Archaeology and the Clan Donald by I.A. Crawford, School of Scottish Studies.

Mr Macdonald of Jordanhill and Camastiannvaig was kind enough to suggest in private conversation that archaeology in the form of the present author was adding a new dimension to Scottish Celtic and West Coast studies. Briefly, as a professional archaeologist cum historian I have been concentrating on the problems of West Highland history and protohistory (say 800-l800 AD); problems which are many and varied and may be summarised in unison as total lack of information (or of material assembled so as to be informative) save in the field of personal biography. Progress has been made by the use of estate documents, field survey, oral tradition, and excavation in an area restricted (for practical convenience) to the Uists. A stage has been reached where at least a distant view of ultimate prospects is occasionally visible and I thought that the members of Clan Donald might be interested in what can be discerned at this stage and what there is in it for them.

First of all there is the matter of perspective to be dealt with and this is the most important message, which I derive from my distant prospects. It is time that the Clan Societies of Scotland “look’d at each other with a wild surmise.” On present form their future seems to lie in the realms of romanticism, of cult and ritual, mystical ancestor worship and the like, a joy to the tourist and folk-lorist but a sorry end to a great tradition. There could be another future, however, and one which would be at once a tribute to the heroic tradition of the Domhnallaich and a serious contribution to the general comprehension of human society. This future lies in self-knowledge obtained by the methods (still evolving) of modern historicism. It can scarcely be said that such are as yet practised in Scotland at all, but they will be. It seems clear, to me at any rate, that Scottish history is entering a new and enlightened plane. At some distant time we can expect general histories to emerge of Scotland, Scottish regions, Scottish clans which will be based on a mass of source material collected in the immediate future by Scottish historians geared to social anthropology, sociological history, archaeology, environmental studies, as well as to more conventional documentary and linguistic records.

The history of Western Scotland from the 13th to the 17th centuries is the history of Clan Donald and indeed one could reasonably describe the periods 10th-13th centuries as proto Clan Donald and envisage these roots in S.W. Argyll and Ulster at least, as extending back through most of the 1st Millenium AD. The Clan Donald Society is well placed to play a distinguished role in the elucidation of the historical problems of the area. Let it be clear, however, what is needed at this stage. It is grass-roots information, linguistic, place-name evidence, plotting of small green hillocks, analysing of middens – pedestrian grubbing far from the halls of princes. The sort of thing that needs to be established is, for example, in what circumstances of climate and land, with what resources, domestic stock and hunting fishing provision, with what external contacts did (say) the Macdonalds of Heisgeir subsist in 1500 (or 1400 or 1300 etc, etc)? The personal character of the individual Fear Heillsgeir; his politics and policies are really of very much less importance especially in the present disproportionate state of knowledge and in any case are frequently incomprehensible without the social and physical background which we lack.

As mentioned earlier the present author is endeavouring to pilot some at least of the relevant studies in the Uists. In particular a large scale excavation has been conducted and is continuing in North Uist (at Udal near Sollas) to establish a number of vital points. These are:

What are the archaeological criteria for dating in Western Scotland (especially after 500 AD)? (In other words what pottery, metal objects and other artefacts are characteristic of Clan Donald-potters, smiths etc, at different periods – thus will we be able to date other sites).

What form of economy, types of domestic stock, exploitation of wild fauna existed?

What were the total economic circumstances of the “persons” on this site at any given period? The “persons” probably being:

Circa 1660-1830 herdsmen and kelp workers – minor tenants and later crofters of Grenetote (some being Siolachadh – or Siol Goraidh Macdonalds).

Circa 1470-circa 1660 Siolachadh Ghoraidh, tacksmen.

Circa 1370-1470 the Siolachadh Ghoraidh Lords of Uist (and Garmoran).

10/11th centuries-1370 the Macruairi (ancestors of S.G. above).

8/9th-l0/11th centuries? North Hebrideans (proto Macruairis).

Pre 8/9th century Proto Macdonald? Dalriadic Scots?

Very substantial progress has been made. Much of the work has been carried out by Uibhist Domhnallaich and in some cases by descendants of the Siolachadh Goraidh! A major publication can be expected about 1970-71 but in the meantime interim reports exist in the Library of the National Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

It is to be hoped that the information gained at Udal may enable successful research to be undertaken both in the identification of other Clan Donald sites and the excavation of such and those already known. This should lead ultimately to the crucial task of digging Finlaggan – a task which should in no circumstances be conducted without complete professional control, and as a factor, albeit the major factor, in a more general research programme.

This all may seem very pedestrian and trivial perhaps to those unfamiliar with the processes involved, but it is only by going back to such beginnings and by using all available techniques (radio carbon dating on Macdonald sites is in the offing), that a really worthwhile job will be done worthy to take its place among international studies of society and its origins.

I am not at all sure how, say, the authors of “Clan Donald” the Rev. A.J. Macdonald, Killearnan and the Rev. Macdonald, Kiltarlity would have reacted to all this at first glance. Apprised as to its purpose, however, which is genuine and detailed self-knowledge, the shades will I feel sure smile kindly on this process of minute historical examination which they themselves did much to initiate. Closer intimacy to the practical realities of the language and environment of their ancestors could only be of benefit to those many members of the Clan Donald Society who are perforce divorced therefrom by modern conditions.