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Lewis, Traigh Na Berie

Broch (Iron Age), Causeway (Period Unassigned), Settlement (Period Unassigned)

Site Name Lewis, Traigh Na Berie

Classification Broch (Iron Age), Causeway (Period Unassigned), Settlement (Period Unassigned)

Alternative Name(s) Reef; Loch Na Berie, Broch And Causeway, Riof, Beirgh

Canmore ID 4100

Site Number NB13NW 3

NGR NB 10348 35171

Datum OSGB36 - NGR

C14 Radiocarbon Dating


Ordnance Survey licence number 100057073. All rights reserved.
© Copyright and database right 2017.

Digital Images

Administrative Areas

  • Council Western Isles
  • Parish Uig
  • Former Region Western Isles Islands Area
  • Former District Western Isles
  • Former County Ross And Cromarty

Recording Your Heritage Online

Cliff, Valtos (Bhaltos), Kneep (Cnip), Reef Ring of traditional crofting and fishing settlements on a wing-shaped peninsula rich in archaeological remains. These include the causewayed islet Dun Baravat, a complex roundhouse on a hill loch; the excellently preserved lower part of a broch tower on Loch na Berie, overbuilt with later cellular structures until c.9th century AD; five 19th century grain mills, above the road at Traigh na Berie, and an Iron Age wheelhouse complex at kneep.

Taken from "Western Seaboard: An Illustrated Architectural Guide", by Mary Miers, 2008. Published by the Rutland Press

Archaeology Notes

NB13NW 3 10348 35171

The remains of a probable broch lie on the grassy flat S of Traigh na Berie and 400 yards from the shore. All that remains is a stony mound, 4' in maximum height, showing the outer foundation course of building in position for a considerable part of the circumference. The only measurement obtainable is the external diameter, which is 55'. The wall has been at least 10' thick, and the entrance, which is quite destroyed, has been from the NE.

RCAHMS 1928, visited 1914.

This broch, at NB 1034 3516, remains as a low grassy mound in which the outer wall face can be seen for most of the periphery except in the W giving an overall diameter of 16.5m. An inner face can be seen for a short stretch in the NE where the wall is 2.9m thick, but whether this is the true inner face, or part of a gallery, is impossible to say. The entrance is indicated by a hollow in the E. There is a causeway across the loch immediately W of the broch. This appears to be modern and built with stones from the broch, but it may overlie or replace an original causeway, as it appears that the broch once occupied an island, the land to the E having been a marsh.

Surveyed at 1:2500.

Visited by OS (R L) 28 June 1969.

Preliminary excavation indicated that the site has undergone several phases of building and alteration, with much subsequent stone robbing. In one of the later phases the interior was reused with the erection of slab facing stones and a soil and rubble infill revetted against the original broch inner wall. Artefacts recovered included bone, pottery, a fired clay spindle whorl and a hammerstone.

D W Harding, P G Topping and I Armit 1985.

The second season of excavations concentrated on the secondary structure occupying the broch interior. This structure is built by a distinctive technique whereby large flat upright slabs are revetted against a mass of material against the inner broch wall and the wall is then heightened by the addition of more conventional horizontal coursing using the slabs as a base. Variations in walling and the rebuilding of the entrance suggest multiple building phases. This structural type has its closest Hebridean parallel at Dun Cuier in Barra dated by the excavator to the 7th to 8th Century. The Berie example has, however, a more complex cellular plan and is reminiscent in both layout and building technique of Picting period structures in the Orkneys.

The broch itself is a ground galleries circular structure 18m in overall diameter with walls totalling 3.5m in width. The most significant feature of this season's work was the discovery of a clear scarcement ledge, 35cm in width, below which is the top of a lintelled entrance from the broch interior into the gallery, all sealed below the secondary structure. It has become clear that the original broch floor levels are at least 1m below the present ground level and below the adjacent Loch na Berie. We have, therefore, considerable problems of retrieval but clearly enormous potential for the survival of organic materials in a primary broch context sealed in antiquity. It has also been possible to begin excavation of apparently primary deposits on the only marginally displaced capstones of the upper gallery floor.

Finds, mainly from secondary contexts, have included bone and bronze pins, clay 'spindle whorls', antler pegs, a number of iron objects and a blue bead. Pottery has been abundant and has included sherds with distinctive Iron Age decoration.

D W Harding and I Armit 1986.

The third and fourth seasons of excavation were carried out during Easter and Autumn 1987. A secondary structure is a substantial drystone and slab-built construction partially revetted into pre-existing deposits within the broch interior. It is cellular in plan, consisting of a large circular chamber re-using the broch entrance, and a peripheral curving cell, leading from the main chamber, which has been subject to alteration. The structure has a central hearth, slightly constructed interior divisions and paving of its main entrance and of the entrance to the peripheral cell. Two 'shelves' built into the wall across the hearth from the main entrance form a striking though enigmatic parallel with the similar features at Dun Cuier.

The dating of the structure is problematic in the absence of a well defined artefactual sequence for the area in this period. Pottery is undecorated and dominated by large jars with flaring rims. The association of this pottery with composite combs, bronze tweezers, crucibles and a substantial assemblage of bone pins, points to a date in the Pictish or pre-Norse period. Work on earlier 'Broch period' deposits has been confined to the gallery where excavations have commenced at the first floor level. The pottery assemblage here is characteristically Iron Age and wholly distinct from that of the secondary structure. It is now clear that, below scarcement level, the broch and its primary deposits are entirely waterlogged. Under the first floor gallery capstones lies approximately 1m of water over a further 1m of deposits. D W Harding and I Armit 1987

Further excavations were carried out during September and October of 1988. After the abandonment of the broch a series of slab-revetted cellar structures was built in the cleared interior. The penultimate structure excavated this year consisted of a Figure-of-Eight shaped building with walls formed of vertical slabs revetted against pre-existing midden material. A central hearth dominated the main cell with a further peripheral hearth apparently contemporary. Other internal features included a kerbed partition around part of the cell wall near the hearth and two 'niches' recessed in the wall, similar to those in the latest structure. In its spatial arrangement, construction and material culture this structure is very similar to its successor.

