Book Review

MIKE PARKER PEARSON (ed.). From machair to mountains: archaeological survey and excavation in South Uist. xii+428 pages, 257 illustrations, 43 tables. 2012. Oxford: Oxbow; 978-1-84217-451-7 hardback £35.

Review by Jane Downes
Orkney College, University of the Highlands and Islands, UK

Downes image

This weighty book constitutes Volume 4 of the SEARCH (Sheffield Environmental and Archaeological Research Campaign in the Hebrides) series. It draws together several years of survey and excavation conducted by the SEARCH team on South Uist, a small island some 30km long within the Outer Hebrides which form part of the wider Western Isles archipelago of Scotland. South Uist has been the subject of decades of intensive landscape survey and excavation by SEARCH, and by other institutions, described in the Introduction. In common with SEARCH volumes 1–3, the book takes a landscape approach, structured in three major sections: 'Survey', 'Excavation' and 'Historical and geographical studies', all sections being cross- or multi-period.

The title reflects the character of the landscape of the island, the machair being the fertile zone of calcareous sand that extends all along the west coast, with hills and mountains located in the eastern part of the island, and 'blacklands' between these two zones. Each of these three zones represents different resources and uses, with settlement from the middle Iron Age to Norse periods concentrated in the main on the machair, and pre-Clearance township boundaries running east-west to incorporate machair, blacklands and higher ground within each territory.

In chapter 2, 'The machair survey', Parker Pearson sets out his provocative ideas that townships had prehistoric, nucleated, origins: "the system of land allotment amongst the townships is essentially an Iron Age phenomenon which survived substantially intact until the Clearances of the early 19th Century" (p. 12). The analysis of the machair survey covering 33 townships, combined with excavation results, is said to "confirm the proposition rather than weaken it" and it is felt "there is a very strong case for long-term continuity" (p. 40). Surveys described in chapters 3–8 in the blacklands and more mountainous zones were targeted to examine settlement patterns in relation to these propositions, and to characterise settlement more generally in these under-explored areas.

A series of excavations were undertaken to 'ground truth' the survey results, to investigate the antecedents for non-broch Iron Age settlements on the machair and potential continuities, and to examine to what extent settlements on the blacklands represented the splitting off of nucleated settlements in late Norse/medieval and post-medieval times. Chapters 10 and 11 detail the excavations of early Bronze Age settlement sites at Cill Donnain, and contain discussion of the Beaker settlements and landscapes which, as Sharples rightly stresses (here in reference to Sligeanach), represent sites "of considerable international importance" (p. 255).

The excavations on Frobost machair (chapter 13) revealed continuous settlement from Middle Iron Age to Norse periods within three settlement mounds, which adds weight to the argument that these long-lived nucleated settlements constitute proto-townships. Excavations of two sites on the blacklands are reported: Gearraidh Bhailteas, Milton (chapter 15, following Fleming's survey of the same site, chapter 3) and Beinn na Mhic Aongheis, Bornais (chapter 16). In the case of the former the aim was to gain "an understanding of medieval settlement and land-use" of the blacklands (p. 294) and in the latter to investigate whether the site represented relocation on the blacklands following abandonment of the adjacent Norse-period settlement on the machair. The evidence suggests that both sites are broadly contemporary (fourteenth–seventeenth centuries AD), with Gearraidh Bhailteas slightly earlier.

The book makes a significant contribution to historical archaeology in Scotland. Paradoxically less is known about medieval and post-medieval settlement here than in prehistoric times, and this volume does much to redress this. In chapter 4 Moreland's report of survey of the mountains is a compelling, almost lyrical account of the later periods of industry, agriculture and Clearance. The frustration of survey of so many later undated sites is expressed in a number of places in the volume; for example Raven, in his study of shielings (chapter 7), comments that interpretation "rises little above supposition, achieved by combining transposed theories and customs documented from other places onto a practice that is known to have taken place during the 18th and 19th centuries" (p. 171). Although shielings remain enigmatic, the examination of shieling practices which combines historical data and survey evidence is compelling, and is complemented by the excellent chapter (19) by Smith on 'The ethnohistory of Hebridean agriculture'.

One criticism of the volume, which applies more to the Survey section than any other, is that the illustrations are disappointing. Some colour photographs would have been welcome to give a richer view and a better idea of the landscapes, and the quantity and quality of illustrations in the Survey section are variable with some chapters quite poorly supported. Each chapter is self-contained, presenting survey or excavation data, finds and references, so each can be read as stand-alone pieces. This could have led to a disjointed account, particularly since it reports on research over a long period, but the aims and themes are set out very clearly, creating a coherent whole. The concluding chapter 'Settlement, agriculture and society in South Uist before the Clearances' contains some honest appraisal of the "intellectual baggage and prior expectations" (p. 401) brought to South Uist at the start of the study, and of the challenges posed, especially in the machair environment. The final chapter also contains an important pottery chronology, settlement characterisation and summary, as well as comments on wider theoretical and historical connections. It works well as a closing chapter.

For all its rather dense and monochrome appearance, I recommend this book to a wide readership: to those wanting to know more about the absorbing archaeology, history and ethnography of this part of the Western Isles; to students and researchers as a jumping off point for further study of this fascinating region; and to those coordinating complex area projects anywhere in the world. The book goes to the heart of 'unwritten histories' and the combined landscape and historical approach has provided so much valuable insight into lives, traditions and beliefs of the inhabitants of South Uist.