Ardivachar’s mystery mound

Our Understanding and Recording Coastal Archaeology sessions are now finished, but there was an optional assessment which students could submit; and, of course, I treated it as an integral part of participating. A full .pdf is elsewhere on the blog, but here is a short post both advertising that and providing a blog-length summary of the report (in terms of the word count, this is actually on target whereas the assignment turned out to be twice the required length – funny, that!).

My assignment seeks to bring together what we know about the mound situated at Ardivachar Point (Rubha Àird na Mhachrach) and also includes some basic recommendations about the management of the site in terms not only of the course themes but also with a view to a wider assessment of its value as a community and archaeological resource.

The mound

Nothing is known concretely about the mound: indeed, it has only been ‘known’, in an archaeological context, since 2005 when it was added to the record as a result of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey carried out subsequent to the violent and tragic storm of that January.

The mound measures c. 9.1m x c. 3.6m and appears to have a rather definite heart, or diamond, shape in terms of how the grass falls at the edges and which may represent the limits of the displacement of ground when the mound was constructed.

Photo 1: the mound’s heart shape

The mound is located on the headland at Ardivachar and is around 11 metres from the edge of the rock platform facing a small reef a short way offshore. The site is not a physically obvious one to an untrained eye but there are a couple of interesting features around the site which add to its potential interest.

Firstly, there is a line of stones set into the grass some 15m to the north-east which may form part of a boundary wall (or which, alternatively, may be part of a structure which is nothing to do with the site – for example, boundary walls which pre-date the sub-division of the land into crofts).

Secondly, there are a number of grassy tussocks located c. 11m to the north-west, visible in Photo 1, which may indicate setting points for the sun around midsummer or which may act as some other orientation markers for the site (or which, alternatively, may be just tussocks of grass). Assuming that both of these are deliberate and part of the site increases its footprint quite sizably from the pure dimensions of the mound itself.

Thirdly, there is the issue of what the mound was used for or what it represents. Without more detailed archaeological examination, this is almost completely unclear although we can suppose that the thin topsoil does indicate that there is unlikely to be great depth to whatever may exist below the ground. However, there is an interesting story told locally about it which adds quite considerably to the tale that the site tells.

Erosion

Moore and Wilson’s assessment that the mound is not an eroding site – it is still graded yellow on SCAPE’s sites-at-risk register – remains a fair one: there is no evidence that the mound itself is under imminent threat from coastal erosion except in the very long-term. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the site is free from forces of erosion: in particular, there is the issue of excessive amounts of rainfall amidst the rising number of extreme weather events posing an increasing challenge to a site whose features are low in profile.

However, erosion is threatening the additional features mentioned above: the potential boundary wall; and the potential orientation markers. Were either indeed to be part of the story told at the site, their loss is much more imminent and likely to lead to a loss in its archaeological value. These issues are explored in the series of photographs below.

Boundary wall

The following two photographs look at the potential boundary wall which, if true, might have protected the mound and also served the function of setting it apart in some way. Photo 2 shows the length of the visible stones in a line which runs north-east from this angle – about 6.5m in length; Photo 3 shows the scale of erosion (note the fallen stones as well as the slippage of grass). There is, however, no evidence of a similar wall to the west.

Orientation markers

The largest of these is centre-left in Photo 4, with three others stretching beyond it in a small arc extending towards the deeper area of erosion further back in the photo. It may be that it is the wind that has sculpted these markers to look as they do and that there is no actual function. The mound itself is to the centre right of the picture and can be found between the second and the fourth fence posts leading to the right from the strainer. Arrows point, to the left, to the orientation marker; and, upwards right, to the mound.

Photo 3: proximity of markers and mound to eroding coastal edge

In addition to the erosion around the markers, note also the rough drainage run-off and its close proximity to the site. That drainage channel runs broadly north-south and connects with others in the area, suggesting that drainage may have been put in place deliberately to skirt the mound. This, in turn, would indicate a community awareness that there is something of value here which ought not to be damaged.

