GeologyNatural HistoryHistorical ArchiveSea Room by Adam NicolsonWestminster Shiant Isles Expedition 1958 & 2002Sign the Guest Book
Archaeology Icon


General Introduction

 The Shiant Islands Project (SHIP) evolved out of a survey of the islands archaeological sites commissioned by the islands owner, Adam Nicolson, as a necessary research precursor to writing an account of the islands intended for the general readership. As part of that research a small excavation to help illustrate the archaeology was also to be undertaken. The survey, the first of its kind in the islands, was expected to occupy a third of the archaeological team for a greater part of the time so it was therefore decided to undertake what was expected to be a relatively simple excavation of the interior of one of the blackhouses and its associated barns. By the end of the two weeks that had been allotted for the work it was clear that a number of the sites found in the survey appeared to be of pre-modern origin, which could, if investigated in greater detail, add considerably to our knowledge of the little known early history of the islands. Added to this the excavation, which is reported here, proved to be of greater complexity, and therefore interest, than had been expected. The obvious untapped wealth of archaeological potential revealed in the results encouraged an undertaking by the owner and the author to extend the initial project into a long term archaeological and environmental investigation - The SHIP Project. 

The Excavations

General introduction

The selection of the blackhouse HI 15 as the candidate for excavation was to a large extent influenced by the experience gained from the excavation of a blackhouse at Allt Chrisal on the island of Barra during the SEARCH project conducted by Sheffield University from 1989-94 (Foster 1995). The blackhouse and its associated out-buildings proved, in archaeological terms, to be of simple, almost single phase, development, which provided the means of a relatively rapid and informative excavation suitable for training students as well as a research vehicle. The Shiant example HI 15 was comparable in size and also possessed a number of apparently associated out-buildings as well as two attached barns, which it was thought might possibly be also investigated in the time allotted. There are other blackhouses and contemporary dwellings in what could be considered one of the preferred settlement areas located on the north-west, lower coastal shelf around the house built by Compton Mackenzie in the 1920’s, but there appears to be considerable modern disturbance and rubbish dumping on the sites. In the event the blackhouse proved to be much more complex than expected allowing only time to reveal completely the upper floor levels and internal structures, plus a sondage across the interior that revealed at least three more successive floor levels, and of the other buildings there was time only for the northern attached barn to be investigated.

Over the years of working in the Outer Isles it has become normal practice to encourage the participation of experienced archaeologists, both students and professionals, from the Czech Republic. This policy has been maintained and the excavations were directed by Petr Limburský (the north barn HI15B) an MA graduate pursuing a second MA in archaeology and Linda Cihaková (the blackhouse HI15A) an MA archaeology student, both of Charles University, assisted by Luboš Novák and David Danecek archaeology MA students of Plzen University. On occasions Jana Zeckytová and Vanda Pryhouska of the Institute of Archaeology Prague Castle from the island survey joined in the excavations.

Plan of HI 15


The site name is House Island site no. 15 coded HI 15. The blackhouse and its associated attached structures were divided into separate zones for the purpose of excavation and recording. The blackhouse is HI 15A, the north barn HI 15B, the south barn HI 15C and the east external paved area HI 15D. The site was excavation by context with each context - layer, deposit, structure and cut - given a unique context number. Recording was by context modified to include several contemporary features rather than by pure single context planning. Large hand tools were used only for de-turfing, the excavation in general was conducted with small hand tools. Wet sieving was not undertaken on site, but some samples were removed for processing later. Some dry sieving of the midden material was undertaken on site to control losses and retrieval, but the midden spoil was separated from the general spoil to be completely dry sieved at a later time when more time and labour is available.         

When the first archaeological layer (A2) was removed revealing the floor surface A3 and the central floor hearths, it was clear that there were underlying earlier structures and therefore presumably earlier floor levels. In order to clarify this situation a sondage was opened across the house in a position not expected to disturb any other structures. This exploratory excavation revealed at least three further floor levels and a stone drain structure running west to east down the centre of the house. Also revealed were areas extensively disturbed by rodent burrowing.                            

