Professor Jacqui Mulville
It had been a stormy night. Waking up, I could hear the cows starting their day by itching their backs on the house roof timbers. I remained curled up in my sheepskin rug on the sleeping platform for a few moments more, listening to the stock. They were getting restless waiting for their calves to be born. Out on the blacklands my brother was already holed up minding this year’s leaping lambs. I reached out with my toes to tickle Dog awake; he was still curled up by the smouldering hearth.
The people of Cladh Hallan lived in a stone walled timber and turf/plant roofed house with a soft sand floor. Inside the houses were divided into areas associated with different tasks and included a sleeping platform and central hearth. The fuel of choice for the fire was mostly peat, and the stone surrounded hearths became mounds of brightly coloured ash.
The most numerous animals recovered were sheep, with fewer cattle and only the occasional pig. Dogs were also kept and after their death some were found buried either side of the hearth, a place where, as living creatures, they may have rested.
Breakfast was porridge, along with the last crumbs of winter cheese and a duck egg I had sneaked from a nest. I threw the remains to our tethered pig, receiving a grunt as thanks. Then Dog and I headed out across the spring flower strewn machair with the cattle. Dog was limping, as result of getting too close to a bad-tempered cow recently.
Burnt grain survived in the floors and show that a barley and oats were grown, whilst lipid residue analysis indicates that milk was heated in pots. Putting these together would provide a type of porridge. Tiny fragments of eggshells were also preserved in the sandy floors and some came from (probably wild) ducks. We know from isotopic studies that pigs and dogs were both fed varied diets of meat and plant foods, probably made up of whatever waste was spare or that they could scavenge. Whilst pigs were slaughtered for food when young – dogs continued to be valuable into their older age, and many showed the worn teeth of animals at the end of a long working life.
Our stock were scrawny after the long winter. To save feed, we had killed all those we could spare and stored the meat and fat before the winds and rain came. The breeding cattle had spent the wintertime sheltering around the settlement, picking over the remains of our harvested fields and the plants we gathered and dried in the autumn.
During excavation we found the footprints of cattle close to the house, preserved in the sand, where the low stone buildings would have provided shelter during storms. Cattle and sheep grazed on the machair plains, their teeth are very worn from the sandy soils, probably moving across to the blacklands in the summer. A lack of good winter fodder would make keeping excess stock difficult, and the age profiles demonstrate that many cattle and sheep died in their first autumn.
The new flush of spring grass was a welcome sight. This would help the mothers and their calves to survive and produce milk. My job was to care for the animals and persuade the mothers, and their calves, to share this precious resource with us. Some calves would die, and I would have to trick their mothers into continuing to be milked. Any spare milk would be transformed into butter and cheese and stored in the cold peat beds for later in the year.
Isotopic analysis shows that cattle and sheep lived on grass. Cattle were precious animals. Genetic analysis of has revealed that our cattle came from a small (and mostly female) population, so herds were managed locally. We have little evidence for them being eaten as prime animals, rather they were killed young (the males) or lived to an old age (the females). Many young calves died shortly after they were born which would have made milk production something of a challenge, as ancient cattle need the presence of the calf (or a substitute) to ‘let-down’ their milk.
The sky was now clear and the skylarks were singing. The calf-heavy cattle and I drifted slowly down to the beach. The herd hungrily grazed the short turf and I headed down to the beach; strewn with debris from last night’s heavy seas. There were hummocks of seaweed torn from the rock and thrown onto the shore. Reaching the beach, the cows promptly headed to the strand line and began to munch on the wrack.
Seaweed was a valuable resource, it was dried and burnt, and used as fertiliser on the fields. The shells of small snails that live on the seaweed survive and show us where it was used. Stock also occasionally grazed on the seaweed, but not to a level that affected their isotopic signatures.
I wandered over to search the rockpools for crabs. Using my bone spatula, I popped off a few limpets as treats for the pig. The seagulls wheeled overhead and the lines of gannets dipped and dived into the sea. In later summer the plump young gannets would be hunted, but for now we were netting the smaller auks as they came on shore to breed.
There are many seashells and the occasional crab found at Cladh Hallan; people collected winkles and limpet and took them back to the house. Limpets may have been cooked and eaten, but they could also have been fed to the pigs and dogs. Sea birds were hunted seasonally using nets or snares. Seagulls, auks (including the now extinct great auk) were taken for their meat, fat, feathers and for their bones. We find beautiful points made from their slender bones.
As I turned to check on the cows, I noticed a shape on the distant shore, lying between the strand line and the sea. From its size and form I immediately knew what it was. I dumped my limpets and, shouting at Dog to watch the cattle, ran down the beach to claim this prize. As I got closer the shape resolved and I realised my luck; I had found the sea giant that gave us so many useful things. We would harvest meat, blubber, oil, perfume, and bones to build, to burn and to craft.
Marine resources were very important to the islanders. Beside the chance to fish or to hunt seals and small cetacea, the sea threw up all sorts of other gifts including valuable wood that floated across from north America and the occasional beached sperm whale. Sperm whales were too big, too fast and swam too far out for them to be easy prey, but if they stranded their huge bodies and bones were fully exploitated. They were the most common species found at Cladh Hallan, and their bones and teeth were used as furniture, ornaments, tools and as fuel.
I lowered my head and silently thanked the marine gods. With my antler pick I levered a tooth from the giants mighty jaw. This would prove to the family what I had found. To fully stake my claim, I tied my bone pendant to a stick and stuck this in the sand next to the beast.
I turned and sprinted for home shouting ‘It’s a whale! Come quick, bring tools’.
One whale would have provided a huge amount of meat and keeping an eye on the shoreline to find these giants would have been important. We have found sperm whale teeth on the site, and they were sometime carved into items. We do not know quite how people butchered whales, we do have some bones with chop marks from metal tools, but stone and bone tools may also have been useful. Deer were hunted for food, but their antler provide the means to make handy picks that could be used for a variety of tasks.
If you enjoyed this story, check out Enda’s Island by Paul Evans: