ISLE OF BARRA
Archeological Sites
© Siar Media 2012
Archaeological Sites on Barra It would be easy to say that the early settlers in Barra have been long forgotten and that they left little trace but happily a sustained research proj ect of one decade called SEARCH conducted by the University of Sheffield has uncovered wonderful evidence of their existence.   Allt Chrisal (correct local name ALLT EASDALE) Near a stream in a relatively sheltered valley on the southern slopes of Bentangaval, the archaeologists discovered a neolithic work platform made by forming a retaining wall and then levelling a space with lots of small rocks. This was built around 4000 BC.   Ironically it was the ambitious road project required to link the new causeway to Vatersay with the main Barra road which led to this discovery. There is a very practical tendency in human nature reuse a good site; this is very evident at Allt Chrisal. About 80 yeards from the platform, but high above it, are two circular stone structures. In the larger structure an almost complete pottery beaker dating the occupation to around 2500 BC.   Less than 100 metres from these structures lie the remains of an Iron Age wheelhouse built around the first century BC or AD. This was later modified an re-occupied in the third and fourth centuries AD, then later in the seventh to eighth centuries AD.   If we return to the neolithic platform we find the remains of a late eighteenth century blackhouse built on the platform with a byre and a drying house beside it. Oral tradition relates that the house was evacuated suddenly in the 1820's when a ship sank close by and a pack of rats on abandoning ship colonised the house.   There are many other exciting excavations by the University of Sheffield in Barra and the surrounding islands. We hope for even more new finds. Well done Sheffield! Standing Stones There are a number of fallen stones. Of the upright variety the stone above Brevig Bay is most dramatic, but its partner stone is broken and fallen beside it. The stone assembly near Ben Rulibreck on the island of Vatersay is worth seeing. One of the smallest standing stones around is to be seen on Borve machair.   Dun Cuier On the summit of a low hill giving an excellent view of the surround area, this complex of stones has proved difficult to identify. In 1956 it was wrongly interpreted as a single period site. In fact it has been occupied and adapted from the first millenium BC to the eighth century AD. The earliest structure has now been identified as a broch into which later cellular houses were built. Cille Bharra At the north end of the island on a steep hillside is a charming graveyard where in 1865 a curious stone was found with a Celtic cross on one side and a runic inscription on the other. It demonstrates that the Vikings settled in Barra long enough for some to accept the Christian faith. The original stone is in Edinburgh but there is a facsimile in the restored north chapel which also houses medieval tombstones. The ruined church nearby dates from the twelfth century. Both this place and the island are named after Barra's mysterious patron saint, Saint Finnbarr or Saint Barr. Dun Bharpa This massive structure is tucked away between two hills above the valley of Borve. It is a round well-preserved neolithic chambered burial cairn or passage grave. The scale is impressive at five metres high and thirty four metres in diameter. It has a capstone three metres square now in two pieces. The outside of the cairn is decorated with irregularly placed single upright stones leaning against the cairn. An Dubharaidh (Thatched Cottage Museum, Craigston) This is a restored white house in an idyllic isolated location. You reach it by walking up the track from the car park at the end of Craigston village. You will be rewarded for the walk by the tranquillity of just sitting outside the cottage.   Close to the shores of Loch na Obe, is the site of a settlement dating back to prehistoric times. Excavation and research by the Department of Archaeology of Sheffield University has demonstrated continuous occupation until the early nineteenth century. Among many interesting artefacts discovered recently is an early bronze age arrow head approximately 3,000 to 5,000 years old.     Kisimul Castle (Seat of the clan MacNeil of Barra) The most visible of all Barra's heritage is this restored medieval tower house castle with curtain wall. Dictated by the shape of the low rock island on which it sits, the pentagonal castle is the first thing holidaymakers see when they come to Barra by ferry from Oban. The castle would have been difficult to capture being entirely surrounded by the sea, yet having a fresh water spring. You come to the castle by boat in a journey of 200 yards from Castlebay main street. As you approach the castle, look for a large ring of rocks to the east of the landing place: this was a catchment basin to trap fish when the tide when out, again vital if the castle was besieged. Beside it is a sloping beach being the berth of the swift Kisimul's Galley, an adapted form of the Vikings' boat design. Like most castles, Kisimul is cold and draughty but you will enjoy clambering about. Not to be missed, in the Great Hall, is the collection of English bayonetted muskets and pikes used at the Battle of Culloden. What date do you see on the muskets? Look out for the spartan toilets, flushed twice daily by the tide! Much of what you see is the restoration work carried out by the clan chief Robert Lister MacNeil between 1956 and 1970.   In summary, you can see that there is much to explore in Barra for those interested in history. This is just a small selection of heritage sites; there are a great many more. Additionally, this Historical Society of Barra and Vatersay (actual Gaelic name Comunn Eachdraidh Bharraidh agus Bhatarsaidh) has a new custom-built Heritage Centre which holds two exhibitions per year during its main public opening period from April to September. The great home baking at the Heritage Café will mean that you will not come just once. You can also browse through out large collection of local photographs. Come and visit us or write, phone or fax us at   'Dualchas' Barra Heritage and Cultural Centre Castlebay Isle of Barra HS9 5XD Tel/Fax: 01871 810 413 Scottish Charity No: SCO23908
ISLE OF BARRA