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Dun Eistean

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 10 months ago

(Article from Scottish Archaeological News, published by the Council for Scottish Archaeology, Issue 54, Summer 2007)





The Dun Eistean Archaeology Project and the Ness Archaeological Landscape Survey


Dùn Èistean is a fortified island site on the north east coast of the Isle of Lewis, in the district of Ness. It is recorded in oral tradition as the stronghold of the Clan Morrison, and fieldwork at the site, ongoing since 2000, has been discovering exciting archaeological evidence of the site’s troubled and turbulent past. After initial survey and trial trench assessment undertaken by GUARD in 2000 and 2001 and funded by the Clan Morrison Society, a committee that combined the interests of the Clan Morrison, the local community and the Western Isles Archaeology Service initiated the Dùn Èistean Archaeology Project (DEAP) and its sister project, the Ness Archaeological Landscape Survey (NALS), in 2002. In 2003 the DEAP committee succeeded in securing funding for both projects for five years and in 2005 the first season of DEAP excavations and NALS survey was underway.
The third and final NALS fieldwork season was completed in April 2007, and a rich diversity of sites has been recorded, from prehistoric standing stones, to WW2 remains. The project has surveyed over 60 square kilometres in the north end of Ness, and recorded over 1300 features, using a differential GPS system. Some of the most exciting finds lie in the very north of the area at the Butt of Lewis (Gob an Rubha,) where several possible standing stones have been recorded, and the eroding coastal edges along the west coast have also thrown up new prehistoric sites, with short cist remains and numerous artefact scatters and settlements mounds being noted. The majority of the prehistoric sites are situated on the west coast, with most medieval and later settlement remains recorded further inland where the machair meets the modern croft land. Pre-crofting remains have been identified on croft land and around the township areas, and in the moor land the remains of shielings, turf walls and the monumental Garadh dubh, the ancient boundary of Ness, have been recorded. All the sites recorded are linked into a GIS-database that demonstrates the inter-relationship of sites and how archaeological remains indicate the changes that have occurred in the Ness landscape through time. NALS is now embarking on two years of analysis and publication. After this, the GIS-database interface will be publicly accessible in the Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society) in Habost.
This year geophysical survey was also undertaken over selected sites, including two souterrains, standing stones and a dun. The results have proved very exciting, and have helped to confirm the location of sites that are now beneath croft land often with only the local oral tradition to locate them. Photographer Angus Mackintosh was also funded by Highland 2007, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and Western Isles Enterprise in 2007 to take photographs during the survey, of the surveyors in the field, the landscape and the local people working in the landscape, and his work will be on display this summer, to coincide with the final season of excavations on Dùn Èistean.
The ruins on Dùn Èistean comprise five groups of buildings, a ruined tower, and a small lochan, enclosed on the landward side by a perimeter wall built from turf with stone facing. Excavations at the site have demonstrated that these ruins date to the 15th to 17th centuries when Lewis underwent a period of unrest and lawlessness following the demise of Norse political control of the Hebrides. At this time influential clans competed for control with each other, and the Scottish Crown, and Dùn Èistean is one of several defensive island and dun sites around the Western Isles that are linked in local tradition to this volatile and often violent period in Lewis’ history. In Ness, the MacLeods had come to dominate, and appointed the Morrisons as the ‘brieves’ or judges for Lewis. Local tradition records that the Morrisons would withdraw to Dùn Èistean in times of trouble, when different clans, sometimes different factions within a clan, were caught up in the struggles for power.
Excavations on Dùn Èistean by GUARD in 2001-2 and 2005-6 have uncovered evidence for everyday life, and also conflict, on this fascinating site. Peat hearths, broken pottery, pistol shot and coins dating to the 16th-17th centuries have been found in the interconnecting turf and stone buildings on the site, which were used as dwellings and for storage. One complex of structures on the west side of the island may have acted as a gatehouse, controlling access onto the site, as they are situated between two entrance points onto the island. Ongoing excavations to the east of these buildings are investigating a second complex of structures built against the outer perimeter wall. Imported pottery of 16th-17th century date has been found in these buildings, and there is some evidence for domestic metalworking. North of these structures, at the highest point of the island, the ruins of a small stone and clay-bonded tower command a view of the seaways from the Butt of Lewis in the west, to Cape Wrath to the north, and east across to the Scottish mainland and the clan territories on the other side of the Minch.
This summer the final season of DEAP excavations on Dùn Èistean will investigate the evidence for metalworking on the site, the repair and re-use of some of the buildings, and the different floor layers and hearths in one particularly upstanding stone and turf building that has not yet been investigated. The results of soils and environmental analysis will be combined with radiocarbon dating to investigate the suggestion that the site was only occupied for short periods of time, as and when needed. The unusual construction of the tower, and suggestions that it may have been deliberately slighted, will also be investigated further.
The local community were responsible for the inception of the DEAP and NALS projects, and are a vital element in its success. There are opportunities for volunteers to become involved in all aspects of the projects, including the excavations and survey work during the spring and summer.  To learn more about the NALS survey and DEAP excavations, visit the deap website. The Ness Remains exhibition will be on at the Comunn Eachdraidh Nis in Habost, Ness as part of Highland 2007 in July and August. The excavations at Dùn Èistean this year run from the 25th June to the 3rd August.
DEAP and NALS are funded by a partnership of the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, the Clan Morrison Society, Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society), Glasgow University and the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council).
Chris Barrowman
Rachel Barrowman


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