Apart from the burrowing activities of the islands rat population the site was not threatened, although recent studies (Pouncett forthcoming) have shown that rodent burrowing is a major threat to almost all sites that are not water logged. Earth filled stone walling is especially susceptible to this kind of threat. The rodents burrowing within the wall eject out much of the soil over a period of time to such an extent that even large boulders in the structure can topple when undermined in this manner. The site was therefore excavated as a research exercise and not a rescue operation. Therefore when the complexity of the stratification became apparent there was no increase in the tempo of the excavations, quality was maintained and anything that could not be accomplished in the current year was preserved for another season.


Preliminary site phasing sequence


Post clearance: A1 Topsoil and root mat. A2 Upper deposit derived from burrowing within the walls. Middle deposit derived from collapsed roof material.   


Possible temporary late post-clearance occupation: A7 Stone seating or bed bench placed on the lower deposit of A2. A11 Unstructured hearth burnt or cleared through A2. A14 Nest and burrowing - contains limpet shells. 


Last pre-clearance occupation floor renewal: West half of building. A2 lower part of deposit occupation material mixed by burrowing. A3/10 Baked floor clay surface. A25 Hearth. A4 Partition. East half of building (Byre) A5 Clay deposit at east end of building. Drain A9 still in use.


Late pre-clearance occupation: A13 Baked clay floor surface. Hearth A24. Drain A9/28 constructed. A12 Peat stack. Possibly Partition A8. Area D Paving A 29.


?Unoccupied: A15abc Silt soil.  


Middle period occupation: A16 Baked clay floor surface.


?Unoccupied: A19 Silt soil.


Early occupation: A23 Baked clay floor surface. A20 Drain constructed.


?Primary occupation. Possibly pre-blackhouse. A18 and A22 Baked clay surfaces seen in the bottom of drains A9 and A20. 


AREA A: The Blackhouse HI 15A (Plan)

The blackhouse is of irregular form, which might suggest modifications and re-building at various times in its existence, although this cannot be determined with any certainty until further excavations have revealed more of the stratified sequence still to be explored in the interior. Structurally however the building is of the usual Hebridean construction with double uncoarsed drystone walls boxing an earth and stone filled cavity. The overall thickness achieved is often up to a metre and they stand at present to over a metre high, which is close to their original height judging by the relatively small amount of displaced stonework found lying around. There are no window apertures, but a few sherds of window glass found in the upper deposits indicates that the normal practice of fitting at least one pane of glass into the roof thatch was observed.  The present entrance doorway is uncharacteristically off-centre at the far eastern end of the southern wall and a blocked doorway in the north wall, found during the excavations of the north barn show that some major modifications had been carried out. In the south-western corner is a built in cupboard (A26/27), which is a feature commonly found in many of the shieling huts on Rough Island.        


The Blackhouse Excavation Description

Sondage Only Plans 4 to 7 and Sections 1 and 2.

PHASE I: Earliest or Primary Occupation.

Evidence for this tentative phase was only seen in the bottoms of the emptied drains A9 and A20 in the sondage cut across the building to sample the depth of stratigraphy (Plan 6 and 7.). Both drains were cut to a deeper depth than the lowest well defined baked clay floor surface A23 (Plan 7). After the drain fills A17 and A21 were removed the bottom of the drain was seen to consist of a hard baked clay. Since the drains are approximately 1.25m. apart it is thought likely that this baked clay is a lower floor level, however its depth may be below the bottom of the house walls and would therefore belong to some pre-blackhouse building. This would collaborate the evidence for an earlier building on the site which was revealed in the excavation of the north barn.

