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Historic settlement: the post medieval period

The excavation of a long house at Frobost

The excavation of a long house at Frobost

Sometime around the fourteenth century there was a significant change in the settlement landscape of South Uist (80). The machair plain was abandoned and the inhabitants moved to the adjacent areas of the blacklands. The excavation evidence indicates that both Bornais and Cille Pheadair were abandoned sometime in the fifteenth century AD and field survey of the machair seldom recovers later ceramics.

Unfortunately field survey and excavation on the blacklands has only recovered insubstantial traces of pre-eighteenth century domestic settlements as the turf built buildings belonging to this period leave very little surviving traces above ground. The replacement settlement for Bornais was probably located at the ‘Hill of the Son of Angus’, and trial trenching by Mike Parker Pearson suggests the buildings are similar to the final phase buildings of the late Norse period (31).

In contrast our understanding of the settlement pattern in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth century is good as the construction of buildings with stone walls resulted in the survival of substantial archaeological monuments. A detailed study is being undertaken by Jim Symonds of the settlement at Airigh Mhuillin, Milton (82) and excavations have also been undertaken at Frobost and Kirkidale. Houses found on these settlements include structures comparable in size to the turf buildings of the later Norse settlements but also more substantial longhouses with internal byres. Associated with these domestic dwellings are ancillary structures some of which contain corn-drying kilns.

A traditional twentieth century South Uist croft

A traditional twentieth century South Uist croft

The nineteenth century history of the island is dominated by the rise and fall of the kelp industry, and its subsequent replacement by extensive sheep farming. After the Napoleonic boom years the price of kelp fell sharply in the late 1820s and the estate was forced to seek new sources of revenue. In South Uist crofts occupied by redundant kelp-labourers were dissolved to create the sheep farms at Milton and Bornais. Tenants were resettled on poor quality hill ground on the east coast of the island and relied heavily on potatoes and sea fishing which ultimately led to disaster. In 1846 the potato crop failed and the ensuing famine led to a sizeable number of the inhabitants of the island being forced to emigrate.

This period of clearance and settlement disruption ended at the beginning of the twentieth century when people were allowed to reoccupy the west coast of South Uist. However, the settlements established were very different to the clustered settlements of the pre-clearance period. The contemporary settlement pattern is of dispersed crofts occupying and partitioning the area of low lying ground between the machair and the moorland. The machair is divided into strips cultivated by individual crofts but each township communally controls grazing of the machair and the hill lands.