8.1 Scotland in north-western Europe

As observed for Iron Age studies in Britain as a whole (Haselgrove 2001, 61; 2007), recent research into the Iron Age in Scotland has tended to focus on the local level, highlighting differences between sites, regions and landscapes. This approach has been fruitful, but Haselgrove (ibid) suggests that the grand narrative has been lost sight of, particularly how these small-scale analyses relate to the larger picture. For instance, how does the evidence from Scotland take its place among that for the wider Iron Age of north-west Europe as a whole?

Reasons for the general lack of grand narratives in relation to the Scottish Iron Age in recent years are threefold:

  1. A reaction against now out-dated and well-worn diffusionist interpretations of the spread of the ‘Celtic’ Iron Age, emanating from the Continent to the fringes such as Scotland. In Scotland, studies have increasingly emphasised local developments and innovations.
  2. The perceived lack of fundamental similarities in the archaeological evidence between Scotland and other areas, particularly mainland Europe, where traditionally the Iron Age has been characterised by a dominant burial record and lack of settlement evidence; opposite to the situation found in Scotland.
  3. The limitations of communication between and across modern political (and linguistic) boundaries. Although there has been an increased level of fieldwork across Europe, particularly through commercially funded operations, access to this information can be difficult; and in some cases language barriers for predominantly monoglot UK scholars further complicate this situation. Additional communication issues arise from differing approaches to the archaeological record. Each country or region has developed their own traditions in practice, recording and interpretation. For instance, chronologies for the Iron Age based on typologies, even if tempered by scientific dating can be very difficult to compare with those based upon radiocarbon dating alone as used largely in Scotland.

Despite these perceived obstacles there are studies which demonstrate the potential in exploring the Scottish Iron Age evidence from a wider perspective. In 2001 Barry Cunliffe presented a broad narrative geographically and chronologically – which emphasised the importance of the Atlantic Ocean as a routeway, connecting people and societies along this coast for millennia. For the Iron Age, results from an increase of fieldwork in areas such as northern France and northwest Iberia have revealed more examples of morphologically comparable structures to those found in Scotland, such as unenclosed roundhouses as well as roundhouses within fortifications (Ayán Vila 2008, González-Ruibal 2006). Focusing on the development of stone monumental architecture, identified in Scotland, south-west England and Brittany, scholars have proposed important social ties across this zone (Gilmour 2000; MacKie 2000; Henderson 2007a). Examining the evidence from the Iron Age across the whole Atlantic-facing coast of Europe, from Scotland to southern Spain, Henderson (2007a) proposed a distinct homogenous culture developed from a maritime network of trade and movement. Henderson’s work has been criticised for its over-simplification of the data, being selective and potentially ignoring elements which did not fit into his general pattern (Ralston 2008, Sharples 2010b). In particular Sharples (2010b) noted the lack of discussion of the disparate assemblages of material culture in this zone and the failure to acknowledge similarities beyond the coastal areas – thus ignoring the evidence for a more complex network of interaction.

The interpretation of Scotland within a wider context requires an appreciation of the complex and nuanced relationships between societies and groups. It is worth considering the results of various perspective-scales of research.

At one scale, areas geographically close to Scotland, such as Ireland, England, Wales and Isle of Man also offer future directions for research. Evidence from northern England has in some instances been drawn upon for similarities with southern Scotland, and Haselgrove’s (1999) concept of ‘central Britain’, from Humber to Forth, is a useful one, although there is obvious variation within this. However, it does reinforce the need to look across modern national boundaries: the Iron Age of southern Scotland shares many aspects with northern England, although markedly less so with the south. But on the whole it appears that there is a real separation at this period across this boundary. There are many possibilities of integrated research across Britain and Ireland in order to tease out the nuances of social, political and economic organisation found in Scotland. Armit’s (2007) reappraisal of Irish material highlights the need to revisit this area, which had often been proposed as an important link to Iron Age Scotland (e.g. Hamilton 1968, 68-75). Even with the recent proliferation of fieldwork in Ireland the Iron Age still appears to have an under-represented settlement record (contrasting to Scotland), but a full collation of this data still needs to be done in order to draw comparisons (Becker 2009). If there are real differences between the evidence in Scotland and Ireland, what impact this has on perceptions of the comparable social models for each of these areas needs to be evaluated.

In comparison to many areas of Continental Europe, the evidence of the Scottish Iron Age, particularly the settlement and burial evidence, may appear too different to allow meaningful direct comparison. However, wider thematic approaches to analysis are useful. In a study comparing the Iron Ages of England and Denmark, where there are few direct parallels, Sørensen (2007) outlines more subtle comparisons which produced an enhanced appreciation of the evidence at various levels. She summaries that on a general level, in contrast to other areas on the Continent, societies in England and Denmark (and the Low Countries) were similarly composed of ‘small-scale, dispersed farming communities, living in houses, which were replaced within a few generations. They lived in close contact with animals and while some of them were specialists, they were probably self-sufficient, mainly dependent on their immediate community’. On one level these communities shared a common economic situation but they developed different practices, living in different types of houses and practising varied burial rites. For instance, as Sørensen points out, the longhouses found in Denmark reflect a very different social organisation and symbolic world on a daily level when compared to the roundhouse. The comparative approach opens the possibility of considering the emergence of such disparate practices together, rather than in isolation and offers a refreshing contrast to studying Sotland in comparison to ‘Celtic’ Europe.

