Figure 25: Provisioning the burghs: Artist's impression of market stalls in medieval Perth by Maureen Rooney Mitchell (reproduced by kind permission of Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee). A synthetic approach to the analysis of food-stuffs of plant and animal origin (cereals, vegetables, fruits, meat, milk products, freshwater and marine fish and shellfish) is an aim for the future.

3.6 Commerce, industry and manufacturing

An artists reconstruction of a medieval market showing stalls with produce and animal butchery taking place on the roadside

Provisioning the burghs: Artist’s impression of market stalls in medieval Perth by Maureen Rooney Mitchell (reproduced by kind permission of Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee). A synthetic approach to the analysis of food-stuffs of plant and animal origin (cereals, vegetables, fruits, meat, milk products, freshwater and marine fish and shellfish) is an aim for the future.

When one looks to internal and external economies, the socio-political sophistication of the early Scottish polities was clearly reflected in equally advanced structures of manufacturing and commerce, in which the concept of industrial production is not inappropriate. In addition to handicrafts and specialised cottage industries, recent revelations in this field include the recognition of deep-sea fishing industries as a key economic component of Scottish life from at least the Viking Age. This in turn has implications for a carefully ordered export market of supply and demand, the latter partly constrained by ideology and religion in the form of Christian requirements for greater proportions of fish in daily diet as a result of restrictions on the consumption of meat. Environmental archaeology clearly has a major role to play here. It needs to be asked if there are specifically ‘Scottish’ (or ‘Pictish’, or ‘Gaelic’ etc) products, and if so, what additional burden of identity and ideology they might carry in additional to the blunt realities of mercantile aspiration. Significant elements of industry and manufacturing of course took place in the countryside. Monastic granges (Hall 2006), for example, have a huge potential for advancing understanding of the contribution of the reformed monasteries to medieval agriculture and industry in Scotland, but have been little studied.

It is now generally agreed that David I’s new burghs were not all founded on greenfield sites, indeed many of them must have already existed as thriving settlements and by giving them burgh status the king was able to exploit this. Frustratingly, archaeological evidence for these early settlements has so far been very limited, and like much of Scottish medieval archaeology the burgh of Perth has produced the first tantalising glimpses. In 1992 excavations at 80-86 High Street (directly across the High Street from the 1975-77 High Street excavations) located a narrow wattle lined ditch running from E to W across the site. This feature predated the laying out of the High Street burgage plots and its lining was radiocarbon dated to 998-1039 AD, at least a century earlier than the burghs foundation date (Moloney and Coleman 1997 , 707). It has been suggested that this feature may represent an enclosure around an earlier version of St John’s Church (Moloney and Coleman 1997, 710).

Post excavation work on the large assemblage of pottery from the excavations at 75 High Street included the submission of carbonised sherds of London Sandy Shelly Ware pottery for C14 dating. Perth has produced the largest assemblage of this imported fabric type from the earliest phases at the Perth High Street excavations and the subject of its origin and date has been the matter of much debate. Put simply, in London Sandy Shelly Ware was not dated to before 1150 AD (Pearce et al 1985), its presence from early potentially preburghal deposits in Perth suggested to all involved that it ought to be of an earlier date. Fifteen carbonised sherds were submitted and all returned calibrated dates between AD 940 and 1020 (Hall, Hall and Cook 2005 ). Chemical sourcing has confirmed that this fabric was manufactured in the Thames Basin (Vince forthcoming). The combination of the date from 80-86 High Street and the consistency of the dates from 75 High Street strongly suggests the presence of an 11th century pre charter settlement on the site of what was to become Perth. Further dating of Sandy Shelly Wares from Bergen and London has now returned similar dates (Hall, Cook and Hamilton 2010).

Over 30 years of rescue excavation in Perth have provided enough evidence that the nature and preservation of its archaeological deposits make it unique in a Scottish context (Bowler 2004). Organic material such as silk, leather and wooden artefacts and structures survive in its anaerobic midden deposits that do not always survive in other burghs, thus enabling a fairly accurate picture of everyday life in a thriving cosmopolitan Scottish town to be reconstructed (Hall 2002). What is of interest is Perth’s relationship with the ecclesiastical burgh of Scone, particularly as there is a charter of King Alexander I (1107-1124) informing English merchants that the canons of Scone Abbey might bring a ship to Scone custom free (Lawrie 1905, no XLVIII). It is to be hoped that the ongoing Moothill and Abbey of Scone Survey (MASS) project may shed some light on this important early centre.

