3.1 Introduction

The Highland Council region is enormous, covering a third of the country and encompassing a staggeringly varied terrain from rocky cliffs, raised beaches and peaty moorland, to the firthlands, forests, mountains and straths, all framed by equally varied maritime spaces. The region also encompasses lowland areas, notably in the southeast, with good agricultural lands. NatureScot has provided good data on landscape character assessment. This is simplified in Map 3.3, with the intent of providing similar categories as other Regional Research Frameworks.

Map 3.3 Landscape character in the Highlands

The region called the Highlands today is based on a modern convenience and is not necessarily how people in the past would have identified with their area. A good case in point is the medieval period in the Highlands which had three main political divisions, each pulling in different directions outside the Highlands, and each changing as circumstances did (see Chapter 9). Borders are also artificial and changing, and modern analogies show how there is often more in common, and interaction across, borders than to far-flung administrative centres.

All of the current Highland region lies within the cultural zone of the Gàidhealtachd or Gaeldom (Newton 2009), and so there may have been commonalities in cultural and social engagements with the land and landscape from at least the post-medieval period across the region for that reason. Certainly there were cultural and social norms shared across the region by the people who lived there, which of course were highly dynamic and could be regional in nature.

The geology of the Highlands is varied, influencing choices of settlement, craft activity and transport routes. Overviews on Highland geology include British Geological Society regional guides (Johnstone and Mykura 1989; Emeleus and Bell 2005; Stephenson and Gould 1995), with additional resources signposted on the Scottish Geology Trust website and an interactive map on the British Geological Society website. Heddle (1901) is useful when trying to determine sources of raw materials. More collaboration with geologists would be useful, for help with identifying sources of raw materials and creating a better understandings of soil fertility.

Strontium-oxygen isotope analysis can provide an indication of where people and animals grew up (ScARF Science section 2.4). In the Highlands this is less useful than many other areas in Scotland due to the variety of geology in the region. This analysis can identify that people did not grow up in the place that they were buried but is often not able to suggest how non-local they were. This issue is discussed in a number of the chronological chapters.

The Highland region has around 21% (c 4900 miles) of Scotland’s total coastline. The Dynamic Coast project has assessed historic rates of coastline change for the 20% of Scotland’s coastline that is classified as soft. The Highland region is included in Coastal Cells 3 (Moray), 4 (North Coast) and 5 (West Coast). The Moray area is made up of over 50% soft coast and has experienced a 22% increase in the rate of erosion since the 1970s when compared to the period between 1900 and the 1970s. The north and west have lower proportions of soft coast, but have still experienced a small increase in rates of erosion since the 1970s (National Coastal Change Assessment). While this data is broad-brush, it is very useful to archaeologists and historians in understanding recent historic rates of coastline change.

For more detailed assessments of coastal heritage, four Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys (CZAS) have been carried out in the Highlands: East Sutherland (2010), the Inner Moray Firth (1998), North Sutherland coast (Kyle of Durness to Torrisdale Bay, 1998), and Ullapool to Lochinver (1996). Recently the SCAPE Trust has worked with Local Authority archaeologists and volunteers to update the CZA surveys to prioritise and update information about coastal heritage at risk. Results are available on an interactive map and all reports, including CZAS surveys, can be accessed on the SCAPE Trust website.  

Environmental evidence rarely respects the chronological framework of the Highland Regional ScARF. The overall picture and issues are discussed in this chapter, though detailed period evidence is discussed in the individual chronological chapters.

The situation in the Highlands was of course not static. For example human activity had a major effect on the land, from woodland clearance in prehistory to planting and replanting in more modern times. The focus on water management in historic times has resulted in large scale changes during the agricultural improvements of the 19th-century as well as the 20th-century hydro schemes. Michael Stratigos (2016; 2018) has researched post-medieval drained lochs using old mapping showing just how widespread and influential these practices were.

Dating is key to interpretation of the data. A number of studies have produced cores with radiocarbon dating. Many of these are published in scientific journals with little overlap into the archaeological community; more interdisciplinary works and collaboration would be fruitful. Some of these cores are from areas of human activity, but others are from areas with good sampling but little evidence of human settlement (see 3.2).

Dendrochronology has much to offer, providing detailed dates from the early medieval period onwards for pine along with floating chronologies for other periods and species. It can also offer information about species of wood, whether they are local or imports, and insights into climate issues (see Chapter 2). This material is a limited resource, and collection and proper storage should be required for all renovations and excavations, even if the samples are too small for current analysis. 