PHASE H: Early Occupation of the Blackhouse. Possibly the primary occupation floor level belonging to the blackhouse, which consists of a hard baked clay surface of unknown thickness A23. A stone capped and lined drain contemporary with the floor is built down the centre of the building from west to east. The cap stone is level with the floor surface. Three small sherds of table ware pottery, a fragment of green bottle glass and a fragment of clear bottle glass were found at this level.      

PHASE G: ?Unoccupied. Over the clay floor A23 a layer of silt soil A19, up to 0.08m. thick in places, accumulated obscuring the cap stone to the central drain A20. Whether this is a true period of abandonment is difficult to determine in such a narrow sondage. Three pottery sherds of tableware and six of ‘Craggan’ ware were recovered from this layer.  

PHASE F: Middle Occupation: Over the silt soil of A19 is a thin, 0.04m. thick, hard baked clay floor which appears to have sagged into the softer underlying soils in an irregular manner. Also it appears to have suffered a considerable amount of disturbance since it shows many areas of discontinuity. This may be due to burrowing or human activity. There are no other structures or deposits associated with it that are visible in the sondage sections. No finds were found at this level.

PHASE E: ?Unoccupied. A thick, up to 0.18m., banded layer of grey silt soil A15 accumulates over floor A16. It is disturbed by a large area of rat nesting and burrowing A14 which penetrates from above. Only four sherds of ‘Craggan’ ware pottery were recovered from this layer, however it is from this context that the Christian symbol cross stone (SFN 81) was found (Plan 5). The stone had been placed face down so that its strongly pecked cross within a circle symbol was hidden from view. Although when the stone was lifted soil made up from fire reddened clay with abundant charcoal mixed with the grey silt adhered to the surface of the stone. Unfortunately the area under the stone had been disturbed and the floor (A16) beneath the silt accumulation had also faded out at this point, which leaves the exact placement of the stone in some doubt. Was it originally placed face down on the floor surface or had it been secreted as the silt accumulation had just began therefore just coming into contact with the upper occupation material of the floor i.e. immediately after a period of abandonment had begun? Fortunately either alternative does not appear to greatly alter the fact the stone was apparently being hidden and was subsequently forgotten.                

PHASE D: Late Occupation. A substantial baked clay floor A13 caps the silt layer A15. In the sections of the sondage it shows some discontinuity, but is generally quite regular and comparatively level. One of the main stone structured hearths A24 (Also seen on the main plan 2) is thought to be contemporary. The house drain A9 which runs west to east along the south house wall and possibly out of the south doorway was constructed during this period. The cap stone is level with the floor, although many of the stones bulk up into the layers above. A further length of drain A28 arcs from the doorway to a central point in the eastern wall which it appears to pass under. Whether this length of drain is of the same construction as A9 is not possible to determine at this juncture. The fact that it appears to pass under the east wall does not help since this wall may have been taken down and rebuilt every spring  when the manure had to be removed from the byre end. A cross partition stone foundation A4 also appears to have been introduced at this time and it is possible that the house was modified into a two part structure with human living quarters in the western half and livestock in an eastern half byre. Area D paving (see below) was laid at the same level as the drain cap stones and therefore would appear to be of the same phase. 


The Main Excavation (Plan 2 South)

