Case Study: The Lairg Project

The close dovetailing of field archaeology with a detailed reconstruction of how soil profiles evolved in the area and narrow and broad-view vegetation histories combined to create a powerful, testable model for prehistoric upland landuse and settlement reconstruction.

Although the monuments are dominated by Bronze Age remains, the three dimensional approach revealed much deeper history of human activity set against a back drop of mostly gradual but sometimes swift landscape change.

The underlying geology of this undulating landscape – sandy and sandstone derived metamorphic rocks – was not parent to nutrient rich soils. The dominant character of the land was a drainage system which produced and still produces a patchwork of dry and wet, responsive and indifferent, areas. Conditioning these patterns was a general climatic deterioration after 2200 to 1800 BC as well as abrupt, short-lived drier and wetter phases.

An aerial photograph showing a stone walled roundhouse fully excavated in quadrants with other excavated pit features to the exterior surrounded by a peaty landscape

Aerial shot of Lairg under excavation © Rod McCullagh

Signatures for human interference (e.g. charcoal in pollen diagrams) in the landscape are abundant after about 5000 BC. Good evidence for agriculture is apparent in the pollen record from about 4000 BC and in some vestigial archaeological contexts from about 3600 BC. The project could not resolve the evidence into a single wholly unambiguous explanation but it seems that the Bronze Age emerged after a long period of woodland clearance and recovery. What emerges at around 2000 to 1800 BC is a population with a vigorous approach to soil husbandry involving, for example, extensive cross-ploughing, manuring and soil damming with stone dykes. It is important to note the absence of evidence for soil exhaustion at any stage in a place where this might be reasonably expected and in a project which was reasonably certain to detect it.

From 2000 BC and for the next 800 years the project area contains extensive, upstanding evidence for settlement, landuse and ritual. Domestic architecture ranges from circular and oval buildings with a range of construction techniques and a hierarchy of entrances that begs to be interpreted as status display. As impressive, was good evidence for the construction of a dwelling built on farmland, and of its flattening and return to farm land. The site was then reclaimed as a house site before being ploughed over again, possibly in the Iron Age. Finally one structure was detected as only a circle of small post-holes less than 5m diameter; invisible to survey, this building type could well represent a significant missing element in the domestic archaeology of the study area.

Complementing the settlement Bronze Age archaeology was an archaeology of clearance cairns, burnt mounts, dykes or field-edge cairns, simple burial and sites of complex use of human remains. Cremations were discovered in almost every kind of context but the best candidate for a burial cairn turned out to be more a circular enclosure for ritual, involving cremated bone. This was capped by a domed cairn and it seems that current attitudes towards this site merely repeated that of the persons unknown who dug into the centre of the capping cairn in about AD800.

Lairg soils are acidic, meaning no organic remains survive except burnt stuff. The project team found it hard to determine whether this caused, in all cases, the absence of expected evidence. Certainly the minimal vesitges of Neolithic remains was largely a product of the vigour of Bronze Age presence. But the ceramics show a different trend. The dominant fabric of the Bronze Age was talc-tempered, forming crude bucket-like vessels but quite a lot of highly abraded small sherds of Beaker hint at a reverence and use of this fabric beyond the purely functional. No metalwork was found and the dominant tool type was various forms of crude blades made from quartz.

An oblique photograph showing a partially excavated roundhouse with stony features and pits in a peaty landscape

Roundhouse at Lairg under excavation ©Rod McCullagh

Settlement comes to an end within the project area by about 1000 BC but the pollen and soils evidence suggests this may have had more to do with settlement type and distribution, rather than any lessening of human impact on the land. Gradually the evidence for cereal cultivation gives way to a kind of managed pasture which finally gives way to blanket peat between 500 AD and 1000 AD as that management ceases.

This short account does not do justice to the richness of the evidence, the degree of debate within the team and the profound feeling of all that the work was just the first step in understanding that human-landscape relationship that northern Scotland seems so very well equipped to fuel.

Return to Section 3.3 Settlement, Landuse and Resources