Five millennia of living on water

    Above: Dun an-t Siamain, ruins of an Iron Age island dwelling on the east coast of North Uist, Western Isles, Scotland (photo: author).

Robert Lenfert, MA, PhD, FSA Scot

Department of Archaeology

University of Nottingham

Hello and welcome! This on-line text is a brief abstract of a recently released publication: 'The Island Dwellings of North Uist: Five Millennia of Living on Water'
which can be purchased through the The Islands Book Trust. I welcome any questions or comments to my e-mail address listed above. The page view can be resized to fit various monitor resolutions by pressing [ctrl +] or [ctrl -].


Islands in Scottish lochs were inhabited for over 5,000 years - a tremendous amount of time by any measure. These small islets are often referred to as 'crannogs' on the mainland or 'island duns' in the Western Isles or the Outer Hebrides. These watery settlements on small islets, generally under 30 metres in diameter, served a multitude of functions as defended homesteads, workshops for metalworking, leather or pottery production, royal residences, prisons, or as neutral meeting places between clans. Based upon the archaeological evidence, living on a small islet was apparently not restricted to a single group of people - excavation has indicated that island dwellers were as varied in economy and pursuits as they were in location.  Many Hebridean island dwellings were often connected to the shore by a narrow stone causeway, while mainland crannogs generally had wooden causeways connecting them to land.

It was perhaps initially surprising to early antiquarians that the vast majority of island dwellings were entirely artificial islands, literally a case of ‘building islands for building homes’. In essence, what may seem a peculiar and labour-intensive undertaking to us today was repeated over thousands of years in Atlantic Scotland.

The majority of island dwellings appear to be used as simple farming homesteads during the later prehistoric period. Yet as we reach the Medieval Period, they do take on a noticeable degree of status and appear to be increasingly used by the middle to upper classes. This is based upon both excavation and early written records. Ironically, despite their 'defensive' locations, there is very little evidence of weaponry or warfare until the Medieval period, although even this is quite limited. Nevertheless, it is certain they were used occasionally as 'boltholes' during emergencies given their inherently difficult location. 

As a sidenote today, freshwater lochs in Scotland tend to remain colder than the North Atlantic year-round, so if you want to visit, viewing them from shore is probably your best bet. However, our hardier ancestors who build them likely spent a fair bit of time in the water without much thought.

If you do make it out to one, please don't climb on the walling or remove anything. They are classified as Scheduled Ancient Monuments and as such are protected by Scottish law. In fact, if one examines 19th century photographs of Hebridean sites compared to their current state of preservation (below), it is clear they have largely avoided the ravages of time and human activity after abandonment.

Left-Dun Torcuill as photographed by Erskine Beveridge c.1911 (copyright RCAHMS) and by author in 2010 (right).

Below- Almost identical photograph taken a century later from same perspective of Dun Torcuill (top-Erskine Beveridge 1911, c.RCAHMS) and bottom, author, July 2010. Remarkably little has changed on these remote sites for centuries and it is hoped this legacy will continue for future generations to visit.
When were island dwellings or crannogs occupied?
The earliest known island dwelling is Eilean Domhnuill, Loch Olabhat on North Uist, which dates back to the mid-4th millennium BC.
Incredibly, Eilean Domhnuill (or Donald's 'island of strength' in Gaelic) appears to have been almost continuously for approximately one thousand years (c.3500BC-2500BC) until rising loch-levels repeatedly forced the occupants to move elsewhere.
However, it was the mid-Iron Age, from 400BC to 200AD, when crannogs and island duns really saw the pinnacle of popularity in Atlantic Scotland. In the south-west of Scotland, they also witnessed use during the brief Roman interlude in the first centuries AD.
Moving into the Early Historic Period (c.500AD-800AD), use is again well documented in the archaeological record until the Norse Period (c.800AD-1266AD), when island dwellings appear to fall completely out of use, yet this pendulum swings the other way around the 13th century-this reappearance tends to be of increasingly higher status.  This is likely more a reflection of early written records which largely focussed upon the upper classes or especially noteworthy events.
Island dwellings were either continually occupied for extensive periods while new islands were constructed as widespread use followed. In most cases, sites left abandoned for centuries were re-used following a phase of site renewal. In fact, excavation has indicated re-use on every island dwelling excavated to initial occupation levels to date.
This persistent re-use is indicative of a long-standing cultural tradition which did not die out easily; one which held an important place in local memory and legend. In fact, island dwellings were still in limited use in Scotland until the early 18th century making this arguably the longest-lived settlement tradition anywhere in Europe.
In the end, major social and political upheaval took place in Scotland during the 17th and 18th centuries which disrupted the established, meaning-laden tradition of living on small islets. These events had a direct and lasting impact on the Highlander's traditional ways of life which up to that point had remained largely unchanged for centuries. 

