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Euan Wallace MacKie BA PhD FSA FSAScot (to 2017)

3rd March 2021 | Categories:

Born 10th February 1936; died 2nd November 2020

Dr Euan MacKie

Dr Euan MacKie

By Noel Fojut, FSAScot

With the death in November of Euan MacKie, Scottish archaeology lost a distinguished and independent scholar. Over his long career, Euan published prolifically. His interests ranged from the Neolithic to the post-medieval, but focussed mainly on Iron Age studies (vitrified forts and especially brochs), ancient metrology and archaeoastronomy – indeed, he is credited with first suggesting the latter term.

Euan was attracted to the ‘mysterious’ in archaeology, to phenomena which prevailing theories struggled to accommodate: megalithic building, astronomical alignments, migrations and long-distance contacts. His love of the obscure may have been awakened by fieldwork on Mayan remains at the start of his career, but it is equally possible that it was what led him there. His degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at St John’s College Cambridge, in 1959, had not prepared him to run a dig in tropical Belize, but this proved no obstacle: in later years he delighted in recounting how, equipped with a pith helmet, a trowel and Atkinson’s ‘Field Archaeology’, he learned on the job. Tellingly, it never occurred to him to suggest that directing a 6-month overseas excavation was in any way unusual for a recent graduate. His many-pocketed waistcoat, and the bush hat which replaced the pith helmet, remained his characteristic field garb for the decades which followed.

Returning in 1960, to a post in the British Museum’s Ethnography Department, Euan soon took up an opportunity at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum, overseeing the prehistoric collections (and later adding the important and extensive anthropological holdings). He eventually rose to become Deputy Director of the Museum, retiring in 1998. His time there was marked by major improvements to the cataloguing and care of the collections. Colleagues there remember a constant, calm and reassuring presence – gentle in manner but tenacious in the pursuit of excellence.

Soon after his arrival, what was to become his lifelong interest in brochs was aroused, possibly through contact with Horace Fairhurst in Glasgow University’s nascent Department of Archaeology, of which he quickly became the first research student. (So far as I am aware, Euan never published a detailed account of what first drew him to brochs, but he chose them as the focus of his research towards a PhD, which he began in December 1961, with his excavations at Dun Mòr Vaul in Tiree commencing in 1962 and a series of major articles commencing in 1965.) For almost two decades he was the only researcher focussing fully upon brochs, a fact which seems barely imaginable today.

We first met in 1976, in a rain-soaked field scattered with ill-assorted tents: base camp for his excavations at Leckie broch in Stirlingshire. I was a new recruit to archaeology from geography, it was my first dig, and Euan had recently agreed, sight unseen, to co-supervise my research into locational aspects of Shetland’s brochs. (With youthful naivety, I had chosen brochs because I thought that a non-expert would easily be able to recognise them in the field!) All good reasons to be nervous, but Euan welcomed me in characteristic kindly but understated style.

Research supervision was not, then, the developed science it has since become. We had very infrequent meetings to discuss progress, I shared by my plans for summer fieldwork with him, and presented a rough draft of early chapters. Euan was always accessible, but not an exacting task-master: he trusted me to get on with it and to call on his support when required. Junior colleagues in the Hunterian Museum remember him in exactly the same way.

Graduating in 1980, I moved from Glasgow to work for SDD (HBM), the predecessor to Historic Environment Scotland, and published significant aspects of my own broch research over the early 1980s, with Euan’s advice on draft papers always meticulous but never over-bearing.

Euan’s relationship with SDD was unusual: he barely had one. Most notably, he never asked for money. In those days that was fairly unusual: the agency was then the only substantial funding source for Scottish field archaeology, and most of those who held academic or museum posts would regularly put forward proposals for ‘rescue’ projects aligned with their own research interests, or accept funded suggestions from the Inspectors. With the exception of Sheep Hill, Dumbarton, I’m not aware that Euan ever took the Government shilling. He preferred to chart his own course, choosing projects which he felt were important, and declining to dress them up to match prevailing funding priorities. Euan was an expert at running field projects on a shoestring, winkling out little-known sources of modest funding, and had the support of a long-serving core of self-funding volunteers: mainly mature professionals in other fields rather than university undergraduates.

He displayed no envy when large new explorations of brochs were undertaken by others in the 1980s, several with (moderately) generous government funding, remaining happy to answer queries from the up-and-coming cohort of broch diggers, taking opportunities to visit their sites and to discuss their findings. More than one director retains the slightly unnerving memory of Euan ‘almost audibly’ filing observations away for future consideration. Less positively, new researchers, new sites and new ways of looking at the evidence meant that some of Euan’s theories about brochs were called into question, occasionally in language which he found unnecessarily robust.