PHASE C: Last pre-Clearance Occupation. The east west division of the house continues with the eastern half showing an accumulation of a red coloured clay soil A5 directly upon the earlier floor A13. A sample of this deposit was wet sieved and produced abundant vegetable fibres and the remains of a number of beetles. Hopefully identification will show that this is byre material. In the west end a fresh clay floor A3 was laid on the old and was baked hard. A stone structured floor hearth A 25 and a stone partition foundation A8 appear as contemporary structures. The main south drain A9 appears to continue functioning. To the west of the hearth a raised area of baked clay A10 appears as an anomaly in the general level of the floor, but it is at present considered to be part of A3. Embedded in or laying on the floor surface were a number of notable objects:- a broken fragment of flat rotary millstone (SFN 84. Plan 2) which is of local manufacture from a rock type found on Mary Island; An acutely angled iron point with a wooden handle (SFN 83); A heavy iron shafted point SFN 82; several flint ‘strike a lights’; many objects of iron including further boat rivets and cauldron fragments. The iron tools may have been used in the local kelp industry which was pursued on the north coast of Rough Island.  Overlying the floor is a mixed soil A2 (see below Phase A)apparently covering a wide chronological span while not showing any distinct layering or easily perceived interfaces between its component parts. This is most likely attributed to its derivation and associated rodent activity. The lower part of this layer is composed of a peat soil heavily laden with charcoal which most likely derives from the occupation debris accumulating on floor A3. Finds from this zone are an increasing number of finds of late 18th century pottery, both glazed table wares (143 sherds) and hand made ‘Craggan' wares (58 sherds), a large number of iron boat rivets (SFN 9 for example), as well fragments of an iron cauldron (SFN 19) and other miscellaneous iron fragments and objects. Among the pottery fragments is a white stone ware glazed dinner plate inscribed in the manner of scrimshaw work with a picture of a full rigged sailing ship (SFN 91). There are a number of flint ‘strike a lights’ and several struck flakes of volcanic tuff apparently from stone working, which probably originating from the island of Skye.

PHASE B: A Possible Short Post-Clearance Occupation. Sitting above the lower level of A2 is a construction of placed stones A7 which appears to be a bench, possibly a bed, with a short partition foundation leading from its western edge. While the benching is clearly a deliberate construction the partition foundation is less certain. At the western end of the building quite an amount of wall tumble was found scattered within the upper levels of A2. The foundation could just be an accidental line that resolves out of a random scatter when it is selectively cleared. However the fact that this line of stones did appear placed enough to be selected out of the scatter lends a little weight to their being an actual structure. Apparently associated with the benching is the unstructured hearth A11 which is either in a cleared hollow within A2 or has burnt down through it. As with many short termed temporary shelters within earlier buildings their structural remains are often difficult to resolve with great clarity. That the occupancy is of short duration is assumed from the lack of associated baked clay or any other discernible floor surface.

PHASE A: Post-Clearance Abandonment. Before the excavations began the interior of the house showed no evidence for recent use and apart from some few stones tumbled from the walls and the tops of some of the larger stones, that were later revealed as being part of the interior partitioning, the area was covered with vegetation that included patches of nettles and marsh grass. This top cover was removed by spade and the root mat with topsoil was seen to be contoured rising up to the walls on all sides making the interior distinctively concave apart from the area leading through the southern doorway which had been maintained as a relatively level entrance by the passage of grazing sheep. Finds from the topsoil A1 were restricted to mainly modern sheep bones, several shards of bottle glass and late 18th century pottery and two iron boat rivets. Under the topsoil and turf was a layer up to 0.20m. thick A2 composed of a generally archaeologically sterile dark brown peat soil with an increasing amount of charcoal inclusions towards its bottom levels. This layer is considered to be of mixed origin. The lower levels appear to be a mixture of abandoned debris and domestic rubbish left on the floor surface intermixed with ash from the central hearth and is considered to belong to Phase C. Over this, probably quite thin layer, is the turf and other organic material from the collapsed roof which no doubt provided an ideal environment for any rat families taking up occupation in the deserted ruin and who would have found this relatively loose mixture an easy material in which to burrow compared to the baked clay floor below. Their activity adding to the blending of the two deposits. The large number of boat rivets found in this layer indicate that part of a boat, either a wreck or decayed vessel,  was re-used in the roof structure. This is  not an uncommon occurrence in an environment so lacking in readily available roofing materials, which often resulted in the opportunistic use of a wide variety of materials and objects - almost anything in fact that would help to keep the weather out. The more sterile upper zone of this layer are most likely derived from the slow accumulation and further intermixing of ejected soils from the house wall cavities as the rat population cleared their burrows, some used and open - others old and filled in with washed in silt and collapse, that form a network between the wall stones.       


