The monument is a harbour and canal complex at Loch na h-Airde on the Rubha an Dunain peninsula dating to the medieval period. The complex comprises a stone-lined channel connecting Loch na h-Airde to the sea, two substantial boat docks and associated noosts (a boat shelter constructed of turf and stone), the foundations of associated buildings, two loch-side quays and the loch bed itself, where remains of wooden boat fragments have been recovered and where others have been reported. The harbour complex is located on the tip of Rubha an Dunain on the Isle of Skye overlooking Soay Sound.
The canal consists of a channel cut through the rock from Soay Sound to a harbourage in Loch na h-Airde. The canal has been adapted from natural features to form a navigable channel approximately 117m long. Its length can be divided into two distinct sections. The first, seaward, section is 52m long and is formed from a natural tidal creek that has been cleared of rocks and which is revetted in places. This accessed two substantial stone-built docks with corresponding noosts located above them for when the boats would have been dragged out of the water. The first dock and noost are the largest, accommodating a boat up to 17m long and 4m wide. The second dock and noost are slightly smaller at approximately 10m in length and 2.5m wide. Between the two noosts are the foundations of at least three buildings. The largest overlies part of the smaller noost and is likely later in date. It is approximately 10m east northeast-west southwest by 6m transversely and has rounded corners. To the southwest of this structure are two smaller structures one of which measures 5.5m by 6m.
From the docks onward the canal runs for approximately 65m to the loch and is most likely the result of the clearing and widening of a natural stream. It is more formalised than the seaward section with stone-built sides. On either side of the canal entrance into the loch are stone-built quays, the west quay is 12m in length while the eastern quay is over 20m long. Next to the west side of the canal entrance on the loch side is the foundations of a rectilinear turf-covered structure with rounded corners which measures 10m by 5m. The canal and quays incorporate the loch into the harbour complex, and the canal's primary role would have been to facilitate the movement of boats between the loch and sea. The upper section of canal was purposely blocked at some unknown time with mass of rubble. However the blockage potentially may once have been a structure, perhaps a sluice or tide mill, that was demolished to stop access to Loch na h-Airde. Wooden boat remains have been identified on the loch bed and a surviving fragment, part of a bite (the internal frame) of a clinker-built boat, has been dated to the 12th century.
The scheduled area is irregular on plan, to include the remains described above, the loch where further wooden remains have been identified, and an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive as shown in red on the accompanying map.
Statement of National Importance
The cultural significance of the monument has been assessed as follows:
The monument survives as a well-preserved collection of field remains. The condition of the upstanding remains means that the nature of the site can be readily understood and greatly informs our understanding of medieval harbour complexes in Scotland. The site has not been excavated and there is a high likelihood of surviving buried remains and deposits. Associated buried remains will inform our understanding of the site's date, the specific use of the site through time, maritime trade and contacts along the medieval western seaboard as well as the daily lives of the inhabitants of Rubha an Dunain.
There is the potential to further explore the development sequence of the site. Phasing is apparent in the structure overlying one of the noosts and the later blocking of the upper section of canal. Future study may clarify the chronological relationship between the docks, noosts, canal, and structural remains around the harbour. The reported presence of further boat fragments on the loch bed enhances the potential of the site to inform our understanding of the West Highland maritime tradition.
The scale of the docks, noosts and the presence of the canal and loch quays demonstrates that the site was a significant anchorage for the western seaboard. Given its sheltered and important strategic location, it is possible that the loch was used to shelter and overwinter boats, or that the site was a staging location. It may also have been used to repair or even construct boats.
The monument is located on the peninsula of Rubha an Dunain, on the southern end of the Isle of Skye. The peninsula contains significant evidence for prehistoric and post-medieval occupation. A cave, located 400m to the northeast of the canal, has been excavated and produced evidence for occupation in the Neolithic and Iron Age with significant evidence of metalworking and has produced a wooden object interpreted as a paddle.
An Iron Age stone built dun/fort is located on a promontory above the harbour complex. The close spatial proximity suggest some form of relationship between the dun and harbour but the nature of this relationship is unclear. Although the dun would have been constructed centuries before the harbour and canal, the availability of a sheltered anchorage below its walls may have influenced the site's selection. Similar Iron Age sites have been shown to have been occupied into the Early Historic period and on occasion reoccupied in the medieval period. The dun shows evidence of modification and repair which may indicate continuing or re-use beyond the Iron Age.
Although a boat fragment found in the loch dates from the early 12th century, it is currently not possible to confirm the date of the canal and harbour complex. The use of Loch na h-Airde as a boat anchorage may have early origins in the Norse period but the canal and harbour complex could have been constructed at any time in the medieval period, and is likely to have had a long sequence of development and use, as evidenced by a later boat fragment radiocarbon-dated to somewhere in the period 1730-1930.
The harbour complex at Rubha an Dunain is an extremely rare type of site but there are examples of medieval boat landing sites along the western seaboard of Scotland that provide useful context. Adjacent to Dun Ara Castle, a stronghold of the Mackinnons in Mishnish, northern Mull, is an artificially constructed harbour incorporating a jetty, quay, and boat landing with two noosts at the upper end of the landing (scheduled monument SM10679, Canmore ID 22069). To the south of Moy Castle, Mull, is substantial boat landing lined with stones adjacent to a large harbour (scheduled monument SM5139, Canmore ID 304948). There is also a boat landing immediately below at Dunyveg Castle on Islay (scheduled monument SM4747, Canmore ID 38002).