Towards a meaning

If the grassy tussocks are indeed markers for orientation purposes, the most obvious explanation is that these mark the setting of the sun around midsummer, which unofficial guesstimates suggest is certainly a feasible one.

However, more likely is a story about the mound related to me locally by a crofter who, as a small boy (around seventy years ago), was told that it was a memorial to a woman drowned offshore when looking for shellfish while her husband, posted as lookout on account of riptides, deliberately looked the other way as he had fallen in love with another. He further said that the story had been commemorated in song. The South Uist version of the song A Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Woman) is set in Ardivachar and commemorates the drowning of a woman at sea off the Point while collecting dulse. This appears to be the song being referred to – and, in the Gàidhlig, pretty haunting it is, too. Here, the story departs a little from the tale as related to me in that the woman had been drowned by the actions of a servant girl who had fallen in love with her husband.

Folklore is thus making an interesting contribution here towards interpreting and understanding the site. Perhaps it was folklore that informed, with suitable embellishments, a technicolour warning to a small boy not to go into the sea there; or perhaps folklore, in having the song set at Ardivachar, was borrowing from an existing story inspired either by the mound and/or by a real-life tragedy.

Either way, what looks like the heart shape to the mound provides a thoughtful comment on its inspiration.

Conclusions

It is impossible to be definite about the conclusions since we do not know what the mound is, what it was for or anything about its chronology. This can only be known by some sort of further assessment and the use of low-cost, low-intrusive assessment techniques such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and auguring.

Knowing a little more about the site would spark a consideration of the possibility of a range of well-designed remedial actions which should aim to incorporate the community at the heart of the response.

1. the site needs to be better protected against livestock (the well-observed may have spotted that that is indeed a cowpat in Photo 1!) – though animal grazing is also responsible for keeping the grass low and the shape identifiable.

2. existing drainage systems need to be monitored to ensure that water run-off does not damage the site, or that the ground does not become waterlogged as it is around the area of the rough drainage channel.

3. about the potential orientation markers and boundary wall, they are clearly subject to erosion, chiefly from wind and rain washing out the undersoil on the exposed face, although in stormy weather the sea is also likely to present a direct threat. It would appear that little can be done about either of these other than, in the short-terrm, continued monitoring and recording.

Finally, better publicity of the existence of the mound may bring forward more stories and more accounts as to its origins. Working with Uist Community Archaeology Group would seem to be important first steps. Further research also needs to be done not least to assess the alignment of the site. It is also worth making the point that the loss of a mound which has a strong link to a well-known Gàidhlig folk song would represent real loss and that action, at some level, is both warranted and required.

The Loch of Intermittent Appearance

As Storm Eunice rages across Wales and south and south-west England, people have been checking on us, which is very kind – but, up and out here, we’re absolutely fine: it’s us that should be checking on friends and family in the south. Winds are currently gusting to the high 10s (that’s well below normal!); and, while Sunday doesn’t look too grand for a day out, with winds gusting to the high 50s, that’s not even the highest winds this month – the Range got a gust of 70 on 10 February.

It has been very wet, though. The Range was the wettest place in the UK last Friday (although not particularly excessive) and high, prolonged and quite intense rains continued in the days that followed, leading to the re-emergence for a few days this week of what I’ve dubbed the Loch of Intermittent Appearance. This is a low-lying area of ground adjacent to a drainage channel which has an exit under the road and out to the sea. When that fills, either because the exit has been blocked by seaweed or else because of the simple volume of rain on the land, the area floods. There was no seaweed at the exit when I checked, but this was the photo at the peak on Wednesday (at least, in daylight hours), taken from our decking:

You can see the water running across the road and draining across the grass, bypassing the exit under the road – the sea is just off-left. The road was, as they say, passable with care. And the farm gate doesn’t currently seem to be generally usable – at least, not without the use of your wellies. The drainage channel is between the gate and the fence line running down from the top right – here it is in close up last Sunday morning, taken from just left of the gate in the above picture:

The water has now gone – the land is, normally, quite well-draining – though it does remain a little swampy.

