Archaeologists on island dig confirm clan tradition

Published: 14 June 2002

University of Glasgow archaeologists working on Dun Eistean off Lewis have confirmed the oral traditions of Clan Morrison on the eve of an international clan gathering.

University of Glasgow archaeologists working on Dun Eistean off Lewis have confirmed the oral traditions of Clan Morrison on the eve of an international clan gathering.


The dun is a small, tidal cliff stack off the north-east coast of Lewis, in Knockaird in Ness. The stack can be reached only at low tide in calm weather when the sea is out far enough to scramble up the cliffs to the site. Otherwise the stack is inaccessible to anyone but the most adventurous.

In 2002 a team of four archaeologists, led by Dr. Chris Barrowman of GUARD (Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division), are excavating at the site, using a 'tyrolean traverse' to access the stack. This comprises a rope across the chasm dividing the stack from mainland Lewis. The excavation is taking place in advance of a bridge that is about to be built across to Dun Eistean, so allowing access for anyone to this fascinating site. This is particularly important now as a huge gathering of the Clan Morrison is planned for July, when hundreds of Morrisons will descend on Lewis and Harris, mainly from the United States. It is hoped that a bridge will be in place by July across to the site so that the visitors can set foot on the stack, which they consider their ancestral home. Other members of the team include Ian McHardy, rope access consultant and archaeologist, and archaeologists Scott Coulter and Ally Becket.


The Morisons (or Morrisons) of Ness are renowned for their role as brieves, or hereditary judges, for the Isle of Lewis, a role they may at some time have fulfilled for the whole of the mediaeval Lordship of the Isles. They probably moved to Ness from the Sound of Harris around about AD 1300-1350.


Little is known about the Dun from historical sources. Its first mention was during 16th century civil war in the island between the clans. Dun Eistean was used as a defensive fort by the Morrisons, when it was sacked by the MacLeods. After this troubled period the Dun was then probably left ruinous by the new Mackenzie owners of Lewis, as there is no tradition of its being occupied after its sack by Niall MacLeod.


In 2000 and 2001, the Clan Morrison Society of North America, and Historic Scotland funded a topographical and geophysical survey and a trial excavation on Dun Eistean.

This was the first time that anyone had excavated on the site, and one of the few excavations on a mediaeval castle or fort in Scotland.

In 2001 access to the island was again arranged by setting up a Tyrolean traverse on which the archaeologists could cross regardless of tide. This meant that they did not need to stay on the island, as they had done in 2000.

Four small trenches were put in on the site. To general excitement, in Trench one on the big mound on the eastern edge of the site., a massive, carefully built, straight, vertical wall was exposed, a part of the original building here, which must have been a small keep, or tower. The wall had been covered by rubble from the collapse of the upper part of the building. A few pieces of pottery were found under the collapse of the wall, and in it was a roof slate, made of the local stone. Only an important building, and one on such an exposed site, would have had a slate roof, but more slates will have to be found before we can be certain - a single slate might have been reused in the building of the wall.

Amongst the pottery recovered from the buildings excavated in the other three trenches was a sherd from the neck of a stoneware bottle, made in Germany. It probably dated to the 16th century, and held wine. This emphasises the trade links that the islands had in the Early Modern Period, when all long distance trade was by sea. Control of trade and shipping in the Minch is the reason that the site of Dun Eistean was of such strategic importance to the Morisons.

The trial excavation was a great success. At the end of the excavation, we know that there is a surviving Mediaeval or Early Modern keep on the site, against all professional expectations, but supporting the Morison oral traditions. This keep and the surrounding buildings were last occupied in the Early Modern period, probably before the seventeenth century, as tradition says. Much more remains to be discovered, but the commitment of the Clan Morrison to its heritage has helped all of us to understand much more about our past.

EXCAVATION 30th May - 21st June 2002

This year's excavation is now in full swing. This is not a research excavation, but a rescue excavation, commissioned by the Clan Morrison and Western Isles archaeologist to recover any archaeological remains which may be damaged or lost by the building of the bridge across the site. The position and extent of the excavation is therefore determined by the position of the bridge footings, and may not be where the archaeologists would choose to excavated. Despite this, already there are exciting results with the remains of a building being uncovered with hundreds of sherds of pottery and other indications of occupation on the island. A small lead ball has also been recovered, tentatively identified as an unused musket ball. This is potentially a very exciting find as it may prove that there was indeed fighting on the island in the 17th century.

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To visit the excavation, or for further information please contact :

Dr. Chris Barrowman, Excavation Director, GUARD

Mobile: 07767 343244

Tel/fax: 01851 810112

For information on the Clan Morrison gathering, please contact

Angus Morrison

Mobile: 07799740252, Tel: 01851 810502 ..........................

First published: 14 June 2002

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