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South Uist, Hairteabhagh

Lazy Beds(S) (19th Century), Peat Cutting(S) (19th Century), Peat Stand(S) (19th Century), Township (19th Century)

Site Name South Uist, Hairteabhagh

Classification Lazy Beds(S) (19th Century), Peat Cutting(S) (19th Century), Peat Stand(S) (19th Century), Township (19th Century)

Alternative Name(s) Hartavagh

Canmore ID 126023

Site Number NF81NW 3

NGR NF 829 151

NGR Description Centred NF 829 151

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
Canmore Disclaimer. © Copyright and database right 2020.

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Administrative Areas

  • Council Western Isles
  • Parish South Uist
  • Former Region Western Isles Islands Area
  • Former District Western Isles
  • Former County Inverness-shire

Archaeology Notes

NF81NW 3 centred 829 151

A township comprising nine unroofed buildings is depicted on the 1st edition of the OS 6-inch map (Inverness-shire, Hebrides, South Uist etc. 1880, sheet lviii). One roofed, four unroofed buildings and a sheep wash are shown on the current edition of the OS 1:10000 map (1971).

Information from RCAHMS (SAH) 28 May 1997.


Field Visit (29 June 2012)

This remote township occupies the slopes surrounding the bay of Hairteabhagh on the SE peninsula of South Uist, over 4km from the nearest settlement. There are remains of extensive and varied lazy bed (feannagan) cultivation covering an area of almost 150 acres, interspersed with areas of peat cutting, and contained within an intermittent head dyke. Of further interest are a series of fish traps around Eilean Dubh.

The settlement consists of houses spread around the fringe of the bay connected by a well-constructed track way from North Glendale, which has been constructed from quarried pits along the route. The earliest buildings appear to be well-constructed rectangular blackhouses of c1800, some of which are constructed across the slope and others in line with it. In both cases, they have been set into the slope and a basic drain or soak away runs along the back walls. Each has a single entrance in the most convenient side wall, and most have an internal partition which is probably an addition. There are two later buildings which are considerably shorter, perhaps precluding the use of the building as a byre house, and have a central doorway. In addition, the most recent buildings are cottages of 3-bays about 8m by 4m internally, each of which has two windows facing the bay, fireplaces in each gable with wall head stacks, and mortared walls.

The township was probably founded in the late 18th or early 19th century by crofters that had been displaced from the more fertile machair lands on the west coast. Though largely abandoned by the middle of the 19th century (OS 6 inch Inverness (Hebrides) 1880, Sheet lviii), it appears to have been resettled in the early part of the 20th century, and at least one building was still roofed in 1971 (OS 1:10000).

Visited by RCAHMS (GFG) 29 June 2012

Note (August 2017)

If life ever happens to bring you To this place on a visit, You’ll see sights with your eye to stimulate your thoughts.’

‘Ma bheir tachartas gu bràth

Thu don àit’ seo air chuairt

Chì thu seallaidhean le d’ shùil

A bheir ùrachd dha d’ smuain

If life ever happens to bring you

To this place on a visit,

You’ll see sights with your eye

to stimulate your thoughts.’

Scotland’s history is full of amazing characters – Kings, Clan Chiefs, Roman Generals. Its archaeology abounds with evidence for mysterious prehistoric peoples whose lives and experiences can only be guessed at. The period my site belongs to is the first where the experience of ordinary people is recorded extensively, and occasionally in their own words.

Hairteabhagh, like many such communities in the Western Isles, was largely abandoned by the early 20th century. It seems isolated and eerily quiet now, but it was once home to a hard-working Gaelic community. South Uist bard and crofter Dòmhnall Aonghais Bhàin was moved enough by the site of the abandoned bay to write a poem considering life in Hairteabhagh as it was remembered in the local community. It provides a useful guide to the archaeology that survives there today.