His independence meant that relations with Euan remained friendly but distant. We met at lectures and broch-related conferences and exchanged news of our research work. Occasionally we found ourselves sharing centre-stage, most notably at the 2000 ‘Tall Stories’ conference in Shetland. To some extent, that event was a milestone in Euan’s increasing unease with the direction of broch studies. He was delighted to adopt the new dating evidence which was pushing brochs back earlier in time, and happy to modify his views to fit, and also fascinated by the new scientific approaches to studying Iron Age diet and economy. But he was resistant to changing paradigms. He clearly felt that the new generation of brochologists had become enchanted by large-scale social theory, and that they lacked sufficient evidence to sustain their sweeping claims. He had little time for brochs re-imagined as grain storage and redistribution centres rather than defences, or for a picture of society in which peaceful competition for social prestige was the primary motivating force.

Euan was dedicated to the scientific approach and to evidence. His early broch papers contained exhaustive compendia of measurements and observations taken on his extensive field trips. In the pre-computer age, he used optical coincidence cards to extract useful knowledge from his mass of field data (and, typically, published a paper about the technique). He obtained some of the earliest radiocarbon dates for any broch site for his excavations on Dun Mòr Vaul, philosophically accepting the inevitable fate of early adopters when those dates came to be questioned in later years. Outside of Iron Age studies, his wide reading, perceptive comments and many articles helped the developing fields of ancient metrology and archaeoastronomy to avoid many of the pitfalls in what were then, as now, often regarded by mainstream archaeologists as ‘fringe’ topics, in which lunar alignments seemed but a short step from sheer lunacy. While his lingering attachment to the megalithic yard has so far failed to find traction, his views on solar alignments, at least, are now widely accepted. (I recall his delight when the alignment at Brainport Bay in Argyll was scheduled, an occasion which he celebrated in a paper heralding ‘official recognition’ of alignments. As so often, he must have felt that the mainstream had finally caught up with him.)

At the same time, Euan was relaxed about following wherever he felt the evidence led. His willingness to consider a wide range of explanations for his observations, sometimes far beyond the strictures of Occam’s razor, made him a stimulating contributor to discussion. He enjoyed setting up what he called his ‘Aunt Sallies’ – those wonderful, unorthodox, ‘what ifs’ which we all like to ponder but usually refrain from uttering. This habit began early – it was a brave man, even in the diffusionist and less nationalistic 1960s, who could publish a paper entitled ‘English migrants and Scottish brochs’, arguing that it was the arrival of settlers from southern England which had helped to trigger major social change and archaeological developments in northern Scotland. That paper set a pattern which was to dog Euan throughout his Iron Age research: the unfortunate tendency of many readers to grab the headlines in his papers and not to read the detail. Euan was later widely believed, by younger researchers, to have stated that brochs were an imported idea: that was not the proposition he advanced.

He also argued the case for a ‘professional’ class of prehistoric architects (for chambered tombs and stone alignments as well as for brochs), maintaining that position stoutly against those of us who favoured more egalitarian mechanisms of knowledge transfer. (The last time I saw Euan, was in the audience for John Barber’s 2018 Rhind Lectures, at which that once unfashionable idea received a credibility refresh through John’s detailed analysis of field data. Although already affected by advancing illness, Euan listened attentively. He wore a gentle smile, which I hope was one of quiet satisfaction.)

Retirement in 1998 led to the 2002 Festschrift volume ‘In the Shadow of the Brochs’, presented to him by a group of (mainly) younger researchers who recognised their academic and personal debt to him. Retirement suited Euan: it freed him to write full-time, and the early 2000s were to see a flood of papers and books. His massive 3-volume corpus of roundhouses, brochs and wheelhouses was a landmark event, including as it did an update on his thinking about this much-studied and ever more perplexing topic, which he also developed in significant papers in Oxford Journal of Archaeology and elsewhere. He returned afresh to key sites, looking in particular at Clickhimin in Shetland – a draft he referred to as his ‘Clickers’ paper passed between us in steadily evolving versions – and also revisiting his early work at Dun Mòr Vaul. He brought to publication his earlier excavations at Dun Ardtreck, Sheep Hill and finally Leckie broch, the last with his trademark provocative flair, focussing on the evidence for interaction between late broch-building communities and the Roman empire. It is sad that he did not live to read the recent updates by Fellows on West Plean and Torwood, which have added important new information on that theme.

Almost unknown to those of us who regarded Euan as the elder statesman of broch studies, he maintained a lively parallel existence as a much-respected contributor on ancient metrology and archaeoastronomy – strongly reflected in his current Wikipedia entry. He was for many years a voice of method and reason in that sometimes over-optimistic and occasionally fractious field, and it is perhaps appropriate that his final publication, which appeared in January 2022, deals with this topic.

This note combines my memories of Euan with reflections on his life and career shared by others. I offer thanks all who contributed the latter, especially Doug MacKie, Elizabeth Pitts, Fraser Hunter FSAScot, Beverley Ballin Smith FSAScot, Paula Love FSAScot and Brian Smith. But most of all in memory of Euan, in gratitude for his patience, his encouragement and his imagination.  

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