MHG4895 - Viking canal and harbour - Rubh' an Dunain


A stone-lined canal, possibly Viking, connecting a sheltered inlet to a small lochan, suitable for harbouring birlinns.

Type and Period (3)

  • HARBOUR (Medieval - 1058 AD? to 1559 AD?)
  • CANAL (Medieval - 1058 AD? to 1559 AD?)
  • NAUST (Medieval - 1058 AD? to 1559 AD?)

Protected Status

Full Description

A stone-lined canal, possibly Viking, connecting a sheltered inlet to a small lochan, suitable for harbouring birlinns.

On the side of the "canal" there are what appear to be two substantial boat noosts. There is no indication as to the origins of the canal or the purpose of the combined loch and canal, or their relationship with the dun (NG31NE 1), but future sampling and survey underwater in the loch may help to clarify the situation. <1>

In the late 1980s Roger Miket, Museums Officer for Skye and Lochalsh District Council, began investigating the site, and in March 1995 commissioned a survey of the loch, canal, and adjacent features by Adam Welfare and D. Kear. (see <2> and <3>

In July 1995 Dr Nicholas Dixon of the Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology was commissioned to carry out a preliminary underwater search of Loch na h-Àirde. Some boat timbers were observed on the shallow silty bottom but left in situ. (see <3>)

A single unroofed building is depicted on the 1st edition of the OS 6-inch map (Inverness-shire, Isle of Skye 1881, sheet xlix). What may be the same unroofed building is shown on the current edition of the OS 1:10000 map (1986).
Information from RCAHMS (AKK) 14 November 1996.

In 2000 Dr David MacFadyen, of Tarskavaig, Skye, exploring the reeded margins of the loch when its level was exceptionally low, recovered an oak boat timber which was subsquently lodged in the Inverness Museum and later radiocarbon dated to c 1100 AD. The piece can confidently be identified as a bite—the transverse timber which joined the upper midships strakes of a clinker-built boat in the NW European tradition. Its configuration and dimensions suggest that it was part of a vessel similar in construction and size to the faering (6.1 x 1.38m) found in conjunction with the ship burial of c. 900 AD from Gokstad in Norway. (see <3>)

Thumbnail photo supplied by J Duberley, 23/07/02

A channel has been cleared between the loch and the sea. Rocks removed from the channel have been piled up in a rough wall along on the west side. There are two substantial ramps for hauling boats out on the east side. One of these seems to be in a Y shape to accommodate two boats. This is a very impressive construction, but there is no indication of date. Some rocks appeared to have been drilled for blasting, but the holes are probably a natural feature. There was a fishing community nearby in the 19th century and these features could be asociated with that. See SMR NG31NE0003.
JW visited in the company of M.Wildgoose, S.Birch and M.Carmichael on 30/5/02.
JW 31.5.02

The 1995 survey of the loch, canal, and adjacent features by Adam Welfare and D. Kear was subsequently published in 2007 to illustrate a short discussion of the peninsula in its historic context. <2>

In 2008 Dr MacFadyen discovered two more pieces of timber, one of which is the frame of a substantially larger clinker-built vessel. It has not yet been dated. (see <3>)