You’ll see memories aplenty and get knowledge that’s new - All histories will come, So neatly to your view

Chì thu cuimhneachain gu leòr

‘S gheibh thu eòlas as ùr –

Bidh na h-eachdraidhean gu lèir

tighinn cho rèidh fo shùil.

You’ll see memories aplenty

and get knowledge that’s new -

All histories will come

So neatly to your view

Chì thu tobraichean tha fàs, agus làraichean fuar - You’ll see wells that are deserted, and the cold sites of houses…’

The remains of thirteen blackhouses lie clustered around the bay, exactly matching the number of families living in the township in 1851. These rectangular, stone-and-earth-built houses are typical of the place and period. They were constructed of local materials in a traditional style, and were intended as accommodation for a family and, in the winter, their cattle. The practice of sharing living space with cattle allows both people and animals to share warmth in winter, and is common across many places and periods. Many of these houses have tallan, dividers which separate the byre-end from the living space for the families. These were probably added later – reflecting changing living standards across the region in the period. These houses were abandoned by the end of the 19th century. In 1920, when crofters returning from the Great War were agitating for land across the Hebrides, two new crofters’ cottages were built alongside the ruins of these earlier dwellings.

‘Chì thu buailtean a’ chruidh-laoigh, air gach taobh anns a’ ghleann -You’ll see the folds of the milk-cows on each side of the glen…’

The hillsides above the settlement are littered with remains of crofting. Stone and turf enclosures survive as low footings, evidence of cattle folds and later sheep fanks. Feannagan, ribbon-like cultivation remains, blanket the landscape – testament to many hours of back-breaking work with the highland foot-plough, or cas chrom. Peat-stacks also dot the landscape, as do the scars of the peat-cutting. Once cut, it was piled to dry on the stacks and later used as fuel to keep the hearths of the nearby houses burning.

‘Seòltachd gu glacadh èisg, dearbhadh ainbheirt an t-sluaigh - A device to catch fish, that shows people’s plight’

One of the most striking features of Hairteabhagh is Eilean Dubh – the Black Isle – which lies in the centre of the bay. It is ringed by several caraidhean or ‘fish traps’. These stone-built structures extending into the tidal bay are designed to trap fish in pools of water as the tide goes out, allowing them to be caught using nets. Fish traps of this type around found across the West Coast of Scotland, but they remain poorly understood. It has often been assumed by archaeologists that they were a normal part of life in these coastal communities. However, evidence from Gaelic oral tradition is increasingly showing us that such fish traps are a response to difficult times, when the land could not produce enough food to meet the needs of local families. It is no surprise that so many of these caraidhean date from the 18th and 19th centuries, a time of great hardship in Gaeldom. These times of hardship left a mark in local culture, being remembered in the songs and poems of later generations – without this evidence it is unlikely that caraidhean would be fully understood.

Hairteabhagh also contains archaeological evidence for prehistoric settlement, and it is likely the bay has played host to human activity for thousands of years. The communities of Hairteabhagh in the 19th and 20th centuries were short-lived, but they are no less important for that. Two generations of Gaels lived out their days there and thanks to the local tradition and the surviving archaeology it is possible to gain some sense of their lives, labours, and landscape.

All extracts of poetry are from the poem ‘Bàgh Hairteabhagh’ by Dòmhnall Aonghais Bhàin

Dòmhnall Aonghais Bhàin

2000 Smuaintean fo Éiseabhal / Thoughts under Eiseaval. Birlinn: Edinburgh.

Grant, Kevin

2014 “…and in Every Hamlet a Poet.”: Gaelic oral tradition and postmedieval archaeology in Scotland. Historical Archaeology 48, (1).

Parker Pearson, Mike (ed.)

2012 From Machair to Mountains: Archaeological survey and excavation in South Uist. Sheffield Environmental and Archaeological Research Campaign in the Hebrides. Oxbow Books: Oxford.

Dr Kevin Grant - Casework officer


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