Saturday, 23 January 2016

Archaeology to the East of Bourblaige

A group from Ardnamurchan Community Archaeology had planned a survey of the area to the east of Bourblaige last weekend, but the weather postponed it until today. The area is steep, dropping in a series of terraces towards the coast, and it is on these terraces, rocky and infertile as they are, that people have been settling for hundreds of years.

The area boasts a rich and varied archaeology, with much of it is very difficult to interpret. This elongate mound is an example. It's clearly man-made, and it may be no more than a field cairn where rocks from the fields surrounding it were thrown, but its elongate shape and the arrangement of larger rocks in a row suggested something more complex, perhaps a grave.

This oval-shaped building was probably a shieling hut, a shieling being a temporary camp occupied in the summer by women and children whose job it was to look after the animals away from the clachan while the men tended to the year's crops. It's a large hut, with what may be a fireplace in it (to Wendy's right), and is one of a group of at least five.

Perched at the top of a steep slope is a small building (at left) and, to its right, a less-well preserved structure, the two possibly forming a dwelling house and associated byre. The land around them is rocky and poor, so whoever lived here must have scratched a bare living. That people existed in such extremes suggests either a large and growing population with arable land at a premium or that this was the isolated dwelling of someone like a shepherd.
The patch of grass arrowed in this picture proved to be the most interesting find of the day. There is little of the structure left but enough for the outline of a building to be distinguished.

The building is about 12.5m long and 5m wide. It sits on a platform excavated into the hillside: in this view, looking along the building from its northeast end, the excavation is to the right. The long wall to the left is more clearly visible, but much of the rock from this has tumbled down the slope.

This sketch shows the rough outline of the building, and the positions of the largest rocks. Rock '1' is next to Wendy in the photo.

This structure is evidently old, and excavating it would be the sort of project which ACA aspires to take on. The structure we would most like to find is a Viking long house, and a building of this size and shape matches descriptions of the sort of small farm houses which Viking settlers constructed. We know the Vikings were on this coast for some 300 years but no sign of their dwellings has yet been found. For a description of Viking dwellings, follow this link. Our structure is about the size of Eiríksstaðir.

We finished the walk by crossing the ridge to the west and dropping down into the outskirts of Bourblaige, a clachan which must have existed on this site from at least Viking times, but which was cleared to form a sheep farm in 1828. It was interesting to compare the condition of its buildings, abandoned nearly 200 years ago, with our 'Viking' house.

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