The shores around the chapel at Northton (called Rubh’ an Teampaill in Gaelic, meaning Headland of the Temple) are some of the earliest places we know of that people settled in the islands.
In 2001, archaeologists found charred hazelnut shells deep beneath the ground that were dated to around 7,000 BC, meaning there were people living there and roasting hazelnuts there over 9,000 years ago!
These would probably have been nomadic people, coming up to the Western Isles during the summer months, and moving further south along the west coast of Scotland in the winter months. The world would still have been warming up after the Ice Age, and winters would probably have been very cold.
Archaeologists also found an old house on the site, not hidden quite as deep as the hazelnuts, dating from around 3,000 BC, about 5,000 years ago. The floor of the house would have been sand, and inside the house was a circle of stones which would have been used as a fireplace. It would probably have been around this time that people started settling, and farming both crops and animals.
Pieces of fish bones and animal bones were found at the site, as well as tools made with antlers and stone, and pieces of broken pottery, and outside near the house were middens full of empty seashells, and bones of sheep, cows, deer, and birds, which gives us a clue as to what they ate.
Sometime in the first millennium BC, around 2,500 years ago, a dun (or broch, or fort) was built here. It would have been smaller than the one you can see in Carloway, and it would have been used mostly as a lookout. There were lookout duns all around the islands, looking in all directions, and if an enemy was spotted, they would light a fire. The next dun in the chain would see the fire, light their own fire, and so on.
The dun in Northton, for example, could be watching out for intruders from the west, and if it saw anything the signal could be raised, and could be seen by other lookout duns, on the islands of Pabbay and Berneray. They could then raise a signal, which would be seen by a dun in Taransay, and from there the signal could pass to Luskentyre, then out towards Hushinish, Scarp and beyond, all the way up the west coast.
Duns had different uses – as well as lookout duns, there were also refuge duns, like the one in the loch on Taransay, and in Loch an Duin in Scalpay. In fact, if you see any loch called Loch an Duin on a map, you can be sure there was a refuge dun there, or there was a dun nearby. And it will be the same with any place called Borve, from the Old Norse word borg – meaning fort. How many of those places can you find on a map of the Western Isles? You now know there’s one in Harris – where else?
Can you imagine what the dun in Northton might have looked like? Can you see a circular base running all around the temple now where it would once have stood? Below is a picture of what the ruined dun might look like now if it was still there (based on the Dun Beag broch in the Isle of Skye).
Christianity started to spread through Scotland from around 600 AD onwards, brought by missionaries from Ireland, like St Columba and his followers. We know that churches were built then all over the islands, from Barra up to Ness, and the chapel at Northton was also probably built around then, and probably using many of the stones of the old dun.
There would have been a little religious community living here around then, maybe a few priests or monks, and some other people. They would have grown food, and gathered shellfish from the rocks, much like the people of the Stone Age would have done thousands of years before them. They would have gathered at the temple for worship, and would have gone for solitary meditation in little stone cells in isolated spots around the coast.
The church probably wouldn’t have been there very long before the Vikings started raiding Scotland and the islands of the west coast, around the year 800 AD, and we know that they attacked the churches as they went, taking anything valuable with them. We can imagine that the old church at Northton might have been one of their targets.
You might not really think that a church like the one at Northton would have anything very valuable in it, but beautiful religious books and manuscripts were produced by the monks of the ancient Celtic church, often using silver and gold leaf, and it was this silver and gold – and other possibly valuable church artifacts – that attracted the Vikings.
Did the Vikings find anything valuable in Northton? Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. But there was an old Gaelic tale that used to be told of buried treasure on Northton hill – Ceapabhal – which might possibly be a story passed down through the generations of monks hiding the treasures of the church in the hill to stop them falling into the hands of the Vikings.
There wouldn’t be much point in looking for the treasure today though, unless your surname happens to be MacCuish, because the old Gaelic stories used to predict that the treasure would only be found by an amadan MacCuthais – a simple-minded MacCuish!
By around the year 1500 AD, the church that had been there around the time of the Vikings had become a ruin. Alasdair Crotach – the chief of the MacLeods of Dunvegan who owned Harris at the time – had retired to the monastery at Rodel, and he had St Clements church there rebuilt.
It was Alasdair Crotach that had the temple at Northton rebuilt in the 1520s, and that is for the most part the building we see today, although it has needed repairs at certain times.
You can still see the tomb he had carved for himself in Rodel, one of the most beautifully carved tombs in all of Scotland.