A successful funding bid to Historic Scotland by Dr Colin Martin under the aegis of the Morvern Maritime Centre led to an assessment survey being conducted at the site on 23 April–9 May 2009. The survey included a visual search of the loch bed, EDM plotting of the loch, canal, and adjacent topography, high-level panoramic photography, and plane-table and PhotoModeler surveys. This programme was substantially completed, although time, access difficulties, weather, and other constraints left some aspects of the work unfinished. The survey was complemented by a preliminary environmental sampling of sediments in Loch na h-Àirde and a small un-named lochan nearby. Aerial reconnaissance was subsequently conducted in collaboration with RCAHMS. Off-site work has included a search of the muniments at Dunvegan and other documentary sources, and the recording and analysis of the previously found boat timbers. An aerial photography sortie facilitated by RCAHMS was conducted on 31 May 2009. Detailed surveys were conducted on the partly artificial channel 100m long which links the loch to the sea. Associated features include two nausts (stone-lined boat docks) which extend from its N side, close to the seaward end, and the tumbled foundations of at least three buildings. A promontory dun stands on a headland nearby (NG 396 159). Close to the centre of the canal is a blockage of stones, now tumbled but showing evidence of former structural cohesion. The margin of the loch follows the High Spring Tide contour, though its fill derives mainly from the surrounding catchment and is therefore partly fresh, with seawater entering only during extreme high tides. Although water now percolates through the blockage, the level in the loch remains largely constant throughout the tidal cycle. A systematic search of the loch bed, most of which is less than 1.5m deep, was conducted with masks and snorkels. No further boat components were found, but a partly collapsed stone-built quay, now almost completely under water, extends on either side of the canal’s inshore mouth, with a gap in the middle. It was surmised that the canal was constructed so that vessels could be brought into and out of the loch, and water levels managed so that while there they would remain afloat throughout the tide, facilitating mooring or use of the quay. Since the process of bringing vessels into and out of the loch would have been quite complex, it seems likely that the system was intended for the secure over-wintering of craft, or for maintenance and perhaps boatbuilding on the loch’s shores. One of the boat timbers found in the loch was probably from a clinker-built four-oared rowing boat c6m long. It has been radiocarbon dated to AD c1100. The other undated timber appears to be from a larger sailing vessel in the same tradition, perhaps more than 10m long. Neither craft could have had a local function in this tiny shallow loch, and were presumably there for safe-keeping or repair, or were being built. This implies that from at least the early 12th century the canal, blockage, and quay system, or some precursor of them, were in operation. Study of this remarkable maritime landscape is continuing, with research focused on determining the dates, associations and functions of the various features, including the dun. <3>

The work on the peninsula, begun in 2009 Dr Colin Martin of the Morvern Maritime Centre continued on 15–17 May 2010 with a survey of the galleried dun to the southeast. The 30m curving wall, in places up to 5m high, bounds a precipitous rocky headland now c225m² in extent. On all three exposed sides there is evidence of major rockfalls on the foreshore below, while both E and W ends are disintegrating over the edge. The extent to which these processes have diminished the structure and the promontory beyond is unquantifiable but probably considerable. In view of its massive monumental architecture and the probability that the enclosed area was significantly greater than it is today, it is suggested that the monument is best categorised not as a ‘dun’ but as a ‘headland fort’. Further examination of the adjacent canal feature revealed a distinctive change of build in the W revetment about half-way along its length, at NG 3945 1600. The seaward sector is built of long slabs laid horizontally while the upper sector leading into the loch is of smaller rounded rubble. This suggests two phases, the first linking the two boat nausts below the fort to the sea and the second continuing the canal into the loch. Although the stones of the fort wall are similar to those of the lower canal revetment, they do not appear to have been robbed. This suggests either that the fort, lower canal, and nausts are contemporary, or (perhaps more probably) that when the latter two features were built an already existing fort was retained as part of the overall scheme. A terminus post quem for the upper canal is provided by a boat timber from the loch which has been radiocarbon dated to AD c1100. <4>

The canal, harbour and noosts were assessed by Historic Envrionment Scotland in 2017 and it was concluded that they met the criteria for a monument of national importance. <5>

The canal, harbour and noosts were formally scheduled by Historic Environment Scotland on 12/10/2017. <6>

The investigations by C Martin et al at the site were published in 2018. <7>

A second boat timber was found in 2008. It was idenfied as the lower frame of a clinker-built vessel considerably larger than the that which the first timber discovered belonged to. Despite initial suggestion that it came from a vessel of similar date, subsequent C14 assay indicated a 19th or early 20th-century date, which demonstrates the longevity of the clinker tradition in this part of Scotland. <7>

The two boat components are with the Museum of the Isles. <8>

Sources/Archives (8)



Grid reference Centred NG 3942 1614 (366m by 440m)
Map sheet NG31NE
Geographical Area SKYE AND LOCHALSH
Civil Parish BRACADALE

Finds (2)

  • VESSEL COMPONENT (Norse - 800 AD to 1300 AD)
  • VESSEL COMPONENT (19th Century to 20th Century - 1801 AD to 2000 AD)

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Investigations/Events (1)

External Links (3)

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