Continuing study of the vast assemblages of pottery from excavations in medieval Perth has provided intriguing evidence for the apparent European connections of the burgh. In 2004 chemical sourcing (ICPS) of a group of greyware fabrics from Perth indicated that at least some of them may originate from a production center on Mors Island in Northern Jutland (Hall and Chenery 2005), thus suggesting early links across the North Sea. The range of imported pottery fabrics from Perth could also be taken to suggest links with large parts of Northern Europe and occasionally Iberia. Excavations at the Horsecross in Perth located the first identifiable sherds of Ely Type ware from East Anglia.

Intriguingly the property ownership for this part of the extra mural settlement indicates that one Thomas de Lyn occupied the site, Kings Lynn is only 24 kms away from Ely (Cox et al 2007).

Roxburgh was an important early foundation by David I as a royal burgh on what appears to be a new site and grew into an economic hub for the south of Scotland. Its desertion in the 15th century presents a unique opportunity for the study of medieval urban development in Scotland. Limited trenching in 2003 has confirmed the existence of defences on the east of the burgh, St. James churchyard beside the Tweed as well as two of the main streets (Martin and Oram 2007). RCAHMS has recently resurveyed the site and combined the aerial photography of cropmarks with GPS derived terrain modelling in a GIS to tease out as much as possible of the archaeology of the site without excavation that provides a basis for further research (RCAHMS 2007, 18-19).

Dunfermline was made a royal burgh in 1124-7. From observations along the line of Dunfermline’s medieval High Street it is clear that deposit survival along the top of that ridge is virtually non-existent. Limited excavations on the North side of the High Street have also indicated that recent development has cut back into the hill slope, thus destroying medieval deposits and structures (Hall and MacGavin 1981, 10). However, in recent years it has become obvious that the reverse may be true on the southern down-hill slope of the High Street, and excavations in the Abbots House are probably the best example of what may survive (Coleman 1996a). Recent important work on a new burgh survey has also indicated the presence of upstanding late medieval buildings on the Maygate (Dennison and Stronach 2007).

Elgin was made a royal burgh in 1130-1153, and like Dunfermline, has a High Street that runs along a ridge, and from limited excavation in its vicinity archaeological survival is not very good (Hall et al. 1998). The first major excavations in the burgh which took place in advance of the construction of the new relief road discovered evidence that survival was better the further down the hill slope to the North one progressed. In places, survival can be very good with wood and organic materials surviving – recent excavations by Charlie and Hilary Murray towards the western end of the High Street being the best example of this.

St Andrew’s was designated an ecclesiastical burgh in 1124-1444. During the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s St Andrews was subject to quite an intensive campaign of rescue excavation. Unfortunately, very few of these sites were directly on street frontages so evidence for building types in the medieval burgh is limited to a site in the South Street backlands (Cachart 2000). Good evidence for backland activities and limited industry has been recovered in association with important groups of medieval ceramics (Rains and Hall 1997). The biggest surprise from St Andrews is the presence of a deep deposit of ‘garden’ soil that seals the medieval deposits. Whether this material has been imported into the burgh or represents an oxidised midden is still the subject of some debate (Carter 2001).

North Berwick was designated a baronial burgh in 1381. Rescue excavations there have indicated the presence of deep deposits of wind-blown sand which often seal medieval deposits sometimes up to a depth of 4m. The most striking survival in recent years is probably the stone built medieval corn dryer from Forth Street Lane (Cromwell). More importantly, the chance of archaeological survival in a much smaller burgh is very high (Hall and Bowler 1997).

Many of the burghs were hives of activity with different parts of them apparently being used by different occupations. This may be reflected by some of the street and vennel names that still survive to this day, Skinnergate and Horner’s Vennel in Perth being good examples. Documentary evidence that exists for 13th century Scotland is very useful for giving an idea of the number and types of trades or professions that existed in the medieval burghs. To take Perth as an example, various people mentioned in these charters include their trade in their name Willelmus Galeator (helmet maker) and Robertus Faber (smith) being good examples. These trade names are associated with a limited range of industrial process involving cloth or clothing, metal work and leather work. It is out of this wide range of professions that the Guildry Incorporation developed,an organisation that still exists today in many Scottish towns.