AREA B: The North Barn (Plan 2 North)

The north barn (Area B) was almost buried under a rich growth of nettles, a common indication of human occupation and refuse at archaeological sites. Removal of the top soil, vegetation and root mat immediately revealed a massive midden of compacted limpet shell liberally intermixed with animal bone. The presence of such an extensive deposit had a dramatic effect on the area and amount of material that was practical to excavate in the two weeks while retaining a high standard. The result was that the work accomplished was fully recorded, but there was no time to pursue and investigate the many questions and problems that remained. The excavation was terminated on the removal of the midden material. Under this deposit, in a pre-barn context, and most likely a pre-blackhouse context, was a mass of stonework, a little of which could be seen to be of some structural form. This early level was left for investigation in the next season. There was little time to investigate the sequence and relationship of the various structural walls and hopefully further information may be gathered in future excavations concerning them and the sequence of building. However it has been possible to arrange the barn deposits in a sequence of phases and to tentatively link them to the phased sequence suggested for the blackhouse.

North Barn Preliminary Phasing


 Post-clearance. Turf, root mat and topsoil plus some wall tumble and soil ejection by rats B1. Corresponds to House Phase A.


Late occupation in House (Phase C) but barn being used as midden dump. Plus further soil and wall tumble B31 corresponding to House Phase B. Upper midden deposit B30 and Wall 3.


Area D paving laid and north barn constructed on it. Barn in use as a barn. Soil deposit B32. Wall 2. Corresponds to House Phase D.


Pre-barn use of area as shell midden. Lower limpet deposit B33. Corresponds to House Phase F occupation.


Pre-limpet and house. Deposits B34 and B35,  structures B37. Corresponds possibly to House Phase I.


The North Barn B Excavation Description

Phase E: Pre-Blackhouse Occupation. This pre-house phase was only seen to a great extent in the excavation of the north barn. Once the lower midden deposit had been removed a deposit of dark brown peat soil B34 (which may be an abandonment or interval deposit) and a stiff greenish clay (manure rich?) B35 was revealed that was associated with a mass of apparently disorganised stonework as well as several obviously structural albeit unconnected arrangements B37. At this level was an unstructured hearth of baked clay B36. These deposits and structural elements all appear to underlie the house and barn walls.     

Phase D: Pre-Barn Midden. A wide area at the outer north-east corner of the house was used as a midden area and saw the accumulation of a 0.40m. deep deposit of limpet shell with animal bone B33 before the barn was constructed. At the bottom of this deposit a mid-16th century annular copper alloy brooch was found. As a single small find of ornament it would not be sensible to date the entire deposit by its presence, such objects being notoriously curated, however it may have been mixed in from the soil layer below and may have some bearing on the date of the pre-blackhouse occupation.  

Phase C: Barn Construction. The stone paving of Area D from the south door of the house was also laid around the east end and around the north-east corner. The north barn was then constructed either level with or on top of this paving and on top of the midden material B33. In constructing the barn on the north side of the house the front doorway B41 in the north wall became redundant an was relocated in the south wall towards the eastern end. This may have also coincided with the entire rebuilding of the eastern end of the house. The barn also had a separate south walk which  was built as a second skin along the north wall of the house which also effectively sealed off the former north door of the house. The presence of a green coloured clay may indicate that during the occupation of the house Phase D period the barn was used to house animals.

Phase B: Late Pre-Clearance Occupation. The last occupation period before the Late 18th century clearances appear to have been a time of deterioration. The barn animals are gone and the walls are reduced and possibly in ruin (soil and rubble B31) . The area is used again as a shell midden B30 and a small retaining wall (Wall 3) may have been stacked on top of the main east wall to keep the shell from spilling out in that direction. The midden appears to have been restricted to the eastern half of the barn, but spilling over the north wall and out through the north doorway.

