Student Research – Reconstructing the Bronze & Iron Age Landscape of Gairloch

University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute postgraduate student Hannah Genders Boyd updates us on her continuing MRes research into the Bronze and Iron Age landscapes of Gairloch on the west coast of Scotland.

Hannah takes up her story…….” Hi, I’m the latest Research Masters student to join the Archaeology Institute at UHI, based at Orkney College. I’ll be spending the next year undertaking research in environmental archaeology: primarily using pollen analysis techniques in order to reconstruct a prehistoric landscape.

I’m working with a supervisory team from three institutions: Dr Scott Timpany from UHI, Dr Althea Davies from the University of St Andrews and Dr Tim Mighall from the University of Aberdeen, whose collective expertise will guide me through the project.

My background is in history, archaeology and climate heritage – but putting these things together to tackle Environmental Archaeology is a new challenge for me.

Over the following year I will be undertaking a masters by research (MRes) degree, which is a postgraduate course that involves completing original research and producing a 30,000 word thesis at the end of it. My research is based on a group of hut circles (Bronze and Iron Age roundhouses) in Gairloch, over on the West Coast of Scotland.

One of the hut circles at Achtercairn, in Gairloch. Image credit: Dr Scott Timpany

These were originally excavated as part of the WeDigs community project in 2014, and my role now is to understand how the people who lived in these structures interacted with their environment. The Wedigs community are a passionate group of Wester Ross locals who first caught my attention when they were nominated for a Heritage Angel Award back in 2018. I’m looking forward to building on their work and feeding into this exciting ongoing project.

I’m using pollen analysis (palynology) to reconstruct the landscape in which these structures were built and looking for evidence of how these communities were utilising this area, such as evidence of pastoral or arable farming. The pollen I’m analysing was preserved in a nearby peat bog. A 4.2m core was extracted from the bog, which was then sub-sampled for pollen and these samples were processed to create slides.

Pollen grains viewed through the microscope (x400) – tree pollen of alder and hazel can be seen in this photo. Photo Dr Scott Timpany

By identifying the variety of species present, represented by their pollen, we can begin to build a picture of the prehistoric landscape and how it changed over time.

My research will specifically be looking at the Bronze and Iron Age periods to which the hut circles have been dated, a period of around 2400 years (from 2000 BC to AD 400). The project will investigate wider themes such as the temporality of these settlements and whether they were used seasonally, together with how people were manipulating this landscape (e.g. woodland clearance and farming).

I hope to be able to understand more about how these communities responded to climatic changes: we know the end of the Bronze Age saw a serious climatic downturn, I want to know how resilient communities in this area of western Scotland were to environmental challenges and how they adapted to such changes. This is particularly interesting to consider now as communities, and heritage sites, on the West Coast are once again dealing with increased rainfall and other climatic deterioration. I’ll be aided in answering these questions by other techniques, including geochemical analysis and radiocarbon dating.

The view out from the hut circles, looking towards the Isle of Skye. Image credit: Scott Timpany

This year is going to be challenging, as I’m jumping in to palaeoenvironmental studies with both feet. But nonetheless I’m excited. This project offers the chance to delve into an amazing archaeological landscape in Wester Ross and get to grips with how it has been shaped by human activity over time.

Improving our understanding of Bronze and Iron Age land use systems through research which takes into account architecture and landscape is deemed a priority by the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework . Here my research will marry environmental evidence with the knowledge gained through survey and excavation by the WeDigs group: it’s a fantastic opportunity to work alongside the community and enhance the project with specialist knowledge, shining new light on the region through an improved understanding the prehistoric landscape.”

Hannah Genders Boyd
University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute
@HGendersBoyd

If you are inspired to take the plunge and apply for an undergraduate or postgraduate course with us at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute then drop us a line on studyarchaeology@uhi.ac.uk and we can discuss your options.

Western Isles Symposium was a great success

Barpa Langass

In the second week of January, Dr Rebecca Rennell of the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute organised Scotland’s Island Research Framework for Archaeology (SIRFA) first research symposium.

The symposium itself was hosted in Lochmaddy, North Uist in the Western Isles with the purpose of bringing together a wide range of stakeholders in order to identify and discuss research gaps, opportunities and priorities for archaeological research across the Western Isles. The event was the first of three annual SIRFA project symposia; Year 2 will focus on Shetland, Year 3 in Orkney.

In its first few months of operation, SIRFA has proved to be very successful with The Western Isles Symposium surpassing all expectations by attracting over 80 delegates , with a further 25 individuals indicating their support and desire to input to the project as it progresses.

The delegates represented a diverse range of stakeholders including professors, lecturers and research staff and post-graduate students from 15 different universities, local community and third sector groups and national heritage organizations (see Figure 1 for breakdown). Key note speakers included Niall Sharples from Cardiff University and Mike Parker Pearson of UCL.

Figure 1: Delegates attending the SIRFA Western Isles Symposium by sector


The four day event was structured around thematic and period-based workshop sessions, public lectures and fieldtrips to Baile Sear, Lioncleit and Barpa Langass. Delegates were asked to live tweet from the event and
if you want to catch up on the events and the discussion you can follow the conversation at #SIRFA2019

“SIRFA involves working with a range of stakeholders to identify gaps in current knowledge and agree where archaeological researchers should focus their attention now and in the future,” stated Dr Rebecca Rennell, “The expectation is that local and national bodies overseeing archaeology, as well as funders of archaeological research, will require that all research across Scotland’s islands reference and respond to the priorities outlined in this framework. It is therefore a significant piece of work and one that will direct and shape the future of archaeological research in the islands.”

The event was funded by Historic Environment Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and CnES.

New Archaeology Research Framework Launched

The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute is pleased to announce the launch of Scotland’s Island Research Framework for Archaeology (SIRFA).

The four year project is supported by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers Scotland and is funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy.

The project commences with the First SIRFA Symposium which will be held in the Outer Hebrides from Monday 7th January to Friday 11th January 2019. The conference is open to everyone who works in the archaeological research field including museum professional, commercial archaeologists, academic researchers, archaeology students, community heritage groups, independent researchers and local and national government agencies. 

The focus at the symposium will be:

  • to identify and agree key research gaps
  • to identify and agree areas of research potential
  • to propose a statement of research objectives and development by period and theme

The symposium will form the first in a series of conferences to be held in the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland over the next few years.

The project is co-ordinated by UHI Archaeology Institute lecturer Dr Rebecca Rennell based at Lews castle College UHI, Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

For more information on SIRFA and the First Western Isles Symposium see  their website or email Dr Rebecca Rennell sirfa@uhi.ac.uk