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The Viking Canal at Rubh ‘an Dùnain

On the isle of Skye, between the foot of the Cuillin mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, is a curious piece of land that lies almost undetected from the rest of the island. This peninsula is called Rubh ‘an Dùnain. On the edge of the loch, with a magnificent view over the ocean, are the ruins of an Iron Age fort from which the land gets its name. It is an excellent strategical location.

Who Lived Here?

The evidence of human activity on the peninsula goes back to Neolithic times. For the longest time in recent memory, the clan MacAskill owned the land. They claim to descend from a Viking chieftain called Asgall (Ásketill or Áskæll). But by the nineteenth century, the Highland clearances force the last MacAskill to leave of the area. If you now take the virtual stroll of the headland on Skye’s Hidden Heritage you will only encounter wildlife and ruins. Between the Cuillin hills and the peninsula you will pass Loch na h-Àirde. Somewhere in the past, settlers changed the water that connects to the loch into a canal. There are magnificent aerial views from BBC Scotland’s series Scotland from the Sky.

Viking Age Evidence?

Meanwhile, archaeologists have conducted new surveys of the loch, but that has not led to a sizeable amount of direct evidence of Viking (Age) activity. Though, there is a piece of boat timber that dates back to 1100. Yet, there is circumstantial evidence to consider. For example, the Norse ancestry of the local MacAskill clan. Or the evidence of Norse Vikings in Scottish and Irish waters during the Viking Age. Furthermore, the harbour in the loch is reminiscent of the hidden waters where the Vikings preferred to shelter their ships for the winter (see Colin Martin, ‘A Maritime Dominion – Sea-Power and Lordship,’ in: The Lordship of the Isles, edited by R.D. Oram, (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 185-189).

With so little firm evidence, the ‘Viking Canal’ at Loch na h-Àirde there is still written between apostrophes (see the Canmore website). But, there is a stunning digital reconstruction of loch during the Viking Age on The Scotsman that was published in April, 2020.

Further Reading

BBC – Aerial surveys of Viking shipyard on Skye (5 May 2011)

North of Scotland Archaeological Society – Rubh’ an Dunain, Skye: 8000 Years of History (23 June 2015)

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