Phase A: Post-Clearance. There is continued erosion of the soil from within the wall by rats and there is also a certain amount of further wall tumble as the area becomes grassed over and the nettles take precedence of occupancy.  


AREA D: The External Paving (Plan 2) Phase D

Area D encompasses the area of rough stone paving A29 that is found externally around the eastern end of the house from the south doorway and the southern barn to the east wall of the north barn. The turf was removed and the stonework cleaned of residual earth. There was little accumulation over the stone surface suggesting that it may have been kept clean by more than just use. Unfortunately the east house wall, being the byre wall that was annually dismantled, was constructed in such a way as to make this operation easier by not being infilled solidly with earth and small stones. This has consequently led it collapsing outwards masking much of the exterior paving close to the wall base. Unfortunately there was no time on this occasion to remove the tumble so that the relationship between paving and wall could be examined. There were few finds.    

The paving is complementary to drain A9 whose cap stones are on the same level and may actually come through from the house to become part of the external paving. The Paving therefore would appear to belong to Phase D.



At the end of our allotted time on the islands the excavation of both house, with its multiple phases, and barn with its deep midden deposits, was not as far advanced as had been initially predicted or hoped for. The very slight disappointment at this situation was entirely countered by the discovery that the depth and complexity of deposits and their reflected longevity of the site provides an important potential to gain considerable knowledge about the material culture, social and economic fluctuations of islands people for an extended length of time that spans at least the post medieval to the early modern period if not deep into the medieval. A period of time that although so close to our own is still not well illuminated at the present time.

The discovery of a large cobble of sandstone with a Christian cross within a circle pecked out  on one surface, that can be paralleled with Early Irish examples that date back to the time of the early Celtic church of St Columbus, gives a tantalising glimpse of the earlier history of the islands. The stones apparent secretion in the blackhouse may be the result of more recent religious processes that concern suppression by fundamentalists rather than outward missionary zeal of the early church.

Finds in the deposits of the late Phase C period of occupation that include iron tools, which may be associated with the kelp industry, indicate some of the rapidly changing economic life of the islands. However all of the finds along with the extensive ceramic collection will require mush research before definitive conclusions can be drawn. The field of ceramics is especially one of uncertainty and the excavation of a deeply stratified site, covering a wide period of time, such as the blackhouse complex on the Shiants, will be of enormous value to this study.               

The acid peat soils of the highlands and islands are not conducive to the preservation of bone material and it is therefore very important to find a large midden deposit that can provide such excellent environmental conditions that even the smallest most delicate bone material can survive. Once the Shiant midden assemblage is researched the results will be of great interest. The actual midden matrix itself was a stratigraphical disappointment with its depositional history blurred beyond recovery. Apart from the main division between pre-barn and post-barn on either side of the soil layer B32 there were no other distinctive features. This may be due to the nature and location of the midden. The lack of distinctive layering suggests that while the middens were in use it was a continuous process of deposition with no intervals long enough to form a distinctive interface with the next eventual deposit of shell and bone. Being close to the house there is every chance that the midden material was generally continuously mixed as it was deposited by the resident dogs, hens and possibly also children.

This has a  disabling effect upon the ceramic assemblage that was recovered from these deposits. The strong possibility that the matrix is of a mixed nature naturally prevents the ceramics from being used in a useful chronological sequence or as an indicator of typological change. That is not to say the assemblage cannot be used, but it must be treated with caution for the present until further excavations and research hopefully produce the much needed clarity to the ceramic questions. The excavations of the more secure house deposits and layers become consequently more important.

The excavation and survey of the Shiant Islands began as a one-off two week project commissioned by the owner Adam Nicolson with the intention of providing a fresh information on the islands archaeology which could be used in his forthcoming book on the islands. Luckily for the Archaeology of the region Adam’s interest and unfailing enthusiasm pushed this short term investigation into a far more visionary long term project curbed only by our economic limitations. On such beautiful islands it cannot be doubted that it is not only archaeology that will benefit.           


Archaeology Index Page