Wednesday, 26 October 2016

A Viking Barbecue Pit

Saturday saw a group from the Ardnamurchan History & Heritage Association travel to Swordle to explore the area below the road immediately to the left after crossing the cattle grid onto what was Swordle Corrach land. The structure of particular interest was to be found..... the back of the cobbled beach, well above the high-tide mark, below the cliffs at the western end of the beach - a pit formed in the cobbles which is about five metres long and....

....about two metres deep. The cliff-side of the pit is formed of in situ rock but the rest has been carefully built by someone who knew how to construct drystone walls.

We've sent details of this structure to officers at Highland Council's Historic Environment Record and they have identified it as an unusually well-preserved kelp burning pit. Kelp burning was an industry encouraged during the late 18th and early 19th century as a source of potash for the glass and soap industries but collapsed after the levy was raised on cheap foreign imports.

There's plenty of evidence of burning: this lump of limestone is one of many blackened by heat. However, the shape of the pit is quite unlike anything that's recorded on line - try Googling 'kelp burning pit'. Most of those shown are shallow, circular and saucer shaped in cross section. Although one end of our pit may have been open, giving access to the lower part of the pit, this appears to have been blocked by a large rock. Further, most of the kelp would have come in by boat, and this is a very unfriendly section of coastline.

We're convinced this is a barbecue pit, the ideal shape for cooking a whole ox, and the people who might most have enjoyed this would have been the Vikings.

We then walked along the beach eastwards to St Columba's Cave where we sat and enjoyed the superb views across to Rum, Eigg, Muck and Skye.

One of the stories about this cave is that St Columba used to baptise converts in a pool just inside the entrance, and that this natural font never dried up. We were there after a spell of dry weather and, sure enough, the pool was full.


  1. Looks like a rational design for a pit oven. Has there ever been or could be a study of the basal sediments for clues (assuming its not all washed out)?

  2. Where is your proof that St Columba Baptised here He seems to popup at every puddle in Scotland

  3. As a general rule the Vikings were not great meat-eaters (ref 1 below) and they usually boiled meat rather than roasting it (ref 2). But there are, of course, always exceptions to every general pattern. Hope you find the references below interesting, in any case.



  4. Derryck, as far as I know no-one has excavated the pit. The Transitions people know about it.
    Many thanks for the links, Anonymous, both of which were very interesting. I have just finished reading a book about Viking Scotland and it suggests much the same from the archaeological evidence. Jon

  5. I was reading the Vikinganswerlady at the link above and came across ...
    "Fermentation of meat for preservation is a fairly alien concept to a modern Westerner, but was used in the Viking Age and continues to be used even today in certain traditional Scandinavian foods, such as hakikarl (fermented shark) in Iceland, or surströmning (sour herring) in northern Sweden. In general, the unopened animal was covered, often in a pit, and left to ferment in the absence of air and sometimes utilizing salt."

    could this be a use for your pit?

  6. It could indeed. There are a couple of things against. One is the evidence of burning, shown in the lumps of limestone lying around, the second is that the pit is in such good condition that, in all seriousness, I can't believe it is that old. It's also in such an odd place, with a rocky and inaccessible shore below it, steep cliffs behind, and some distance from any building. Jon

  7. As you say Jon, it doesnt look that old,... could it be simply a shooting pit,... [maybe built with stone from some other purpose],...though what they might be shooting I dont know

  8. The burnt stone must have been reused because it has unburnt stones all around it,... lending evidence that whatever this is/was, it was built with stone from something else

  9. The idea of a shooting pit, eg for clay pigeons, is a good one, Stuart. When we first saw it we thought it might be for practising trench warfare. Jon