Hebridean Gaels and the sea in the early 19th century

‘the streaming ocean of the roadways’

Kevin James Grant (Author)

Jetty, Pier, Port, Harbour, Slipway, Birlinn, Galley, Yawl


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.


Download data is not yet available.


Angus, S 2016 ‘The Coastal Lochs of South Uist’s South End, and their possible role in navigation’, Hebridean Naturalist 16: 68–79.
Bald, W 1805a Plan of the Estate of Boisdale, the Property of Colonel Alexander McDonald. National Records of Scotland (NRS): RHP 1040.
Bald, W 1805b Plan of the Island of South Uist, the Property of Ranald George McDonald Esq. of Clanranald. National Records of Scotland (NRS): RHP 3066.
Bald, W 1829 The Island of South Uist, the Property of Ranald George McDonald Esq. of Clanranald. National Records of Scotland (NRS): Register House Plans.
Baldwin, J R 2004 ‘Seabirds, Subsistence and Coastal Communities: An overview of cultural traditions in the British Isles’, in Randall, J (ed.) Traditions of Seabird Fowling in the North Atlantic Region, 12–36. Callicvol, Port Nis, Eilean Leòdhas: Islands Book Trust.
Bannerman, N & Jones, C 1999 ‘Fish-Trap Types: A component of the maritime cultural landscape’, The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 28: 70–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1057-2414(99)80008-9.
Barr, G T 2010 Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill (Clanranald’s Galley) [Online]. Comann Eachdraidh Mùideart (Moidart Local History Group). http://www.moidart.org.uk/datasets/gbarramcma/gordon%20ama%20part%202.pdf. Accessed 6 June 2018.
Bathgate, T 1949 ‘Ancient Fish-Traps or Yairs in Scotland’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 38: 98–102.
Benjamin, J, Bicket, A, Anderson, D & Hale, A 2014 ‘A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Researching the Intertidal and Marine Archaeology in the Outer Hebrides’, Journal of Island & Coastal Archaeology 9: 400–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/15564894.2014.934490.
Black, R (ed.) 2001 An Lasair: Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Black, R 2005 The Gaelic Otherworld. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Bray, E 1986 The Discovery of the Hebrides: Voyages to the Western Isles 1745–1883. Glasgow: Collins.
Bumsted, J 1982 The People’s Clearance: Highland emigration to British North America 1770–1815. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Bumsted, J 2005 ‘The Rise and Fall of the Kelping Industry in the Western Isles’, in Branigan, K (ed.) From Clan to Clearance: History and Archaeology of the Isle of Barra c. 850–1850. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Campbell, J F 1860 Popular Tales of the West Highlands. Edinburgh: Edmonston & Douglas.
Campbell, J L 1999 Songs Remembered in Exile. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Carmichael, A (ed.) 1971 Ortha nan Gàidheal/ Carmina Gadelica. Edinburgh: Scottish Gaelic Texts Society.
CED 2003 ‘Sheet Anchor’, Collins English Dictionary. London: HarperCollins.
Cerón-Carrasco, R 2011 ‘The Ethnography of Fishing in Scotland and its Contribution to Icthyoarchaeological Analysis in this Region’, in Albarella, U (ed.) Ethnozooarchaeology: The present and past of human-animal relationships, 58–72. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Dawson, T 2004. Locating Fish-Traps on the Moray and the Forth. St Andrews: University of St Andrews Press.
Dòmhnall Aonghais Bhàin 2000 Smuaintean fo Éiseabhal / Thoughts under Eiseaval. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Dòmhnall Ruadh Choruna 1969 Dòmhnall Ruadh Choruna: Orain is dain. Glasgow: Gairm.
Dressler, C & Stiùbhart, D U (eds) 2012 Alexander MacDonald, Bard of the Gaelic enlightenment = Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, Bàrd an t-Soillearachaidh Ghàidhealaich: a collection of essays on his life and work. Kershader, Lewis: Islands Book Trust.
Dwelly, E 1993 Faclair Gàidhlig agus Beurla le dealbhan/The Illustrated [Scottish] Gaelic–English Dictionary. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Fenton, A 1978 The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. Edinburgh: John Donald.
Fleming, A 2005 St Kilda and the Wider World: Tales of an iconic island. Macclesfield: Windgather Press.
Fomin, M & MacMathúna, S (eds) 2015 Stories of the Sea: Maritime Memorates of Ireland & Scotland. Berlin: Curach Bhán.
Gazin-Schwartz, A 2001 ‘Archaeology and Folklore of Material Culture’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 5: 263–80. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1012546516702.
Grant, I F 1960 Highland Folk Ways. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Grant, K 2014 ‘“… and in Every Hamlet a Poet”: Gaelic oral tradition and postmedieval archaeology in Scotland’, Historical Archaeology 48: 30–45. https://doi.org/10. 1007/BF03376917.
Grant, K 2016 ‘“Mo Rùn am Fearann” – “My Love is the Land”: Gaelic Landscapes of the 18th and 19th Centuries’, PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow. http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/7654. Accessed 6 June 2018.
Grant, K forthcoming ‘Oran an Fheamnaidh – Song of the Seaweed Gatherers: An Archaeology of early 19th-century Kelping’, Scottish Archaeological Journal 41.
Hale, A 2004 ‘Fish-traps in Scotland: Construction, supply, demand and destruction’, Ruralia V: 119–26.
Lelong, O 2000 ‘The Prospect of the Sea: Responses to forced coastal resettlement in nineteenth-century Sutherland’, in Atkinson, J, Banks, I & MacGregor, G (eds) Townships to Farmsteads: Rural settlement studies in Scotland, England and Wales. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, British Series, 293.