Roundhouse archaeology is an area where the remarkable Scottish record has much to offer wider scholarship, both in terms of the architecture and the way it was employed in the daily lives of the people who occupied them. The recoverable evidence is by no means uniform across every roundhouse, but examples at Birnie (Moray) and Culduthel (Inverness), for example, have preserved architectural details of superstructures that can only be described as monumental, and as analyses proceed these will reveal relationships between the physical components of the architecture and the resource base represented by the settlement’s hinterland. Burnt down, one structure at Birnie has also retained detail of its floor plan and the various practices played out there at the point of its abandonment. Likewise the buildings excavated in a machair environment in South Uist at Cladh Hallan contain successive floor levels revealing details of life and death, intertwining the prosaic and extraordinary in everyday activities and rituals that span from individual buildings to the surrounding landscape. Other preservation niches offer similar possibilities. Crannogs and waterlogged structures, for example at Cults Loch (Wigtownshire) and Buiston (Ayrshire) give glimpses of the relationship of people with organic materials, both in the construction of buildings but also for all manner of artefacts in everyday use that are otherwise unknown to us.

Such a comparative approach to broad similarities and differences has much to offer, not only to Scotland but to students of the European Iron Age. Compared to the Bronze Age there appears to have been a European-wide trend of greater isolationism and regionalism, especially in the early Iron Age, but how and why do these different region developments take place? Towards the end of the Iron Age, Haselgrove (2001, 61) suggested that some areas become more centralised and enclosures are increasingly created. He further proposed that these broader themes of enclosure, introspection and regionalisation may be part of a wider European phenomenon to be explored. Research by Gerritsen (1999) on the biographies of longhouses in the Netherlands over centuries has highlighted cycles of movement, which can be evaluated and contrasted with Scottish settlement sites showing a long time depth (see Sharples 2005).

Forts, in their various forms, have traditionally been seen as a typical element of the ‘Celtic’ Iron Age but there are marked variations. Relatively few forts occur in Ireland that are greater than the scale of a ‘rath’ (homestead or small community). England, Wales and Scotland have a great many although their distribution is uneven – a topic that has received relatively sparse discussion. The main focus of studies of forts over the last twenty years, in both Scotland and Britain as whole, has been to explore the distinct character of each site, highlighting the potential variable meanings of these places across time and space (e.g. Bowden and McComish 1987 , Gosden and Lock 1999 , Hamilton and Manley 2001; Sharples 2010a). These approaches have been valuable in reconsidering the role of these places, but how do the results of these small-scale studies relate to fortification as a phenomenon across Iron Age Europe? Different themes and patterns can be explored in light of these new themes that have emerged, and needs revisiting . In Celtic Fortifications, Ralston is conscious about the variability with the site type of hillforts. While he presents examples from Scotland alongside those from, Ireland, England and the Continent -suggesting in some cases the physical characteristics perhaps reflect cultural linkages (2006, 11) – these influences and relationships are still vague and unclear, needing further explanation.

When exploring Iron Age material culture there are observable regional differences across Scotland (e.g. Stevenson 1966; MacKie 2000), but these have seen relatively little study. Wider themes such as the patterns of deposition of everyday objects on settlement sites may provide a basis for comparison in a wider context (e.g. compared to the work of Hill (1996) for Wessex; see theme 7.6).

Direct comparisons of material culture, linking Scotland to grand narratives of the ‘Celtic’ Iron Age have traditionally focused on metalwork – particularly those with La Tène-style decoration (e.g. Stevenson 1966, Piggott 1959). Although only recovered in a restricted areas, the existence of such material reveals a connection to wider systems of interaction, which changed from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age (O’Connor 2007). In the Iron Age there appears to be a decrease in objects, whether made locally or imported, that were directly influenced by the Continent. Nonetheless a few examples, which emphasise that there were still high-level connections across wide areas (e.g. Atkinson & Piggott 1955, Carter et al. 2010) – bearing witness to social, political and economic mechanisms which enabled production, consumption and exchange. Such processes are quite variable and complex. Studies elsewhere in Iron Age Europe have demonstrated how the same objects can be utilised very differently, being incorporated and adapted into local systems (e.g. Gaul – Dietler 1990, 1995). A study of Roman metal goods found beyond the frontier of the Roman Empire in Scotland, northern Germany, and Scandinavia, identified a pattern in Scotland of incorporating the Roman material into their own traditions rather than emulating the Roman practices (Jensen 2009) – perhaps highlighting established patterns of reaction to perceived ‘outside’ influence.

There is a value to broad-scale comparisons with other areas of the Britain, the broader Atlantic zone and the Continent for both specific similarities and differences, and more general analogies over issues such as contacts and connections; social trends such as isolation in the Early Iron Age or increased centralisation of settlement in the later Iron Age; the use of decorative metalwork; nature of hillforts.

The high quality of aspects of the Scottish material (e.g. well-preserved stone and burnt-down timber roundhouses) has information to offer the wider scholarly community, and should be presented on an international stage.


There is no doubt that there was important inter-regional trade and contact throughout Europe, which Scotland was a part of, but the impetus and direction of this contact can no longer be depicted as one-way and multi-staged, from the Continent through Southern England and eventually reaching Scotland. Rather than ‘Celtic’ invasions (or top down ‘Romanisation’ during the later Iron Age), a combination of emulation, small-scale movement of peoples and ideas to and from Scotland as well as internal processes are now preferred in the discussion of changes in patterns. Identity involves complex processes and there is increased appreciation of the difference between deciphering people’s own perspectives and the perspectives of others.

The evidence from the Iron Age across north-west Europe points to increased regionalism, compared to the preceding time periods,- which it will be important to analyse and explain. However, there is also value in re-exploring the variation in the data from a larger-scale perspective, perhaps identifying themes or other comparisons that cut across traditional typologies and areas of study. The years of research focusing on regional and site-based evidence in Scotland can be integrated into approaches exploring wider trends. Different scales of analysis -ranging from the ‘grand narrative’ to the world as ‘lived’ by small groups and communities- can work in tandem with one another to enrich a holistic, encompassing view of Iron Age society in the North.

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