Deer have lived on Na h-Eileanan Siar (the Western Isles) for thousands of years providing a sustainable source of food, antler, hides and more.
Their remains are found on a single early hunter-gatherer sites. These As of yet there is no evidence that large land mammals were present on the islands at that time. Deer antler may have been imported for use in tools.
Deer are first recorded on the isles around 5500 years ago. They were probably transported to the islands with the earliest farmers (Stanton et al, 2016) in the Neolithic, as they were for Orkney.
Deer were an important resource. Their remains are found in ancient houses and rubbish dumps in similar quantities to other domestic food animals.
These farmers bought cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs and red deer, as well as plant crops and pots, at least 40k/27miles across the Minch in boats.
Cut and chop marks on the deer bones indicate that their meat, skins, sinews and marrow were used by the islanders, whilst shed antlers and bone were collected and used to make tools, such as picks for digging and spearheads.
Bronze Age Red Deer Antler picks from Cladh Hallan, a settlement on South Uist. They are compared with modern Uist deer antler
Elsewhere in Britain, once farming began, deer were rarely hunted. On Na h-Eileanan Siar the prehistoric island farmers chose to rely on deer, along with cattle and sheep, throughout the Stone (Neolithic), Bronze and Iron Ages as their main source of food (Mulville, 2010). Pigs, sea mammals, fish and birds were only occasionally eaten.
Proportions of the major food animal over time in each time period.
Sheep, cattle and deer were the most common.
Across time mature deer were hunted, but unusually the islanders also targeted deer calves. Young calves hide in long grass or heather and freeze if there is danger. This makes them easy to catch without the need for spears or arrows.
The age of any deer can be calculated by looking at which teeth are present, and how worn they are.
At most sites on Uist, the jaws of very young, as well as older, animals were recovered.
This graph show how many deer die at each age.
The pattern of calf death is highly unusual for a hunted species – were fully grown animals are usually targetted.
(The number in brackets is how many individual jaws were analysed).
As residents of Na h-Eileanan Siar know today, deer can be a threat to crops (and gardens) and their numbers were probably managed in past. The collection of deer calves is a relatively easy way to control herd size, and would have provided a supply of soft leather and spotted hides.
As there was no wool on the islands until around 2000 years ago, leather was an important clothing material for early inhabitants (elsewhere, Ötzi, the ice mummy, had leather underwear). There are many tools associated with leather working found at the sites in prehistory.
Deer continued to be heavily exploited by the Norse incomers who arrived in the 9th century and built long houses, rather than round houses. These settlers adopted the strategies used by the islanders to hunt and manage deer in large numbers and continued to harvest red deer calves. The Scandinavian influence is also seen in an increase in pigs, they loved pork, and fish. At the settlement at Bornais, South Uist, they established a herring fishery, a site where they processed fish for export.
Local antler from the deer herds was also collected and provided material for antler composite combs Bornais became one of only three places in Britain where combs, made of plates of antler bolted together with metal pins, were produced. The waste from this process is found within the houses.
Most of the few Viking burials recovered from the islands contain such antler combs, and they are found with both women and men indicating that combs were important to all. In a world where hair washing was less frequent, combing was a way of cleaning and organising your hair. The image below shows once such comb that is very similar to a modern ‘nit’ comb.
Illustration of a comb from Bornais by Ian Dennis.
These complex items, made of many parts, are only produced at three sites across Britain and Ireland, with workshops recorded in York, Dublin and Bornais, South Uist.
Combs were very important to the Norse and were found with the rare burials on the islands (James-Campbell pers comm.). These items were highly ornate and found buried with men and women.
Deer were also very important on Orkney, but herds were never established on Shetland. Red deer numbers fall during the Later Iron Age and they eventually become extinct. By the 13th Century the Earls of Orkney had to cross over the sea to Caithness ‘to hunt red deer and reindeer’.
What happened on Na h-Eileanan Siar after the Norse period is unclear. After the 15th Century deposits at Bornais there are very few sites with preserved bone recorded.
Later visitors to the islands remark on the presence, and subsequent decline of deer in absence of deer with deer numbers in Uist, Harris and Lewis and this may have been due to overhunting or the action of the clearances.
A few historic and folklore accounts of deer can be found, for example, ‘deer skyns’ were exported in the 17th century, and records suggest they survived until 1830. Deer were re-introduced to Usit, Harris and Lewis, and animals were often drawn from other island and mainland herds. More research needs to be undertaken on historic and natural history records to track changes in deer numbers and how the herds of North and South Uist interacted.
The links between the present and historic populations across the Western Isles has not yet been fully documented. Genetic analysis of South Uist deer (no study of North Uist deer was undertaken) demonstrates that this modern population has similarities to other insular herds and mainland herds (Perez-Espona et al, 2009).
This research also suggests that the South Uist sample of deer went through no genetic bottle-neck. Thus the active breeding population never become very small and this is likely to indicate that the herds of North and South Uist interacted. The introduction of deer from the mainland in the ‘70s, was bolstered by existing island deer. Indeed the account of this deer (Fletcher 2000) notes that when checking on the new animals, indigenous animals ‘from North Uist’ were also spotted.
We need more data, both modern and ancient, to track the genetic history of the insular deer.
Jacqui Mulville December 2022
For more information on our research see Wild Things? Developing sustainable food systems in prehistory.
Fletcher, J. 2000. The Reintroduction of Red Deer to South Uist in August 1975. Editors A. Stevenson, John Love and Anne Shepherd. Hebridean Naturalist, Curracag. Number 13. 23-26
Pérez-Espona, S., Pérez-Barbería, F.J., Goodall-Copestake, W.P., Jiggins, C.D., Gordon, I.J. and Pemberton, J.M., 2009. Genetic diversity and population structure of Scottish Highland red deer (Cervus elaphus) populations: a mitochondrial survey. Heredity, 102(2), pp.199-210.
Stanton, D., Mulville, J. and Bruford, M. 2016. Colonization of the Scottish islands via long-distance Neolithic transport of red deer (Cervus elaphus). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 283 (1828) 20160095. 10.1098/rspb.2016.0095