Past & Present

Dunan Ruadh

To the west of the island is the Sound of Harris, the shallow seaway between Harris and Berneray and North Uist. Yachts and small fishing boats pass by today. In medieval times the clan chiefs’ birlinns plied these waters. Birlinns were medieval wooden ships that could be sailed or rowed – there’s an image of one carved on the elaborate 16th-century wall-tomb in the church at Rodel. In previous centuries the Sound would have been just as busy: Viking long boats, locally-built currachs (small skin-covered keeled boats) and inshore vessels would have been common in their time.

It is therefore no wonder that on Ceileagraigh’s west-facing coast there is a prehistoric dun. Today Dunan Ruadh is a low, grass-covered mound on a rocky islet. But some 2000 or 2500 years ago it was a stronghold reflecting the power of the inhabitants as well as place where a watch could be kept on the vessels that were passing through the Sound of Harris. A closer look reveals its size and form.

Its thick sub-circular main wall creates an internal space some 8m in diameter. The results of excavations at other duns in the Western Isles are enlightening. Duns were built in the Iron Age as large, prestigious ‘fortified’ round houses. Most people then were farmers, using iron, wood and bone tools, handmade earthenware pots and stone querns. They wove cloth, made hazel and willow baskets, and plaited heather rope. Their homes were simple round houses that, on Harris, have only rarely survived the passage of time. The dun, however, was a reflection of how many resources and labourers could be mustered by one extended family to construct an impressive building at a pivotal location.

By Jill Harden

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