Finds from the floor of this structure included a finely incised flat bronze penannular brooch, lacking its pin, decorated with hatched panels. The brooch has expanded terminals with cross-hatched incised lozenges.

In situ floor deposits have been excavated on the first floor of the broch gallery around most of the circuit. The first floor gallery capstones are still intact over all but a small arc on the south where a ground floor cell is uncovered. Five steps survive of a staircase to the second floor level and collapsed capstones of this second upper gallery have been found over the first floor occupation material. Below the first floor capstones the broch has an unusual ground plan with six separate cells in the eastern half of its circuit (including a 'guard cell' off the main entrance) and a conventional gallery for most of its western half. From this gallery the stairs run up through the first towards the second floor. Access to the continuous first floor gallery entails entering the broch interior at an entrance halfway up the stairs and doubling back through an adjacent entrance into the gallery. These two first floor gallery entrances lie at the level of the scarcement. Secondary occupation of the interior did not involve the use of the galleries except as a midden dump, and by the period of the latest interior structures the two first floor gallery entrances (and of course all of the ground floor entrances) had been sealed by accumulating debris.

Material recovered from the galleries is entirely distinct from that of the later interior structures and includes quantities of highly decorated incised and cordoned pottery. Other finds included a decorated bone weaving comb.

D W Harding and I Armit 1988.

A short season of excavation in August 1993, concentrated on the clarification of the post-broch, pre-Pictish period occupation within the interior of the derelict broch.

The immediately pre-Pictish phase of settlement was represented by a series of small, cellular buildings, characterisedby walls which combined horizontal, dry-stone coursing with substantial edge-set slabs and by corbelled roofs, the collpased remains of which could initially be mistaken for the remains of severely slumped walls. The principal building of this group was evidently multi-cellular, and may originally have been shamrock-shaped in its layout. Two cells of this building survived with well-defined walls. The remaining cell or cells have yet to be satisfactorily defined by excavation, though an adjoining length of walling suggests that the SW cells of the shamrock may have re-used the surviving permieter cells of an earlier wheelhouse in a similar manner to that of the post-wheelhouse occupation at Cnip (Armit, op cit, 94-5). Within the shamrock, a central hearth was defined by small, edge-set slabs, and bedded in the floor of its two main cells were four fragments of disc querns, evidently re-used from an earlier occupation. To the W of this principal structure was a simpler cellular building abutting the inner broch wall, while to the NW and E, two further possible cells require further excavation. The N and NE sector of the interior in this phase of occupation was filled with a dense deposit of shell-midden.

The other principal post-broch structure was a substantial stone-built roundhouse, the coursed walling of which had been recognised in 1989 immediately inside the inner broch wall around its south-eastern and south-western sectors. The continuation of this wall has now been located at several points around the northern half of the broch interior, gaps in its circuit being the result of the intrusive construction of the subsequent cellular buildings. A crucial discovery in 1993, however, was of a radial pier projecting inwards from this wall adjacent to the former broch entrance on the E, confirming the identification of this structure as a post-broch wheelhouse.

Between the wheelhouse occupation and the phase of cellular buildings, an intermediate structural phase appears to be represented by a short arc of walling within the NE sector of the interior which was truncated at its southern end by the phase of cellular building, and at its northern end terminates at a butt-end, which may have formed one side of an entrance. Clarification of the plan of this putative smaller roundhouse may be hampered by the extent of subsequent re-building in later phases.

Finally, at several points around the broch scarcement, sizeable vertical slabs have been revealed, which are too regular in their disposition to be regarded as tumbled or displaced. If they belonged to a single structural feature, then they should be post-broch, since three on the NE side block the entrance from the interior into gallery 5, but pre-wheelhouse, given the location of several behind the wheelhouse wall in the SW quadrant. Others occur elsewhere around the scarcement edge, where later re-building has now removed them. The purpose of this structural feature remains at present uncertain.

If the relative structural sequence seems clear enough, absolute dates are more difficult to assign at present. In conjunction with other sites in the immediate vicinity, there seems to be a fair prospect in due course of establishing a useable ceramic seuqence, but at present the structures uncovered in 1993 can only be attributed tentatively to the first half of the first millenium AD.

Several cores taken by Mr M Cressey in broch galleries 1 and 5 established that the bedrock on which the broch was founded lies variously between 2m and 2.5m beneath the surviving capstones of the ground floor galleries. Further analysis of the cores is in progress.

Sponsor: University of Edinburgh, Department of Archaeology

D W Harding 1993.

A further season's excavation in July and August 1994, revealed more detail of the post-broch pre-Pictish occupation which had been exposed in 1993 (supra) within the area defined by the inner broch wall, and which was characterised by cellular construction and corbelled roofing of a series of small, but conjoined or closely-related units.

