Marking Identity in the Medieval Hebrides

Dun An Sticer, North Uist. Reconstruction copyright: Comhairle nan Eilean Siar & David Simon.

Dr. Mary MacLeod Rivett from the University of the Highlands and Islands Lews Castle College talks about her recent research concerning changes in 9th Century domestic and political life in the Outer Hebrides.

In the 9th century, incoming Scandinavians in the Outer Hebrides moved into a settled landscape at odds with their religious, ethnic and cultural identities. They named it, occupied it, managed and buried in it for over 450 years, until AD 1266, when at the Treaty of Perth the islands became part of Scotland. At both these points in time, in the 9th and the 13th centuries, changes in landscape, artefacts and architecture marked the political transition, but were underpinned also with real continuities, suggesting active manipulations of material culture to state and emphasise chosen identities in times of change.  This work highlights specific areas of these changes, in ceramics and in some aspects of architecture.

outer-hebridesThe 9th century saw a change throughout the Outer Hebrides from late Iron Age rounded architectural forms, to rectilinear building.  High status broch sites such as Dun Mhulan in South Uist (Parker Pearson 1999 , 196) and Beirgh in Lewis (Harding & Gilmour 2000, 14) were abandoned. Large, bow-sided halls of Scandinavian type were built near both these sites, reflecting a new political reality (Sharples 2005; Armit 1992).


The Treaty of Perth allowed Hebrideans to choose whether they remained or moved to Norway, ‘freely and in peace’. On the islands, after the 13th century, architecture changed again. Some brochs were reoccupied, for example Dun an Sticer in North Uist and Dun Mhulan (Parker Pearson et al. 2004, 90).  Smaller farms like Cille Pheadair in South Uist (ParkerPearson et al 2004, 137-144) and Barabhas in Lewis (MacLeod Rivett & Cowie, forthcoming) were abandoned, and the big, bow-sided hall at Bornais was replaced by a new, smaller building. The reoccupied brochs in particular referred back to a pre-Scandinavian past, reinforcing the Scottish identities of islanders, strengthening their links to the land they controlled, in the new cultural environment.

Inside the House

bornaisIdentity is more than architecture, though, and arguably life inside buildings says more about people’s perception of their own  identity.  Incoming Scandinavians, from largely a ceramic Norway, adopted the pottery technology of the prehistoric Hebrides, suggesting integration and continuity with local populations.

By the 11th century (Lane 2007, 12-3), the population were producing flat, pottery, baking platters (above), probably used to make hard bread of oats or rye – oat cakes or crispbread.  Analogous platters of soapstone were found across the whole North Atlantic in the areas of Scandinavian occupation.

After AD 1266, some households continued to use this type of pottery into the fourteenth century, for example at Bornais (Lane 2007, 13), a site which showed strong trade and cultural links to Norway throughout the 13th century (Parker Pearson et al. 2004, 144).  This indicates, unsurprisingly, that political change did not necessarily determine the identity that people chose to express privately, in a domestic context, through the food they prepared and ate, and that certain types of food may have been associated with familial identity, or wider perceptions of group identity (Diaz-Andreu et al. 2005, 105-6).

Identity in Times of Change

The expression of identity, overt or private, has the potential to become politically charged in times of change. Bringing together historical and archaeological sources, the 9th and 13th centuries in the Hebrides can be studied as periods of such change, when a population had to adapt rapidly to new realities of power.  Material culture was used in various contexts, at both these times, to signal accommodation with, and subversion of the changes imposed on the people living in the islands.

Maps copyright MacLeod Archaeology and Anne Campbell.

Reconstructions copyright Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and David Simon.