These sites are all associated with a late medieval castle. However, the complex at Rubha an Dunain is set apart by the lack of an obvious high status site apart from the nearby dun, the relationship with which is unclear, as well as the complex and large-scale nature of the remains. The largest noost at Rubha an Dunain is the largest currently known in Scotland. The sophistication of the complex at Rubha an Dunain makes it a rare and significant survival of a harbour complex associated with the West Highland and Hebridean galley tradition, perhaps with Norse origins.
Norse and medieval boat fragments, such as the example found Loch na h-Airde, are extremely rare in Scotland. The majority of evidence of early historic vessels in Scotland comes from Viking boat burials where the survival of organic material is often poor. This makes the discovery of the 12th-century boat fragment and reports of potential further remains in Loch na h-Airde particular significant.
The only comparable find comes from Laig on Eigg and is relevant to our understanding of the overall complex at Rubha an Dunain. During the draining of a moss on the farm of Laig on Eigg sometime before 1878, two prepared but unused boat timbers were found. They are in the Norse tradition of boat building and were probably buried for seasoning prior to the construction of a boat. They have been dated to 885-1035 AD. A local tradition states that the moss was once a loch which was used by Norsemen as a harbourage.
The peninsula of Rubha an Dunain was recorded by Timothy Pont in the late 16th century. Pont records all of the key locations on the south side of the Isle of Skye in relation to their distance from Rubha an Dunain, potentially indicating the importance of the site in the 16th century. The site has a strong historic connection to the MacAskill clan; a clan of Norse origins who were comes litores (coast watchers) of the Macleods of Dunvegan and who remained on the peninsula until the clearances of the 19th century. There are traditional accounts which assert the Rubha an Dunain was a base for galleys and coastal surveillance carried out by the MacAskills. The prominent seaward location of Rubha an Dunain would have facilitated access to both the Inner and Outer Hebrides and allowed monitoring of the western approaches to Skye.
Statement of National Importance
This monument is of national importance as a rare medieval harbour complex with docks, boat noosts, canal, quays, and associated loch shore and bed in which boat fragments are likely to survive. The monument adds to our understanding of the past, particularly the nature, date and activities of medieval harbour sites in Scotland, and the maritime nature of lordship along the Atlantic Seaboard of Scotland. The complex is particularly notable for its impressive survival of field remains, the possible relationship to an Iron Age dun, the rock-cut channel and the potential for further Norse and medieval boat remains to survive in the loch. The significant size of the docks and noosts demonstrates that it was an important harbour site in the medieval period. Laig Bay, Eigg indicate that the complex at Rubha an Dunain could potentially have been associated with boat repair and construction. The stone-lined canal is one of the earliest known in Scotland and the complex appears to have had a long sequence of development potentially from the Early Historic period through to the Early Modern. No close parallels for this site have been identified that have a similar degree of time depth and complexity of development. Due to this rarity, the loss of, or damage to, the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to understand the nature and role of maritime infrastructure in early and later medieval society along the Atlantic seaboard of Scotland.
Historic Environment Scotland http://www.canmore.org.uk reference number CANMORE ID 11028 (accessed on 13/06/2017).
Local Authority HER/SMR Reference MHG4895, MHG43800 (accessed on 13/06/2017).
Dixon, T N. 1990. Rubh' an Dunain, 'Viking canal' and Loch na h-Airde', Univ Edinburgh Dept Archaeol Annu Rep, vol. 36, 1989-90: 16
MacAulay, J. 1996. Birlinn: Longships of the Hebrides. The White Horse Press, Cambridge.
Martin and Martin, C and P. 2010. Rubh' an Dunain, Highland (Bracadale parish), field survey', Discovery Excav Scot, New, vol. 11, 2010. Cathedral Communications Limited, Wiltshire, England: 88.
Martin and Martin, C and P. in press. Rubh' an Dunain, a multi-period boat-landing and harbour site on the Isle of Skye, Inner Hebrides, Scotland. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.
Martin, C. 2009. Rubh' an Dunain, Highland (Bracadale parish), field survey', Discovery Excav Scot, New, vol. 10, 2009. Cathedral Communications Limited, Wiltshire, England: 92-93.
Raven, J 2012, 'Duns, brochs and crannogs: Medieval use', in Parker Pearson M (ed) From Machair to Mountains: Archaeological Survey and Excavation in South Uist, Oxbow Books: Oxford, 134-159.
Rixon, D. 1998. The West Highland Galley. Birlinn, Edinburgh.
Young, G.V.C. 1997. The Hebridean Birlinn, Nyvaig and Lymphad. Mansk-Svenska Publishing Co. Ltd., Isle of Man.
https://www.rubh-an-dunain.org.uk - Skye's Hidden Heritage. Discover the historic settlement of Rubh' an Dùnain.
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Printed: 02/12/2023 21:40