Skye’s Hidden Heritage
Discover the historic settlement of Rubh’ an Dùnain
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Rubh’ an Dùnain

Ancient history

Imagine an ancient time at Rubh' an Dùnain around 3000 years ago.

A small procession winds its way towards a stone cairn overlooking Loch Brittle to the north, and behind them to the south, their own little settlement of stone and turf.

They circle the lochan and make their way up a sacred path, leaving the shelter of the natural dip in the terrain to face the chilling wind that blows across the ridge and the entrance to the House of the Dead.

The bier that carries the dead body is lowered at the doorway of the burial chamber and bowls of offerings are placed on the ground. Then the ritual begins, ending with shifting the body and bowls inside the chambered cairn to lie beside the human bones of those who have gone before.

Such an event is part of the story of Rubh' an Dùnain. The House of the Dead - a chambered cairn known as a Barpa in Gaelic - remains in ruins to bear testimony to such ancient rituals.

Archaeologists say the chamber is one of many on the Atlantic coastline from Spain to the Shetlands with some evidence that those who lived in this hidden headland were not only fishermen, but farmers too.

Dramatic changes

The centuries passed, then life on the headland changed - dramatically. An episode of global warming brought warmer and wetter weather which reduced the amount of ground that could be farmed. Feuding broke out over what good land was left and battles formed the rights of ownership.

Defence was paramount. While the ancient rituals continued the role of the House of the Dead, which still dominated the landscape, was put to another use. Some of its stone structure was demolished and taken to the clifftop to build part of the fort wall overlooking the anchorage.

The wall soared to 20 feet and was honeycombed with internal galleries. A stout wooden, "lean to" running the length of the wall provided a place to live for the chief family of the area.

It was a symbol of power and a deterrent to would-be attackers. We know from excavations that the inhabitants - for the thousand or so years before Christ - had a fairly sophisticated culture. They used wood, iron, bronze and some precious metals along with decorated pottery.

As the centuries passed and life evolved, many of these duns (G. fort) fell into disrepair and ruin. But the wall at Rubh' an Dùnain remains remarkably well preserved.

Why? Read on