In addition to focussing on the multi-period environmental and settlement evidence, this chapter also looks at key areas of multiperiod evidence within the main HighARF subheadings of daily life, craft and technology, religion and ritual, transport and movement and conflict, especially as they relate to land and environment.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Highland Material Covering Cultiple Periods

Before suggesting research questions and recommendations (see 3.9), it is useful to identify the regional archaeology strengths and weaknesses and to characterise these as either ‘within reach of a solution’ (opportunities) or with no obvious solution (threats).

Strengths

  • Widely occurring deep peat basins offering whole-Holocene stratigraphies, with possibilities for detailed dating.
  • Good survival of pine stumps in peat bogs providing good data for future work on climate and woodland spread at a diverse local level.
  • Well-defined subregions (glens separated by mountains, sea lochs, etc).
  • Small, ancient calcareous geologies offering extraordinary preservation in places.
  • Abundant wetland and underwater archaeology sites, few having been explored.
  • Largely uninvestigated coastal and estuarine buried landscapes.
  • A rich mapped geology and soil classification.
  • Good information about relative sea level change, coastal processes, erosion and impact of these events on heritage for some areas.

Weaknesses

  • Almost ubiquitous acidic soils, a large number of which are highly podzolised leading to poorly preserved and/or adversely altered archaeological stratigraphies and organic artefacts record.
  • Knowledge gaps in some periods of chronology, domestic and non-domestic architecture, land use practices and strategies of resource acquisition, with little distinction between typical and atypical site types.
  • Over emphasis on ground survey without groundtruthing.
  • Too little collaborative working between environmental and geological scientists and archaeologists, resulting in many fieldworkers being unfamiliar of the soils they work in.
  • Poor or imbalanced sampling strategies, often undertaken following specific research agenda.
  • There has been very little engagement by archaeologists with material from Gaelic society about how Gaelic communities understood and engaged with land and landscape, and there has therefore been little effective consideration of the relationship between land and people. More interdisciplinary studies are needed, with, importantly, a need for greater co-production, where oral histories can contribute to better understanding of modern perceptions and past practices.
  • There are a relatively small number of multi-disciplinary landscape studies in the region overall, unlike other areas such as the Western Isles and Perthshire.

Opportunities

  • Projects combining pollen and archaeological chronologies, cross-linked by narrow-interval radiocarbon date sequences are possible for the region.
  • A large amount of excavated material and environmental samples have been collected, but they have not been analysed due to funding. This includes cores in freezers, boxes of charcoal etc; these need to be sourced.
  • Possibilities for investigations of close linkages between soil-type, geology and landuse through time, allowing us to predict good preservation and site survival.
  • Deep peat basins provide potential sources of organic artefacts and environmental evidence.
  • Sea level and loch level changes offer the real potential for the preservation of inundated or buried sites and landscapes.
  • More experimental archaeology projects can provide insights into human activities and the resulting remains which fieldworkers could encounter.
  • More work mapping oak and pine, as these species are growing at their limits in many Highland areas and are thus susceptible to climatic and other issues.
  • There is a significant resource in the form of the Gaelic tradition which has not been utilised by most archaeologists.
  • Long-term palaeoecology records can help present and future conservation management strategies (see Davies 2016; Sybenga 2020).
  • Training individuals and groups in scientific techniques for interpreting and sampling sites could provide much needed analyses in projects. In particular, this training could be built into some funding applications.

Threats

  • Climate change is a major threat, with implications for standing buildings and monuments as well as below-ground archaeology. This includes:
    • rising sea levels will increase rates of coastal erosion and increase the impact of storms.
    • spate erosion on water courses.
    • increased groundwater flooding and slope instability, leading to landslips.
    • loss of peatland to fires during prolonged drought periods.
  • Many of the conifer plantings of the late 20th century are approaching their cropping period. Mitigation of the planting phase was generally poor (eg few post-ploughing surveys). Much of the surviving landscape and site scale evidence will be vulnerable to both cropping and re-planting ground disturbance.
  • The emphasis on tree planting as mitigation of planning has potential to destroy large areas of archaeology, requiring the need for preplanting investigations.
  • Site destruction caused by bombing ranges or military training. This includes one of the most prolific beach sites in the Highlands (Fendom Sands).
  • Rabbits have been a threat to many Highland archaeological sites. Although less so in recent years as a result of a declining population due to virus (Bell 2019), they remain a threat, potentially a large one if numbers recover.
  • Changes in hydration, for example from draining lochs and conifer plantations, moving watercourses or drying out peatlands, can affect waterlogging of buried material. This should be kept in mind with future developments and assessments of sites.
  • Environmental samples from excavations allocated via Treasure Trove are not always kept or stored properly due to space constraints at archives/museums. This is an issue which is Scotland-wide.
  • Given that most lithics are found in the topsoil, mechanical stripping without sieving means many will be lost.

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