Waves of colonization around the Sea of Moyle: Linking population history, resilience and landscape change of island communities

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Geography & Environmental Sci


Small islands present archaeologists with the opportunity to study the sustainability and resilience of complex socioecological systems over time. Do they lack socioecological resilience as argued by Petzold (2017) or Ellwood (1968) "over one thousand people crowding on to Rathlin's flat windswept mass is almost an insult to nature". This project will investigate and reveal the changing landscapes, environment and population history of 6 small islands around the Sea of Moyle over the last three millennia. Today the North Channel of the Irish Sea is seen as a remote and border zone between Scotland and Ireland. In the past this was not the case, and the Sea of Moyle or Sruth na Maoile (Scots Gaelic and Irish), was at various times a coherent and central geographic region crossed by sea voyagers as part of a sea-highway and linked by culture and kinship. The area was also a major gateway into Ireland and Scotland from the early Mesolithic to the post-Medieval Period. Following on from a pilot study on the island of Rathlin, this project will compare the archaeological and historical evidence of changing demography and environment between the islands (Rathlin, Tory, Arran, Islay, Gigha & Colonsay) that superficially share a common history of colonization, but are geographically and topographically diverse. There is also a wide variation in the archaeological information base from recent and high (Rathlin) to minimal/unknown (Gigha). All have evidence of being both occupied and defended within the Iron Age and all six saw the establishment of early Christian communities. At least 5 of the islands were within the Dalriada (Dál Riata) over-Kingdom in the 6th to early 7thC, and all were subject to early Viking Raids and then formed part of the Scandinavian Sudreyjar, or "Southern Isles" for the next 400 years. The later Medieval and post Medieval history of the islands is more complex and divergent but lastly all six islands saw major, if not remarkable, well-documented changes in population over the last 300 years. The size of these islands, and weather-related isolation, can exacerbate social and environmental shifts and one aim is to investigate whether the preceding environmental and economic history of the islands conditioned their response to external pressures such as new colonisers (the Vikings) or population changes (18th-19th C). These massive changes in population (1 to 66 persons km2) are well recorded by abandoned crofts, villages, field systems and even alien plant species which have recently been surveyed. We also have evidence from previous studies that least four of the six islands have high potential for environmental archaeology and particularly the utilization of lake sediments from lochs. Importantly all islands have had recent archaeological surveys or are undergoing current survey (Tory Island). The project will be the first to explicitly compare archaeological proxies from islands in the same region with archaeological and historical data. It will also trial some new techniques (sedaDNA and biomarkers) in a controlled archaeological setting where we have the optimum chance to verify data and avoid reinforcement syndrome. The islands offer the best potential we can have to test new population proxies including feacal sterols, diatom-derived phosphorous proxy as well as sedimentary C:N and stable isotope ratios. Chironomid-derived temperature reconstructions will provide the climatic background. This project will be the first to adopt a regional-scale approach to a past political entity designed to address these issues via a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach. We will integrate archaeological, palaeoenvironmental archives (including ancient DNA and biomarkers) in the search for the signature of colonization and human responses to environmental stresses in small island communities off the western Coast of Greater Britain.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit: We have identified the following beneficiaries outside the academic community:

1) The island communities, of the 6 islands, 2 of which are owned by their inhabitants. All the islands are currently engaged in trying to diversify their economies through tourism and this project will feed directly to their island development committees, interest groups and websites which are listed in the Pathways to Impact document. The Argyll & Bute Council is also supporting the project as part of developing environmentally sound heritage-based tourism. The Council and local history groups will benefit greatly through support and assistance with landscape survey and documentary studies.

2) Archaeological and heritage management bodies, specifically; Historic Environment Scotland, the Historic Environment Division of the Department for Communities Northern Ireland, and the National Monuments Service Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dublin who between them have statutory responsibility for the archaeological heritage protection on these islands. All 3 bodies support the project and have been in discussion with the PI (Rebecca Jones, Ian Greenway and Michael MacDonagh respectively).

3) General public and visitors to the island interpretation and history centers. All 6 islands have visitor centers and this project will work in tandem with all of them.

How will they benefit:
1. Contribution to the local committees that manage the islands via the provision of data and analyses of landscape change and interpretations of variations in landscape resilience over the last three millennia. The islands will benefit through increased knowledge, and the opportunity to kindle renewed visitor interest in the development of the surrounding landscapes. These islands are seen to be of high cultural value way beyond their size and are of great interest to the public not just in the UK but worldwide (e.g Holy Island etc.). The islander's interest is apparent when we have given public lectures on our pilot research on the island of Rathlin. The Rathlin Development & Community Association (RDCA) has a keen interest to be involved in this scientific research and will liaise between the research team and interested members of the island community. RDCA will organise public lectures and drop-in sessions where islanders can help the research team to map the 19th century boom and decline in island population.

2. Historic Environment Scotland and Historic Environment Division of the Department for Communities Northern Ireland and the National Monuments Service Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dublin will be provided with the results of the project and thereby a framework for investigating and understanding the long-term development of island landscapes (see letters of support).

3. This project will inform the public about the shared history, cultural and landscapes either side of the Irish Sea through a combination of history and science.

4. The wider public will also be informed via popular organisations and magazines (Archaeology Scotland, Irish Archaeology etc.)

5. Training a new generation of archaeologists: The project will provide high-level training for 3 ECRs (in combining science & archaeology) & by broadening the research experience of the PI and the CIs.


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Tony (2020) Article in Archaeology Ireland

Description We have only just completed our fieldwork but several significant factors have emerged:
1. The ecological condition of the islands varies far more than expected - from good and productive to almost abandoned and infested with bracken (e.g. Gigha)
2. Two lochs appear not to have been lochs but instead were made into lochs at a time we have yet to determine. These are on Iona and Gigha.
3. We located the midden in Finlaggan (Islay) and was given to core in the SAM area by HS.
4. We have met local representatives on all the islands and informed them of what we are doing and they will work with us.
5. We are undertaking a spin-out project on Jura on climate change.
Exploitation Route It is too early to say - but we know other groups want to do similar work on other islands around the British Isles, and also in Norway.
Sectors Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.researchgate.net/project/Waves-of-Colonisation-in-the-Sea-of-Moyle-Linking-population-history-resilience-and-landscape-change-of-island-communitieshttps://pure.qub.ac.uk/en/projects/waves-of-colonization-and-the-sea-of-moyle-linking-population-his
Description Yes our work is being used by the Argyll and Bute Tourist board in its literature and also we are contributing to an economic plan for sustainable development on Rathlin and hopefully on Tory Island. We are also discussing doing more work on Tory Island to support the local island community.
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Education,Environment,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Retail
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Waves of colonization around the Sea of Moyle: Linking population history, resilience and landscape change of island communities
Amount £809,903 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/R012857/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 09/2021