During the Post-Medieval Period s
everal key factors appear to have contributed to the decline of traditional Highland & Island life, including the relatively unique habits of 'living on islands':

The Statutes of Iona
-The Act of Union brought Scotland under English rule in 1707 while the suppression of the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite uprisings abruptly changed or in fact ended many traditional social aspects of  Highland life for good. This was effected by the little-known Disarming Act of 1716 and the Act of Proscription in 1747 which forbade the wearing of tartan and the carrying of swords or firearms as Highlanders had for centuries before hand. A number of island dwellings were also ordered destroyed prior to this. Wearing of the kilt was banned, yet ironically this garment was apparently 'invented' in the mid-1720's by an Englishman so labourers on his Scottish estate could move about more easily! This new garment was most likely a revised version of the traditional Highlander dress - there are several conflicting accounts as to the origins of the kilt.
-The notorious Highland clearances-many with the financial means voluntarily emigrated early on - many more of lesser financial means steadily followed or were physically forced off of the land later.
-The dissolution of the 'tacksman', or middle class, who managed and interacted with the lower classes for landowners and clan chiefs, changed the face of social interaction amongst the inhabitants.  It is suspected that many tacksmen in the Hebrides lived on island dwellings well into the Post-Medieval Period. This dissolution was politically formalised by the Heritable Jurisdictions Act in 1746 which removed the power of Clans to self-rule.
-Later, the Industrial Revolution signalled a shift towards the cities for many poorer working class families as they were forced off their ancestral lands; this exodus further diminished Highland populations and fragmented previous social structures.

-Finally, the effects of the 'Little Ice Age' from c.1500AD to c.1850AD perhaps made already marginal areas of farmland or grazing no longer viable, although this interpretation should be used carefully in specific site or landscape studies.

(Above) Scotland as viewed from GoogleEarth database indicating locations of island-dwellings. Note high density in the Western Isles or 'Outer Hebrides'.

Where are island dwellings or crannogs found? Are they only in Scotland?

Island dwellings can be found in Ireland and Scotland, with one Welsh example at Llangorse Lake. Ireland has over a thousand crannogs, but their popularity didn't
peak until after Scottish examples. Crannogs also appear to see limited use in Ireland during the Norse Period as well, although there are several examples of Norse artefacts appearing on Irish sites. This shift back and forth across the Irish sea in popularity during different times has never been convincingly explained, yet it is certain there was constant contact between the two area. On a clear day one can see both the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland from the Mull of Galloway, therefore ancient peoples would always have been aware of their not-so-distant neighbours on the periphery of daily life.

Sites in the Somerset marshes of England have been referred to as crannogs, yet they appear to be lake-side or wetland settlement, not islands. Oddly, areas such as the Lake District do not contain lake-dwellings, despite having ideal conditions while across the Solway Firth there exists a high density of crannogs in south-west Scotland.

There are also many examples of lake-dwellings in Alpine areas of Europe, most notably in Switzerland at Lake Neuchatel, yet these appear to be seasonally flooded shore based sites, not islands. However, recent evidence from Ulrich Ruoff indicates that Bronze Age stilt-houses were permanently built out in the Lake of Greifensee, at Böschen in the Canton of Zürich.

Scotland itself contains approximately 350 sites currently classed as crannogs, while at least another 160 sites in the Western Isles are classed mainly as 'duns'
(Gaelic for 'fort'). These duns can also be referred to as 'Atlantic roundhouses', a term introduced by the archaeologist Ian Armit to cover the entire range of robust, drystone built structures in later prehistoric Atlantic Scotland. In all, there are some 570 island sites in Scotland.