The principal unit, provisionally described as a 'shamrock' on analogy with the Pictish-period building at Gurness, appears to have comprised two conjoined cells (1a and 1b) facing SW into an open court, the SW side of which, adjacent to the former broch scarcement, appears to have been at least partially roofed. Access to this structure from the main

entrance, which followed the line of the original broch entrance to the E, was by means of a paved passage around the inner edge of the broch wall on its SE circuit. This passage had supported a corbelled roof, and had a narrow central drain along part of its length. These buildings displayed several phases of structural modification, as was indicated by refacing of walls, resurfacing of paving and rebuilding of hearths. In one of the more significant of these, a projecting pier (previously believed to be the projecting pier of a wheelhouse, but now seen as a similar structural element to the projecting wall between Cell 1a and Cell 1b) was inserted adjacent to the main entrance on its southern side, overlying the passage paving (which it therefore cannot pre-date), and effectively blocking access to the 'shamrock' from this direction. The remodelled passage, with its central drain likewise rebuilt, thus resembles in this secondary phase a souterrain leading away from the 'shamrock'. The previous identification of the projecting pier and the passage wall in the SE quadrant as part of an earlier wheelhouse is now plainly wrong, though this need not discredit the existence of an earlier roundhouse, based upon evidence from a lower level around the northern sector of the interior of the broch.

Cells 1a and 1b themselves now appear to represent the rebuilding of an earlier, larger unit of which the element designated Cell 6 was partially exposed in 1994. The NE sector of this structure has yet to be defined clearly, and may indeed have been destroyed in the re-modelling of the souterrain-passage, as a result of which a more direct means of access appears to have been created into the interior. A striking feature of Cell 6, however, is a rectangular trough defined by edge-set stones, the floor of which comprised a baked clay surface decorated with finger-stroked hatched squares, in a manner resembling floor-tiles. It is hoped to expose the full extent of this feature in 1995. The northern half of the interior was occupied by several further cellular structures. Cell 4 had been exposed in 1994, and this area will certainly require further clarification in 1995. In the NE quadrant the presumed smaller roundhouse wall from 1994 can now be seen to be integral to the network of cells in this sector, provisionally designated Cells 5 and 7. Cell 7 evidently extended beyond the projected line of the underlying roundhouse wall to terminate by the inner broch wall, where a series of sizeable slabs, set vertically, included three which blocked the entrance from the broch interior into its Gallery 6. In fact, it seems probable that the underlying roundhouse wall itself was interrupted at this point to allow access through this entrance into the broch gallery. If this transpires to be the case, the earlier assumption that the broch galleries would have survived uncontaminated by later occupation (based upon the fact that all but one of the galleries retained their capstones intact) could prove to be premature.

Excavation of the main entrance has revealed a succession of paved surfaces, the accumulation of which occasioned the need to raise the original broch lintel, until in the final Pictish-period phases it was itself incorporated among the paving slabs of the open entrance passage. These successive levels of paang offer the prospect of a sequence of sealed deposits reflecting the successive phases of occupation.

Finds from the 1994 excavations were more numerous than from previous seasons, and included numerous hammer-stones, polishing-stones, counters, strike-a-light, spindle-whorls, bone and bronze pins, cut antler, an amber bead, a fragment of clay mould and evidence for ?bronze-working, as well as quantities of pottery. The last included a small fragment of a Samian ware platter, sealed between the two levels of paving of the souterrain-passage.

Sponsor: Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

D W Harding, S Gilmour and J Handerson 1994.

NB 103 351 Excavations continued on the post-broch phases of occupation at Berie from June to August 1995 (see Harding, Gilmour and Handerson 1994).

(1) Cells 1a and 1b were removed in their entirety, together with a substantial part of the 'souterrain passage' between 1a and the south-eastern sector of the broch wall. This enabled the hearth within Cell 6 to be completely exposed, revealing the full extent of its decorated clay base and border of edge-set slabs with large cobbles at the undamaged corners. Similar, though less distinctive, constructional elements characterised adjacent hearths to N and S. In the SW quadrant, coursed masonry which was at one stage regarded as the continuation of the Roundhouse wall proved to be part of the Cellular complex, its lowest course resting on the hard peat which over much of the interior underlay the Cellular occupation.

This stonework slumped over piers projecting from the broch wall, and may well have formed part of a corbelled outbuilding attached to the Cell 1a and 1b group, and approximating to the putative 'shamrock' previously proposed. A distinctive feature of the stratigraphy underlying the Cellular buildings was the presence of laid brushwood flooring and fallen timbers, uncarbonised but otherwise well-preserved in the sodden conditions of the site. In the NW quadrant, Cell 4 was found to overlie the continuation from the NE quadrant of Cell 5, defined only by edge-set slabs, but terminating at an entrance defined by a pair of post holes in which the timber posts survived intact.

Cell 7 continued to produce quantities of industrial waste, notably bronze slag and fragments of moulds, including one recognisably of a projecting ring-headed pin. Other finds from the Cellular occupation included small fragments of glass and items of ornamental bronzework.

(2) Within the entrance an upper level of substantial paving was removed to reveal a lower level of paving, both presumed contemporary with the Cellular horizon. To the N of the entrance passage was a small Cell (8), between the inner broch wall and walling which continues the alignment of the underlying Roundhouse wall around the northern circuit of the site, but which is certainly secondary to it. Immediately outside the broch entrance was a substantially-built forecourt. To the S of this forecourt, excavation at a lower level revealed structural features which could be contemporary with the Roundhouse or late Broch phases of occupation.

(3) The Roundhouse wall is now clearly defined in an arc from just N of Cell 3 to the re-entrant into intra-mural Gallery 6 in the NE quadrant. Between this point and the main entrance there is evidence of secondary re-building. The projecting pier to the S of the main entrance, which previously had been regarded as part of any underlying wheelhouse, occupies the same relationship to the earlier Roundhouse. Around the southern half of its circuit, the Roundhouse wall is not so clearly defined, and may have been substantially contiguous with the broch wall itself. Excavation within Roundhouse occupation contexts was limited, but yielded sherds of incised decorated pottery, thus confirming the broad sequence of pottery styles previosly established.

