2.4 The Highland Lowland Divide: Clans and kinship across the social spectrum

As well as the broader considerations of ethnic and political identity, culminating in the creation of Scotland as a nation state, the identity-creation within these groupings must also be reviewed, of which the most fundamental, in a Scottish context, is the development of the clan system with its political overlays of kinship, power ambitions and military expression. Allegiance and signalled identity are clearly crucial here, and also provide useful material aids to their archaeological detection and analysis. From the armies of the Bruce to the disaster of Culloden, the threads of ancestral and familial loyalty are fundamental to any archaeology of Medieval Scotland.

This is one of the fundamental questions relating to the socio-economic history of late medieval Scotland. By the middle of the 16th century the country north of the Forth was divided between Gaelic-speaking highlanders and Scots-speaking lowlanders whose whole lifestyles and economic strategies were at variance, leading to frequent clashes of culture and arms. The 12th century written sources betray no evidence for this divide and indeed the large territorial lordships of the Anglo-Norman era (and apparently before) mostly contain a mixture of upland and lowland and it seems likely that transhumance across this range of landscapes underpinned much of the social and economic framework of the kingdom. The break-up of these provincial identities and social formations was, presumably, in some sense, the product of the development of ‘sub-urban’ agricultural strategies in the hinterland of the burghs but the rate and extent of such development is unclear.

Textually there are hints from Aberdeenshire and the Mearns of a linguistic and cultural divide between coastal and mountain Scots by the end of the 14th century (John of Fordoun) and at about the same time, or a little later, there begins to be fragmentary evidence that kindreds from the West Highlands, such as Clan Gregor and Clan Chattan were penetrating the upper part of the eastern river systems. By the 16th century the literary record of the eastern highlands (e.g. The Book of the Dean of Lismore) seems to consist entirely of west coast and Irish traditions. The complete absence of any tales, songs or poems relating to the kings and earls of the Scottish kingdom is one of the mysteries of Scottish Gaelic studies, although this is often not appreciated by scholars in this area who have largely been content to engage in a post-colonial discourse that constructs these elites as ‘other’ within the kingdom.

The question raised is what happened to the eastern highlands when the eastern lowlands moved away from a transhumance economy? When did this transition occur, was it regular across the east or did it take place over a long time, and what are the implications for interpreting settlement patterns before and after this change? Were 10th to 12th century upland settlements seasonally occupied by the same families who occupied lowland settlements? Did west Highlanders move into unoccupied or under-occupied lands, or was it simply a proportion of investment that was withdrawn (by institutions or individuals) which exposed residual occupiers to west-highland aggression? What are the key dates, and can this then be tied to other transformations? How old was the twelfth-century pattern?

Once again settlement hierarchies and morphology, and perhaps aspects of material culture (such as ‘kitchen-ware;’ and utensils), may provide clues, but it should also be realised that each site must be built into a regional ‘map’ of land use and settlement. Site-focused analysis colours the interpretation of villages and communities, and assumptions based on west highland norms may discourage research from identifying quite substantial summer residences because they do not look like the shielings of the Isle of Lewis in the 19th century. The changing character of lordship and a growing market economy must be built into models, but the chronology to be drawn from textual evidence is patchy whereas integrated regional settlement studies can allows models and analyses to be refined.

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