However, the highest density by far is found on North Uist in the Western Isles. Here, over 80 island dwellings are found within 300km2, or roughly one per every 3.75km2. Mainland areas such as Argyll and Dumfries and Galloway also contain high densities, although nowhere near that of the Western Isles. In areas such as Sutherland the number drops off sharply, yet surveys have not been as complete as in populated areas to the south; therefore a strong chance remains of additional undiscovered sites. The east coast of Scotland also contain very few known or confirmed crannogs in contrast to the western, Atlantic areas. In the east, they tend to be of Medieval or later date indicating construction after 'Scotland' became largely united around the 9th century.


Left-artist's reconstruction of the Early Historic crannog at Buiston, Ayrshire. (artwork by Alan Braby).

Crannog interpretations have often been highly speculative, as the mass of organic material that remains preserved can make it difficult to clearly define individual phases of construction or re-use without extensive use of absolute dating methods such as radiocarbon dating or especially dendrochronology.


are mainland sites called 'crannogs', while examples in the Western Isles are generally called 'island duns'?

In treeless areas such as the Western Isles, stone was the only practical material available to build causeways, artificial islands or structures on natural islands. As the Gaelic term 'crannog' implies the use of wood, many scholars have not used this term for island dwellings in the Hebrides. This has led to some confusion amongst archaeologists about what is a 'real' crannog. It has also unfortunately led to Hebridean sites being studied largely in isolation from their mainland counterparts, despite fundamentally having the same core concept-living on water.


(Below)- diver standing on submerged causeway leading to site in photo (photo Nataliya Danilova).

(Right) Mid-Iron Age pottery from Dun Ban, Grimsay c. 400BC-200AD (photo author).

(Left) Pottery from Dun an t-Siamain in the 'wavy cordon style' from the Mid to Late-Iron Age c.200-500AD. Relatively little is known about Hebridean pottery from this period so underwater archaeology can provide largely intact vessels to help determine vessel forms as opposed to small fragments normally recovered on land.

(Below) A cold but happy diver with largely intact Iron Age vessel recovered from lochbed after plotting location with GPS and recording site information. Finds are now in the National Museum of Edinburgh (though not on display to my knowledge). Recording information about the location and dating the finds is equ
ally as important as finding such fascinating material in the first place when creating a meaningful interpretation of site use and the inhabitants' lives - one of the core aims of any modern archaeological investigation.


Focus on Island Dwellings in the Western Isles

Although within eyesight of the Scottish mainland, in many ways the Western Isles are a different world, both in the archaeological and geographical sense. Water presents a strong presence within the landscape of this island chain which contains over 7,000 lochs and lochans. To put this figure into perspective, the Western Isles make up only 1.3% of the United Kingdom’s landmass, yet covers some 15% of the freshwater surface area, over eleven and a half times the average found elsewhere in the UK. This landscape, often littered with shallow lochs dotted with reefs and small natural islets, presents ideal conditions for the occupation of small islands.

Ian Armit relates in Beyond the Brochs, “The Western Isles exist on the periphery of archaeological awareness: a forbidding tangle of brochs, duns, galleried duns, island duns, wheelhouses, etc.” While this sentiment may hold an element of truth, it must be remembered it is the archaeologist themselves who have created these terms, potentially leaving readers (if not fellow scholars) awash in a confusing sea of categories and sub-categories.

However, the term crannog has remained the most recognisable and popular name throughout Scotland and Ireland. The historically intended meaning of the word 'crannog' is one of debate and uncertainty, not having appeared in written records until sometime around the 13th century. It is commonly associated with the Gaelic prefix crann- which has been likened to a form of timber or wood and as such, archaeologist have generally restricted the term to only those sites which contain an element of timber.

Rather confusingly, the term crannog is not commonly used in reference to Hebridean island dwellings despite the overwhelming similarities to mainland sites-this is primarily due to a widespread insistence among archaeologists that proper crannogs should contain a timber element.

The crux of the 'crannog debate' is this: in the Hebridean landscape builders would simply not have had the option of using large quantities of timber.

All told, despite definitions which separate Hebridean sites from mainland islets, they are fundamentally the same concept-people living on small islets.

Above-Excavating crannogs can be a dirty job...

...but the results can perfectly preserved timbers over 2,000
years old - something that is a very rare event
on 'dry' sites (photo G. Cavers).


