Bosta at great Bernera in The Isle of Lewis

Vikings in the Isle of Lewis

The history of the Vikings in Lewis is an amazing story of how a Pictish life-world changed when Norse immigrants arrived

Until the 9th century The Isle of Lewis was inhabited by Scots and Picts, who brought their language – Gaelic – to the island at the beginning of the first millennium. However, in the period between the 8th and 9th centuries Norse Vikings arrived, literally changing the language, the material culture and presumably also the general way of life and way of thinking.[1]

Sheep at Great Bernera, the Isle of LewisOne of the places, where this have been demonstrated vividly is Bostadh on the north western tip of the Great Bernera Island, which is only linked to Lewis by a small bridge.

‘Bostadh’ is of course a Viking name, and when archaeologists began digging in 1993 after a storm had laid some dunes bare, it was expected they would find the remains of a Norse settlement. However, it was what lay underneath, which really helped to make the place famous.

Beneath the Norse settlement they found the remains of eight Pictish, or Iron Age houses from AD 500 -700, built in the traditional ‘jelly bean’ or eight-shaped form. As seen from above such a building would consist of a large circular structure linked to a smaller circular projection by an internal doorway. It is believed that the larger area was for living, while the smaller area was for storage.

What made these houses so spectacular were that the contents of the huts had been perfectly preserved in the sand making it possible to reconstruct the reality of the daily life of the inhabitants. It appeared that their primary nourishment had come from cattle and very young lambs plus large amounts of shell-fish and saithe, a fish, which can be found close to the shore, particularly in rocky areas. To this should be added the occasional hunted prey and some grain. Apart from that a number of artefacts were discovered in the debris, like bone pins and antler Combs. Today an Iron Age house has been constructed on site.

The Norse

Bostadh Isle of Lewis Scotland Map
The map shows the location of Bostadh and – perhaps – its importance for Viking Ships to be able to stock up with victuals somewhere on the isle of Lewis if taking tho outer route around Scotland

At that time people in Bostadh began to live off the catch from a new kind of deep-sea fishing, obviously carried out from boats. Not only bones from cod and hake but also herring were found. It is speculated that part of these catches must have been dried and perhaps even bartered or traded. Fishing from ashore you rarely catch more than the meal of the day. Longline fishing off-shore and using nets (for herring) you might land huge catches. It must have taken considerable energy and labour to process such amounts of fish (hanging, drying and perhaps salting). It has been speculated that Bostadh in the early Viking period was a convenient harbour and trading-post for Viking ships passing by on their way to Ireland. Here they might trade for supplies of dry cod, dry or smoked beef jerky and perhaps oat- or barley biscuits on their way down south. A delicacy might even be deer-jerky produced from the large finds of red deer carcasses, which were mixed into the midden. Careful analysis of the remains of the red deer have shown surplus hindquarters at Bostadh, signalling that trade with parts of red deer took place on the Great Bernara Island. It has even been proposed that the Vikings erected a barrier between the Bernara Island and the rest of Lewis in order to prohibit the deer to swim across the shallow sound, making it possible to manage the population. [2]

Further we know that the agricultural production at the farm became both more intensive and characterised by the introduction of new crops. Not only barley and oats were cultivated now, but also rye and flax (although at Bostadh, it appears that the Norse immigrants curiously enough gave up on flax, when they located themselves there).

To this should be added large herds of cattle, goats and sheep, with calves being killed off at a young age. Apparently dairy played an important part (hence the import of Norwegian soap-stone bowls). Lambs, though, were no longer killed as sucklings, but allowed to mature in order to produce fleeces and wool. Studies of place-names have also demonstrated that in all likelihood some kind of seasonal movement to summer shielings was practised at this time.

 

All this was probably part of the overall change in the orientation towards the sea. Long-distance ships need sails, and Viking-sails ate up enormous amounts of wool and/or flax. It is often speculated that flax was grown to produce linen or linseed oil. However, it is more probable that it played a significant role in the making of sails.

By carefully piecing together the information from Bostadh with results from other excavations (Loch na Beirgh) on Lewis, and reading it all in the light of the stories told about Hebrideans in the Norse sagas and poetry, the outline of a new world emerges characterised by an arable economy geared to sheep-rearing, paired with a deep dependence upon the sea. No wonder, boats, ships, and sails fostered a combined set of important cultural icons in this new world, which was obviously geared towards sea-faring and deep-sea fishing in a way, which the Iron-age Scots and Picts had never been.

It is unfortunate that Bostadh only offers a reconstruction of the iron-age huts but not the later Viking house(s). It would be nice to “see” the difference in the landscape.

NOTES:

[1] An Ethnic Enigma – Norse, Pict and Gael in the Western Isles
By Andrew Jennings and Arne Kruse
In: In: Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic. Select Papers from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Viking Congress, Tórshavn, 19-30 July 2001. Ed. Andras Mortensen and Símun V. Arge. Annales Societatis Scientiarum Færoensis Supplementum XLIV. Tórshavn 2005, p.  284 – 96

[2] Aspects of economy and environment of north west Lewis in the first millennium AD : the non-marine faunal evidence from Bostadh and Beirgh considered within the framework of north Atlantic Scotland
By Jennifer E. Thoms
Thesis submitted for the degree of PhD at the Department of Archaeology, University of Edinburgh 2003

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Uig Beach Isle of Lewis Outer HebridesBostadh, Great Bernera, Isle of Lewis, Western Isles, Highlands and Islands, Scotland

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