ISLE OF BARRA
Deserted Village
© Siar Media 2012
Balnabodach Balnabodach is a small township on the east side of Barra, its present-day houses strung out along either side of the road, overlooking Loch Obe. Down by the shore of the loch are the remains of two earlier settlements, and it is here that the present archaeological studies are focused.   It is a wonderful location, with houses situated on either side of a small stream which runs down the hillside, across a patch of marshy ground covered with sea-pink flowers, and into the loch. The loch itself provides a safe harbourage, being entered only by a 400m long, almost vertically-sided channel (a sea dyke). In the past this would have provided protection not only from storms but also from hostile sea-raiders. In addition to providing a safe haven for fishing boats, the lochside settlement had a good supply of fresh water both from the stream and from a spring further upslope.   Some of the gentler slopes near the loch provided suitable ground for small cultivation plots where potatoes and barley could be grown, there were peat deposits from which peat could be dug and dried to provide fuel for the fire, and limited pasture for a few cows as well as extensive rough-grazing for sheep.   Early Settlement The loch-side must have been a favoured spot for settlers for many centuries. The earliest artifact yet recovered is a barbed arrowhead of flint, dating around 2000 BC. Excavations in 1996 found the remains left by 'Iron Age' people who lived here in the period around 200BC - AD200. Although the later blackhouse settlement had destroyed all traces of their houses, the rubbish left behind by these early settlers betrayed their presence. Nearly 250 pieces of their handmade pottery was found including pieces of bowls decorated with incised patterns.   There were also a some flint tools including a small cutting blade and scrapers for cleaning skins. A few bits of pumice may also have been used for rubbing down animal skins which were to be used to make clothing. This loch-side settlement may have been connected to the large stone round-house on a small island on Loch nic Ruiadhe, tucked away in the hills just 500m from the west end of Loch Obe.   The Township at Balnabodach We are not sure when the first blackhouses were built at Balnabodach although excavations in 1996 yielded some pottery that goes back to about 1750-1770. A rent roll of 1811 shows that during the Napoleonic Wars, the land in the township was rented out to four families - those of Angus McNeil, Allan Morison, Murdoch McKinnon, and Rory Johnston. At this time, the population of Barra was growing rapidly and it continued to do so over the next thirty years. When the first census was taken in 1841 it recorded eight households and twenty-six people at Balnabodach. Excavations confirm that these people were living in the houses on the east side of the stream.   The Blackhouses of Balnabodach The settlement to the east of the stream consists of seven blackhouses, all of which are now seen only as stony humps in the grass (except for the house excavated in 1996). They are typical of Barra blackhouses - they have thick-walls faced with stone but filled with earth, their corners are rounded, there is a single door in one long side, and they have no chimneys in the wall.   Excavation in 1996 of house A, which stands on a little knoll overlooking the other houses, gave us a partial insight into the life-style of the people who lived there. The family lived directly on the earth floor - there was no trace of even rough paving - with a hearth towards one end. They probably slept around this fire as well as cooked their meals on it. In one corner stood a wooden dresser, the emplacement for which we could still identify on the floor against the wall. On this they displayed their most attractive pottery. This was brightly coloured 'sponge ware', made at potteries on the Scottish mainland, although they also acquired some crockery from the English potteries at Stoke and Newcastle. The broken pottery showed that by far the commonest vessels were bowls - which probably reflects the importance of broths, gruel and porridge in the diet. Other belongings were few and simple. A clay pipe for smoking tobacco, some glass beads and copper buttons, the hinge plate of a small box, an iron chisel and knife, and a sharpening stone.   The overall impression is one of poverty. The most emotive find came from between the stones on a paved area outside the front door. Here we recovered a copper thimble - and it is all to easy to imagine a woman of the household sitting on a sunny summer day, mending an item of clothing and dropping her thimble between the cracks in the stone.   That woman might (just might) have been called Anne Macdugald, or perhaps it was her sister-in-law, Flory Macdugald. There is no documentary evidence of who lived in this house, but we do have the census for 1841 which lists all the people in eight families living here at the time. We believe this house may have been that of Hector Macdugald and his family because the house was the largest in the village and, crucially, had a small room added on one end apparently used for human habitation (i.e. it was not a byre for animals). Hector's family was the largest in the community and as well as his wife and three children, his household included his elder sister. We think the added room may have been for her.   The census reveals that five of the households at Balnabodach in 1841 were crofters, and another was a cottar (farming part of another tenants land). The seventh was 80-year old Niel Macdugald who was officially classified as a pauper. So although these families no doubt caught some fish, they were essentially farmers with little plots of potatoes and barley and a few sheep.   