Archaeologists discover earliest British gun flints on Clan island off coast of Scotland

By Culture24 Reporter | 08 December 2015

Archaeologists scale cliffs to challenge view of clan island as being "on edge of the world"

A photo of the steep cliff of a coastal island under a blue sky
A Northern Lewis outpost occupyied a far more prominent position in the medieval Gaelic world than previously thought, say archaeologists© University of Glasgow
Archaeologists have revealed the results of a 15-year archaeological investigation into a tiny Scottish island, including the discovery of the earliest gun flints discovered in Britain, representing the first evidence of armed skirmishes on a Clan stronghold in the Hebrides.

A close-up photo of a small brown jagged archaeological flint
Gun flints were found on the Clan stronghold© University of Glasgow
Surrounded by sheer cliffs, the island of Dùn Èistean is separated from Ness, at the northern tip of the Isle of Lewis, by a 15-metre wide gap. It was once the stronghold of the powerful Clan Morrison family which emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries, and experts say pottery and coins suggest it had contact with maritime trade routes rather than being an isolated landscape.

A close-up photo of a small light brown jagged archaeological flint
The Clan Morrison Society in North America supported the project© University of Glasgow
Although the early years of the project posed “challenging” and “unique” logistical problems for the teams, the completion of a steel footbridge, commissioned by the global Clan Morrison Society in 2002, allowed easier access to Dùn Èistean.

A photo of an archaeologist dangling from a cliff on a rope
Archaeologists scaled sheer cliffs to carry out their research© University of Glasgow
Rachel Barrowman, of the University of Glasgow, says its inhabitants might have played an important role in policing passing sea traffic from a highly visible location, inviting repeated interaction with the wider world. A large assemblage of gun flints was also manufactured on the island.

A photo of a rocky island under a blue sky
The small, tidal, cliff-bound island is 15 metres from Ness© University of Glasgow
“We began this project with the aim of illuminating a period of history in Lewis and Harris that is not well-documented and subject to little archaeological research,” she says.

A photo of an ancient circular gold coin
This coin dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I© University of Glasgow
“It has taken many years and a huge amount of dedication from a number of people to get to this stage.

A photo of a series of small light brown archaeological flints
© University of Glasgow
“Through the combination of archaeological survey and excavation, together with detailed historical research, we have been able to tell the story of the development and use of the stronghold and gain an insight into its participation in the wider Gaelic world in the 1500s and early 1600s.”

The Ness Historical Society, Historic Environment Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund are among the key backers of the research.

  • Two books on the project, Dùn Èistean, Ness: The Excavation of a Clan Stronghold and The Archaeology of Ness, are available to buy at

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three places to discovery the archaeology of Scotland in

Castle Campbell and Garden, Clackmannan
Formerly known as the ‘Castle of Gloom’, this castle is beautifully sited. The oldest part is a well-preserved 15th century tower around which other buildings were constructed, including an unusual loggia.

Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian
One of the most important prehistoric monuments on the mainland of Scotland, Cairnpapple was used as a burial and ceremonial site from about 3000 to 1400 BC.

Stewartry Museum, Dumfries
Thanks to years of collecting and to the hard work of local metal detectorists The Stewartry Museum holds an amazing collection of archaeology from the local area, on display in the permanent exhibition Close Encounters with Tiny Treasures.
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