Excavating Scotland’s Outlier Treasures

The Outer Hebrides is peppered with a strange variety of landscapes ranging from the spectacular, ceaseless seascapes to ancient monument-dotted wetlands, and barren, desolate rock plains. In fact, the place feels so primordial that one barely believes its Scotland.

Last year, as part of an archaeology excavation with Cardiff University, I had the pleasure of visiting the lovely islands of the Outer Hebrides, specifically, South Uist, and more precisely again, Orasay. Before commencing with the nitty gritty (concerning how to get there and the local food, etc.), let’s immediately engage with the reasons for visiting the Hebrides, and by extension, perhaps, other Scottish Isles, too: The history and the natural landscape.

Like most places in the UK, this corner is filled with cart-loads of archaeology that will be of interest not only for the many academics who venture north from their book-dabbled university offices to the frosty, mud-hard, trowel-dug trenches, but also those Digital Travellers with a penchant for the past or a thirst for remote places.

A large concentration of Bronze and Iron age structures remain in situ at South Uist, including Brochs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broch) and wheelhouses. Towards the interior of the island, some of the largest standing stones in the entire world wait to grace the visitor. The wetland regions boast an abundance of medieval remains, where Scottish and Viking cultures long-ago battled for dominance in these once strategic locations. Thankfully, these marital peoples have rather calmed down in the 21st century, and the modern locals are friendly and altogether welcoming.

If, however, you are less interested in the archaeology, Uist has a profundity of natural beauty. South Uist has the good fortune to boast a strong correlation between some of the most beautiful environmental sites coupled with some of the most important historical places. At Orasay, for instance—where the team I was part of excavated and later reconstructed an Iron Age house (now open to the public)—is on a promontory extending into the ocean that offers one of the best views on the island.

In the mountainous east, the hillwalker aficionado will find plenty to stumble upon. Numerous distractions that promise to swamp any Instagram account abound: Low lying black-lands competing with vapour-venting wetlands and beautifully small lakes that look deceptively swimmable, all of which war with each other to become your next Facebook cover. Choosing the best shot is an unenviable task.

In the opposite direction, facing the Atlantic to the west, white-sand beaches lazily adjoin prehistoric outcrops that would not be out of place in a holiday brochure for Thailand—minus the crowds, but inclusive of some of the most extraordinary panoramas anywhere in Blighty. And that’s not all. These outlier isles have treasures more valuable than the views: The variety of wildlife in this nippy ecosystem is diverse. Red deer, majestic and antler strewn, canter between tufts of grass; many birds glide and crest above, swooping into the sea to catch what the hardy fishermen leave behind; and all around, aquatic creatures like puffins, dolphins, whales, jellyfish and all types of crustaceans, call this place home.

While life blossoms all around this distant landscape, the island is somewhat barren of trees due to extensive overuse in the Bronze Age. But they are making a comeback: Patches of woodland have returned. In some places this is down to a concerted reforestation effort, while in others the motivations are more commercial. For the hiker, ornithologist, or historian like myself, the replanting affords not only an impression of what this environment might have looked like before the time of copper and tin alloys, but these semi-artificial forests are also wonderful treats to visit as well.
So, to the mundane: getting there. Within Great Britain, it is easy enough, albeit a very long coach journey/drive is required if coming from the very south (allow around 20-24 hours, 3 of which are on a ferry). For those not wishing to spend quite so long behind the wheel (or upon a coach seat), there are a few airports dotted around the place. Generally, a ferry across a cold and brackish sea will, at some stage, almost certainly be on your itinerary.

When one arrives on any of these distant, half-forgotten islands, a particular reality is soon apparent: for those Digital Travellers who happen not to be archaeology professors specialising in Scottish history, navigating the roads and byways can be a source of frustration. The lion’s share of funding for research and conservation of these sites is not as spectacular as the views or the remains - and there certainly isn’t much left in the kitty for signposting, even for the main tourist entrepôts. That is, sad to say, also a problem with some of the road infrastructure itself which is simply missing in many sections. With these problems in mind, be prepared for long walks through waist-high grass and ever-present ambushes from plentiful midges and horse flies.

The local cuisine in the Hebrides isn't spectacular, but if you're familiar with the "typical" English pub food of cottage pie, spaghetti bolognese, and a full English, you should be set here. That being said, as one might expect, the locales do offer a great selection of fish dishes, courtesy of the fact that this remains a primary industry for many. If you do manage to make friends with any of the fishermen that dot the local pubs, you might be able to get a couple of bargains. Locally sourced, fresh, economical lobsters were a delight for a band of students like my friends and I used to slender budgets and university cafeterias. If you want a night off from cooking even when the most incredible maritime bounties aren’t too far away, then there are some decent pubs and restaurants around, though they are on the pricey side. Plan B is, as often is the case for the Digital Traveller of lesser means, the Co-op, which is pretty cheap and has a surprisingly large selection of foodstuffs for a branch this far north of the mainland.

In Orasay itself, there is essentially one pub, The Borrodale. Temporary patrons should expect to feel somewhat prized by the owner, particularly if you are joined by several Digital Traveller compatriots: there are a few less than 2000 people on the entire island of South Uist, so a group of 4-5 would be very welcome.

And lastly, it should probably go without saying (given the location of South Uist) that one should be mindful of the limited WiFi and the poor mobile phone signal, particularly if you have to stay connected to the rest of the world.

Undoubtedly, the Outer Hebrides are a treasure worth discovering, and worth spending every penny on the journey to get there.

Editorial: Jack Dowling is a fresh graduate of the University of Cardiff where he earned a BA Degree in Ancient History and Archaeology. He has visited many countries including Turkey, Iceland, and, most recently, the United States. His studies at Cardiff have also taken Jack to Roman digs in Italy, and, of course, Iron Age sites in the Outer Hebrides. Between adventures, Jack lives with his fellow university graduates in Cardiff, and is currently working on an innovative Youtube series centered around his third year thesis.

Photo credits: Jessica Beth Wooley, 2017

Posted in: UK

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