An aerial photograph showing a grassy field with extensive linear cropmarks surrounded by a river on 3 sides

Aerial photograph of Roxburgh with cropmark remains indicating the layout of the burgh. Analyses of aerial photographs, Lidar, GPS survey, earthwork survey and documentary sources have been combined to provide an interpretation of the layout and development of the burgh and nearby castle. © HES

There is certainly documentary evidence for the export of wool from Scotland to the Low Countries and Flanders, much of which may well have been coming from the major monastic estates of the Borders.In the 15th century, Bruges was the Scottish staple port. Staple status gave Bruges a monopoly in the Scots trade of certain products in return for privileges being extended to Scottish merchants. This connection was of tremendous importance. Initially wool was the Scots’ primary export, with the livelihoods of thousands of shepherds, lairds and landowners dependent on the market in Bruges. Later in the 16th century the wool trade declined and the Scots exported other raw materials such as coal, salt, malt, hides, skins, tallow and salmon. Then, as the harbour at Bruges silted up, the focus of Scots trade moved north to the Dutch ports of Middleburg and Veere, with Veere gaining staple status in 1541.

By 1380 the opening of the Sound of Skagerrack to shipping allowed for direct contact between Scotland and the Baltic and animal skins and hides and cheap cloth and salt were all exported from Scotland.  In the later Middle Ages there was a large scale emigration of Scots to northern Europe, some of whom were students heading for universities in Germany, France and the Baltic region and many of the others were merchants who settled in the coastal ports.  There are tantalising pieces of evidence which may suggest that there were even earlier contacts between the Baltic States and Scotland.  For example a type of imported pottery found in early levels in Perth has been identified as possibly originating in Jutland (see above).  Such important early influences are still the subject of ongoing research.

A photograph of an archaeological excavation showing a narrow trench and waterlogged soil

Conditions for preservation in the burghs can be remarkable, as highlighted by excavations on Perth High Street (ditch 80-86 High Street pictured). The anaerobic soil conditions have preserved material including leather, bone, wood and plant remains, providing evidence for a range of different elements of Medieval life, © Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland.

Archaeological excavation has now recovered evidence for  metalworking industries of the burgh of Perth as evidenced by the smelting and working of iron for the manufacture of knives, horseshoes and even barrel padlocks at the Meal Vennel. Important evidence for the source of the raw material for this industry has also been recovered with the suggestion that ‘bog iron’ was probably the most commonly used (Cox 1996) and that this would have been available to both urban and rural smiths alike. Excavations at King Edward Street (Bowler et al 1995 , 931-38) located a small workshop on the High Street frontage, which contained a small hearth and possible evidence for the working of either gold or silver. Leather working was also a staple industry in the Scottish medieval burgh producing shoes, belts, scabbards and maybe even pieces of clothing. The area around the Skinnergate in Perth was certainly the focus of this industry and many hundreds of pieces of leather have been recovered from excavations in the burgh. Slight traces of horn working associated with rubbish pits containing discarded animal horns from which the cores have been removed have been discovered. So far little detailed information for the actual processes and natures of the workshops for both these industries has been recovered. Evidence for corn dying being carried out within the burgh limits has been recovered from both Perth and St Andrews (Cox 1996; Hall 1997)  and from one of the three excavations at Canal Street in Perth there is excavated evidence for a malting kiln and a ‘coble’ (a clay lined pit for steeping grain) (Coleman 1996b). Intriguingly on this site these activities are still listed as taking place in the 17th Century Rental Books of King James VI Hospital suggesting a long tradition of specific manufacturing types in areas of the medieval burgh (Milne 1891).

Despite a wealth of evidence from Scotland the archaeological analysis of particularly rural and beach market sites lags behind their study in other parts of the UK and Europe. In the UK important work has been carried out for example at Meols, Cheshire and Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey (Griffiths 2003, Griffiths et al. 2007 ). The focus of most of the wider work has been on the early medieval period (e.g. Pestell and Ulmschneider 2003) but certainly in Scotland it has been shown from other sources that there is a rich seam for the longue durée of such activity (Black 2000), stretching from the Late Iron Age through to the 19th century. Significant assemblages of artefacts have been recovered from several sites over many years, including Culbin Sands, Moray and Glenluce Sands, Wigtown, which certainly strongly suggest beach market activity comparable to that at Meols but the detailed re-examination of such assemblages is long over due. Black’s pivotal paper laid out many of the key areas of investigation, including the longevity and nature of fairs, the evidence of saints’ names and place names, calendar customs, social gatherings, Sunday markets, the fencing of fairs and broad linkages between fairs and religious practice. Archaeologically fairs might be expected to leave physical traces, as with post holes for perimeter defining fences, animal stalls and tents (an interpretation offered for some of the post holes excavated on the South Inch, Perth – Roy 2002) and scatters of objects at fair sites.