Excavation and Features of Island Dwellings

For archaeologists that take on the complexities of island excavation the results can far exceed those commonly found on dry sites. Large amounts of waterlogged remains including timber posts, wooden bowls and eating utensils, organics such as leather and textiles and even food residue remain in a near-perfect state of preservation. The low oxygen content in lochs also helps to create ideal anaerobic conditions that inhibit the growth of bacteria which normally destroys organics deposited on land. However, once taken from their protective surroundings and exposed to air, these delicate artefacts must be quickly conserved or they will perish, often in a matter of hours. The best approach is to keep them immersed in water from the loch or leave them in place unless removed for laboratory conservation and analysis.

The people who built these watery niches for their homes would have been hearty souls who tolerated cold and harsh conditions that would easily put most people off today. Besides using simple boats in their efforts, crannog builders would have swam in the lochs or probed the lochbeds with long poles and sounding weights, learning the topography of the loch bed before picking a suitable spot. Indeed, underwater investigations reveal many are perched adjacent to steep drop-offs indicating an intimate knowledge by the builders of what lay beneath the dark waters.

Island dwellings are normally connected to the shore by a narrow causeway or path which often curves or ‘zigzags’. This is typically regarded as a means of making access tricky for unwelcome visitors although it can also simply reflect the easiest route along the lochbed to build. Hebridean causeways in particular represent a marvel of engineering, often incorporating stones up to a metre in length to effectively create an underwater wall. Dun Ban in Loch Hornary, with its gracefully curving 'S' shaped causeway using stones up to a half ton or more in size, is perhaps the finest expression of this craft which displays the elaborate methods and proficiency of the builders. 


The Neolithic site of Eilean Domhnuill on North Uist. Scotland's first 'artificial island'. But was it originally intended to be an island or did rising loch levels make it one? Either way, generation after generation continued to occupy this tiny islet for nearly 1,000 years from approximately 3500BC-2500BC (photo c. RCAHMS).



A diver standing on the shallow reef or shelf next to the Post-Medieval ruins of Dun Raouill, South Uist. Historical documents state construction took place around 1600AD while a wedding was registered here c.1650AD. The later use of islets testifies to the continuity of this tradition starting in the Neolithic Period over 5,000 ago (photo Nataliya Danilova).

Structures on Island Dwellings

The buildings which sat atop Hebridean islets took varied forms over the ensuing millennia, ranging from simple sub-circular stone enclosures to elaborate brochs in the Iron Age with complex double walling locked together with cross-slabs and ground floor galleries. Hebridean island dwellings are also home to several wheelhouses which commonly date to the early centuries AD such as Eilean Maelit, North Uist, with their distinctive radial interiors.

With the arrival of the Norse around 800AD, the use of island dwellings declines rapidly but does not die out completely. Despite being a sea-faring people, there is a tendency for Norse settlement to occupy central locations in the landscape rather than marginal areas such as small islets.

Moving into the Medieval and Post-Medieval Period, this tradition once again witnesses a resurgence in popularity. Dun Raouill or Dùn Raghnaill in Loch Druidibeg, South Uist was built with a small castle. Today the substantial upstanding remains are very prominent in the landscape and can be spotted from a great distance. A general rule of thumb for settlement in Atlantic Scotland-if the building foundations are circular, they very likely are prehistoric in nature as circular forms dominated up to at least the mid-first millennium AD. However, excavation is still the surest way to determine this as much later 'hip-walled' blackhouses from the 18th century have occasionally been mistaken for prehistoric settlements at first glance.


(Above) The enigmatic and enchanting site of Dun Nighean Righ Lochlainn, North Uist. The name translates from the Gaelic as 'The Fort of the Daughter of the King of Norway'. However, pottery located near this completely artificial islet indicates prolific Iron Age use instead (photo author).

Research for this project was possible due to the generous support of the 2010 GAMA award which commemorates the work of Herbert Gatliff and Angus MacLeod. Many thanks also goes to the Gatliff Trust which operates rustic hostels in the Western Isles.  The Gatliff trust hostels are located in some of the most sceniclandscapes in the Hebrides and collectively make for an unforgettable stop.


        (Above) Photo of sunrise behind Gatliff Trust hostel on Berneray, taken at 4:30am on June 14th 2010 (author).

