Keeping history alive
Uist is a land of contrasts. Scan a map of the area and the sandy bays of the west coast contrast markedly with the rugged indentations of the rocky east coast. Add to the mix great swathes of peat in the interior and you can sense that this landscape has both lured and challenged settlers in almost equal measure.
Studying the communities which harnessed both the fertile loams of the west and the peaty moorlands reveals stories of innovation and resilience over the centuries.
Brochs, chambered cairns, standing stones, duns and wheelhouses are all to be found in this remarkable landscape. But it isn’t easy, as the passages of time have removed most of the obvious evidence, and that’s why the Uist Virtual Archaeology Project is so important. Using digital techniques, it allows us to better glimpse the past and imagine how our ancestors lived in these stunning landscapes.
Telling the story of the Outer Hebrides has long been an important part of the culture here. The area is renowned for a rich oral tradition, and cutting-edge technology now offers a complimentary route to preserving the rich history of the area.
The launch of the Uist Unearthed app to highlight five of Uist’s archaeological sites has changed the way we engage with the past here. Since the app went live in 2021, three life-sized digital reconstructions of archaeological sites have been added. Harnessing the power of Augmented Reality works well for this kind of information as it shows how the sites might very well have looked in their heyday.
With bilingual text, images, 3D models, and audio as well as animations, the app allows visitors to see the sites in a totally different light and as enhancements go this is surely as good as it gets.
The internationally-significant sites which have so far benefitted from this new approach include Bronze Age Cladh Hallan, Cill Donnain Iron Age wheelhouse and Bornais Viking longhouse in South Uist. North Uist’s sites will be similarly reimagined in 2023, with Dun Torcuill Iron Age broch and Dùn an Sticir medieval hall coming to the app soon.
It takes but a sentence or two to bring news of these updates but creating a digital reconstruction is a detailed and painstaking process. The task requires the virtual construction of a building from the ground up based on known dimensions and architectural features. This calls for talented modellers, and the team at PEEL.X have worked tirelessly with the Uist Unearthed project team to create fantastic reconstructions, informed by exciting discoveries from the original excavations.
It will interest many that while the app is available for anyone to download, the full reconstructions can only be accessed when a user reaches the site. This approach is intended to encourage people to get out and about, and explore the sites in ‘the flesh’ in their fabulous settings with diverse machair and moorland landscapes. The belief is that being there really is the best way to understand the significance of Uist's archaeological sites!
Engaging with local communities was always a driving force of this project. As Dr Emily Gal, the project co-ordinator explains, “Content creation work with the local communities has flourished – the app and exhibition content are all the richer for it”. Highlights include a collaboration with National Museums Scotland, and members of the Uist Community Archaeology Group and local history societies.
The sessions underpinning this collaboration allowed participants to explore finds from Cill Donnain Iron Age wheelhouse and take part in vivid demonstrations of the exciting 3D digital modelling process. There is considerable pleasure that outputs from these workshops featured in the multimedia exhibition at Kildonan Museum this summer, both as digital 3D models on an interactive podium, and as colourful and tactile 3D prints.
The team’s favourite activity was a series of workshops with pupils at Sgoil Uibhist a Tuath (a primary school in North Uist). They tested the app before helping to create a bilingual animation telling the story of Hugh MacDonald (Ùisdean mac Ghilleasbaig Chlèirich) - once an inhabitant of Dùn an Sticir and the subject of rich folklore and stories. The talented pupils created storyboards and narrated voiceovers to create a fantastic and very original animation featuring in the app and exhibition. It can also be viewed in English and Gaelic here.
Finally, an interactive multimedia exhibition launched this summer at Kildonan Museum, South Uist. This brings together content from the app with brand new interactive content and exhibits to further showcase these fantastic sites like never before. From VR headsets to an interactive map, ‘build a mummy’ game and 3D printed objects, the exhibition explores creative means of communicating Uist’s archaeological stories. After a successful month at Kildonan Museum, the exhibition headed to numerous community events and festivals, the British Museum for the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology, and finally the National Museum of Scotland. Having visited the Edinburgh stop I can vouch for the quality of the experience when viewing the lifesize digital reconstructions via a VR headset. It is certainly an innovative way to bring archaeology to life for Uist’s communities and visitors alike.
There has always been a great story to tell in Uist. The modern combination of traditional oral skills with dynamic new technology ensures that there is bound to be something for everyone in the quest to keep the fascinating history of Uist alive.
The app is free to download: just search 'Uist Unearthed' in your app store
As well as the ERDF/NatureScot NCHF the project is also funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and Stòras Uibhist
The Natural & Cultural Heritage Fund is part of the Scottish Government’s current European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) programme, which runs through to 2023. This is one of two ERDF Strategic Interventions led by NatureScot – the other is the Green Infrastructure Fund.