Staffin’s archaeology: how people shaped this landscape
Skye’s Trotternish peninsula is full of archaeological remains to explore. People have been living here for more than 8000 years and have left their mark on the landscape.
-Image: Landscape shot showing multiple archaeological remains-
We only know about the very earliest arrivals – Mesolithic hunter gatherers – from scatters of stone fragments in places where they made tools, and the remnants of their meals. At An Corran archaeologists excavated a shell midden, the remains of early peoples’ seafood supper. These people arrived on Skye almost 170 million years after the dinosaur footprints were left in the nearby rocks.
-Image: community excavation with Dan & Dougie-
Caption: Further excavation work in 2015, undertaken by members of the local community led by archaeologists from the University of Highlands and Islands, revealed more evidence for Mesolithic people here.
Some of the most interesting archaeological remains come from burial sites, where communities interred their dead. In Staffin you can see burial cairns from the Neolithic Period and Bronze Age, for example at Cadha Riach. Neolithic communities were the first to start farming here – growing crops and keeping livestock – the beginning of a relationship between people and the land which continues into the present day.
Image: burial cairn in the landscape – Cadha Riach?
Over time, communities in Skye started building bigger and more impressive structures. In the later Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, people here built brochs and duns like Dùn Raisaburgh and Dùn Grianan – these were monumental circular towers with a double outer wall and inner staircase. Throughout this period, people created circular dwellings, unlike our modern rectangular buildings. The most common roundhouse dwellings are referred to as Hut Circles, and their remains can be seen across the landscape in Skye, for example at Rigg and Balmaqueen. These dwellings would have been home to most of the population throughout this period.
Many of the brochs are now in ruins, with much of the high-quality stone reused in later farm buildings and boundary walls. You can still see clues to their internal features and imagine how the walls might have looked.
Towards the end of the Iron Age, a new belief system emerged in Skye. The early Celtic Church, with its roots in Ireland, grew in Scotland through the first centuries AD. This established Gaelic as the common language of the region and Latin as a written language. Monks began to write down important events and information, marking the start of the historic period. Archaeological remains are still important, as they can tell a more complete story of settlement and religious practice in this Early Medieval period – you can see early churches or monks’ cells at places like Kilmartin and Kildorais.
- Image: Kilmartin. Caption Here monks aimed for solitude for prayer and meditation.
Around AD 800, a new group of people approached Staffin from the sea: Vikings. We know this because many places in the area still have names which derive from Old Norse, the language spoken by these Scandinavian groups. When you visit places like Marishadder, you can think about the people who lived here during this time of upheaval and transition.
Many of the stone walls and ruins you see across the landscape are fairly recent: they are the remains of townships, depopulated and abandoned over the last 200 years. The stone-built remains of homes at Garafad were left by the people who lived and farmed in this area when, in the 18th century, landlords increased rents far beyond what people could pay. In the two centuries following the economic decline of the 1760s, around 2000 people left their homes here when they faced eviction or, following the Potato Famine in the 19th century, even starvation. People forged new lives, often under tough conditions, in British colonies as far away as Canada and Australia. These communities were replaced with sheep farms, which could make more money for landowners than the original tenant farmers’ rents. The remains of buildings at Valtos, Sartle and Rigg all attest to the large communities who used to live here and work the land.
Image: Garafad field system.
Some of the industrial sites you can see at places like Lealt might seem out of place in the idyllic landscape of Skye, surrounded by the natural beauty of the waterfalls and rural sights of livestock. But these sites attest to the important role Staffin played in the industrial period, and how this area adapted to modern needs and industries.
Image: Lealt diatomite mine. Caption: The railway and diatomite mine here are evidence of how the people of Staffin worked with the environment to maintain livelihoods in this beautiful setting.
The crofts, shops, museums and homes you see across Staffin are part of its story – evidence of people living and working in this landscape. This is a place imbued with history and memory, and however long you stay to explore its sites, you are also a part of its story.