3.4 Daily Life: Multiperiod Factors

A number of different types of environmental analyses can provide information on the way people lived. For example, analysis of insect remains provides insights into cleanliness and disease. Since certain insects are only related to certain trees or vegetation, or are sensitive to temperature, evidence of different species can also provide insights into vegetation and climate. Almost no studies involving insects have been done in the Highlands, providing much potential.

While hearth residues have been examined for industrial sites, few domestic examples have been sampled. However, these can be hugely informative about fuel use practices along with resource pressures and management strategies in the landscape around a site. This data is also an important as a proxy for environmental change.

Maintaining soil fertility was important through the ages. Human intervention, for example spreading midden material or recycling old turf from buildings, needs further attention, both in rural and urban settings (Oram 2011b).  Was movement of communities related to declining soil quality? It is worth noting that historic evidence shows that in some cases populations were not free to move, highlighting how human political reasons can be an issue. Soil erosion is another important factor which is rarely assessed. With so few field systems discernible until the historic period, it is difficult to assess whether an infield/outfield system existed. The investigations at Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998), Clava Cairns (Bradley 2000) and High Pasture Cave (Birch et al forthcoming) looked into soil issues for the prehistoric period; later Highland examples include Robertshaven, Caithness (Simpson and Barrett 1996); Hilton of Cadboll, Easter Ross (James et al 2008), and medieval Highland burghs (Oram 2011b), all show potential. Ross’s (2015) pioneering work on dabhaichean or davochs needs to be linked to landscape survey and ground-truthing at documented sites. Undoubtedly more work can be done, all requiring good environmental studies. Auger surveys may throw light on the distribution and identification of human-enhanced soils around settlements.

Plant pollen and macrofossils provide the main evidence for what food was grown or gathered. A fair amount of information is available throughout the Highlands, though it has not been pulled together in one place. Good dating is essential in order to discern changes and trends and reports need to be sure to provide detailed chronological phasing.

Cereal pollen analysis is clearly important for assessing changes from woodland to cultivated land and evidence of diet over the years. As noted above, it is also important for evidence to be taken close to the settlement sites. Tipping (1994, 19–20) cites the need for careful identification of cereal grains, dismissing for example, the Mesolithic grains at Loch Pityoulish in Strathspey.

The introduction of cereals in the Highlands appears to broadly mirror the rest of Scotland. Barley, first naked then hulled, is the first main crop along with some wheat (Bishop et al 2009). Later oats, rye, spelt and flax appear. Further work needs to be done in the Highlands to determine when new crops such as rye and spelt were introduced and where they first appear, and to attempt to create insights into why these new crops were chosen.

However, there is much variability, and the situation is not at all straightforward. Some seeds such as oats may be from weed rather than cultivated plants. The presence of chaff is important, as it indicates processing on site, but it only survives if preservation is good. Isotope analysis has potential in the future to help identify different sources along with information on manuring and arable practices. At Lochloy, Nairn there is some evidence that the crops were manually uprooted, although the dating is not secure (Timpany 2007).

Researchers should avoid simplistic views of subsistence economies, recognising that different conditions, climatic, personal and political, can influence a local situation. Ard marks suggest cultivation but cannot tell us if cereals were the intended crop, especially if the evidence is not supported by environmental science analyses. The presence of chaff is a better indication, but only survives if conditions are favourable. From an early date there is evidence of movement of goods and ideas, and importation of cereals is a possibility, though difficult to prove.

There is also scope for exploring post-medieval cultivation in more depth, as this period is often ignored. Possible areas for research are highlighted in Chapter 10.4.1.

Lipid analysis on pots and other artefacts can also provide information on diet. This is starting to yield interesting results, for example at Clachtoll Broch (Case Study Clachtoll Broch), and should be undertaken more widely.

Pollen and macrofossils also provide evidence of the collection of wild foods. More work could be undertaken on this evidence. For example, why are hazelnuts found less often in later than earlier prehistoric sites? Is this a choice of more cultivated food for the diet, related to clearance, or both? (see Stevens and Fuller 2012).

Preservation of bone is an issue in the acid Highland soils. As a result, those sites with good preservation need to be paid special attention and promising sites need to be targeted. Disease in animals has mainly been looked at in historic periods where there is documentary evidence. However, animal health is critical for people, both for their foods and ancillary crafts (Oram 2014, 229). More work needs to be done on Scottish and Highland material where animal bone survives.

While the lack of surviving occupation levels is a feature of many prehistoric sites, with therefore most attention having been focused on the structures, floor surfaces where surviving hold great potential to provide information about the activities undertaken by the users of the building. They can cast light upon the varying functions of the buildings, for example domestic versus craft production or storage. They are also good for pollen and insect sampling which can provide habitation evidence. However, sediments within a structure have to be regarded with suspicion and may not derive from the activities of the dwellers or users of the building. For example, no Bronze Age floor surfaces have been identified with any certainty in Highland Scotland, but the examples from the Iron Age in Galloway (Cavers and Crone 2018), Viking Age houses (Milek et al 2014), a medieval building in France (Broderie et al 2020) and 19th-century Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) offer some insights.

