The hardships of prehistoric life on North Uist revealed

The beaches on the Udal peninsula are now revered but dramatic changes to the coastline around 5,000 years ago posed great risk to inhabitants. PIC: www.geograph.co.uk.
The beaches on the Udal peninsula are now revered but dramatic changes to the coastline around 5,000 years ago posed great risk to inhabitants. PIC: www.geograph.co.uk.
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The hardships of prehistoric life on North Uist have been revealed with islanders battling starvation, sand storms, rising tides and floods that drove them out of their homes around 5,000 years ago.

Newly published research from excavations at the Udal peninsula on North Uist tells of dramatic shifts in the environment during the late Neolithic period and early Bronze Age.

Excavation of Bronze Age Cairn at the Udal, with the cist burial to the immediate left of the cairn. PIC: Copyright Udal Project Archives.

Excavation of Bronze Age Cairn at the Udal, with the cist burial to the immediate left of the cairn. PIC: Copyright Udal Project Archives.

The tough environment had a “severe effect” on the health of those living on the Udal, said Beverley Ballin Smith, of GUARD Archaeology.

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Analysis of teeth taken from the remains of two inhabitants indicate they suffered a lack of food as children and endured periods of starvation.

Shellfish such as whelks are likely to have been a staple of their diet.

Excavation of Neolithic buildings at the Udal in 1981. PIC: Copyright Udal Project Archives.

Excavation of Neolithic buildings at the Udal in 1981. PIC: Copyright Udal Project Archives.

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Archaeological remains of two round buildings dating to between 3000 and 2500 BC were also examined with artefacts indicating the butchering of animals, pottery making and the manufacture of quartz tools.

These buildings may have been the last surviving structures of a larger settlement that was covered by a thick layer of sand, like Skara Brae on Orkney, Ms Ballin Smith, who has been leading on the post excavation work, said.

She added: “The storm that brought the sand covered fields and grazing lands in addition to the village, from dunes to the west.

Bronze Age burial of young man in a cist beneath the cairn at the Udal. PIC: Copyright Udal Project Archive.

Bronze Age burial of young man in a cist beneath the cairn at the Udal. PIC: Copyright Udal Project Archive.

“The effects were so severe that the buildings and the farming land had to be abandoned and people moved inland.”

New fields for grazing and agriculture were created once the sand had settled but these was also destroyed in time by another severe storm.

A thick stone and shingle beach was left in place of the farmland with the coastal landscape being dramatically transformed.

Sometime after the creation of the beach, a burial cairn was built, under which a young man was laid to rest in stone cist.

This large round mound of stone and turf was the largest man-made structure on the Udal peninsula.

The monument lasted approximately 4000 years before coastal erosion led to its excavation.

Ms Ballin Smith said: “Our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors lived through climate change events such as dramatic sea-level rise and increased storminess, and trauma such as loss of fields, crops and animals.

“They had to relocate their settlement and houses to safer areas.”

Further research will determine how those living on Udal survived the Bronze Age will be part of the research at the South Mound, the next site on the peninsula to be investigated.

The Udal was the focus of many years of archaeological excavations by the late Iain Crawford.

A new book will be published in honour of the vast body of work undertaken on the peninsula by Mr Crawford.

The book, which has been edited by Ms Ballin Smith, is the result of several years of post-excavation work on the smallest of the Udal sites, which was exposed by coastal erosion after an exceptional high tide in 1974.

While Iain Crawford completed the fieldwork by 1984, he could not complete the project to publication.

After a long illness he died in 2016 at the age of 88.

Ms Ballin Smith has spent the last few years analysing the archaeological material recovered from Mr Crawford’s excavations.

It is hoped the findings will help illuminate the archaeology of the Western Isles to a larger audience.

Malcolm Burr, Chief Executive of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar., said: “While the archaeology of the Western Isles is as rich, diverse and intriguing as that of the rest of Scotland, it is less well known.

“Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and its partners are working hard to see this position change, and this new publication of the smallest of Iain Crawford’s excavations at the Udal site in North Uist, is part of this effort.

“The excavations at the Udal recovered fragile evidence in the face of erosion by sea, storm and the ravages of time. The story told by these structures and artefacts, however, reflects the earliest centuries of communities’ life experiences on the Udal headland from some six thousand years ago, one of the longest and most fascinating time lines in the archaeology of Scotland. The two Neolithic houses and Bronze Age burial cairn bear testimony to the antiquity and importance of this site.”

Dr Lisa Brown from Historic Environment Scotland said ‘It is great to see these results of the excavation of the Neolithic and Bronze Age remains now published, both as a book and free to download online. Using the most up to date scientific techniques, the author and contributors have been able to provide additional insight into how the earliest communities were living on this peninsular, and how they coped with the changes in the environment which affected their lives. We are pleased to have been able to support this work through our archaeology funding programme.’

This first major publication from the Udal project was launched at Sollas Community Hall in North Uist and was jointly funded by Historic Environment Scotland and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

The new hardback book, Life on the Edge: The Neolithic and Bronze Age of Iain Crawford’s Udal, North Uist edited by Beverley Ballin Smith is available from Archaeopress Publishing Ltd, at www.archaeopress.com for £25. A free version is also available to download from the same internet address.

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