2.1 Heritage Databases

The Highland Historic Environment Record (HER) and Historic Environment Scotland Canmore databases are both essential tools for research in the Highland region. They can both also be accessed via PastMap, which is a website that allows the user to search for sites using basic map and keyword searching. However, PastMap is intended to be used as a portal, leading to the much more detailed information held by both Canmore and the local Historic Environment Records – where the most detailed and up to date information is available.

The Highland HER and Camore both provide different levels of information. The Highland HER often includes useful fieldwork reports, data structure reports (DSRs), links to grey literature and digital images. Canmore is more likely to include photographs and information from the national record, and details of non-digital photographs and manuscripts which are available to view in Edinburgh. Both have ways for the public to add new information and pictures to existing records. The differences in using both databases when searching the same topic were usefully highlighted by Birch (2009b) as part of the National ScARF Mesolithic investigation. Birch showed that there are different search terms and anomalies between the Highland HER and Canmore (with some key sites missed in the latter) and structured dating difficulties, for example most Mesolithic sites went into Canmore as undated by default. Birch also highlighted the value of the inclusion of grey literature in the HER, but conversely noted that the HER records were often not up to date with new research. These observations are still valid. It is also worth acknowledging that keeping up such databases is a challenge for those who manage them. The management of these vast databases is often carried out by only a handful of individuals

Screenshot of the Highland HER showing the searchable map, using Newlands of Culloden as an example site. The site is labelled and a purple circle marks the location.
The Highland Historic Environment Record online map search facility © The Highland Council

Canmore and the HER have diverged in recent years, and ideally need to be brought back into sync. The SHED (Scotland’s Historic Environment Data) strategy has recommended that PastMap which links to HER and Canmore records, be used. For this to work it is imperative therefore that PastMap be more regularly updated with information from both Canmore and the HER. It is also important that data updated between Canmore and the Highland HER occur more frequently and regularly. At present there is a backlog.

There is still much data cleansing to be undertaken in each database; again this should be a priority. Many event records in the Highland HER need to be unpicked into individual monument records. Duplicate records need to be identified; these are often caused by slightly different grid references being used. An Archaeological Objects Thesaurus (Scotland) and a Monument Type thesaurus (Scotland) both found at Heritage Data are used by Canmore and OASIS (the main mechanism for reporting and recording archaeological work in the UK). Ideally this should also be incorporated into the HER although a significant amount of support would be needed to retrofit existing records to these thesauri. At present HER records link to Canmore. HES has agreed that links should also go from Canmore to the HER; this should be undertaken as soon as possible.

Historically finds were only occasionally incorporated into these databases, and, as part of the Highland Archaeological Research Framework project, information about diagnostic finds was sought out and then inputted into the HER. This is important as only two Highland collections have online catalogues (Historylinks and Ullapool museum). The main collection outside the Highlands is that of National Museums Scotland. The National Museums Scotland online catalogue, provides some information and images of their archaeological collections, although the online catalogue includes only a relatively small proportion of their overall collections. As part of the project the NMS granted access to their full catalogue of finds for the Highland region and some of this information from this has now been incorporated into the HER.

The Archaeological Data Service (ADS) provides a digital repository for Heritage Data from across the UK. It archives and makes freely available a range of resources including published journals, a number of PhD theses and dissertations, grey literature, DSRs and excavation and post-excavation reports – as well as metadata records that archive and share raw data from previous research projects. ADS also manages OASIS which provides information about archaeological investigations to regional HERs and Canmore. In Scotland it is also the basis for the gathering data for the annual Archaeology Scotland’s Discovery and Excavation in Scotland publication. Information submitted through OASIS can also be subsequently shared through ADS.

Other databases also exist, and these should be made available online if not already available on the internet. A good example of an online resource is the Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland. This research project assessed the evidence for all hillforts throughout Britain and Ireland. Sites are linked to the Atlas from both the Highland HER and Canmore.  

Some PhD theses are available from the ADS or individual universities, though many universities have long embargo dates to allow for the publication of the research presented in the thesis. The EThOS database run by the British Library provides a listing of over 500,000 works, but does not have fielded searching capabilities.  Ideally it might be possible to sort by region, chronological period, site/artefact type, author and keyword. This would be a useful facility, and for the Highlands, could be incorporated or linked to from the HER.

Other unpublished but useful research work and databases of Highland material include works on late Neolithic and early Bronze Age pottery from the Highlands (Scholma-Mason 2018), Food Vessels in the Highlands (Innes 2019), Iron Age pottery (McIlfatrick 2013), Iron Age iron production (Cruickshanks 2017), Iron Age non-ferrous metalworking (Heald 2005), early medieval and medieval bone and antler working (Ashby 2006), post-medieval settlement (Adamson 2014), Industrial archaeology in Sutherland (Calder 1974) and environmental studies in Caithness and Sutherland (Sybenga 2020).