The sanctioning of fair activity by the Church (and often under its control) has left the common urban phenomenon of the mercat cross and in more rural localities understanding the multi-dimensional functioning of early medieval sculpture allows one to see how their purposes of use and re-use sometimes included that of market cross. A case-study of fairs and markets in Perthshire between AD 700-1900 (Hall 2004) identified several examples of Pictish cross-slabs used in this way, including those at Pittensorn and Crieff/Strowan. This market function of cross-slabs often carries on through the medieval period and into post-medieval and modern times, often in the face of Reformation kirk opposition. Examples include the towering cross-slab now in Fowlis Wester kirk, Perthshire (linked to a Sunday shoe market in the churchyard until the 18thcentury) and St Devenic’s Cross, Creich, Sutherland, standing beside the ruined church of St Devenic which was used as a market cross until the 17thcentury. In the Perthshire case-study referred to above, the author noted that archaeology needed more fully to address fairs and markets and that a co-ordinated research framework might help to offset the current lack of recognition of flimsy traces of fair activity and a related lack of intensive follow-up of metal-detector assemblages in the country. The national framework is now in place but it needs to be supported by research questions at a regional level to bring out the nuanced dynamics of scale, place and practice.

Comments 5

  1. Development of the burgh of North BerwickInformation on the development of the burgh of North Berwick through archaeology can be found in The Archaeology of the Streets of North Berwick and Implications for the Development of the BurghReplacement and upgrading of the mains water system in North Berwick provided an opportunity to identify and record deposits and structures across the core of the medieval burgh. A large amount of information about the development of the burgh, and its layout, was collected. Over much of the central core of the medieval burgh, layer upon layer of occupation deposits and more mixed material were interspersed with obvious inundations of wind-blown sand. The existence of a rough surface running east–west along much of the High Street could suggest that this is the more likely candidate for the earliest focus for the burgh, rather than the north–south running Quality Street further to the east. Road surfaces were also seen along East Road, running out of the town. The density of occupation deposits markedly lessened along Westgate, the continuation of the High Street, indicating the limits of the medieval core. A number of structures were also identified, including a wall at the east of the town that may represent the ‘town wall’, or at least define the limit of settlement to the east. 

  2. SAIR 28: Early Medieval IronworkingSAIR 28:Early medieval settlement and ironworking in Dornoch, Sutherland: excavations at The Meadows Business Parkby Russel Coleman and Effie Photos-Jones with contributions by Simon Chenery, Adrian Cox, Derek Hall, Mhairi Hastie and Catherine SmithMonitoring and excavation during the development of a new business park in Dornoch in 1997 revealed numerous features including a building, ditched enclosures and several hearths, all sealed beneath an artefact-rich cultivation soil. Radiocarbon dates obtained place the main period of activity here in the late 1st millennium ad. The evidence recovered also suggests a tradition of ironworking here from the early medieval period continuing through into the medieval period. A small assemblage of finds was recovered from the excavation, including quantities of iron slag, bog iron ore, fragments from a clay-lined furnace, whale bone, a bone counter and a bone pin beater. This paper reports on the results of the work and includes an extended section on the analysis of the iron-making and -working evidence.

  3. Meal Vennel: Excavation report by GUARD Archaeology
    A significant assemblage of medieval pottery, metal, bone, antler, leather and wooden artefacts recovered from rich midden deposits, floor surfaces, occupation deposits, structural timbers, pits and hearths sheds new light upon life in the heart of medieval Perth.The work was undertaken between August 1985 and April 1986 and the report is now available at

  4. Medieval tanning in Linlithgow: Excavation report
    Excavations in Linlithgow High Street between 1966 and 1977 found evidence of an intensive fifteenth and sixteenth century tanning industry, and a large volume of worked antler waste. Documentary sources confirm a concentration of tanning and related trades from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Foundations of seventeenth to nineteenth century stone
    buildings were also discovered. The work was undertaken between August 1985 and April 1986 and the report is now available at

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