In his book ‘Behold the Hebrides’, Alastair Alpin MacGregor (1925) explains how the people of the Hebrides are surrounded by the sea and it though the sea is part of them and they are part of the sea. He says it was known as well as though it were a member of their own family and that to them the sea spoke in Gaelic. He says they listened to what it said and from this they prophesied good and bad fortune, at home and abroad, and how by its sounds and moods they could tell what weather was coming. There was the ‘laughing of the waves’ – ‘gair nann tonn / gair na mara’ and sometimes this laughter would be mocking and derisive when a storm had risked life and feeble humans had struggled to survive it. He also describes the laughing of waves across a great stretch of sand on Lewis in calm and frosty weather as being “weird and eerie”.
In the Hebrides there are many descriptions of the sounds and moods of the sea. Here are a few of them.
Nualan na mara – sounds like the lowing of cattle
Buaireas na mara – restless sea
Gearan na mara – complaining or fretting sea
Mire na mara – joy and cheerfulness of sea
Osnadh – sighing of sea, like the breeze through pine and larch at nightfall
Caoidh na mara – lament of the sea.
He says that sometimes the sea is totally still and silent as though it sleeps, and the people nearby are lulled into sleep also; and he says that people who live by the sea derive their vision from it.
Martin Martin, writing of the Western Isles in 1695 says of the inhabitants of one of the small, then inhabited, islands round Lewis, that they took their surname from the colour of the sky, the rainbow and the clouds.
This paper reviews progress in Atlantic Scottish Iron Age studies over the past twenty years, with particular reference to a long-term programme of fieldwork in west Lewis undertaken by the University of Edinburgh. It deprecates the survival and revival of older conventional models for defining and dating the major field monuments of the period and region in the face of accumulating evidence for the origins of Atlantic roundhouses in the mid-first millennium BC, and discusses important new evidence for the first-millennium AD sequence of occupation and material culture. The material assemblages of the Hebridean Iron Age are contrasted with the impoverished and relatively aceramic material culture of lowland Scotland and northern England, and the importance of the western seaways in later prehistoric and early historic times as a distinctive cultural region is emphasised.
But the most extraordinary relic of antiquity in the village is a subterranean house. I had heard of it on my first visit; and on the 13th July 1876 determined to have it opened and examined. A crop of potatoes grew on the top, and the owner at first refused to allow this to be disturbed. But by dint of raillery, persuasion, and a promise to pay the damage, he at length acceded to my request. This underground dwelling was discovered about thirty-two years ago by a man who was digging the ground above it, and was generally called the House of the Fairies. The aperture on the top was filled up again, and it had never been opened since. But after a little search the hole was found and an entrance made. Two or three men volunteered to clear out the stones and soil that had accumulated on the floor to a depth of several feet, and worked with a will. The house was found to be twenty-five feet long by three feet eight inches wide, and about four feet in height. The walls consisted of three or four ranges of stones, a roof of slabs resting on the sides. This house runs due north and south, and curiously enough there is a drain under the floor. Amongst the debris on the floor I found numerous stone axes, knives, and fragments of a lamp, as well as pieces of rude pottery. As there was no tradition concerning this house, and as it is assigned to the fairies, it may be very old; but I am inclined to think that the stone period extended to a very recent date in St Kilda. I have some satisfaction in believing that I am the discoverer of stone implements in St Kilda, and that my claim has been recognised by the Society of Scottish Antiquaries.
In 1844 a souterrain was discovered, known to the islanders as the House Of Fairies. It consists of a lintelled passage, some 9m long with at least one known lateral branch. The stones used in its construction are large, with massive walls converging towards to the top to accommodate the lintels. The structure which has been excavated numerous times since 1844 with finds giving a suggested date back to the first or early second millennium AD. A few decorated potsherds are similar to standard Iron Age finds uncovered elsewhere in the Western Isles.
The broch or galleried dun is on a small islet in Loch Bharabhat. The approach is a 600m walk from the road (B8059) into Bernera, crossing over the bridge into the island from the Lewis mainland. Accessibility but worthwhile. The dun was robbed early last century to build a sheep dipping tank, but sufficient remains to the site one of great interest. Dun Bhatabhat is an 'island dun', a defensive structure built on a small island with a 33m long causeway approach; it is one of a number of such structures to be found in the Western Isles.
Recent excavations have produced some surprises. Far from being the simple (i.e. solid walled) dun as recorded much earlier this century, it has features akin to a broch. One radio carbon date suggests 650BC for a primary structure and another, around 100BC, indicates a secondary occupation before abandonment. What is interesting about these dates is that they are earlier than the dating plan suggested for duns on the Scottish Atlantic coast.
The dun once had a double set of walls, like a broch, with a stair case in one intra mural gallery. At some time in the dun's history there w2as a second structure outside its walls which now lies in the waters of Loch Bharabhat. This has proved to be an excellent time capsule from which various objects have been recovered, pieces of heather rope, animal bones and straw, all of which have to be correctly assessed and placed in an appropriate time context.
The whole site is of interest because the underwater excavation complements the work being carried out on the land based dun and is the first time the two techniques have been used hand in hand.
About one quarter of the dun wall still survives to a height of 3m and is about 2.4m thick. A lower gallery is visible with a chamber at intermediate height.
This site is in Loch an Dun, near Lower Bayble on the Eye Peninsula. However impressive it might have been in its day, it is now in a completely ruinous state, being roughly a circular mass of stone. The site is connected to the mainland by a man-made causeway about 1m wide. Some imagination is need to identify parts of the dun's outward wall, close to the water level, which seems to have been solid rather than galleried.
This site, known as Dun Bharclin on the OS map, is rather inaccessible, being on a small islet just south of Risay Island in Loch Luirbost. The dun seems to have consisted of walls built round the edge of the islet but which are now a mass of tumbled stone, 4m broad in places. A 1914 report on the site stated that many stones has been removed to Stornaway for building purposes.
This promontory juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and is well placed for a defensive structure with outlooks to both north and south. It is joined to Lewis mainland by a narrow neck of land across which a massive stone wall has been erected, the stones of which are now a tumbled mass spread over an area which is nearly 9m wide in places, indicating the original strength of the structure. The entrance to the promontory was at the south end of the wall at a wide gap between the wall end and the cliff edge.
This site is now a setting of seven kerbstones lying in a circle some 20m in diameter. The possible remains of the chamber consist of four large slabs and what could be a fallen capstone. The whole site has been badly robbed of its original material but is well worth a visit if only to appreciate the location of the monument and its setting.