ISLE OF BARRA
Alt Chrisal
© Siar Media 2012
The archaeological monuments at Allt Chrysal, Bentangaval, were discovered in 1990 during the archaeological survey which preceded the building of the Vatersay causeway and it’s approach road. Excavations have revealed at least six phases of human occupation of this ‘preferred site’ overlooking the sound of Vatersay, beginning about 4500 years ago.   THE FIRST SETTLERS:2500 – 1800 BC. SITE J By the time the first people settled at Allt Chrysal the clearance of light woodland for growing crops and grazing sheep had already begun to create the open tree-less landscape we see on Barra today.   The people who settled at Allt Chrysal around 2500BC worked hard to create two level platforms on the hill slope, one above the other. The lower, on which the 18th century house stands, was created by tipping a large number of medium sized boulders here; the upper was of earth with a stone revetment at the down slope edge.   Each successive occupation apparently re-used the materials utilised by their predecessors so that all that remains of the first, Neolithic, occupation is a rectangular oven set into the floor with the remains of numerous layers of burnt clay from open hearths. During the Bronze Age an arc-shaped structure was built, along with a paved area of stone slabs to the east of the site.   We cannot be sure where these first settlers came from, but they used pottery which was similar to that used elsewhere in the Western Isle, including open bowls decorated with incised and grooved lines arranged in simple linear patterns. It was almost certainly made locally. These people, who had no access to metal, were particularly skilled at creating small flint tools from pebbles of flint picked up on the beaches of Barra and Vatersay. Their tool kits included sharp knife blades and thumbnail shaped scrapers, both of which were probably used mainly for cutting and cleaning off animal skins.     Bloodstone from the island of Rhum was used to make some of these tools. The already scarce supplies of wood were worked with polished stone axes which had to be imported from northern Ireland.  Numerous pumice stones, originating from volcanic eruptions of Mt. Hecla in Iceland were also discovered during the course of the excavations. They were washed up on the shores and collected by the early settlers, probably for use as rubbing stones. Somewhere nearby small quantities of grain were grown – most probably barley which was ground into flour on simple millstones known as ‘saddle querns’, an example of which was found built into the internal wall of the later house. By 2000 BC the people living here had probably learnt to use their barley to make beer, which is why they were using decorated drinking beakers of a type found widely at this time in Western Europe. Some of the people who lived at Allt Chrysal in the first settlement may have been buried in a small communal tomb which was found and excavated about 400 metres east of the site, and those living here around 2000 BC made their graves in small stone-like cists, examples of which have been found within 300 metres of the settlement.   LATER PREHISTORY: 1800 BC – 800AD.(SITES I,H,G)  After the abandonment of the first settlement on the two platforms near the sea, the next phase of occupation at Allt Chrysal is probably represented by up to five structures, some presently in the process of excavation.   A hundred metres or so upstream, on a small platform west of the stream, are the remains of one, probably two, small circular stone built huts (site 1). They were probably no more than four to six metres across, and circular huts of this size were used for temporary shelter on Barra up until early modern times. These examples, however, from their condition and location, appear to be much older and we believe they may belong to the later second millennium BC or early first millennium.   Further upstream again, on a shelf east and high above the stream, is a third circular structure (site H). This is a rather bigger – perhaps 8m across – but may never have been a substantial hut or house at all but some sort of pen or enclosure. Again its age is uncertain at present, but it may belong to the same era as the other circular huts or the with the large stone house at site G.   Site F appears to be a prehistoric structure possibly of the same period but re-used in the 18th/19th centuries as a sheep/calf pen.   The house at site G is clearly visible from the main site (B) as a great circular mass of building stone on the far side of the stream and up- slope. This building is 9-10m in diameter and is almost certainly an ‘Iron Age’ farmhouse, probably of the first centuries AD, and a wall which runs round the east side of the house may have formed a pen alongside the house for the sheep and cattle. Other houses of this sort known on Barra and elsewhere in the Western Isles were sometimes re-used or continued in sporadic occupation up until the 6th or 7th centuries AD.       THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY FARM. At present their is a gap of a thousand years or more in the identified remains of human occupation of the site at Allt Chrysal – a time in which first the Norsemen arrived on Barra (as we know from the famous Runic stone from Cille Bharra churchyard) and then the clansmen in the shape of the MacNeils.   House B was the main building of a farmyard complex of six structures. The house is of typical Hebridean design for the time, being constructed with the thick, earth-filled walls of large stones, rounded at the corners, with no fireplace or chimney stack. The fire consisted of centrally placed cobbled hearth, smoke escaping via the roof thatch. Peat for burning on the fire was stacked in the corner nearby.   A rotary millstone was found against the wall at this end of the room and it and its ‘saddle-quern’ predecessor await display in the Barra Museum. The house owner appears to have been relatively prosperous since the house was equipped with a window and a glazed front door. Although most of the pottery and crockery found is of Scottish manufacture, several pieces appear to be from the Staffordshire potteries.       An area of slightly raised cobbling opposite the door may have provided a dry stand for a dresser displaying the ‘best’ pieces of crockery.   A drain running from the small internal room out through the front door suggests that the cattle originally shared the accommodation. This may be in addition to, or a fore runner of, the separate byre just to the east (C) a roughly built structure with a covered drain running its length and out through the doorway.   Down-slope from the house and byre is a third building (D), built up against a huge boulder. Its function is not proven, but its raised platform with central channel or flue is similar to known Scottish drying sheds or kilns. Areas of low-intensity burning within the building support this theory.   n the vicinity of the buildings are some indications of the farming activities which were carried on by the inhabitants. Just up-slope and east of the byre is a much overgrown heap of stones which is a clearance cairn formed by collecting stones during spade cultivation of lazy beds for growing potatoes. Across the stream at (E) is a D-shaped ‘enclosure’ marked out by stones and with a cobbled area in the centre, probably a stand for a hayrick. Beyond this the hill-slope still preserves the tell tale traces of lazy-bedding, best seen in the low sunlight. The Reverend John Walker, describing Barra only a decade before the Allt Chrysal house was built, records that bear, oats and potatoes were grown on the lazy beds which were fertilised with seaweed. East of building D were found the remains of two long, narrow stone-lined kelping ovens where seaweed was burned to produce an alkaline residue, known as kelp, which was shipped to the glass and soap works of England and Lowland Scotland as a source of extra income.   Local tradition records that the farm was abandoned when a ship sank in the sound of Vatersay and the rats from the ship swam ashore and invaded the farmhouse. Certainly the house was abandoned, to judge from its crockery, only 40years or so after it was built and in the walls beneath the floors of  building D we found the remains of rats nests full of limpets. THE KELP-BURNERS HUT (SITE A) This small, single-roomed building, erected in the 18th century, was re-used by a kelp-burner in the later 19th century. It was sited on the edge of a low cliff above the sea and was destroyed when the road was built. Fortunately the SEARCH team were able to excavate it before its destruction.   It was very simply built, the rear wall being just a facing of large stone blocks set into the hillside. The front door was set deep to provide shelter from the westerly winds.   The only trace of personal belongings of the kelp burner was a fragment of clay pipe lying on the earth floor of the hut. Just outside the door were the remains of a kelp burning oven.   After the kelp-burner left Allt Cgysal the site was uninhabited until 1990, when the road-building crew, looking for a place for their workmen’s village recognised the attractions of Allt Chrysal and put the ‘portacabin’ village to the west of the stream, leaving the archaeological sites undisturbed. But the cook planted potatoes on the lazy beds last used around 180 years before!
ISLE OF BARRA