About a mile and a half south of the Skye Museum of Island Life on Skye's Trotternish Peninsula is a relic from an altogether earlier phase of life on the island. A sign directs you to a small car park on the east side of the road, and from here you walk the hundred yards or so to Kilvaxter Souterrain.
A souterrain is an underground stone-lined tunnel typically associated with Iron Age settlements along the Atlantic fringe. Over 500 have been found in Scotland, of which around 20 are on the Isle of Skye. Souterrains, from the French sous terrain meaning "underground" were constructed by digging out a trench, lining the sides with stone, then roofing it over with more stone and reburying the whole thing. The end result was a stone-lined passage leading to a chamber.
There is more agreement about how souterrains were constructed than about what they were used for. Given the very large number of them, they obviously had some important purpose that repaid the considerable effort involved in constructing them.
It has sometimes been suggested they were refuges to be used if the settlement was under attack: though most would have been very easy for attackers to find, and therefore useless for this purpose. Likewise, there is no evidence they were used for burials or for other ritual purposes.
In fact, finds in souterrains elsewhere on Skye have helped support what is becoming the established view about their use: that they were built to provide winter storage for barrels of butter, cheese and other foodstuffs, without which the local residents would be unable to survive through to the following spring.
The souterrain at Kilvaxter was discovered by accident in April 2000 following the collapse of a lintel. It was subsequently excavated by members of the local community, under the supervision of professional archaeologists, and has since been opened to the public. Also excavated at the same time were the remains of an Iron Age farmstead associated with the souterrain.
Visitors should take notice of the warning sign at the entrance to the souterrain. The structure is 17m in length and curves in a shallow "S" shape. The tunnel is only 0.75m wide, and has a maximum headroom of 1.5m (and a minimum headroom of rather less). It can also be very wet after heavy rain.
Words like "confined", "cramped", "dark" and "dirty" spring as immediately to mind as "fascinating". The less agile may simply decide to trace the course of the souterrain overground: the chamber is marked by a white wooden stake.