(4) An area immediately outwith the broch wall on its NE circuit was opened to check the possible presence of extra-mural occupation. Around the edge of the broch wall at a relatively high level was a paved catwalk, presumed to be contemporary with the Cellular Phase. Below this was a sequence of structures, including a linear revetment aligned tangentially with the main entrance, and possibly therefore a feature of the forecourt facade of the Cellular Phase. This was backed into the filling around an earlier curvilinear structure at the W end of the cutting, defined by a double wall-face, and containing within it sherds of incised-decorated pottery. The lowest level of external occupation was represented by a curved length of walling at the E end of the cutting on an arc which would have carried it well out to the edge of the natural platform on which the broch was located. The absolute level of this structure remains considerably higher than the presumed level of the primary broch floor, but flooding prevented further excavation this season.

(5) An environmental sampling programme was carried out by M Church. There is every indication that the site is extremely rich in plant remains and related material.

Excavation at the foot of the intra-mural staircase in Gallery 5, leading to the entrance from that Gallery to the interior, revealed an arc of edge-set stone in the constructional style of the Cellular Phase, presumably preceeding. The effect would appear to block access to the inner section of Gallery 5, and to the broch interior, from the intra-mural staircase. The purpose and period of this feature is at present unclear. Investigation within intra-mural Gallery 6 showed that the end of the Gallery was blocked in construction for half its width only, and that access to intra-mural Cell 7 was therefore from Gallery 6 rather than from the interior of the broch, as previosly supposed.

What is significant about the 1995 season is that excavations crossed the threshold of waterlogged preservation, yeilding both structural and artefactural timbers in a good state of preservation. Subject to the ability to drain the site to a workable level, there is therefore every prospect of recovering from the Broch and Roundhouse occupation structural timbers which could provide unique information regarding the internal fittings and furnishings of these buildings, issues which have hitherto been subject to considerable controversy. Equally, the material assemblages of these phases of occupation may be expected to include organic material which is seldom preserved in the archaeological record.

Sponsor: Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh.

D W Harding, S Gilmour and J Henderson 1995.

Scheduled as Loch na Berie, broch and causeway.

Information from Historic Scotland, scheduling document dated 7 December 1993.


Publication Account (2007)

NB13 3 BEIRGH ('Berie', 'Traigh na Berie 1', 'Loch na Berie', 'Riof', 'Reef')

NB/1034 3516

This slightly aberrant ground-galleried broch in Uig, Lewis, stands on flat, marshy ground south of Traigh (‘beach') na Berie and 400m from the shore (visited July 1990). Before excavations began in 1985 all that could be seen was a low, stony, grass-covered mound in which the outer wallface could be traced in places, giving an overall diameter of 16.5m (54.1 ft) [2]. This site is another interesting example of how misleading surface indications can be (see NB13 2 above). The Commission's investigators clearly thought that there was little left, and that the entrance was “quite destroyed” [2]. However the excavation showed that in places the broch wall still stands at least 3.00m (9.8 ft) high under the accumulated silt and rubbish [3, fig. 27].

Excavations have occurred in two spells, from 1985-88 and 1993-95, under the direction of Prof. D W Harding of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. However this account of the work has to be a partial one for several reasons. In the first place the work is unfinished; the primary Iron Age floor inside the broch has not been reached and our knowledge of the beginning of the occupation of this site is therefore almost non existent. At the time of the final revision of this entry (September 2005) there appeared to be no prospect of it continuing. Secondly only vol. 1 of the report has appeared – concerning the structures and stratigraphy found [3] – and this contains very little about the sequence of material culture found. Thirdly, much of the site sequence which was unravelled falls into the late Iron Age, or “Pictish” period, so is not directly relevant to the main themes of this study of brochs. The account here is therefore a summary except for the description of what has been exposed of the broch itself.

1. The structures and stratigraphy

1.1 Introduction

Almost certainly the site was originally on a rocky islet in a loch, now silted up and covered with reeds [3, Plate 1]. The 1957 OS 1 inch map shows a small loch here but the information used was probably out of date even then. A causeway runs across the reedy bog immediately west of the broch (towards the hills) but it seems to be modern and built with looted stones; however it may replace an older one. The site is still extremely wet; at the time of the author's visit the water was standing in the broch almost up to the level of the lintels of the ground gallery – and that must be about 1.5m at least above the primary floor. The water must therefore have risen at least 2m since Iron Age times.

An important aspect of this broch is that the gradual silting up of the loch around it, and the rising of the water level, seems to have been going on since Iron Age times with the result that the earlier levels are waterlogged. If and when these are ever reached, well preserved organic material will doubtless be found, as in the underwater site at Dun Bharabhat (NB13 2). These wet deposits can be seen inside the lowest gallery which is only about half full of debris [3, Plate 51].

The phasing system adopted to describe the history of the site runs, counter-intuitively, from recent to earlier instead of from the beginning to later horizons; the reason of course is that the oldest levels have not yet been uncovered and their number is therefore uncertain. Thus Phase 1 is the latest horizon and eleven more have been defined going back to the building and first occupation of the 'Atlantic roundhouse' or broch (Phase 12). Since the description of the material culture sequence at the site is reserved for another volume the cultural context of this broch and its secondary buildings cannot be adequately described here apart from those few aspects of it which have been published (section 4 below). A simple diagram of the main phases of occupation is in the report [3, figs. 4a and 4b] and the author has attempted another version trying to integrate the site sequence with the local sequence of material culture.

1.2. The broch

It is not altogether clear how the features of the basal storey of the broch have been identified since most of that level is still buried by the unexcavated deposits in the interior. Presumably it was possible to see the intra-mural galleries – and the tops of the doorways from these to the central court – by peering under the lintels of the former. Sometimes the report gives the mis-leading impression that more is known about the primary levels than is the case. For example some readers might easily conclude that the plan of the broch at ground level with the inserted roundhouse is showing the roundhouse floor at its primary level; the plan shows paving and other features which suggest the original floor and which appear to be linked with the roundhouse wall. However we know from the sections [3, fig. 21] that excavation inside the broch has nowhere reached more than about a metre below the level of the scarcement so there must be up to another metre of deposits below the floor level shown. Of course a careful reading of the text (and the sections) reveals this [3, 50] but the plans should have been labelled to make this quite clear.

