Harris, the Western Isles: revealing the hidden history

Photograph of an archaeological dig site on the coast of a Scottish islandHarris is situated off the northwest coast of Scotland and forms one of several islands collectively known as the Outer Hebrides. The archaeology of the Outer Hebrides attracted much attention throughout the last century.

However, study any overview of the archaeology of the Western Isles and you will be left with the impression that the island is less archaeologically rich than its neighbours.

Part of the reason for this may be the extreme topography that Harris offers – from steep mountains to machair (fertile low-lying raised beach) – in which earlier settlement remains may have been subsumed under blanket peat or sand blow. It is far more likely that, until now, little attempt had been made to undertake a systematic analysis or interpretation of the current Harris landscape. Beginning in 2004, and still active today, a partnership between the University of Birmingham (with Birmingham Archaeology) and the Harris Development Trust Ltd undertook a programme of survey and excavation in order to evaluate the archaeological potential of the island. Although important prehistoric evidence was identified, it is the wealth of post-medieval archaeology that is the focus of this review.Photograph of a stone enclosure above a coastline

The range and diversity of archaeological remains, much dating to the late 18th/ 19th century, forms an important data-set that allows us to attempt to interpret the complex present landscape on the island and, more importantly, how it evolved. Many of the features are not recorded elsewhere, even cartographically.

Photograph of a stone dwellingThe project recorded a combination of both upstanding and buried archaeology. The most abundant upstanding archaeology were the remains of post-medieval houses and shelters, such as blackhouses and sheilings. Some were in excellent condition, albeit in isolated locations.

The most striking below ground archaeology was encountered along the northwest coast at Borve. A field survey in 2005 encountered the remains of a substantial structure buried beneath the machair, the character of which is continually affected by sea and wind action.

Full excavation in 2006 revealed a complex structure comprising a number of construction phases. Although only residual dating evidence was recovered, a number of features, including a large kiln for drying grain (although other interpretations, such as distilling, are also feasible) suggest an early post-medieval date for much of the structure. However, the presence of postholes beneath the clay floor may suggest a much earlier structure stood on this site.

Photograph of a stone kiln in the ground

The work here at Borve stands testament as to the importance of recording and understanding such remains. Although probably relatively recent in date, there is no documentary or cartographic evidence depicting a settlement at this location. This area of Harris was abandoned in the early 19th century as part of the clearances and no oral history account records an industrial complex on the site; nor is there evidence for settlement on 1st edition Ordnance Survey maps. The pottery from within the building could date from anytime between the 14th to 18th centuries (M. MacLeod pers comm.) although these finds were mainly from post-abandonment deposits.

A map of Harris showing sites and monuments

The project to date has added some 800 sites to the Sites and Monuments Record for the Western Isles, most of which are of post-medieval date. This, coupled with future work, will begin to readdress the balance and Harris will no longer be viewed as the poorer archaeological relation to the other Hebridean islands.