(See also the ScARF Science panel report section on Palaeoclimatology)
Landscape and the characteristic variety of the Scottish environment plays a major role here, and current thinking should not shy from such an acknowledgement in fear of an overly reductionist label. The physical challenges of life in the North pose unique constraints on populations living there – as can be seen throughout the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere – but they equally make possible modes of life and subsistence that are not found elsewhere. In exploring medieval Scotland these factors need to be made more integral to our understanding of the period, and also to extend our comparative range to the other landscapes familiar to settlers in this region (how did Scandinavians perceive Scotland as a physical environment, for example?). In all this care must be taken to consider the regionality of Scotland’s ancient geography, so obvious to our modern minds. What differences can be perceived in highland and lowland landscapes, or in the different island groups, not just in terms of settlement form but also in more subtle aspects of the lives lived in their circle? How was the land used, and to what degree did this reflect conscious choice? Questions of success and failure in human environmental adaptation can also be considered, along with the diverse impacts that settlement had on the land- and seascapes.
Wood and turf were common materials for construction in most parts of the highlands and many parts of the lowlands too (Dunbar and Fairhurst 1971, 242).The origins of cruck construction need to be more widely researched and also the variations in timber and turf construction, including the so-called creel houses. A late 16th century survey of the wood used in settlements in Strathavon, Moray, for construction suggests that the couples were jointed A-frames, not single blades, and the walls may well have been of wickerwork or creel. In England crucks have been shown to have developed from post-set structures in the high medieval period and the excavations at Springwood Park, Kelso suggests that this transition was occurring at a similar time in south-east Scotland (Dixon 1998, 2002a). Another approach has been opened up recently by dendrochronology, in particular, the work by Anne Crone on surviving crucks in Perthshire (Crone and Mills 2003), dating the timber used in vernacular buildings, previously the domain of architectural historians.
Recent research into woodland management on Loch Katrine by Coralie Mills, Peter Quelch and Mairi Stewart (2009), using dendrochronology, tree-forms and documents, provides good evidence that pollarding of ash trees was carried on during the 18th century. Presumably managed by the nearby pre-improvement farm tenants, and occupying otherwise useless steep and rocky ground, they could have supplied many useful products including leafy hay, small wood for tools and construction, and fuel. Further work is required to understand this management practice, which arguably is of greater antiquity and has the potential to fill a gap in the understanding of the medieval rural economy of the Highlands. The more widespread upland wood pasture types, such as alder and birch, are as yet little studied and are a particular priority for further research. Not all wood-pasture trees were necessarily pollarded or as old as the Katrine ash trees; for example, some squat oak wood pasture trees at Katrine were shown through dendrochronology to originate in graze-damaged remnants of 19th century coppice, by which time traditional mixed farming practices had been largely replaced by sheep (Mills 2011).
There are many other types of historic wooded cultural landscapes which merit a similarly holistic research approach, for example remnant oak coppices, with related archaeological remains, many originating the late 18th and 19th centuries for tanbark and charcoal production (Mills 2011). Other wooded cultural landscapes such as deer parks, designed landscapes, historic plantations, and indeed our semi-natural woods, merit a similarly integrated research approach. Furthermore, chronology building in woodlands which produced timber facilitates the dating and provenancing of native timber in historic buildings and archaeological sites, making the connection between the built heritage and its landscape (Mills 2008; Crone and Mills 2011). Woods often preserve exceptionally intact archaeological landscapes (eg the medieval rigged field system under the late medieval plantation at Balgownie, Fife; Mills and Quelch 2011), and the historic trees, with their inherent dating potential, can provide a firm chronological framework for the archaeological landscape. There are many remnant wooded cultural landscapes Scotland, but the veteran trees are being lost all the time to natural processes of storm damage and decay, a process which is likely to accelerate with climate change. Further dendrochronological research, combined with archaeological, documentary and tree-form studies, is required to understand the age and evolution of these important cultural landscapes, while we still have the historic trees to study.
Palaeoenvironmental research for the medieval period is still in its infancy (cf. Centre for Environmental History and Policy, Stirling University) and further local studies are needed in conjunction with field survey and documentary research to understand the changing face of the rural landscape, particularly for lowland areas. The survival of botanical remains is a stumbling block here since suitable wet sumps for sampling near to settlements are rare in the Lowlands. Looking at crannog sites offers one avenue of pursuing this, providing the waterlogged material necessary (see Shelley 2009).
Archaeologists have long pursued the topographical and design aspects of medieval towns (e.g. Lynch, Spearman and Stell 1998; Bowler 2004) but have paid less attention to the role of weather in town development. The 1209/10 flood of the river Tay so washed away the royal castle of Perth that the decision was made not to rebuild it, which significantly altered the development trajectory of that part of the town, partly as an industrial suburb, partly as a Dominican friary. The frequent washing away of the bridge over the Tay also ensured the longevity of the practice of ferrying people across the river down to comparatively recent times.