Islanders whip up storm over Iron Age cover-up

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The Independent Online
The winds which gust across the remote Scottish island of Great Bernera with Hebridean vigour have whipped up a dispute about the future of a late Iron Age village which is being excavated by archaeologists.

The problem for the experts digging at the 2,000-year-old site is that the wind is stripping away the sand surrounding the walls making them difficult to preserve once they have completed their excavations.

Historic Scotland, which is responsible for ancient sites, has upset people on Great Bernera, off the larger island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, by suggesting that the village should be covered over when digging has finished.

This and an alternative plan to remove some stones from the site to an as yet undecided location has triggered the first rebellion on the island since crofters rioted over the threat of eviction in 1874.

It is being led by Count Robin de la Lanne Mirrlees, 72, a French-born aristocrat, who has been the laird of the 7,000-acre island since 1962.

He said: "I am thrilled by the find and want to see it preserved. I own the foreshore and therefore this site. Unless it can be proved an engineering impossibility I do not want my property tampered with. Nor should any of the artefacts be removed off this island."

The village, which covers a quarter of an acre by the seashore, was discovered by a team from the Edinburgh University centre for field archaeology after repeated finds of persistent reports of stone walls and pottery falling out of a rapidly eroding shoreline.

The houses on the site, which is unlikely to be fully excavated, were built by lining large holes dug in the sand with stone and covering these with low thatched roofs.

The floors, walls and lintels have survived and so too have the remnants of rubbish tips which have given archaeologists an insight into how Iron Age islanders lived. Although the sea has been responsible for some erosion, wind has stripped away sand to expose the walls.

Dr Noel Fojut, principal inspector of ancient monuments for Historic Scotland, said: "The walls of these houses were meant to be supported by sand, not free-standing, and are quite dangerous once the sand has gone from around them. We do not have the technological means to make these walls stick together."

Talks are continuing aimed at finding a solution but Historic Scotland, which has provided more than pounds 68,000 for the excavations, has annoyed people by suggesting the site should be covered. The Rev Donald Macaulay, a former convenor of Western Isles Council who lives on Great Bernera, said: "We would like to see the site preserved so that people can see what was going on 2,000 years ago. It is of great interest and it is of value to us from the tourist point of view."