This year marks the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, aimed at supporting and driving the nation’s tourism and events sector as well as celebrating our country’s unique and admirable heritage and history. It is an opportunity to raise awareness of some of our greatest assets and our hidden gems.
Both history and heritage are already key motivators for visits to Scotland and the Highlands and Islands, and they play an important part of the visitor experience. The Highlands and Islands is rich in history, heritage and archaeology – from World Heritage Sites to ancient monuments, listed buildings to historic battlefields, cultural traditions to our myths, stories and legends.
This year on World Heritage Day, Dig It! 2017 ran six events highlighting Scotland’s six UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Sites which was funded by EventScotland as part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.
One of these events included a trip to the Western Isles with Immersive Minds to visit six different sites on Lewis, from Stornoway to Mangersta to Garenin, that are the gateway to St Kilda – a group of five remote islands in the North Atlantic, 100 miles off the west coast of Scotland. It is one of the few World Heritage Sites to hold mixed status for its cultural and natural qualities.
The museum, which is fully accredited, has been standing for around 8-10 years and has displays of historical interest to Great Bernera and a large collection of genealogical reference material. The collection comprises some 500 artefacts which illustrate the domestic, economic, cultural and religious life.
Artefacts from the Bostadh Iron Age Village dig are on display and the Bernera Historical Society also operate an experimental reconstruction of an Iron Age House close to the original dig at Bostadh Beach.
When we were there, we spoke to the Chairman of Bernera Museum, Calum Macualay, and met other locals who are involved in it’s operations, Colin Halliday and Kathanna Latimir.
Normally when uncovering artefacts for a museum, archaeologists excavate an area to discover what is underneath, but this was not the usual story for the Iron Age village in Bostadh. Calum told us it was in fact mother nature that unearthed the housing. He said:
“Mother nature uncovered the iron age housing. It was the storms that uncovered the village initially. People knew about it and knew it was there but the storms uncovered it in ’93. That showed the extent of the buildings and then we decided to try and get the dig.”
The museum is filled with beautiful artefacts from the island’s history, and its strengths lie mainly in the fields of domestic, social life, fishing and the sea.
Most of the material belongs in date to mainly to the 19th and 20th centuries, which includes comprehensive family archives, a collection of old photographs, audio and video tapes, and material relating to local fishing.
Not only that, they also have some artefacts that represent the lives of those who lived on St Kilda, telling their stories of survival.
For example, the show exactly how those on St Kilda sent and received mail.
By the late 1890s, a unique system of mail dispatch had developed on the remote Scottish islands of St Kilda: letters were enclosed in a waterproof receptacle attached to a homemade buoy or buoyant object and launched into the sea in the hope that they would wash ashore and be forwarded on by whoever chanced upon them.
The idea had been developed by John Sands, a journalist who found himself stranded on the islands in 1876. In the years that followed Sand’s experiments the St Kilda “mail boats” were regularly used by the islanders.
An article in The Sketch in 1906 recorded that during the longer winter months when vessels did not call at the islands letters were dispatched by placing them in a “waterproof, buoyant case and cast upon the waters. Usually this remarkable mail-packet is picked up on the coast of Norway, to be forwarded later to the Foreign Office. Four packages out of six reach their destination.”
Calum went on to tell us that for such a small place, there is so much archaeology. He said:
“There’s a massive amount of archaeology to know on the island here as well as the Western Isles. In Berna here, for such a small place there is massive amount of archaeology. It’s all documented, and those who are interested know about it and they come to the island. We may not necessarily see them, but they do come and visit.”
Bernera has many historical sites include a Norse Mill, island Broch, Shielings and croft ruins as well as a cairn to the Bernera Rioters.
So does having these sites and places that store our history make it (and our heritage) any more meaningful? Calum told us it doesn’t, but for reasons different from you’d think.
“No, it reinforces it. The people who are from here, generally like Scots everywhere, it doesn’t matter where they go, home is where their people are from, not where they live.
“I mean I don’t know about you, where do you consider home, is the the four walls where you live at the moment or was it where you were born and brought up? The latter is generally what most people here call home. These things sort of reinforce you to make that element of home a little bit more recognisable.”
There is an element of fear that we’re losing a part of our history simply because we don’t acknowledge it and talk about it the way that we used to and the way our ancestors did. Calum told us why these places, that remind us of it, matter. He said:
“It’s our history. I mean my family have a long history here, and a lot of the history that was relevant to us was actually transferred by word of mouth. It wasn’t written down, it was in stories and we’re losing a lot of that, we’ve lost most of it to be quite honest.
“Places like this, you know, they’ve been set up around the island to try and preserve that. Because we’re inundated with technology now and we’re not interested in the stories and the history of the place and we don’t get together to share our history like we used to.”
In every museum there is a little bit of you, whether it’s a recognition that history does mean something to you or finding one object that makes your heart sing. It could be an appreciation that your family has connections with years of heritage, or simply a connection to the environment by which you’re surrounded. Which is why having these sites are important.
The museum is open Monday to Friday 12noon to 4pm May to September and Tuesday and Thursday 1pm to 3pm at other times and the Iron Age house is open 12 noon to 4pm May to September.
Keep an eye on Dig It! 2017’s Hidden Gems phase of ‘Scotland in Six’ for World Heritage Day here, and you can also visit and chat about World Heritage Day and it’s events on VisitScotland’s Scotland Community. See how many of Dig It!’s World Heritage Sites you’ve seen by checking them of the bucket list here.
Organised by Dig It! 2017 and funded by EventScotland as part of Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.