The excavations of House 9 at Lairg (dating to the early 19th century) identified floor surfaces, but subsequent soil micromorphological work demonstrated that, in the main, these internal sediments were almost certainly derived from a phase when the buildings was in an advanced state of decay (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 63). It is likely that most internal activities are erosive and do not lead to sediment accumulation, except where there are obstacles to access, for instance around the hearth or under the eaves.

Because genuine floor sediments have an inherent rich potential for environmental and artefactual information there has to be a high evidential bar to exclude flawed analyses and false data. Analysis is still progressing, but it now seems unwise to regard floor sediment accumulation and preservation as simple processes that can be identified simply and understood easily (see also Cavers and Crone 2018). In the Highlands, Clachtoll Broch holds out good promise for detailed floor levels (see Chapter; Case Study Clachtoll Broch).

In the chronological chapters, diagnostic objects for each period are highlighted. However, many objects are long-lived and not diagnostic, and therefore dating is difficult. Archaeologists need information compiled on examples in well-dated contexts which can then help to identify trends and dating. This should be done at a national and regional level. Artefacts which would benefit, and for which the Highlands have good contexts, include quernstones and spindle whorls. More work needs to be done on identifying lithics. Most are found in topsoil, which means that mechanical stripping before development places many of these at risk unless soil is sieved. However, they represent fieldwalking opportunities. We need more people able to analyse this material, which could involve training volunteers.

Picture of four querns and a stone bowl on a rectangular table which is covered in a brown linen tablecloth with three bunches of hay to the top and right of the table. The four querns are all varying shades of grey, and are different sizes, although all are of the same shape (circular discs with a round hole in the centre.
Querns from Dingwall Museum Courtyard. ©Alasdair Cameron

The Iron Age section in the National ScARF highlighted the need for a better understanding of how major categories of material culture were used, including bone and coarse stone tools. There is need for more attention to use wear, context and analysis of residues, including through integrating experimental archaeology work (ScARF Iron Age section 7.2). Some work has been done in the Highlands (Birch 2009a) and museum collections provide a wealth of material to provide further analysis.

The Highlands have a rich intangible culture. There is a rich tradition of storytelling, in English and Gaelic, that sometimes can be linked to historical documents (eg medicine, medicinal plants, cures and charters, see Beith 2000) or places. Some traditional stories may hint at research potential in landscape studies. There is a similar potential within oral history and Gaelic literature to stretch our understanding of how people in the past perceived their own surroundings, society and their life challenges, and to inform our science-based reconstructions with a greater warmth of humanity (Chapter 10.1.1).

Gaelic culture and language in many ways saw one of its golden eras in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the reduction in the numbers of speakers was not gradual or unavoidable – it was a sudden and severe loss that was brought about by intentional policy. For most of the medieval and post-medieval periods the majority of the Highland population was Gaelic speaking, though by the end of the 20th century everyday use of the language was restricted largely to communities in the islands and the west of the region. The rich oral tradition, recorded from the 17th century onwards, but particularly rich for the 18th and 19th centuries, sheds light on Highland society, particularly in a time of great change. There is an extensive written literature (print books in Gaelic appear almost at the same time as those in Scots and English) as well as a strong oral tradition, much of which is also recorded.

This resource has seen few links with archaeology, in part because only a small portion has been translated into English and few archaeologists and historians have the language skills at present to engage with the material in the original Gaelic (Grant 2014). Culture and language are central to the perception of landscape and the shape of daily life, and therefore differences may be discernible in the archaeological record between areas and over time (see Webster 1999). 

Historically, many authors from the folk life tradition have recognised that cultural traditions are intertwined with almost all craft practices, elements of everyday life, and indeed landscape use (Grant 1961; Fenton 111999; Fenton and MacKay 2013). There is a significant amount of work that has been done since 2000, largely but not wholly, in the Western Isles linking Gaelic oral tradition, culture and archaeological sites, landscapes, and assemblages (Webster 1999; Symonds 1999a; 1999b; 2000; Lelong 2000; Given 2004; Mackie 2006; 2008; Grant 2017). These include investigations of illicit stills (Bratt forthcoming) and the post-medieval kelp industry in South Uist which is, by analogy, pertinent to the Highlands (Grant 2014; 2019), as well as research into understanding the experience of displaced Gaels on the north coast (Lelong 2007). Project AMBER is investigating pre-dam biodiversity in Glen Garry, an area flooded by hydro schemes, in part uses Gaelic sources; it is a good example of a multi-disciplinary project which incorporated heritage. There is scope for much more, including incorporation of environmental science approaches.


Case Study: Clachtoll Broch


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