The Prehistoric Village at Cladh Hallan - Part I

Mike Parker Pearson, Peter Marshall, Jacqui Mulville and Helen Smith

South Uist's machairSouth Uist's machair was densely populated in prehistory, from around 2000 BC until the end of the Viking period around AD 1300. The machair is a kilometre-wide strip of shell sand along the west coast of the islands which is today covered by grassland. It forms a flat plain in some places and hillocks or grassed-over dunes in others. It was formed in the Neolithic period, about 5000 years ago, when the earliest farming communities lived here. The whole character of the Uists changed at that time. As the western coastal plain was inundated with this sand, brought up by storms from the Atlantic seabed, the woodlands covering the islands also disappeared around 2500 BC and were replaced by blanket bog and heather in the mountains and peatlands of the east.

Prehistoric life on the machair

The west coast of South Uist looked very different in prehistory. There was some machair grassland but much of this coastal land was covered by 'living' dunes which constantly threatened to engulf prehistoric people's fields and houses. Strangely enough, this unusual and dynamic landscape was a preferred habitat for farming communities throughout the Bronze Age (2200 BC - 800 BC), Iron Age (800 BC - AD 900) and Viking period (AD 900-1300). Over 200 ancient settlements of these periods have been found on South Uist's machair, sometimes visible as low mounds and identifiable by the shells, pottery and bone found in their rabbit burrows.

Until a few years ago almost nothing was known about the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age in the Western Isles. In fact, it is a period for which we have relatively little evidence for people's houses and settlements throughout Britain. We now know that there were at least 25 settlements from this mysterious period on South Uist's machair, with most of them grouped into three main complexes at Daliburgh in the south, Iochdar in the north (on the rocket range) and Kildonan and Bornish in the centre of the island. Like the preserved prehistoric settlements in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland, these ancient remains have been exceptionally preserved, layer by layer, underneath the sand. Sadly, the rabbits - whose burrowings have helped archaeologists to find these sites - are now destroying the layers and deposits inside these settlement mounds.

Cladh Hallan - a prehistoric landscape

Between 1989 and 2002 archaeologists had the opportunity to investigate two of these mounds, as they were being dug into for sand quarrying. Both are located 300m west of the modern graveyard - Cladh Hallan - in Daliburgh. The one north of the track (which runs from the radiomast to the sea) was largely destroyed by quarrying in the 1980s and early 1990s but the one to the south was rescued in time and has yielded some extraordinary discoveries. Other remains from this period survive in the vicinity and are mostly buried under deep sand. Sadly, many were destroyed over a hundred years ago when the stones from prehistoric houses were dug out to build the graveyard wall.

Daliburgh's machair contains a complete cross-section of settlement history from 2000 BC to AD 1300. Nineteen of the many sand hills in this area are actually ancient settlements. Around 2000 BC, during the Early Bronze Age, a community of farmers built their small houses and tended their fields here. They were probably the builders of a small circle of standing stones recently found on the high ground east of Askernish. They had some bronze artefacts but also made tools for cutting and scraping out of chipped flint and quartz. Their pottery was decorated with fine lines and impressions and is of a type found throughout Europe and known as Beaker ware. We have found traces of their settlements in four areas and have excavated one of their fields. The soil for this field had to be artificially created, and they made it by mixing the machair sand with ash, household waste and peat.