2.3.3 The Late Norse Period

This is defined as the period of close political ties with Scandinavia, the period of the Norðreyar and Suðreyar (the Northern and Southern Earldoms). This period historically terminates in 1468AD.

The majority of the information available for the study of Norse Scotland is derived from several large excavation programmes that are largely focused on the Northern and Western Isles. The environment of these areas has been particularly conducive to the preservation of stone-built architecture and deep well-stratified sediment sequences containing deposits rich in artefacts, animal bones, fish bones and plant remains. The region therefore provides a major resource for interpreting economic and social practices using archaeological data.

The preponderance of this data in the Northern Isles is derived from several sites which are known from references in Orkneyinga Saga, thought to have been compiled in Iceland in the 13th century. These include earldom sites, such as the Brough of Birsay (Hunter 1986; Morris 1996), the Earl’s Bu, Orphir (Batey 1993 and Batey forthcoming), Westness (Kaland 1993), Tuquoy Westray (Owen 1993 and forthcoming) all in Orkney. In Shetland, work at Sandwick on Unst (Bigelow 1985; 1987), and more recently at a number of nearby sites (notably Hamar and Underhoull by Bond et al. and Belmont by Larsen et al.) have broadened the debate about the nature of settlement hierarchies in the region. Also in Shetland, excavations at The Biggings by Barbara Crawford (1999) have striven to synthesise the evidence of the archaeology and of a unique historical document relating to the sitesite. In addition, excavations at the Brough of Deerness, Orkney (Morris with Emery 1986) and Kebister, Shetland (Owen and Lowe 1999) have seen complementary information revealed. Within recent years, and current projects being undertaken at the Brough of Deerness (Barrett and Slater 2009), and at Snusgar in West Mainland Orkney (by Griffiths et al 2007) and are broadening the scope of data. Excavations at Quoygrew on Westray have further added to an understanding of the economic basis of a Viking-Late Norse farmstead, which provides complementary data to sites previously available for discussion (Barrett ed 2012)

In South Uist, the complete excavation of a small settlement at Cille Pheadair by Parker Pearson (Brennand et al. 1997) and the extensive excavation of the large settlement complex at Bornais (Sharples 2005) have exposed settlement sequences that span the Norse period (11th to 14th centures). These provide clear evidence for the development of a distinct regional style of architecture that evolves from the longhouses of the Viking period and have recovered substantial economic and artefactual datasets that document important changes in the societies of Atlantic Scotland in the period when the islands were incorporated into the Kingdom of Scotland.

The major environmental programme at Freswick Links, Caithness undertaken by Batey and Morris in the 1980s (Morris et al. 1995)  forged ahead in the establishment of methodologies for investigating environmental aspects of Late Norse economies and which has subsequently formed the basis of comparable work being undertaken in the Norse North Atlantic. Building on some of this work, Barrett has further studied in depth the Norse fish trade (Barrett 1997, Barrett and Richards 2004) and the potential impact of a fish-rich diet on the Norse population (Barrett et al 2001a). Analysis of animal teeth both for isotopic and wear analysis from the Earl’s Bu site at Orphir amongst other sites has provided very valuable developments in methodologies and the potential for interrogating in detail pastoral activities in the Late Norse period and earlier (Mainland et al 2016)

A photograph of a very large recumbent carved stone bowed at the sides with a curved ridge, decorated with a scale-like pattern

Hogback stone from Govan, © Northlight Heritage (Ross Clark)

Elsewhere in Scotland, the role of Govan on the River Clyde is being re-assessed by Driscoll et al. Long known for its fine collection of carved stones, including the distinctive hogbacks (Ritchie 1994) the environs of the church have been examined and the possible location of a Moot Hill identified (Doomster Hill: Dalglish and Driscoll 2009, Owen and Driscoll 2011). The detailed consideration of central meeting places, commonly named as Thing sites is currently being undertaken by Sanmark and others (eg Sanmark 2013), and this will provide an important over-arching study which will enable a consideration of the political landscape for the period. Another aspect of study which is underway is the examination of early church/chapel sites by Morris (Morris 2007; Morris et al 2008), including the excavation of the Norse chapel at the Brough of Deerness (Morris with Emery 1986).

Important research areas would include: exploring the impact of widespread maritime exploitation on Late Norse communities and their supply networks; addressing what happened at the “end” of the Late Norse period; assessing if all Late Norse sites were of high status and whether there is a failure to recognise sites of lower or less permanent status; charting the development of regional styles of architecture; and reconstructing the nature of trade networks – for example, the changing nature of contacts with Scandinavia, England and Ireland, the importance of coinage and the operation of the fishing economies.

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