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South Uist, Cille Pheadair

Settlement (Norse)

Site Name South Uist, Cille Pheadair

Classification Settlement (Norse)

Alternative Name(s) Kilpheder; Kilphedir

Canmore ID 139161

Site Number NF71NW 18

NGR NF 7292 1979

Datum OSGB36 - NGR


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
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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

NF71NW 18 7292 1979

NF 764 474 to NF 758 140 The South Uist machair has been surveyed between 1993-1996, from Cille Bhrighde (West Kilbride) in the extreme S of the island to Baile Gharbhaidh (Balgarva) at the N end of the island, a distance of 35km. This year, the number of known prehistoric and Early Historic settlement sites has now increased from 81 to 176.

The continuing pattern of Iron Age-Viking Age settlement clusters along the machair supports the hypothesis of 'proto-townships'; that 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an Iron Age phenomenon which survived substantially intact until the Clearances of the early 19th century (see unpublished reports, Sheffield University). An unusual concentration of sites was found at Machair Mheadhanach in the Iochdar (Eochar) area, N of the rocket range and W of Loch Bee; some 35 settlement sites, ranging in date from the Late Bronze Age to the early post-medieval period, are strung out within a 2km line along a NW-SE axis. This multifocal pattern is very different from other settlement patterns on South Uist but still fits the 'proto-township' model.

The second major concentration of sites is at Drimore where a group of 14 settlement sites, of various dates, are arranged in a SSE-NNW line 750m long. Most of these were identified in the 1950s during survey and excavation in advance of the construction of the rocket range.

The pattern of hypothesised proto-townships throughout the survey area (unpublished report, Sheffield University) holds reasonably well but there are gaps for each of the six 'shieling' (gearraidh) townships of South Uist. This suggests that these shieling townships may have formed in the medieval period by sub-division of larger units, and thus do not have prehistoric predecessors. Other medieval peatland settlements are tentatively identified at Upper Bornish, Aisgernis (Askernish), Frobost and Cille Pheadair (Kilpheder). There is a strong possibility that most of the nucleated villages mapped by William Bald in 1805 are located on earlier post-medieval and medieval settlements. The movement of settlement off the machair mainly occurred in the post-Norse medieval period. The only exceptions are Baghasdal, where the machair settlement was abandoned only after 1805 supposedly due to 'machair fever' (James MacDonald pers comm), and Machair Mheadhanach which was deserted some time between 1654 and 1805.

Sponsor: Sheffield University.

M Parker Pearson 1996

NF 7292 1979 This was the third and final seven week season of archaeological excavation on the Kilpheder Viking Age settlement (Parker Pearson 1996). The site is situated on the exposed W coast of South Uist at Sithean Biorach (Fairy Point), and was threatened with destruction by sea erosion. An area within the centre of the settlement measuring c 16 x 9m has now been completely excavated, containing eleven stone buildings - five longhouses and the associated outbuildings and midden deposits. It is believed the excavated area incorporates all of the longhouses belonging to the settlement, dating approximately from the late 10th or early 11th to the mid- to late 13th century. The excavations have also produced a remarkable sequence of artefacts. The site can be divided into nine phases, spanning the two and a half to three centuries of occupation.

Phase 1 Ploughing

Evidence of ploughing, the earliest activity, lay beneath the occupation deposits to the S of the site, and was only visible in the eroding sand cliff section. A series of white sand lenses within a 0.3m deep layer of light brown sand probably derived from a layer of windblown sand, dissected and trapped by the turning of the machair sand with a mouldboard plough.

Phase 2 Sand wall enclosure, pit complex and post structures

Above the ploughed horizon, a sandbank, revetted with stones, was constructed to form an enclosure, internally about 21m N-S and probably 9m E-W. This banked enclosure had an entrance on its E side. Within it were dug a series of densely distributed pits and post-holes. Some of the post-holes within the northern end of the enclosure probably formed part of a wooden structure, but this seems not to have been a wooden longhouse. Twelve of the pits form two N-S alignments down the E and W sides of the enclosed area but these are also unlikely to represent foundations for a wooden building. They seem to have been backfilled soon after they were dug out and contained an unusual assemblage of animal bone and pottery, bone pins, a copper-alloy pin, a whetstone and steatite vessel fragments.

