On 13 October, 2015, the Centre welcomed Rachel Barrowman to discuss ‘Thinking local on the late medieval stronghold of Dùn Èistean, Isle of Lewis’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.
Rachel Barrowman presented some of the results of the excavations that took place at Dùn Èistean, a late medieval site which is located on a cliff stack just off the northeast coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The site has been the subject of multiple small- and large-scale excavations beginning in 2000 through 2007. Around thirty radiocarbon dates have been recovered from the site, all of which date between 1450 and 1650 AD.
Multiple structures were identified, including two large, rectangular buildings, a conglomeration of several smaller buildings, a rainwater collection structure, a corn drying kiln, a pottery kiln, a wall built between on the landward-side of the stack, and a lookout tower. All of these structures were built of stone footings, turf roofs, and walls with an earthen core lined with stone. The techniques used to build these structures are similar to those used in construction elsewhere in the MacLeod lordship later on, but which utilised materials which were locally available. In fact, Gaelic terms referenced in late 19th century texts concerning the construction of buildings seem to correlate to the local building practices:
- talamh balla: “earthen wall” – referring to the earthen core of the walls
- spalla: “wedge or pinning stone in dry stone architecture”
- fàd-bhuinn: “sole sod” (doorstep) – often a piece of wood laid across the doorway to close up the space between the door and the floor to keep out the rain. An oaken threshold was discovered at the site in the doorway of one of the structures, which seems to fit this description.
Typically, clan strongholds would have used lime mortar in the construction of towers, but this was not the case at this site. Although it would have looked like other clan strongholds from the outside, all of the buildings were made in the local tradition.
Further evidence was recovered which suggests that the late medieval occupants of the site had a strong local identity, and possibly some amount of autonomy. Flint acquired from the beach was used in the local manufacture of gunflints (late 15th to early 17th century). Lead projectiles and pottery (with unique fingernail impressions) also appear to have been made on site. However, several non-local items, including Scottish and English coins and some German pottery, were also recovered from the site, emphasising the site’s importance in terms of maritime trade routes.
Rachel explained that the site’s location was likely chosen due to this connection to the sea, although its defensible nature was also likely very important due to the political struggles of the time. Skirmishes appear to have taken place on site, due to the presence of lead projectiles and gunflints. The site has a commanding view of the east coast of the Isle of Lewis, which may have been of particular importance during the late medieval period. In fact, it appears that there is a late medieval focus on the eastern coast of Lewis and a prehistoric focus on the western coast, although further excavation is necessary to determine if this is a consistent pattern.
Additional information concerning the site can be found in Rachel Barrowman’s new book, which is set to be released in the coming weeks. It is entitled Dùn Èistean, Ness. ISBN: 978-0-86152-539-3. For more information concerning the surrounding archaeology of Ness, please see Chris Barrowman’s new book The Archaeology of Ness. ISBN: 978-0-86152-534-8. Both can currently be pre-ordered from the publisher at www.acairbooks.com.
Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD researcher)
Our seminar series continues on 20 October 2015 with Mike Russell (Glasgow) discussing ‘Werner Kissling – A Different Country: The story of the German ethnologist who made the first ever film in Gaelic‘. This will be held in Room 202, 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm.