…By Sylvanus Urban, Gent. Vol III January-June 1860.
On page 481 of this fine publication (that was begun nearly 130 years earlier by Edward Cave using the same pseudonym that remained in use even after his death!) we have an account of a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries that had taken place on the 12th of March. The first communication to be read was this:
Notes of Antiquities in the Isle of Harris; with plans and drawings. By Captain F. W. L. Thomas, R.N., Corr. Mem. S.A. Scot.
Captain Thomas gave an interesting description, with careful drawings, of groups of the “bee-hive” houses in Harris, examined by him in the course of last summer. These primitive buildings are wholly of stone, and are probably the work of the early inhabitants, and yet in Uig they are still the summer abodes of a portion of the people; and Captain Thomas gave an account of the curious social arrangements which the diminutive size of the houses renders necessary, the doors being only about two feet square. A very remarkable example occurs in the Long Island, where twelve of the houses are built close to each other, with doors and passages from the one to the other, and forming probably the abode of several families. Captain Thomas considers these houses to be the Scottish or Irish type of the earliest domestic artificial dwelling in the islands. In the outer Hebrides are to be found examples of the abodes called in Orkney “Picts’ houses;” and one of them at Nisibost, in Harris, was recently excavated, consisting of a pear-shaped chamber, with two bee-hive houses in connection with it, of which Captain Thomas produced a plan. In this house were found part of a quern, bits of native pottery, and bones of the ox, sheep, deer, seal, and dog. Near the “Picts’ house” is a cromlech, probably giving name to the place—” Hangerbost.” It consisted of seven stones placed in a circle, covered by a capstone; and under it was found a human skeleton, of which the skull was removed, and now presented to the Society. This relic is by the inhabitants attributed to the Fingalians.
Some discussion ensued, in which Mr. Milne Home, Mr. Robert Chambers, Mr. Joseph Robertson, and Mr. Stuart took part. The latter described a circular underground house recently discovered in Forfarshire, and suggested the great importance of following the example of Captain Thomas, in preserving plans and drawings of these remains on being first discovered.
‘Hangerbost’ is (I hope!) Horgabost
but that is not what caught my attention: It was the fact that this document firmly states that Captain Thomas was performing these studies ‘in the course of last summer’
, i.e in 1859. This is the first time that I have been able to say with certainty that he (and most likely Mrs Thomas too) were in a particular part of Harris at a particular time. I am allowing myself the imaginative leap of Fanny Thomas visiting her friends the Davidson family at Manish Free Church, popping-into the Embroidery School at An-t-Ob and meeting the many Stocking Knitters of Strond, too, whilst Fred was busy diligently recording (for the first time) the archaeology of Harris…
…and doing so in a manner that led ‘Mr Stuart‘ to suggest ‘…the great importance of following the example of Captain Thomas, in preserving plans and drawings of these remains on being first discovered.’