Phase 3 First stone house (House 700)

The earliest stone-built longhouse (700) was built within the centre of the enclosed, embanked area over the tops of the pits and post-holes. The house was aligned N-S and had an internal length of c 8.4m and a width of 4m at its centre. Its entrance included an elongated passageway, located towards the southern end of the E wall. The house was badly damaged by the construction of subsequent buildings, but sections of the lowest course of walling and the floor and hearth remained intact. The earliest deposits within the midden to the E are believed to be contemporary with the occupation of this house.

Phase 4 Large longhouse (House 500 Phase I)

A substantial stone-built longhouse (500) was built over House 700. The house was aligned N-S with a square building (353) attached by a passage at the northern end; its interior was, in total, 14m long. The entrance was within the southern end of the E wall, on the same line as the entrance to House 700, with an elongated entrance passage leading out to a stone-walled forecourt. Interspersed light and dark lensed sands above the S wall probably derived from turf walling above the stone courses. The layers representing the earliest activity within the house were exceptionally well-preserved and have served to answer many questions on the use of space within the house. A substantial part of the midden to the E is believed to be contemporary with House 500. The uppermost floor layer of House 500 contained sherds from a late 11th to 12th-century tripod pitcher, about a century earlier than a coin of Cnut found in the ruins of Phase 5. Bone crucifix pendants came from this phase.

Phase 5 Remodelling of large longhouse (House 500 Phase II)

A substantial E-W stone and sand wall was inserted within House 500, cutting off internal access to the square room to the N (353) and rendering it into an outhouse. This N wall reduced the length of the house to 7.3m and a N-S wall, built within the eastern side of the house, reduced the internal width of the house to 3m. A new entrance was constructed at the northern end of the E wall, and a worn pathway provided access to the outhouse around the outside of the building.

Phase 6 Small stone cellular buildings

Two small and ephemeral cell-like structures (400 and 406) were built within the northern end of the reduced-size House 500. A niche built into the wall of Structure 400 contained an assemblage of large pieces of Udal platterware, representing at least three individual platters. It is possible that the final phases of occupation within the square outhouse (353) to the N are contemporary with these cells.

Phase 7 E-W longhouse (House 312)

An E-W longhouse (312) was built over the southern end of House 500, incorporating a short stretch of its S gable wall. The house had slightly bowed walls and measured 8.36m long and 3.92m wide at the centre. It had a single entrance to the eastern end of the N wall. A sub-rectangular building (006) to the immediate S is believed to be the outhouse contemporary with House 312. The uppermost deposits within the midden to the E and N are believed to have been contemporary with House 312.

Phase 8 Last longhouse (House 007)

A N-S house (007) was built over the E end of House 312, incorporating part of the walls of the earlier house. The house had two opposing entrances to the northern end of the E and W sides, and measured 6.9m long and 3.15m wide. The E entrance had an elongated passageway and the deposits within this entrance contained a copper-alloy strap end in the shape of a lion or similar large feline. Surrounding the N and S ends and the eastern side of the house was a soakaway gully cut through the compacted organic midden layers. The later, reduced-size, phases of Structure 006 are believed to be contemporary with House 007.

Phase 9 Small stone cellular structures within House 007

Two cell-like structures were constructed within the northern end and the SW corner of House 700. The southern gable wall of the longhouse was remodelled to provide an entrance into the southern cell. The abandonment of the northern cell, and the abandonment of the settlement, is dated by a short cross penny of King John (1199-1216). Given the longevity of use of the Cnut coin, we might expect abandonment not to have occurred until well into the 13th century.

Sponsor: Historic Scotland

M Brennand, M Parker Pearson and H Smith 1998

NF 7292 1979 Monitoring of coastal erosion in July 2003 revealed a stone wall in the outlying midden deposits on the northern side of the site. The central part of this farmhouse site was excavated in 1996-98 (DES 1998, 102-3), since when another 3m of coastline has been eroded away.

The wall was initially thought to be that of a longhouse, but proved to be a midden-retaining wall of two phases. The wall was recorded and a small section of the midden was excavated. Finds, which were scarce, include animal bone (mostly large pieces) but no pottery at all, in contrast to the finds-rich middens E of the farmhouse complex.

The farmhouse initially appears to have begun as a timber building, largely destroyed by construction of a sandbank wall enclosing the later stone-built longhouses. In 2003 the northern section of the sandbank wall was excavated to confirm that the post walls of this earliest building did not continue beneath it. Consequently it can be confirmed that this timber structure was less than 8m long (N-S).

Archive to be deposited in the NMRS.

Sponsor: University of Sheffield.

M Parker Pearson 2003


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