hebrides need to have extensive field work done on them -if nothing it will indicate the state of erosion on these coasts. The Udal sites are being seriously eroded each year by the weather, and it is only the huge mass of deposits that have helped to keep the sites intact. There must be several similar sites out there which are now being eroded with little attempt to find and excavate them.

It has to be said that, despite my criticism here, much good work is being done to increase our knowledge. In particular the publication of Anna Ritchie's book on the Picts and Scots should open new avenues of investigative possibility. The full publication of the Udal evidence will again open up and show the way forward for investigation and dating of west coast settlements.18

So in conclusion, the history of settlement along the western seaboard of Scotland can be seen in terms of a maritime and climate orientated culture. the political influences on the settlement here were at first only marginal- yet severe enough to force groups of Scots to leave Antrim and set sail for Kintyre some twelve miles away.

Once there, these people -as indeed all migrating peoples did- did not settle down at once but continued to explore and settle further afield. The political upheavals of the later eighth and ninth centuries subsequently caused a new wave of migration and settlement towards the east and the rich lands of Fortriu. In their wake, the Norse changed the linguistic and political map irrevocably and dramatically.

Ewan Innes, October 28 1993

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