But, inspired also by my archaeology course – for which my assignment was handed in (finally!) yesterday (and will be posted here in due course) – prompted me to check the flood maps. After all, if the road is going to get cut-off, it might be a good idea to get that boat patched up and recommissioned.

Dynamic Coast produces a range of maps on the issue of coastal erosion (and as such has been invaluable during the course). For the whole of the Scottish coast it has produced detailed mapping of the impact of rising sea levels under a high and a low emissions future, demonstrating where the high water line is expected to be under both scenarios at the turn of each new decade up until 2021. We’re fine up here on the headland – we’re surrounded by a rocky platform built from Lewisian gneiss, which is both dense and heavy and less permeable to erosion – but the softer, sandier areas either side of the headland are much more vulnerable. The bad news is that the road is indeed going to get cut-off – even under a low emissions future, in which sea levels off the headland rise by 0.37m by 2100 – though not at the Loch of Intermittent Appearance, but where it comes close to the shore of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay (Cill Amhlaidh). Under a high emissions future, with sea levels rising by 1.03m by 210, not only the road is under threat but the seafront properties of our neighbours across the bay are also gone:

Loch of Intermittent Appearance marked on the high emissions map in black, with the drainage channel just to the left.

Some of the impact of this on people’s lives, homes and livelihoods might be addressed by some sort of remedial action, though of course the better thing to do is to address rising emissions properly and cohesively not only to ensure but to deliver a low emissions future.

However, climate change isn’t just manifesting itself in rising sea levels but also in higher amounts of rainfall and in more extreme weather events. The Historic Environment Scotland Action Plan for 2020-2025 speaks, in somewhat coded fashion, of:

Total rainfall recorded on extremely wet days has increased by c.17% in 2008–17 in comparison to 1961–90. In the west of Scotland, this figure is 36%. (p. 15)

There’s a bit to unpack there, so I went on to the website of the learned folks at the Royal Meteorological Society to dig out their State of the UK Climate 2020 document for a bit of backup. There’s a lot of data in there and quite a lot of it technical in one way or another – but it does have data on rainfall going back to 1862 and for each of the nations of the UK. 2020 was a poor year – especially for our cousins up on North Uist (see Figure 22; p. 21) – but of course it is not one isolated year which is the issue but the overall trend. Looking at the rainfall in each year expressed as a percentage of the 1981-2010 average clearly shows a rising trend. Scotland is the wettest place in the UK (natch) and where the amount of rainfall is rising quickest – 2011-2020 was 11% higher than the 1961-1990 average – but each of the nations are getting wetter:

Figure 25, State of the UK Climate 2020 (p. 26 of the .pdf version)

Furthermore, six of the ten wettest years in the UK series from 1862 have occurred since 1998 (2000, 2020, 2012, 1998, 2008 and 2014, with particular implications for winters with 2014, 2016 and 2020 all in the top five wettest winters (p. 26). Amidst the rain, winter storms and extreme events attracting red alert warnings – like Storm Eunice – are likely to become a lot more frequent.

Archaeology is concerned about rainfall (hence HES’s Action Plan): access paths, sites and buildings are all adversely affected when exposed to all that water and many properties will need specific action to preserve what we know and love. Let alone what we don’t yet know we love.

If all this rainfall keeps up, it looks as though the Loch of Intermittent Appearance will be making more appearances than usual. And might thus need to be renamed. With rising sea levels going on at the same time, that’s quite a pincer action on Ardivachar, and with major infrastructural repercussions, too. It’s not only the archaeological environment but a question of the state of what we’re also handing down to our successors as reminders and nudges about the way we lived our lives. And if we keep going on the way we are, there’ll not be a lot of keepsakes worthy of the name.

In the meantime, stay safe down there.