Thank you for viewing and I hope you enjoy the free downloads from the Scottish Islands Explorer, the UK's only magazine dedicated to exploring the islands of Scotland.

For further reading:

Below is a through bibliography of key texts on later Scottish prehistory, regional Scottish archaeology and island dwellings if you would like more information on this fascinating subject. Key texts are listed as 'Highly Recommended'.

Armit, I. 1992. The Later Prehistory of the Western Isles of Scotland; Oxford: BAR Brit Ser. 221.

Armit, I. 1996. The Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles, University Press, Edinburgh.

Armit, I. 2003. ‘The Drowners: permanence and transience in the Hebridean Neolithic,’ in Armit, I, Murphy, E. and Simpson, D (eds.) Neolithic Settlement in Ireland and Western Britain, Oxbow, Oxford.

Beveridge, E. 1903. Coll and Tiree: their prehistoric forts and ecclesiastical antiquities with notices of ancient remains in the Treshnish Isles, Edinburgh.

Beveridge, E. 1911. North Uist: Its Archaeology and Topography, William Brown, Edinburgh. (Highly Recommended)

Blundell, F.O., 1909. ‘On Further Examination of Islands in the Beauly Firth, Loch Bruiach, Loch Moy, Loch Carry, Loch Lundy, Loch Oich, Loch Lochy, and Loch Treig.’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 44 pp.12-33.

Blundell, F.O. 1913. ‘Further notes on the artificial islands in the Highland area’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 47, pp. 257-302.

Campbell, E. 1999. Saints and Sea-kings: The First Kingdom of the Scots, Historic Scotland, Edinburgh.

Cavers, M.G. 2010. Crannogs and Later Prehistoric Settlement in Western Scotland, BAR British Series.

Crone, B. A. 1993. ‘Crannogs and chronologies’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 123 (1993), 245-54.

Crone, B. A. 2000. The History of a Scottish Lowland Crannog: Excavations at Buiston, Ayrshire, 1989-90, STAR Monograph 4, AOC/Historic Scotland, Edinburgh.

Crone, B. A. & Campbell E. 2005. A Crannog of the First Millennium AD: Excavation by Jack Scott at Loch Glashan, Argyll, 1960. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Dixon, T.N. 2004. The Crannogs of Scotland, Tempus, Stroud. (Highly Recommended)

Fredengren, C. 2002. Crannogs: a study of people's interaction with lakes, with special reference to Loch Gara in the North West of Ireland, Wordwell, Bray.

Harding D.W. 2004. ‘The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, natives and invaders’ Routledge, London.

Harding, D.W. and Dixon, T.N. 2000. ‘Dun Bharabhat, Cnip: an Iron Age settlement in West Lewis’, Calanais Research Series No.2, Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

Henderson, J. C. 1998, ‘Islets through time: the definition, dating and distribution of Scottish crannogs’, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 227-244.

Henderson, J.C. 2007. The Atlantic Iron Age: Settlement and Identity in the First Millennium BC, Routledge, London.

Holley, M. 2000. The Artificial Islets/Crannogs of the Central Inner Hebrides, BAR British Series 303.

James, S. 1999. The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? British Museum Press, London.

Morrison, I. 1985. Landscape with Lake Dwellings, University Press, Edinburgh. (Highly Recommended)

Munro, R. 1882. Ancient Scottish Lake Dwellings, or Crannogs, David Douglas, Edinburgh. (Highly Recommended)

O'Sullivan, A. 1998. The Archaeology of Lake Settlement in Ireland, Discovery Programme, Dublin.

Parker-Pearson, M., Sharples N., Mulville, J., Smith, H., 1999. Between Land and Sea: excavations at Dun Vulan, South Uist, SEARCH, vol.3, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield.

Parker Pearson, M., Sharples, N. and Symonds, N. 2004. South Uist: archaeology and history of a Hebridean island, Stroud: Tempus. (Highly Recommended)

RCAHMS, 1928. Ninth Report with Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the Outer Hebrides, Skye and the small isles, Edinburgh.

Thomas, F.W.L. 1890. ‘On the Duns of the Outer Hebrides’ in: Archaeologica Scotia, vol. 5, pp. 365-415.
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Rob L,
4 Jan 2011, 07:33