Lloyd’s 1800 The Register of Shipping for the Year 1800. London: H L Galabin.
Mac an t-Saoir, D R 1968 Sporan Dhòmhnaill: Gaelic Poems and Songs. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd.
MacCoinnich, A 2015 Plantation and Civility in the North Atlantic World: The case of the Northern Hebrides, 1570–1639. Leiden: Brill.
MacDhòmhnaill, D I 2001 Chì Mi. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
MacDonald, F A 1991 Gaelic Words And Expressions from South Uist and Eriskay. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MacDonald, J 1811 A General View of the Agriculture of the Hebrides or Western Isles of Scotland. Edinburgh: Alex Smellie.
MacDonald, J A (ed.) 1999 Orain: The songs of Donald Allan MacDonald 1906–1992. Benbecula: Comuinn Eachdraidh nan Eilean Mu Dheas.
MacDonald, K & Rennell, B 2012 ‘Western Isles Coastal Protection Works, Cillie Brighde, Isle of South Uist’, unpublished excavation report. North Uist: Uist Archaeology.
MacInnes, J 2006a ‘Looking at Legends of the Supernatural’, in Newton, M (ed.) Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal: Selected essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
MacInnes, J 2006b ‘Religion in Gaelic Society’, in Newton, M (ed.) Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal: Selected essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
MacKillop, A 2012 ‘The Outer Hebrides during the Wars of Empire and Revolution 1750–1815’, in Island Heroes: The Military History of the Hebrides. Shawbost, Lewis: Islands Book Trust.
MacKinnon, I, Brennan, R, Hurrel, S & Gorman, R 2012 Duthchas Na Mara/Belonging to the Sea: Exploring the Cultural Roots of Maritime Conflict on Gaelic Speaking Islands in Scotland and Ireland. Oban: Scottish Association for Marine Science.
MacLean, G 1989 ‘Locheynort South Uist: Appraisal of Uist documentary sources c 1600–1980’. South Uist: Comann Eachdraidh Uibhist A Deas, Historical Concerns in South Uist.
MacLean, G 2012 ‘Locheynort (Loch Aoineart) in the Historical Period’, in Parker Pearson, M (ed.) From Machair to Mountains. Archaeological Survey and Excavation in South Uist, 359–79. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
MacLean, R 1841 ‘Parish of South Uist, Presbytery of Uist, Synod of Glenelg’, The Second Statistical Account of Scotland. Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons.
Maclean, S 1985 ‘Old Songs and New Poetry’, in Gillies, W (ed.) Ris a’ Bhruthaich: The Criticism and Prose Writings of Sorley Maclean, 83–105. Stornoway: Acair Ltd.
MacLellan, A 1997 The Furrow Behind Me: The Autobiography of a Hebridean Crofter. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
MacLeod, G 2005 Muir is Tìr. Stornoway: Acair Ltd.
Mann, L 1921–2 ‘Ancient Sculptings in the Island of Tiree’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 56: 118–26.
Mark, C 2003 The Gaelic–English Dictionary / Am Faclair Gàidhlig-Beurla. London: Routledge.
Meek, D (ed.) 2003 Caran an t-Saoghail / The Wiles of the World: Anthology of 19th-Century Scottish Gaelic Verse. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Moreland, J & MacLean, G 2012 ‘The Mountains Survey: Loch Aoineart’, in Parker Pearson,M (ed.) From Machair to Mountains. Archaeological Survey and Excavation in South Uist, 83–118. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Murray, J 2014 Reading the Gaelic Landscape. Dunbeath: Whittles Publishing.
Newton, M (ed.) 2006 Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal: Selected essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Newton, M 2009 Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
NRAS 2177/1508–10 1800 ‘Miscellaneous Correspondence to Robert Brown’, in National Register of Archives of Scotland (ed.) Papers of the Douglas-Hamilton Family, Dukes of Hamilton and Brandon.
Ó Baoill, C 1994 Gàir nan Clàrsach/The Harps’ Cry. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Parker Pearson, M, Sharples, N, Symonds, J, Mulville, J R, Raven, J, Smith, H & Woolf, A 2004 South Uist: Archaeology and History of a Hebridean Island. Stroud: Tempus.
Riach, A 2015 The Birlinn of Clanranald. Newtyle, Angus: Kettillonia.
Sands, J 1881 ‘Notes on the Antiquities of the Island of Tiree’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 16: 459–63.
Shaw, M F 1977 Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, H 2012 ‘The Ethnohistory of Hebridean Architecture’, in Parker Pearson, M (ed.) From Machair to Mountains: Archaeological Survey and Excavation on South Uist, 379–401. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
SQA 2009 Gaelic Orthographic Conventions (2009). Glasgow: Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
Stiùbhart, D U 2017 ‘The Making of the Minch: French Pirates, British Herring and Vernacular Knowledges at an Eighteenth-Century Maritime Crossroads’, in Worthington, D (ed.) The New Coastal History: Cultural and Environmental Perspectives from Scotland and Beyond. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Symonds, J 1999 ‘Songs Remembered in Exile? Integrating unsung archives of Highland life’, in Gazin-Schwartz, A & Holtorf, C (eds) Archaeology and Folklore, 103–26. London: Routledge.
The Carmichael Watson Project 2012 ‘Bait Holes in the Hebrides, and beyond’. http://carmichaelwatson.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/bait-holes-in-hebrides-and-beyond.html. Accessed 6 June 2018
How to Cite
Grant, K. J. (2018). Hebridean Gaels and the sea in the early 19th century: ‘the streaming ocean of the roadways’. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 147, 261–284. https://doi.org/10.9750/PSAS.147.1249