The Society is hugely grateful to Steven Birch for stepping in, almost at the last minute, to replace our arranged speaker and, even more so, for presenting such a
fascinating and compelling account of Skye’s two most important archaeological sites.
High Pasture Cave - Uamh an Àrd-Achaidh
Work here is now (2008) in its fifth season, and the excavation is expected to finish in 2009 and be followed by several years of evaluation before publication.
Apart from the detailed examination of the finds in and around the Cave itself, work has also been done to place the site in its wider context, by looking at the surrounding settlement
pattern which seems to include roundhouses from the Iron Age, agricultural patterns and even other Caves, one of which seems to be directly related to a roundhouse.
High Pasture Cave represents a sizeable site, with 80 to 100 metres accessible, opening from a natural hollow on the surface, and it shows signs of having been visited for 7 –
8000 years. Apart from vast numbers of animal bones, finds range from early stone tools to pottery to worked metal. Major activity on the site seems to have been focused around 2500 years
ago, in the early Iron Age.
Recent discoveries have included a quern, spindle whorls, possible tuning pegs for a lyre, an iron axe, an adze and a sword pommel, as well as a paved walkway outside the Cave proper.
Some of these finds indicate that they were placed deliberately, rather than thrown away or lost, which leads to the possible conclusions that the Cave is a sacred site and some of the
finds were votive in nature.
Recent detailed archaeology has been focusing on the layers of sediment just outside the Cave, much of which is ash, which suggests, along with the presence of hearths and fire-cracked stone,
that the site was used for burning over a considerable period, albeit with some spells of hiatus. Finds in the ash have included jet, soapstone, copper alloys, whorls and bone pins. Again
there are clear suggestions that some of these finds were deliberately placed.
The vast numbers of animal bones – pigs, cattle, deer included - not only confirm the sort of activity that was taking place at the Cave but also, by their nature, suggest that the
butchery was primary – some of the animals were almost certainly slaughtered at the site.
Other explorations have uncovered wall structures and a staircase which shows signs of having a domed, corbelled roof.
From his detailed description of the work, Steven pointed out some of the possible, but as yet tentative, conclusions. The Cave exists in the context of other
settlement and, most importantly, water. The Cave’s function is intriguing. There are clear signs of fire, feasting, butchery, metal-working and what can be described best as
“everyday life” - the trenches have revealed objects associated with normal everyday life - domestic-type objects that may have taken on a new meaning due to their deposition at
the site, possibly at the end of their use. The possibilities are tantalising.
Now excavations are reaching their final stages, work is being done to record the site with the help of very precise (and costly) laser equipment. As interpretation continues,
the web site – www.high-pasture-cave.org – will provide an ongoing account of progress.
The Cave of the Speckled Horse – Uamh an Eich-Bhric
Steven then turned our attention to this new, exciting development at Fiskavaig, or rather, at a spot on the shore below 300 ft cliffs, constantly at risk of storm and sea
erosion and rock fall.
The site is unique, reached by an hour and a half walk across the moor and down the cliff or, more precariously and not always successfully, by boat.
The two trenches dug so far have produced, again, large amounts of animal bone, shellfish remains, stones and ash. A quernstone has been found, along with slab-built hearths,
fire-cracked pebbles and copper alloy, with other signs of metal working.
The animal bones seem to represent complete carcasses - cattle, sheep/goat, pig, red deer, some seal and whale (although the latter may be left by people scavenging along the shore,
finding a beached whale and removing some of the bone - which make useful tools etc.).
The excavations are in the early stages but are already throwing up all sorts of fascinating questions – not least, how did the animals, the fuel, the raw materials for metal working,
the people get to such a site that would have been just as inaccessible 2000+ years ago?
We will wait with bated breath for further details of the finds at the Cave, and keep our collective fingers crossed that this coming Winter’s storms do not do too much damage to the site.
(My sincere thanks to Steven for checking this for inaccuracies or lack of clarity - far more detail will be found at the High Pasture web site and in the PLHS transcription of Steven's talk)