Broch Level 1 (Phase 12). The main building is a very well preserved, almost ground-galleried broch which still stands to above scarcement level all the way round; the lintels roofing the ground level galleries are in position [3, figs. 15 and 16]. The report [3] is accompanied by a folder which contains large-scale plans of the various superimposed buildings at a scale of 1:75.

Beirgh is a relatively slim-walled structure with overall diameters of 16.7m (54.8 ft) east-west and 17.1m (56.07 ft) north-south [3, fig. 16]. The corresponding internal diameters are 10.2 and 10.7m (33.4 and 35.1 ft) and the average wall proportion (the percentage of the total diameter (d) occupied by the two wall bases on it. (b1 and b2); this can be found with the simple formula: % = (b1 + b2) x 100 / d. A more useful figure – but one more difficult to obtain – would be obtained by working out the proportion of the area of the central court to that of the broch as a whole) would thus be 38.2%. The classic ground-galleried broch Dun Mor Vaul on Tiree has a wall proportion of 42.2% – slightly more massive (NM04 4). The entrance passage faces almost due east and its lintels, including a large and thick outermost one, are in situ; the passage is 3.3m long with built checks for a door 1.2m from the outside. There are several 'niches' in the sides of the passage just below lintel level but any bar-hole and socket for the door-frame are still buried. A lintelled guard cell opens from the left side of the passage, behind the left check.

At 7.30 o'clock is the doorway to an oval mural cell (“Gallery 2” in the report) 2.25 m long and also lintelled. There is a similar doorway to a similar cell at 9 o'clock but in this case the length is 4.1 m. A third doorway at 2.30 o'clock leads to a long gallery which, on the left, extends clockwise back to the cell just mentioned for a distance of some 13.8 m. To the right it leads to the intra-mural stair the first exposed step of which appears after 2.0 m; the rest is still buried so the flight must start much closer to the doorway. Thus at this site, as at Dun Mor Vaul (NM04 4), there is no stair-foot guard cell as such, only a long gallery.

At 4.30 o'clock is the fourth doorway which leads to the same stretch of gallery but behind the stairway; that part to the left of the doorway is called “Gallery 6” for some reason and that to the right – some 2.9m long – is “Gallery 7”. Both Gallery 7 and the anticlockwise end of Gallery 4 are in effect long cells because of short projections from one wall which give the impression of an internal doorway. The entire intra-mural space is roofed with lintels most of which are intact although they do not form an even surface [3, Plates 40 and 41].

Two examples of secondary masonry were found which appeared to antedate the insertion of the roundhouse (below) [3, 54-5 and figs. 25 and 26].

The inserted roundhouse (Phase 10). At some stage a secondary wall 1.0 to 1.5m thick was built against the north half of the inner face of the broch wall; in the southern half the added wall was not continuous, leaving the original wall exposed in places. On either side of the entrance (which evidently remained open, though half full of debris) were two radial piers which create two ”perimeter cells”; that on the right looks like a new guard cell for the passage. The doorways into Galleries 2 and 6 remained accessible although the others – including that to the stair – seem to have been blocked. The occupation deposits of the roundhouse (the deposits of which are still largely un-excavated except in the north-east quadrant [3, 51]). had been sealed in by a layer of laid peat which was the most distinctive horizon in the internal stratigraphy [3, 42]. The text has to be read carefully to find out just how little of these lower levels are known, though the situation is clearly set on p. 56 [3]; the detailed plan of the secondary roundhouse can give the casual reader the false impression that it was completely explored.

Judging from the section drawings [3, fig. 21, etc.] the roundhouse appears to have become partially filled with occupation deposits over a long period, and then with what looks like fallen rubble mixed with soil strata. Some idea of the complexity of the later floor levels can be gained from the excavators’ descriptions [3, 50-1]. On top of these stony deposits, and about level with the broch scarcement, was the peaty horizon noted earlier and on which was built the first 'cellular structure' of Phase 9; this is the start of the occupation of the site in what is termed the Pictish period [3, fig. 13] but these later horizons are not discussed in detail here. Whether Pictland proper really extended so far west from its heartland in the north-east main-land is debatable. They can be studied through the excellent series of plans accompanying the report.

An underground cellar, or souterrain, was inserted into the floor of the roundhouse at a late stage. A single C-14 date was obtained for what was inferred to be later roundhouse occupation – from material resting on the lintels of the ground level gallery which included standard decorated Iron Age pottery [3, 63]. The date is –

GU-4923 1760 +/- 50 bp

which calibrates to AD 220-338 at the 68% confidence level. At least part of the first floor gallery was still intact and roofed when these deposits accumulated because lintels from a higher level were found on them. This implies that the broch was standing to a higher level – and perhaps was still a completely intact tower – when this debris accumulated.

Broch Level 2 (Phase 12). The chamber over the main entrance, opening to the interior, is partly preserved and several courses of its inner part are in position above scarcement level. Its floor (the lintels roofing the passage below) has been exposed [3, Plate 42] and presumably joined the scarcement by means of the innermost lintel, now vanished. Likewise the outer part of the wall presumably formed the outer end of this chamber but this has all disappeared apart from the massive outer lintel (which itself had to be reset in position [3, Plate 35]). This chamber connected with the Level 2 galleries on either side of it [3, fig. 15].

