The following article appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of the Clan MacIntyre Society newsletter.
Digging Up History
By Chris McIntyre
We had fun recently in digging up history, both Scotlands and our own! Reading through Earthwatch, an archaeological magazine, I saw an advertisement for a trip to Scotland's South Uist. This area located in the Outer Herberdies islands just west of the Isle of Skye. The article called it a treeless island with white sand beaches. This place is in our family genealogy and I thought we had to go. Even though we had never been on an archaeological dig, this was the ground my husband Tully's ancestors lived on. We spent three weeks in Scotland, two on the dig, and one sightseeing (which was not enough). We flew to Glasgow and then took a commuter plane to South Uist.
The sun was brilliant in the blue sky as we descended over South Uist into the airport on Benbecula. These are two of the islands in the Outer Hebrides. All we could see from the air were ponds (lochs), inlets and outlets creating a mosaic with the land of Tully's forefathers. His great-great grandparents lived on Benbecula, were married in South Uist, and eventually immigrated from the port of Lochboisdale to Canada during the time of the clearances. The islands looked very rugged, almost desolate, as we approached. We disembarked, armed with mason trowels, raingear, kneepads, boots, warm clothing, a bottle of Advil, and some trepidation about taking on this task with a bunch of college students half our age.
We were met at the airport by three Cockney Brits and a leader from Sheffield University, sponsor of the dig. We were part of a volunteer force. We were shuttled down to Gearraidh Bhailteas in South Uist near the Flora MacDonald site and the Milton House, which served as the operative center for the expedition. We were dispersed among three cottages and settled in to get acquainted with our roommates, hosts and the surrounding countryside that was our home for the next two weeks. We had a vegetarian diet and peat fires! Is this what is meant by going back to the land? We walked within a mile or so across the Machair (flat grassy plain) and discovered the incredible beauty of the Outer Hebrides. The mountains behind us to the east, the lush green pastures with their wildflowers, and the white sand beaches as far as you can see as we reached the Atlantic ocean. We walked and sat for a couple of hours as we gazed at a sunset as resplendent as any we have ever seen. If it were 20 or so degrees warmer, you would think you were somewhere in the south seas. We didn't see another person the entire time we were on the beach.
Walking to the dig site the first morning we had no idea what the next two weeks held for us as this was our first archaeological expedition. We arrived three weeks into the project which included nine partially dug trenches three feet by 40 feet. It had a large garden area containing a rock constructed corn driere which had been buried for several decades. We were surrounded by testimony to the hardy, rugged subsistence lives our forefathers led. Old farm equipment, fishing nets and floats, lobster pots, and rudimentary gardening handtools. We were watched over by the roaming cows, chickens, and sheep among the wildflowers, thistles, and fresh Atlantic ocean air.
I will never look at the soil, rolling pastures, or sandy shores again without wondering what secrets are held in the humps and valleys that are no longer just nature's deposits. These might be foundations, pathways of past lives, toils and travels, or final resting laces, rock constructed burial cairns. The archaeological crew taught us to remove the soil with the edge of our trowels one small layer at a time. Thousands of scraping motions yielded bits of history in the form of pottery pieces, spear and lance points, coins, earthen samples of ash and midden, and one wax seal from a liquor bottle dating to the 1700's. I unearthed three degraded iron pieces which seemed odd to me. One of the Boston University archaeological students studied the pieces for about 30 seconds and proceeded to let out a whoop and cry as she fit the segments together. She held up a spear or arrow point which dated our trench to the 14th century according to Jim Symonds, our director from Sheffield University. As the trenches were unfolded, we charted, plotted, took photographs, and catalogued hundreds of specimens.
We found ourselves visualizing our ancestors living on these very soils, performing their tasks for simple survival. We toured the islands of South Uist and Benbecula filled with so much history. There were ruins of ancient castles, blackhouses, burial cairns (one dating back to 4,000 to 5,000) years and circular excavated areas a hundred yards across with standing stones placed strategically at the perimeter. Gaining some insight into their lives with the elements as they worked the crofts and supported the various townships was a fascinating journey. We visited St. Michael's Church in South Uist where Tully's great-great-grandparents were married in 1825. We reviewed the actual church records of the marriage and subsequent baptism of their firstborn. Everyone we talked to seem to guide us to someone else or another source of information as we searched for our roots of the McIntyre Clan. We made friends and acquaintances wherever we went. We can hardly wait to return home to all the warm, helpful, interesting and enjoyable people that welcomed us and made our trip one of the most enriching experiences of our lives.
ęClan MacIntyre Society