Hidden Archaeology in the Outer Hebrides

Iron Roundhouse at Bostadh© Malcolm Macleod

Times gone by – Archaeology in the Outer Hebrides

The open landscapes of the Outer Hebrides provide a wonderful setting for the exploration of ancient monuments spanning 6,000 years of human occupation.

Archaeology in the Outer Hebrides - Callanish Stones©Mairi M. MartinIn the Neolithic period or New Stone Age, communities of early farmers developed a flourishing culture throughout the islands, leaving behind many monumental ritual sites such as the famous Calanais (Callanish) standing stones and Clach an Truìseil on the west coast of Lewis, Barpa Langais and Pobull Fhinn in North Uist, or Clach Mhic Leòid and Clach Steineagaidh in Harris. There are also innumerable smaller stone settings throughout the island chain.

Climate change and the consequences

The climate deteriorated around 3,500 years ago, becoming cooler and wetter, and blanket peat spread more widely across the land. People no longer grew crops such as early forms of wheat and barley, but raised cattle and other livestock.
The island chieftains began to build grand circular stone towers, or brochs, which served as family home, farmstead, defensive refuge, and impressive castle. The best preserved of these Iron Age strongholds in

Dun Carloway Broch© Mairi M. MartinDun Carloway on the west side of Lewis, but remains of many more can be seen from Barra to North Lewis, including Dùn Bhulan in South Uist. Lesser folk lived in single-storey roundhouses, continuing and developing traditions from the earlier Bronze Age. The ‘wheelhouse’ with its interior partitions is a distinctive house type of the Hebrides.

The arrival of the Vikings

round house at BostadhThe Romans made no impact upon the islands: instead, we have a story of continuity and evolution at least until the arrival of Christianity with the Gaelic-speaking Scots in the first millennium AD. Many Early Christian sites were founded before the arrival of the Vikings around 800 AD, represented mostly by sculptured or incised stones from ancient churchyards, although tiny chapels survive in the remote offshore islands of North Rona and the Flannans. The domestic life from this period can be experienced at the reconstructed roundhouse museum at Bostadh, Lewis.

The famous Lewis Chessmen and their new home

The Vikings had a profound influence on the Islands, but left little in the way of monuments. Many of Lewis Chessmenthe place-names date from this period and indeed the Hebrides became part of the Kingdom of Norway until they were ceded to the Scottish Crown in 1266. Most famous, of course, are the Lewis chessmen, from the later 12th century, and some of these magnificent pieces can be seen at Museum nan Eilean, Stornoway.

Castles and churches from the Middle Ages

Rodel Church © Mairi M. Martin

Remains of small castles and forts from later in the Middle Ages pepper the islands, the best preserved being Kisimul Castle in Barra, and numerous medieval churches are fascinating to visit, whether romantically ruined or restored like Rodel Church, Harris, with its remarkable carvings.

Life in the Hebrides – the blackhouses

Arnol Blackhouse interiorThe Outer Hebrides, however, still preserves a unique cultural landscape of traditional blackhouse villages. Roofless walls of these low windowless stone and earth houses, which once provided shelter for both people and cattle, are everywhere in Lewis, and lovingly preserved or restored examples await you in Arnol and Gearrannan, on the west side of Lewis.

There is so much more to the intriguing and accessible archaeology of the Outer Hebrides, and our expert guides are delighted to offer general or specialist tours.

You may also like...