Mackay Country has a rich selection of local archaeology. Some is recorded and researched; many sites are relatively unknown. Early migrants stayed close to the coast leaving evidence in the form of middens such as are found in Smoo Cave, although the Smoo Cave middens date from a later period. Early settlers chose sheltered spots with light soils which were the easiest to cultivate. Bronze Age (2,000 BC – 500 BC) climate change caused the abandonment of settlements higher up the hills as the climate got colder and wetter and peat began to form.
For details about individual sites refer to Robert Gourlay’s ‘Sutherland: An Archaeological Guide’.
The key archaeological features in the area are:
1 Chambered Cairns and Later Burial Cairns Considered to be Neolithic (4,000 BC – 2,000 BC), these have identifiable burial chambers rather than just cists (stone coffins). These are often found in association with simple cairns, some of which contain cists, dating form the Bronze Age. The chambered cairns are often round, heel shaped or long narrow mounds. Later burial cairns are those not fully excavated but presumed to be burial places. These tend to look just like a pile of stones.
2 Cairns and Burial Cists These appeared during the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age at around 2,000 BC. This is when the ‘Beaker’ people arrived from the continent bringing new technology (bronze working) and religious practises – burial in individual cists or graves with grave goods (beakers for instance), sometimes within or below a cairn. Small burial cists without cairns do not survive well. Two were found during roadworks – one in a gravel pit at Loch More, Eddrachilles in 1967 of which only a few stones remains and one in Strathnaver. Beakers were found in both as well as another at Woody Knowe, Strathnaver,
3 Standing Stones, Stone Circles and Stone Rows These date from the Bronze Age and are believed to have been for religious or ritual purposes, including keeping track of the seasons through astronomy. They are modest in scale compared to those at famous sites like Callanish, Lewis.
4 Cup Marked Boulders and Outcrops This is believed to be decorative art and consists of a range of circular patterns – cup shaped marks, smaller circles surrounding some of them, and on occasion lines joining the cup marks. These are found on bedrock and outcrops in the vicinity of Bronze Age settlements.
5 Hut Circles and Field Systems There are a great many of these, sometimes amounting to one or two buildings and in other places to the remains of several. Field systems can be identified through clearance cairns and old terraces and dykes. Often burnt mounds and souterrain are found in the same vicinity.
6 Defensive Monuments – Brochs, Duns and Crannogs Brochs are dramatic, round towers, often with several rooms or chambers within. They date from the Iron Age (500 BC to 500 AD) and tend to be located in promontories or other inaccessible and defensive locations in the north and west. Duns are found on the west coast, again in defensive locations. They have thick walls like brochs and some have rooms within those walls. Some examples are vitrified. Crannogs were build on artificial islands which were built in lochs and sea lochs, with a causeway juts below the waterline, where one exists at all. Their use is debated but they were again strong defensive positions, safe from attack by people of wild animals. Brochs were followed by wheelhouses of which there is one high up on the slopes above Loch Eriboll. The wheelhouse has supporting pillars and was a galleried dwelling like the wags of Caithness.
7 Souterrains They consist of tunnels and chambers built below ground level and the roofed in and their use is debated. Cool, dry storage for food and grain seems to be a sensible possibility. They are found close to hut circles and tend have chambers which are either oval or cruciform.
8 Burnt Mounds These are broken stone, charcoal and ash heaped around a central hollow. There are two competing explanations for their use. One is that they were clay lined and used for cooking; the other that they were saunas. In fact it might have been both and they are always found close to water and a hut circle settlement.
9 Marine Archaeology For Mackay Country this is quite a new area, but as the account below shows, also a very important area for research of international significance.
At Balnakeil on the sand dunes at Faraid Head in 1991 a richly equipped Viking boy’s grave was uncovered. The grave was discovered by chance. A sand dune had eroded, exposing a shallow pit in which the boy’s body was discovered. He was buried on a bedding of feathers and straw, with the boy was buried with various adult iron weapons including a sword in its scabbard and a shield boss. Also found was a range of other grave goods including a brooch pin, comb, beads and gaming pieces dated sometime between 850 and 900. Fortunately this was noticed in the sandy coastal area at Balnakeil Durness, in time for Highland Regional Council to mount a rescue-excavation, which recovered most of the remains. The skull and torso uncovered were accompanied by grave-goods that included a possible spear, a sword, various objects of bronze and iron, an antler comb, and 14 bone gaming-pieces.
Viking burials of the pagan kind, with weapons and other grave-goods, are few in number, and most were discovered a long time ago when standards of recording were poor.From the skeleton, scientists were able to tell that the boy buried at Balnakeil was probably between 12 and 13 years old. He was around 150.4 cm tall. A modern discovery like this one therefore is important.
An archaeological dig at Sangobeg discovered a significant find. A pre Christian burial site, amongst a midden layer, was revealed. On a bed of white pebbles lying in a north south direction the skeletal remains of what was suspected to be an ancient Pictish inhabitant was uncovered.
The fragile bones were easily seen but in an advanced state of decomposition.
The team of archaeologists, 2 dig directors, 3 supervisors and 7 students carefully revealed the delicate structure lying in a foetal position under a cairn. The discovery was made at the beginning of the second week of a four-week dig after clearing several areas of the midden. The vicinity has obviously been inhabited by diverse peoples over the centuries unaware that this grave was present from about the 6 or 7 century as early signs indicate. There have also been a lot of artefacts found including pottery from the late medieval period. The site at Sangobeg was identified in 1997 during a survey and was believed to accommodate possible Viking remnants. As the area is in a dynamic state of flux with the high tide water mark having moved considerably more inland over the years there is every possibility the area could reveal further sites worthy of investigation
LOCH BORRALIE An archaeological survey ,
Excavation of an Iron Age burial mound
STRATHNAVER PROVINCE ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH PROJECT
Strathnaver Province Archaeological Research Project being carried out by Glasgow University Archaeology Research Division Started June 2004
The Medieval province of Strathnaver, comprising present-day northern Sutherland, was a focus for settlement from the early Medieval period through the centuries of Viking activity and Norse colonisation, into the Medieval period. Our understanding of the changing nature of that settlement from A.D. 500-1500 is poor over much of Scotland, and this area is particularly understudied. Documentary and placename evidence for Medieval settlement is strong throughout the province. Exploratory work in the valley of Strathnaver and around Durness has also shown the potential for good archaeological evidence.
The phases of fieldwork, to be undertaken over four years, will address particular themes, including the relationship of Medieval settlements to chapel sites, the nature of higher-status settlement and its role in the political landscapes of Strathnaver, and longevity and degrees of continuity in Medieval and later settlement sites. A one-week survey season will be undertaken each spring, followed by a four-week excavation season each summer, with the aim of surveying four tracts of landscape and excavating four to six sites over the life of the project. This will be a partnership project directed by staff from the University of Glasgow and Assumption College, Massachusetts. It will involve university students and local community members and will provide high-quality, well-supervised training in excavation and survey techniques, although this objective will be secondary, subject to the research objectives. The fifth year will be spent writing up the results for publication.
The project will be designed and carried out within a research framework explicitly concerned with understanding sites in their landscape context and in overall relationship to each other. The regional approach will allow comparisons to evidence for Medieval settlement in other parts of the Highlands and Islands . The results will fill significant gaps in our knowledge of settlement in northern Scotland in the Medieval period. (Reference: Olivia Lelong, GUARD)