A fine ledge scarcement, some 30cm in width, is on the interior wallface at an unknown distance above the floor [3, fig. 15]. The only gaps in this ledge are at the main entrance (where the bridging lintel has evidently disappeared) and at the Level 1 doorway at 2.30 o'clock where the twin capstones are several centimetres lower than the scarcement. This ground level door is described as “first floor level” [3, 56] which is slightly confusing as the term usually means first raised floor. Presumably there was a low void here over the lower doorway the upper lintel of which (forming the sill of the raised doorway) has disappeared. The excavator says that this raised opening provided the only direct access to the Level 2 gallery, the similar doorway at 3 o’clock (below) being unsuitable because of the stairwell [3, 57]. However the inner end of the chamber over the entrance would have provided much more commodious access.

There is also a gap at 3 o'clock where a doorway in Level 2 leads to a short landing in the stair; a few steps of the second flight survive to its right. Here the sill of the doorway is evidently slightly higher than the ledge. The large-scale plans of the area [3, figs. 14, 15 and 16] does not show all these details but the structures are shown in Plate 44 [3]; the small plan of the area makes all clear [3, fig. 25]. To the left of the pole are the few remaining steps of the second flight of the stair, with a few flat slabs of the landing visible in front of it (a large paving-slab had been exposed here when the photograph in the report was taken). To the right of the pole is the raised doorway to the interior, which emerges there, as noted, slightly above the scarcement.

Most of the lintels flooring the Level 2 gallery (and roofing that of Level 1) are still in position [3, Plates 40 and 41]. As one would expect these are missing immediately clockwise from the stair, obviously to make a stairwell to allow people to go up and down it [3, fig. 15]. Occupation debris had accumulated on these but there was an empty space of varying depth below them, and on top of the still largely unexplored deposits in Level 1 [3, figs. 26 and 27]. The excavator suggests that, before they became the receptacle for midden material, there was a floor of beaten earth on these lintels (which by themselves make but a rough and irregular surface). This implies that the Level 1 gallery was used regularly when the tower was intact.

The first floor gallery meets the chamber above the entrance on both sides to form an unusual “cross-shaped” pattern, the gallery coming from the left widening to a wedge shape as it overrides the lintelled guard chamber below. This situation contrasts with that in many other brochs in which this chamber is either isolated except from the interior or has one gallery connecting with the chamber. Dun Carloway used to be the only obvious parallel to Beirgh here (NB14 1) but Dun Telve (NG81 2) is now known to be another as may be Loch an Duna (NB24 1).

Broch Level 3. There are a few signs that Beirgh had at least three superimposed galleries in its wall. Some lintels fallen from the floor of the third gallery were found lying in the second, and under these slabs was found middle Iron Age midden material resting on the lintels of the ground level gallery. The pottery here was highly decorated and a long-handled bone comb was another find. Presumably this midden material was dumped in the gallery during the roundhouse phase of occupation.

The beginning of the second flight of the stair also implies that there was a third level in the wall, though whether this was an open gallery running round the wallhead or a closed one cannot be determined now. The slimness of the broch wall suggests that it was never really tall.

1.3 The later structures (Phases 9-1)

Very briefly described, the post-Roundhouse occupations inside the ruined or demolished broch (and founded on deep deposits which had already accumulated therein) fall into two groups, the first being a series of 'Cellular structures' (Phases 9-5) which mark a complete change of style from the period of the Iron Age roundhouses. These are unusual buildings in the Western Isles, having what look like a series of irregular, open-fronted cells peripheral to a clear central area. They recall to some extent the 'courtyard houses' found in the late Bronze Age levels at Jarlshof in Shetland (HU30 1) and which have so far seemed to be a phenomenon confined to the Northern Isles. At Gurness (HY32 2) too there is evidence of the very late survival of this type of dwelling.

The 'cellular structures' were followed by another fundamental change of style in which a series of 'Figure of Eight' buildings was erected (Phases 4-1). The inner wallfaces of the first of these were formed of vertical slabs revetted against older midden material; in other words this was partly a dug-out structure, inserted into material already accumulated in the interior of the broch. However some of these slabs rested against the broch masonry, or the secondary facing against this, with an air space behind them. There was a central hearth with a second peripheral fireplace.

The layout of all these buildings is shown, Phase by Phase, on the commendably large-scale and detailed plans [3, figs. 5-11].

Radiocarbon dating: four C-14 dates were obtained for the occupation of the 'Cellular structures' which followed that of the Roundhouse. The calibrated dates AD are given in brackets below each entry, to a 68% level of confidence.

1. GU-4927 1700 +/- 50 bp (ad 150)

(AD 253 – 406)

2. AA-23724 1650 +/- 55 bp (ad 300)

(AD 340 -433)

3. AA-23723 1595 +/- 60 bp (ad 355)

(AD 400 – 542)

4. GU-4926 1580 +/- 60 bp (ad 370)

(AD 411 – 549)

No. 1 comes from the peat layer laid down at the start of this period, so presumably also dates the end of the Roundhouse occupation to the late 2nd or the 3rd century AD. Nos. 2-4 are for samples from the occupation levels and they all fall rather neatly into the late 3rd and 4th centuries. No such dates were obtained for the figure-of-eight buildings but some characteristic artifacts from those horizons are datable (below).

1.4 Artifact dating

A detailed study of the artifacts has yet to be published but some indications of the results are given in the first report [3, 63-7]. A number of unusual artifacts were found in the post-broch 'Cellular phase' occupations and these help both with dating and with assigning the phase to a more general cultural context. Particularly important is the bronze-working debris found dumped mainly in Cell 7 in the earliest of these levels. This included slag, crucible fragments and mould fragments, the last providing the evidence for the artifacts made on site. There were two-piece moulds for undecorated hand-pins (a late form of ring-headed pin) and proto-hand-pins; the former type is usually assigned stylistically to the period from the 5th to the 8th centuries, and the prototype form perhaps to the 3rd and 4th centuries.

