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A glimpse of harsh reality in 18th century Lewis

Rod McCullagh


The chance find of a mass burial near Stornoway, Lewis in 1989 provided Daphne with a considerable anatomical challenge. Her analysis of eleven remarkably well-preserved skeletons from two grave trenches literally brought us face to face with the harsh lives and tragic deaths of what was probably a family engaged in the Western Isles salt fish trade in the early years of the 18th century.

Skeletal RemainsAt death, the group ranged in age from a juvenile to someone quite elderly, certainly in excess of 45 years old. Nine were in their late 'teens' or early twenties, robust young men but already displaying the knitted broken bones amd abraded joints of harsh, probably sea-born, lives.

Daphne's report states that '.. the determination of sex in some individuals was problematical' and she later refers to 'ambiguous sexual dimorphism' especially in the eldest skeleton. In the course of her analysis this individual changed sex several times as Daphne tried to explain to us, the excavators, how ambiguous were the bones of this skeleton.

Despite her advice not to attribute sex, we preferred to think that the body was that of an elderly female (few crews would have had women on board at this time though this did happen amongst Dutch traders). Several individuals shared genetic traits that suggested some close familial relationship.

Daphne's report concludes that 'oral hygiene seems to have been poor.. exacerbated by a diet deficient in fresh vegetables. Back and knee injuries were common …and there was evidence of a poor standard of living during infancy…manifested by rickets and episodic malnutrition'.

The distorted and abscessed femur of one young man (see photograph left) brought home just how awful life could be for the unfortunate. He had suffered from a chronic osteomyelitis infection of his left thigh.

Possibly in reaction to his diseased leg, his spine had become twisted and deformed, thus for this one young man life would have been often painful and disfiguring; from which his death at sea may have been his only respite.

The second photograph here shows one of the grave pits, dug in soft sand, in the course of excavation. One young man was buried still with a bunch of coins in a cloth purse. The coins included fourteen worn British copper coins dating to 1670-80 and similarly dated two Dutch silver 'stuivers.

Sown into the hem of his woollen clothes was a mint condition silver Austrian coin of 1607. Its condition suggests that it had not been in circulation so it may have been for the young man's a highly prized heirloom, perhaps his only tangible reminder a distant predeceased relative who had been in eastern Europe.

Disaster struck for this group, probably in the early 1700s, when their boat or boats foundered, possibly not far from shore. The corpses were washed, possibly over at least two separate tides, back to the shore where at least some of the corpses were probably recovered in too noisome a condition to have been stripped of their belongings. They were buried close to the shore - the usual treatment for those who perish at sea - still clothed, thrown together in two unmarked pits.

Daphne's very detailed anatomical and pathological analysis of the group has allowed us a rare and intimate connection with the lives of a small group of individuals at a fairly precise point in the past.

Beyond this hard evidence we speculated that these people had lived lives largely at sea, and possibly trading in salted herring out of the Western Isles. Although probably based in these western seas, they may have been of Dutch origin and would have been familiar with and traded into the wider European world.

These individuals may still have further secrets to reveal as Daphne's work pre-dated the advances in DNA studies and it is hoped that one day with better connections between medical and archaeological research further chapters can be added to the lost histories of these folk who lived in peril and died at sea three hundred year s ago.


  • McCullagh, R & McCormick F 1991 'The excavation of post-medieval burials at Braigh, Aignish, Lewis 1989', Post-Medieval Archaeology 25 (1991), 73-88.
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