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Vikings in Scotland, Trevor Howie

Standing room only at Crookham Village Hall was narrowly avoided when Trevor Cowie spoke to members of Tillvas recently. His topic was Vikings in Scotland for which he selected 3 examples of evidence from the west coast, drawing on his work for the National Museum of Scotland. His presentation was enhanced by carefully-selected photographs.


The first example was Kiloran Bay on Colonsay. Discovered by the brother of the local laird in the late 19th century when archaeological procedures were in their infancy, we cannot be certain that the finds were preserved as they would be nowadays. A slab-lined enclosure was found among the dunes around a sandy bay along with quantities of clinker nails. Within was a crouched burial, various weapons and other grave goods including a sword, axe head and magnificent scales and weights of bronze, iron and copper. Excellent evidence that creatures of “fearsome reputation” had visited! The remains were that of a male about 40 years old. Sadly, poor conservation of the day may have destroyed some of the original features. However, the finds were painted in water-colours in 1883 and have fortunately survived as they preserve the state in which they were found. An important feature is that it was discovered that an inverted boat had been placed over the grave forming an early example of a Viking boat burial in this country.

The decorated hilt of a sword, typical of 9th century Norwegians, with twisted silver wires and a chequer pattern of silver, was notable among the grave goods. Others were a long-handled pan and a folding knife. The scales and weights were in better condition when found, the weights being decorated with metalwork probably made from recycled loot. £ Anglo-Saxon coins minted in 9th century Northumbria were also present. Outside the enclosure was the skeleton of a horse and further boat nails.

The second example was found on Lewis in 1979 by campers who spotted bones on machair. The Procurator Fiscal investigated immediately before archaeologists were called in. It proved to be the burial of a young female accompanied by an antler comb, brooch, needle case with needles, buckle, knife and whetstone. Later children found a skull which led to the eventual identification of a cemetery.

Trevor’s final example was of Balnakeil in Sutherland, like the other sites, set on a sandy bay. Human remains were spotted amongst sand dunes. Although the feet and legs had disappeared, the grave goods were in place. Included were an iron sword in its scabbard, an antler comb, gaming pieces, beads, pumice stone, knife and fish hook. The remains were of a boy aged 8-13 years about 4ft 11” tall. 3D modelling was used for facial reconstruction and we were shown a photograph of the face.

The audience enjoyed this visit along the western coast up to the northern end and many were envious of the holidaymakers who had chanced upon such amazing discoveries.

The next Tillvas talk will be on Wed 5 June when Lindsay Allason-Jones will enlighten us on Roman Cavalry Gravestones.


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