The other important find was the mould for a bronze 'doorknob' spear-butt, primarily an Irish phenomenon (although the moulds have only been found in Scotland) and which is usually dated to the 1st and 2nd centuries (Raftery 1982). A recent re-assessment, based partly on the radiocarbon evidence from Beirgh, suggests a slightly later time span, lasting from about the 3rd to the 5th centuries (Heald 2001, 690) (this is important for the later chronology of Dun Mor Vaul – NM04 4).

A fragment of Roman Samian ware dating to the late 1st or the first half of the 2nd century (Drag. 18 or 18/31) was found in a deposit of the late Cellular phase. Clearly it must have been kept on the site for quite a long time after it arrived, and that arrival itself may have occurred some time after it was made. This Roman pottery is found fairly frequently in early broch levels, though rarely in the Outer Isles.

The finds from the 'late Pictish period' with figure-of-eight houses, and their implications for dating, are discussed in some detail [3, 64-7] but need only be alluded to briefly here. An important new artifact is the composite bone comb, several fragments of which were found. Plain pottery is the norm, and crucibles of Laing's Type 8 were also found. Two bronze penannular brooches found are of forms (Fowler's Types G and H) which are thought to date from the 5th/6th centuries and the 7th/8th centuries respectively (Laing 1993) [4, Illus. 6.22]. However they were in reverse order stratigraphically; in other words the earlier levels of the 'Later Pictish period' seem to be dated more accurately by the later brooch.

2. Discussion

Until the excavations are continued down to the primary broch floor level all comments about the date of the primary structure, the design of its interior furnishings and the early history of the occupations that took place in it must remain tentative. Nevertheless, after a brief review of the original structure, an attempt is made here to set the Beirgh sequence, as it is known at present, into a wider context. This is done in the hope that such a preliminary scheme, even if it turns out to be mistaken in parts, may help with the development of a final synthesis.

2.1 The broch

In general Beirgh broch occupies a strong position on an islet in what was once a freshwater loch; that defensive considerations were important is suggested by the fact that the entrance is on the opposite side of the islet to the causeway to the shore [3, 68-9]. The broch is in a typical Outer Hebridean situation – between the cultivable ground of the machair (with the sea beyond) and the rough grazing further inland.

Beirgh is a good example of something close to a ground-galleried broch of classic Hebridean type. The solid, well-built masonry, the massive ledge scarcement and the way in which the stair has a landing giving access to a doorway to this raised ledge – and thus leading out on to the raised wooden floor which presumably once rested on that ledge – all suggest to the author that this is a hollow-walled broch tower skilfully and confidently built in the classic tradition. If further explorations occur they will surely reveal the ring of massive post-holes (perhaps with waterlogged post-butts in them) which will be all that remains of the internal wooden roundhouse – with its raised annular floor resting on the scarcement – which surely existed inside the broch during the first phase of occupation.

The long sequence of secondary occupations suggests that the site was of some importance over several centuries, presumably because it dominated the machair and other agricultural 1and around the modern villages of Cnip and Valtos. Yet one cannot rule out the possibility that – as with many other long-occupied brochs – the importance was due to the prestige of the founding family and to the new, relatively tall tower which they had erected for themselves and which must have seemed overpoweringly impressive when it first appeared.

Judging by the example of Dun Mor Vaul on Tiree (NM04 4) the building of the secondary wall around the central court (the Roundhouse) could imply that the upper stories of the galleried wall of the broch were demolished at some stage in the middle Iron Age. Perhaps however it was not reduced immediately to its present level as the pottery and artifacts which accumulated in the Level 1 gallery imply that the latter was still roofed (its lintels fell in later). The stone round-house should also imply that the complex primary wooden roundhouse, perhaps having several storeys, was dismantled; this demolition of the woodwork could support the idea of the demolition of the upper works of the tower at the same time. The original high roof would also then have been replaced with a new low one, doubtless resting on the secondary wall. Harding has come to a similar conclusion and suggests that the tower may have been pulled down even before the stone roundhouse was inserted – exactly as at Dun Mor Vaul.

A sharp change in building tradition – involving the final abandonment of the long-lasting roundhouse tradition and the laying of a sterile layer – occurred at the end of that phase but this seems to have occurred while the middle phase of the local Iron Age material cultural sequence was still flourishing (below).

2.2 Material cultural sequence

Some remarks about the material cultures discovered at various post-broch levels help us to get a preliminary overall picture [3, 64-66]. However the absence in this report of any published drawings of pottery from the pre-'Pictish' levels hinders any attempt to assess the cultural relationships of the site's middle Iron Age inhabitants. Fortunately there are two very useful drawings of potsherds from the site in another of Harding’s publications (2000, figs. 9 and 10).

The excavators' accounts of the site have so far emphasised three major and distinct Phases of occupation, namely (1) the Iron Age stage with the broch (or Atlantic roundhouse) and the roundhouse that was inserted into it, (2) the 'early Pictish' period with a sequence of 'cellular structures' and (3) the 'late Pictish' period with figure-of-eight buildings. Thus one gets the clear impression that there is a fundamental cultural break between the broch and the roundhouse on the one hand and the sequence of ‘Pictish’ buildings which followed them on the other.

This terminology, because it is based purely on the local evidence, is at variance with that suggested by the author forty years ago (MacKie 1965, fig. 6), elaborated six years later (MacKie 1971, fig. 7). In this scheme, which is based on data from all over Atlantic Scotland, the fundamental difference in material culture between the 'age of the brochs' – or the middle Iron Age – and the following period is crucial (Stevenson 1955). This latter period – labelled V in 1965 and 'late Iron Age' in 1971 (this is the Early Historic period on the main-land)– is characterised by the complete dis-appearance of the middle Iron Age decorated pottery and associated artifacts and by the first appearance of ornamental-headed and hipped bone pins and by composite bone combs; these never appear in earlier levels.

