Finds in 1915

A letter to the Gazette on 15 October 1917, by “DJM”, Donald J Macleod, Inspector of Schools (not DJ Maciver as previously indicated.)

‘Neiseach’ [from a previous correspondence] maintains there are no pre-Norse Celtic remains in our island. That is not so, I may be able, in a limited way to illustrate at first hand. In 1915, I was fortunate enough, with the aid of a friend, to recover certain articles of antiquarian interest from a Viking grave at Valtos, Uig. These included two large oval Scandinavian brooches of brass, a connecting chain of the same metal, an amber bead, a fairly large heavy circular bronze ornament with raised centre and surface decorated with incised looped cords characteristically Celtic, a Celtic penannular brooch of bronze, a buckle and belt mounting also of bronze, with what Mr Curle, of the Scottish Museum, to which they were sent for expert examination, termed “double interlaced knotwork typical of the Celtic manuscripts of the best period. Also an iron knife and socket spear-head much corroded. A full description, with figured plates, will be found in the last volume of the Transactions of the Scottish Antiquities Society. It will be noted that all (and only) the bronze articles are indubitably Celtic. Mr Curle places the state of the burial about 850, and the fashioning of the ornaments at a very much earlier date. Of course, if may be suggested that they were the spoils of a Viking raid in Ireland, but the much more probably explanation is that these ornaments were secured from some Lewis source, probably a native family of distinction. In any case they are remains of an early age, found in Lewis, and as Celtic as any ever discovered from Cape Clear to the Butt.

A year earlier I retrieved from an interesting shell and sand mound at Kneep (Cùl Briagh Hàis; N. Hals, neck) near Traigh na Beirghe (N. berg, large rock) three stout bronze pins or skewers, about four inches in length. These pins are found at rare intervals by the natives, especially after violent storms that disturb the sand. They have been picked up in this neighbourhood at odd times from time immemorial. A stratigraphical examination of the ruined mound face and the neighbourhood reveals in places strata of shells and animals’ teeth, sand, pieces of pottery and a variety of debris, including, on occasion, human bones. The pins are called in Gaelic by the natives Deilg Fhionndrainn, but they do not know what the term means. The significance of the word fionndrainn has been utterly lost to the them for ages. Yet we find it in the older Irish writings, and we have it in the ancient Ossianic lay, Duan na Muireartach (Muir Iartach, western sea.)

Ged gheibhinn barr-brìgh Eireann uile
Ah-òr, a h-airgiod, is a fionndruinn
B’Ghearr leum fo stailin mo laimh
Ceann Oscar, Raoin, is Iollainn

It means “white bronze,” possibly indicating a composite metal with a high percentage of tin. Here we have, then, in our own day, among a Gaelic-speaking people, articles of the earliest historic times, whose use in unknown and whose Gaelic name, correctly remembered as to sound down the centuries, is to them unintelligible. And we need now wonder, for the term is long obsolete in Scottish Gaelic. The inference is surely clear.

On the same occasion I received from interested Uig friends for transmission to the Scottish Museum, where, with the above, they now rest, two arrow-heads, one of local white quartz and the other of peculiar blue flint. The quarts arrow-head was found “in the sixth peat in depth” in a peat-bog, and the flight one on a hard rocky bed. Both were exceedingly well fashioned, with a tang and double barb, but the specially interesting feature is that the blue flint is not local to Lewis, and that, so far as my present information goes, the nearest place it could have come from the north of Ireland. In any case it betokens intercourse furth of the island at a very early period.

A more recent interpretation of the finds, and of graves subsequently excavated at Kneep, is in Ian Armit’s Archaeology of Skye and the Western Isles (EUP 1996).