Deer on South Uist: past, present and future

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.

Antler fragments have been found on the very rare early hunter-gatherer sites. As there were no large land mammals present on the islands at that time deer antler may have been imported for use as tools.

It seems that deer first came to the islands with the earliest farmers some 5500 years ago. Deer were an important resource, and their remains are found in ancient houses and rubbish dumps in similar quantities to domestic food animals.

These farmers bought cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs and red deer, as well as plant crops and pots, at least 40k/27 miles across the Minch in boats.

Cut and chop marks on the 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, deer were mostly no longer hunted once farming began. The islander’s continued to rely on deer, along with cattle and sheep, throughout the Stone (Neolithic), Bronze and Iron Ages as their main source of foods. 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.

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 – where 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 need to be managed. 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.

Also as there was no wool on the islands until around 2000 years ago, leather was an important clothing material for early inhabitants (Ötzi, the ice mummy, had leather underwear). There are many tools associated with leather working found at the sites.

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 they established a herring fishery, a site where they processed fish for export.

A Norse carved bone from Bornais, South Uist, thought to be a deer or a mythical beast

On South Uist, the local antler from the deer herds was collected and provided material for antler combs. Bornais became one of only three places in Britain where combs were produced, the waste from the process is found in the houses.

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, they were highly ornate and were often buried with individuals.

 

Deer were introduced to other outer islands at the same time. They appear on Orkney, but not Shetland with the farmers, but they are not present today. On Orkney, deer populations decline during the Iron Age and they eventually disappear completely. 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, there are very few sites with preserved bone excavated. Various visitors to the islands remark on the presence, and later absence of deer.

A few historic and folklore accounts of deer can be found, for example ‘deer skyns’ were exported in the 17th century, but more research needs to be undertaken. The decline in deer numbers may be due to overhunting or the action of the clearances, but the deer persist and over time their numbers increase.

Some deer were introduced to ‘improve’ stock in the 20th century, but the survival and impact of these few animals on the existing island herds is still under debate. We do know that the deer today are the descended from the original deer population and continue to form part of the sustainable island environment.

Jacqui Mulville December 2022