7.6.4 Souterrains

Souterrains, underground or semi-underground structures, termed ‘earth houses’ in antiquarian literature, vary widely in date in different areas of Scotland, with the main period of use generally presumed to be the last centuries BC and first two centuries AD (ScARF Iron Age section 5.8). A number are known from the Highlands (see Map 7.4; Datasheet 7.4), with published assessments for Skye (Miket 2002) and Sutherland (Morrison 2000b) also available. Some souterrains, for example Tungadal on Skye (MHG5106) and Cyderhall in Sutherland (MHG11834) are associated with roundhouses, and surface traces suggest this is the case on Canna as well (MHG5546; Hunter 2016, 58). Shapes vary, from curves to cruciform in plan.

The function of souterrains has been much debated, with storage, refuge and ritual the main contenders. Although objects and grain have been found in some excavated examples, increasingly souterrains are thought unlikely to have been dry storage for grain activities (ScARF Iron Age section 5.8; Miket 2002). At Cyderhall pollen analysis showed significant quantities of hemp and cultivated flax, which may either have been a deposit of grains or of containers made from the fibres. The souterrain itself is unlikely to have stored grain, and there was nearby a separate grain pit dated 400–126 cal BC (GU-2633; Pollock 1992). This suggests that some of the Highland souterrains may have had a religious focus for a specific domestic structure. Of course, there need not be one single explanation for all souterrains.

Map 7.4 Distribution of Souterrains in the Highlands (updated interactive map coming soon!)

Direct dating evidence is sparse (see Table 7.13). For the Highlands, the best dating comes from Broadford Medical Centre (MHG55640), where there is a date for the use of the souterrain, but also a date for when it went out of use (Birch forthcoming). At Cyderhall the associated roundhouse was dated around 400–200 cal BC (Pollock 1992), whereas another old date for the rock cut souterrain at Allt na Cille on Skye (MHG5166) was later: cal 51 BC–AD 379 (GU-2633). Further work on dating Highland souterrains is needed. Some show multi-period use, or like Tungadale were blocked up in the later phases of use of the associated building.

A number of the Highland souterrains have finds which include pottery, shale rings, beads, shells and grain. The souterrain at Fouhlin in northwest Sutherland contained a set of copper alloy shears, a rare find from Scotland. The difficulty remains in determining if these objects were contemporary with the souterrain, or part of the later infilling (Morrison 2000b, 230–1).

Crosskirk brochC Multi-period site; outwork converted to souterrainMHG39522; Fairhurst 1984
HamC Excavated in 1924. Attribution uncertain; possibly 2 souterrains under an artificial moundMHG2258
Suisgill BridgeSIron Age structures in vicinityCruciform in plan. Two other souterrains in vicinity. Built of slabs and blocks, with roofing slabsMHG9346; Barclay 1985
CyderhallSNone directly for souterrainGU-2633Associated with sunken roundhouse c 400–200 BCMHG11834; Pollock 1992
ApplecrossWRNone directly for souterrain?Earliest activity at site of complex roundhouse, possibly associated with earlier structure. Awaiting final reportMHG7680; Peteranna 2012a
FouhlinNWSNone obtainedCurved; drystone walling with roofing slabs. Finds included querns, a glass bead, bronze shears, a stratified midden of mussel and oyster shells, and burnt material. In area with roundhousesMHG11928; Morrison 2000b
Broadford Medical CentreSkye394–206 BC
374–118 BC 370–115 BC
171 BC–AD 25
Slightly curved, ending in oval cell, a later modification; stone walls. Middle Iron Age ceramics. Latest date is from fill in entranceMHG55640; Birch 2012; Birch forthcoming
TungadalSkyeNone for souterrainLinked to rectilinear building. Stone lined with lintels. Dates for hearth in associated building: 399 BC–AD 49 (GU-2810)MHG5106; Miket 2002; Armit 1996
Allt na CilleSkye51 BC–AD 379GU-3829Rock-cut. Finds include loom weight, charcoal, and pollen evidence of barley, alder, hazel and willow.MHG5166; Miket 2002
Table 7.13  Excavated souterrains in the Highlands
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

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