The Clearance of Balnabodach In 1850, Barra and the other islands of the Outer Hebrides were in the midst of the potato famines. The results in an over-populated island were catastrophic. Food was in very short supply and in fact the only two people specifically recorded as dying of starvation during the entire potato famine in the Western Isles were on the island of Barra.   In this situation, the then landlord of Barra - Colonel Gordon of Cluny - decided that the only way to relieve himself of the problem was to forcibly clear a part of the population and ship them off to Canada. Balnabodach was selected as one of the townships to be cleared.   Oral traditions, passed down through three generations, tell how people were forcibly loaded into boats at Balnabodach - presumably in the safe harbourage which now looks so peaceful. One young woman is said to have been milking the family's cow in the fields by the loch when the agents for Colonel Gordon siezed her and put her on a boat with nothing but the clothes she stood in. From Balnabodach and other places on Barra, the cleared people were taken to Loch Boisdale on South Uist where a ship, The Admiral, awaited them. We are told that 450 people from Barra were on board The Admiral when she finally sailed on August 11th 1851.   Accounts survive in contemporary Canadian newspapers of their arrival in north America. They were first shipped to Quebec, where The Quebec Times said that they were dependent on charity even for a morsel of bread and their prospects were grim - "the winter is at hand, work is becoming scarce in Upper Canada. Where are these people to find food ?". They were sent further west, to Ontario, where The Dundas Warder described their condition: "destitute of any means of subsistence, and many of them sick from want and other attendant causes...They were in rags.....shapeless fragments of what had once been clothes".   After they were gone, Gordon replaced them, allegedly with people removed from the more fertile lands of the Borve valley on the other side of the island. This better land would then have been rented out to mainlanders for high rents. At Balnabodach a new hamlet was built on the other side of the stream.   The census of 1851 shows two important changes. First, not one of the people living here in 1841 remained. Second, the new tenants, who had almost certainly been crofters too in Borve, now had to earn a meagre living from the sea; they are described as boat builders and fishermen.   So the events of 1851 were traumatic indeed at Balnabodach. Eight families were forcibly put aboard ship and sent three thousand miles across the Atlantic where they were thrown onto the mercy of the colonial administration. Eleven families were uprooted from Borve and dumped here and told to become fishers and boat-builders.    After the Clearances Subsequent census returns in 1861 and 1871 show how resilient the people of Balnabodach were. By 1861 the population of the township had risen to one hundred, and there were twenty-three households. Particularly significant is the large number of children below the age of 14 - over forty of them. And the range of occupations listed show that the people of the township were breaking free from the shackles imposed by Colonel Gordon's actions in 1851. Only four men were fishermen and one a boat builder. Others were described as a ploughman, a gardener, a carpenter; some of the women worked as domestic servants but one is described as a dressmaker. By 1871 the range of occupations had broadened still further to include a merchant, a mason, a sailor, and a house keeper, and by now there were once again five crofting families in the township.   Tragedy struck the township again in 1894 when typhoid broke out in the MacDonald household and first the father, Angus, and then his son Michael, died within a week of each other. Their house, which has been known as the 'plague house' ever since, is the most impressive of the standing houses on the west of the stream. It has a fireplace and chimney at each end and is well-built - probably erected around 1880. Note that the two front and one rear window are blocked - this was done at the time of the tragedy and the blockings have remained in place ever since.   Archaeology at Balnabodach Our project at Balnabodach has three objectives. First We want to gain a greater insight into the living conditions, architecture, and furnishings inside a typical Barra blackhouse, and we want to identify the material culture of the household at the time of the Clearance. That means excavating one or two more blackhouses in the old settlement in order to recover the clues left on their floors as to the way in which people lived in these houses. Second We want to identify and record all the remaining traces of the way in which the landscape around the settlement was used by the people who lived here. That means carefully examining every square metre of land around the settlement for traces of cultivation plots and fields, peat cuttings, hay-rick stands, outbuildings, boat-noosts, and jetties. Third We want to trace the earlier history of the settlement if we can. We believe, for example, that this would have been a particularly attractive site for settlement in the Norse period and we shall be looking carefully to see if we can find any traces of prehistoric or medieval occupation around the loch. This will involve trial trenching of any suspicious looking humps and bumps which we think might be the remains of earlier occupation sites. Finds From House A At Balnabodach 1. Banded bowl (blue and white stripes) c.1830-1850 2. Spongeware bowl (blue on white) c.1820-1850 3. Copper alloy thimble   4. Bronze looped button   5. Glass button 6. Bronze four-hole button   7. Bronze ring    8. Copper alloy hinge plate from wooden box
ISLE OF BARRA