Barvas Machair Archaeological Survey: by Mary MacLeod (Part 1)

In the school on the evening of 3 December 1999 Western Isles archaeologist Mary MacLeod presented the initial results of the survey and commented on objects brought by the audience. This summary of the first part of her account deals with the badly-eroded Cnoc Mòr.

The first Ordnance Survey Map (1850) shows no erosion in the Cnoc Mòr area but shows erosion moving towards the cemetery area. Aerial photographs from the 1940s show that erosion was quite small and people say there was little erosion on Cnoc Mòr then. Now, however, huge amounts of archaeology are being lost there day by day through erosion.

Last summer, the archaeological team surveyed the whole machair area. This diagram (opposite page) is one of a number produced and each black dot marks the centre of an archaeological site. As the loch level was low we were able to record sites that are normally under water.
Cnoc Mòr looking east to Upper Barvas
Cnoc Mòr looking east to Upper Barvas

In the centre of this area of active erosion on Cnoc Mòr is the rectangular house that I have shown photographs of previously, with lines of fields (feannagan) spread out around it. The 1850 OS map shows no building or fields there, so at that time it must have been covered. The surveyor was keen on archaeology and included every single ruin he found. If no building is shown on the map there was no building visible on the ground. But now there is, with a field system around it. We now have pottery from that area found by Catriona Gilchrist and it is probably from the 14th or 15th century. It is finer than craggan ware, with a decorated rim, and is on display in the Museum in Stornoway.

We think this is a little medieval farm. We know where some medieval villages were in the islands but we have not been able to record the plan of a building and its fields. It is particularly interesting because these fields seem to be feannagan and no one is sure when people started cultivating by making feannagan. Many people thought that did not start until the 18th century. 

Although not much of it remains, the building itself is interesting. It is rectangular, quite large, and the stone walls have an earth core like blackhouse walls. At one end, there is a corn-drying kiln. It is probably later than the first part of the building. So this building may have begun as a dwelling house and in later times, people inserted a corn kiln into it. 

There is a little cairn nearby. Hardly any of it remains but we got some tiny fragments of burnt bone from it. The presence of burnt bone there is significant. The bone pieces are too small for us to classify as animal or human but we hope to get them dated. It might be a cremation burial from the Viking period.

Vikings tended to burn their dead on a pyre and add stones on top to make a cairn. Generally, these cairns were close to farm buildings. We shall see if that is the case here. It would be nice to find something distinctively of the Viking period but as yet we have nothing earlier than Medieval.

That itself makes this landscape particularly important.

Severe weather erosion revealing distinct wall markings in the sand
Severe weather erosion revealing distinct wall markings in the sand

Machair Plan