Earlier this year, monitoring was conducted by Dr Claire Ellis of Argyll Archaeology during the initial removal of topsoil from the site of a new house at Tigh an Rubha on the Isle of Gigha. As was reported previously, this work took place under the terms of a condition attached to planning consent by Argyll and Bute Council, on the advice of the West of Scotland Archaeology Service. Two groups of pits were identified during the course of this work, of which three were interpreted as fire-pits, as they were located in sheltered hollows within a generally fairly open landscape. The wind-blown sand below two of the pits had been affected by heat, while gravel below a third showed indications of having been exposed to in situ burning on more than one occasion. Samples of charcoal were taken from the fill of these pits, and post-excavation work to identify the species and nature of the wood burnt in the pits and radiocarbon dating has now taken place.
The samples of charcoal from the pits were found to be dominated by hazel, with much smaller quantities of oak and birch present in two of them. Charcoal from the third pit, which was located in a slightly more exposed position closer to the sea, appeared to comprise solely hazel. It is probable that the preponderance of hazel within these pits is a reflection of the dominant species of wood available at a very local level. The cut round wood may have been derived from coppiced trees. Hazel is ideally suited to coppicing, and coppiced wood has been used since prehistory for a variety of purposes, including as a building material, for thatching spars and wattle hurdles, and for use in basketry. Similarly, birch is well suited to coppicing, and interestingly it is also valued as a source of smoke for producing smoked food stuffs. The most plausible explanation of these pits may be that they are the bases of charcoal production pits, although it is possible that they could have been used to smoke food stuff. Once lit, oxygen would have been restricted, probably through the use of a peat turf capping, to ensure incomplete combustion of the wood. After a few days of smouldering the turf cap would have been removed and the charcoal collected and scraped out from one end of the pit for subsequent use.
A radiocarbon date was obtained on a piece of hazel derived from the main charcoal fill from one of the pits. The date obtained was 840 +/- 35 BP, or 1150 AD - 1270 AD (90.6% probability). This radiocarbon date places these pits around the time of the formation of a dynasty under Somerled, a nobleman of Irish descent and Lord of Arygll, who was asked for help by the chiefs of the Isles to free them from Godred IV, in return for making his eldest son Dugall king over the Isles. On January 6th 1156 Somerled, using 80 galleys of his own design, defeated the Norse in a fierce sea battle off the north coast of Islay, and eventually ruled over Mull, Call, Tiree, Colonsay, Islay, Gigha, Kintyre, Knapdale, Lorne and Argyll. Following Somerled's death in 1164, a period followed that was typified by complex and rapid political change throughout Argyll and the islands. Historical references to Gigha are limited from this period, but include one to Hakon IV of Norway, who apparently stayed on the island on route to the Clyde (Woolf, A., 'The age of the sea kings', in (ed) Omand, D., 'The Argyll Book', Birlinn, 2004). In the proceeding year 1262 Alexander III of Scotland had conquered the Hebrides, but the lands were then taken back by force by Hakon in the following year.