Foster has shown that these pins and combs span the period from about AD 600-1100 (Foster 1990, Illus. 9.3). With the exception of the evolved Dun Cuier ware (which seems to have been made only at the very end of the Middle period) the great array of decorated middle Iron Age pottery styles evidently disappeared before this Late period.

At Beirgh this late Iron Age horizon is evidently that of the 'late Pictish' period; the 'early Pictish' period by contrast appears not to have these characteristic artifacts. In fact the latter yielded items which elsewhere are of standard middle Iron Age type, such as the spear-butt moulds. The pottery sequence will surely provide the key and – despite the appearance of the new Cellular buildings in the ruined broch – on the basis of the published evidence one would expect the middle Iron Age decorated wares to have continued in use throughout the 'cellular' phases and for these horizons therefore to belong to that period.

Although facts about the pottery sequence are sparse in the report – for example in the first ‘Pictish’ (or ‘Cellular’) phase we are told that there was indeed a “continued use of applied cordon decoration and short everted rims on pottery…” [3, 73] – much more useful information is given elsewhere (Harding 2000, 21-2 and Figs. 9 and 10). For example the potsherds from the immediately post-broch, or roundhouse, horizon are obviously of classic middle Iron Age forms, and very similar to the material from Dun Bharabhat (NB03 1). The classic large storage urns are present (‘Phase 10’, two at lower left), and are closely analogous to the Vaul ware urns from Tiree except in their decoration. There is also a classic Balevullin vase with geometrical incised decoration and a representation of a waist cordon (‘Exterior NE’, bottom).

The Everted Rim jars have clearly arrived on the site by this stage and these include several rim sherds with internal fluting – the Clickhimin sub-style (‘Phase 10’, three at lower right); this is one of the rare examples of a middle Iron Age style which is found all over the maritime part of the broch province, and also found in early Iron Age levels in the type site (HU44 1). Also potentially important in this context is the clear example of an early Iron Age carinated vessel (‘Exterior NE’, top right) which, because of its late context, ought to be some form of heirloom. Similar finds in late contexts were made at Dun Mor Vaul and Dun Ardtreck (NM04 4 and NG33 2).

Samples of pottery from the early and late ‘Pictish’ phases - from the latter come fragments of plain pottery (associated, as noted, with composite bone combs) and this phase clearly belongs to the late Iron Age. However the sherds from the previous level (the ‘Cellular phases’) are classic middle Iron Age forms and they include fragments of cordoned vessels (which are almost certainly pieces of jars) and something very close to the Clettraval sub-style of the Everted Rim jar, so prominent on Tiree (bottom le ft). There are also two rim sherds of classic Dun Cuier ware (‘Cellular phases’, top left) with its characteristic long, slightly incurving and nearly upright rim. These appear to demonstrate the truth of the assumption that this is the final manifestation of the cordoned jars of the middle Iron Age (they were found without the earlier forms at the type site on Barra) and it would be interesting to know if any of these sherds were in fact found in the ‘late Pictish’ levels.

There is good evidence now from a few other sites that the complex middle Iron Age material culture (apart from the buildings) continued on at least until AD 500, possibly well into the 6th century, both in the west (Dun Ardtreck – MacKie 2002) and in Shetland (at Scalloway – site HU43 4). This great maritime Iron Age culture, with its origins in the late Bronze Age, evolved over more than fifteen hundred years to construct a large number of the most sophisticated domestic and monumental drystone buildings known anywhere in the world and to develop a remarkably sophisticated material culture and economy, and it is the disappearance of this that marks the great hiatus in the local archaeological record. Compared with this dramatic break the adoption of a new type of stone building in the later stages of the middle Iron Age is of minor importance and the term ‘Pictish’ for it is a complete misnomer.

Major periods in the history of an Iron Age site should surely be defined by the entire associated material culture rather than by a single trait like a house type. Indeed when viewed against the material cultural background there is almost a perverseness about the system suggested for Beirgh by its excavator, which also seems to reflect an obsession with stone structures rather than with the entire technology and economy of the site.

It must have been obvious from an early stage that the ‘Early Pictish’ period of cellular structures was yielding a material culture which was more or less identical to that of the previous broch period so why describe it as ‘Pictish’? This not only pushes aside, first, the clear evidence of a basic continuity with earlier times and, second, that for a sharp change in material culture in the ‘Late Pictish’ horizons, but also assumes without real argument a cultural identity with Pictland proper which hinges on only the handful of the characteristic carvings which are known in the Western Isles. Orkney too is on the periphery of Pictland proper and one may doubt that resemblances between any buildings there and in the Long Island constitute plausible evidence for the political subjection of the Outer Hebrides to the Pictish kingdom.

The four C-14 dates for the cellular structure mentioned earlier entirely support the allocation of this period to the later part of the Middle Iron Age. They indicate a time span largely within the first half of the first millennium.

3. Dimensions

The overall diameters are 16.7m (54.8 ft) east-west and 17.1m (56.07 ft) north-south [3, fig. 16]. The correspond-ing internal diameters are 10.2 and 10.7m (33.4 and 35.1 ft) so the average wall pro-portion would thus be 38.2%. Beirgh broch encloses one of the largest central courts known among brochs anywhere.

Sources: 1. NMRS site no. NB 13 NW 3: 2. RCAHMS 1928, 20, no. 69: 3. Harding and Gilmour 2000: 4. Harding and Armit 1990, 94-107.

E W MacKie 2007


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