Book review: Surfacing

Kathleen Jamie needs few introductions. Since last year Scotland’s Makar, and now a freelance poet, writer and indeed editor, her non-fiction writing, which combines deep observations about nature and the environment with reflections on her own place in it, relates clarity and perceptiveness and also captures fundamental meaning within, and from, moments of time. Her writing ‘at the confluence of nature, travel and culture’ is powerful in its simplicity and Surfacing, her 2019 collection, made a happy – and entirely serendipitous – accompaniment to my own recent (and ongoing) archaeological studies.

The cover (mine is 2020’s paperback edition) features several archaeological artefacts alongside relics of the natural world and its publication leans on two archaeological digs on which Jamie spent some time – on a native Alaskan (Yup’ik) dig, inspired by a visit to the Aberdeen University museum (oh! the power of curators!); and also at the Neolithic/Bronze Age settlement at Links of Noltland, on Orkney (where one of the team, mentioned at several places in the book, was our own Dr. Emily Gal). It’s a well-chosen illustration which emphasises the impact of humans on the environment (and which, perhaps, is suggestive of that impact not being kind) and, at the same time, that nature has – at least up to now – been able to regard and deal with that impact within the circularity of the life cycle (the distinct lack of which, with its non-degradable plastics, is the signature mark of our own Anthropocene) and with humans and nature in a degree of harmony.

The title is also clever, repeating Jamie’s predilection for single-word titles and, at the same time, strongly suggesting a theme of growing consciousness and the coming to light of things – both artefacts and knowledge – that were once lost.

Comparatively lengthy accounts of her time at the digs are book-ended with shorter (more typically Jamie-like) feature writing (blog posts, even) reflecting on climate change, our own lack of care for the environment and others (increasing as technology advances), family and ageing, and listening to nature’s voice. There is also an extended account of time spent in China (close to Tibet) during a tumultuous time in the mid-1990s, written as a promise to herself, and in part exorcism of a dream, made during a recent cancer diagnosis. But it is the digs that take centre stage, in terms both of the content and the theme of the work, and both feature different aspects of climate change: global warming (a lack of snow and compacted ice in Alaska); and coastal erosion (a result of rising sea levels and increasing rain on Orkney). More prosaically, both also illustrate the uncertainties arising from the short-term, piecemeal funding common to archaeological digs; as well as their seasonal nature, with daylight, and the weather, having an impact on what can be done and what can be realised in terms of bringing things to light.

The Links of Noltland dig features Jamie at her best; but I think the Alaskan section works rather less well. Here she is curiously detached and her observations, while conveying insight, seem as a result a little more forced and certainly occur a little less naturally. Frequently, she is factual rather than poetic; prosaic rather than elevated. The reasons why can only be speculative and are likely to be several: language and culture are surely among them (politically, the Chinese section, the third piece of extended writing in the book and appearing at the opposite end to the Alaskan, provides some particularly interesting contrasts and its selection here in this volume might provide a contribution in this area). The same is also true of archaeological dig experience, perhaps gained for the first time in Alaska. At Links of Noltland, such barriers are not present (or not as present) and Jamie features much more on the dig itself – accurately conveying, as a novice, some of the techniques involved in constructing and cleaning a site, for example. The result is a much more cohesive piece of writing which allows Jamie’s observational ability to come fully to the fore and to present the material exploring and combining her themes in a way which is more rounded and which emphasises the links she wants to make between humans and nature. In Alaska, these are known, but less clear and differently perceived; while the issues raised appear more contended not least since they are also tied up with identity and a shared understanding which is native and not Jamie’s own.

The lack of cohesiveness to the first part of the work perhaps renders this a lesser achievement than her earlier work – but then, such a criticism is also a misstatement of the role of non-fiction writers who change with time and age, learning and understanding, and growth and development. Just as Sightlines was ten years ago now, and Findings a further seven, Surfacing is a product of who Jamie is now and we should cherish her: her ability to synthesise different aspects of the human existence and improve our understanding of our world as a result represents a talent of hugely important significance. I have Antlers of Water – her first edited collection concerning ‘our relationship with the more-than-human world’ on my shelf: this was originally going to be a joint review until archaeology took over. It’s greatly anticipated.