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Later prehistoric settlement: the developed period

The wheelhouse excavated by Marek Zvelibil at Cill Donain

The wheelhouse excavated by Marek Zvelibil at Cill Donain

The distribution of Middle Iron Age settlements, dating to the period around 200BC-AD400 is well defined but by no means complete (82). The pattern in the densely occupied areas suggests a fairly even spacing of settlements every 2-3 km along the machair plain. It seems likely that this spacing represents the division of the island into territories that are oriented east west across the natural landscape zones and indicate an equitable division of the different landscapes and the different resources of the island.

Several Middle Iron Age settlements have been excavated on the machair plain of South Uist (Kilphedir; A’Cheardach Mhor; A’Cheardach Bheag; Cill Donnain). These settlements are characterised by the construction of substantial semi-subterranean roundhouses that are internally divided by stone piers, causing them to be named wheelhouses. Cardiff have excavated a badly robbed wheelhouse at Bornais (67) but despite the lack of any upstanding walls the site provided important evidence for the roofing of these structures as the house had been burnt during its life and the reoccupation had preserved the collapsed roof timbers under the new floor.

The remains of a badly robbed out wheelhouse at Bornais

The remains of a badly robbed out wheelhouse at Bornais

Contemporary with the wheelhouses are brochs, free standing stone buildings with impressively thick stone walls that indicate a wall height that can be up to 11 metres high (79). Around 12 of these structures have been identified on South Uist. The size and architectural complexity of these structures indicates their construction by small scale communities but they were also clearly houses occupied by a single family. A considerable degree of prestige must have been acquired by the occupation of these structures and it seems inescapable that the occupants played an important role in the communities to which they were attached.

All but one of the brochs was built on an artificial island in the inland lochs of the blacklands between the machair and the hills. They are liminal in every sense of the word, set apart from the densely occupied cultivated fields of the machair. The exception, Dun Vulan, was built on a rocky promontory projecting into the Atlantic. The position of the brochs seems to symbolise the ambiguous position of leadership in these communities.

A view across the broch at Dun Vulan with Barra in the background

A view across the broch at Dun Vulan with Barra in the background

During the Late Iron Age or early medieval period it is difficult to document the continuation of these settlement patterns by field survey alone. The ceramics recovered from field survey are not sufficiently distinctive to securely identify a Late Iron Age settlement as these are characterised by a decline in decoration. However, excavation of the broch at Dun Vulan (55) indicates a continuation of activity on the site up to the seventh century AD and excavations at Bornais suggests that, after the abandonment of the wheelhouse in the fifth century AD, settlement shifted to an adjacent mound, less than 100 metres away.

 

 

 

 

Dun Vulan gallery

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