Hebridean Gaels and the sea in the early 19th century
‘the streaming ocean of the roadways’
Jetty, Pier, Port, Harbour, Slipway, Birlinn, Galley, Yawl
Loch Aoineart; Loch Eynort; South Uist; Outer Hebrides; Scotland; UK
The people of the Hebrides have long been associated with a heroic tradition of seafaring – the image of the medieval birlinn or galley has become emblematic of Norse and Gaelic power. Coastal communities in the 19th century would have been familiar with this tradition as it was a common theme of the song and story which was a ubiquitous part of their lives. However, the waters around the Hebrides in the years around 1800 were largely the preserve of merchantmen or warships of friendly and enemy navies.Gaels who farmed the coasts of the Hebrides could have little influence over this largely Englishspeaking maritime world of international trade and global conflict in the surrounding seas, although it had profound and wide-ranging impacts on their daily lives. By drawing on a case study from Loch Aoineart, South Uist, this paper seeks to consider some aspects of how Gaelic-speaking coastal communities interacted with the sea. Whilst this article will serve as an introduction to some common archaeological features relating to post-medieval coastal life, it is intended to encourage archaeologists to consider the sea as part of a wider Gaelic cultural landscape. It will also argue that critical use of evidence for the Gaelic oral tradition is vital to an understanding of life in the period. This study draws on the rich and varied evidence available for the early 19th century, but it is hoped that its conclusions may be of interest to those studying coastal communities in earlier periods where the archaeological record provides little evidence.
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