3.8 Conflict: Multiperiod Factors

Warfare is often very difficult to demonstrate from archaeological remains this depends on skeletal evidence of trauma, construction of defences, concentrations of weapons suggesting the aftermath of a battle, depictions of what is interpreted as war-like activities and distinctive local weaponry. But without written documentation, it is still not possible to conclusively attribute the evidence to warfare (ScARF Bronze Age section 5.3). Non-physical violence is virtually impossible to document in the archaeological record.

The Highland topography clearly had a role to play in identifying strategic areas which, in time of conflict could come under attack. Fortifications along the Great Glen occur from prehistory onwards.

The reasons behind conflict are many, and often beyond archaeology to prove. In prehistoric times, given the evident investment in the construction of arable land and domestic architecture, it seems hard to imagine a system by which these were achieved outwith the institution of ownership. If the latter was a feature, then so was inheritance. The passing of ownership to a selected receiver is one of the processes most reliably likely to instigate complaint, disagreement and conflict. Thus while we find almost no evidence for violent conflict, we have ample evidence for potential causes. If the cause exists, and yet the very probable conflict did not move on to physical violence then we have to assume that there was some social mechanism for dispute resolution. It is therefore sensible to prospect for prehistoric meeting places or ritual sites to which litigants might go for judgement.

Oblique aerial photograph of a green outlet of land, surrounded by a narrow beach and water. The image shows the elevation of structures from the green, well trimmed grass, with a surrounding wall and angular ramparts. Within the ramparts are rows of rectangular buildings, themselves with a central court area. The walls and structures are all very angular, many forming triangles and angled alcoves within the rampart walls.
Aerial view of Fort George, Ardersier. ©HES

Many conflicts have arisen as reaction to migration. Both now and in the historical past, migrants are often not welcomed. Should we expect, therefore, that with the evidence from aDNA and stable isotopes for incoming people we ought to expect to see evidence of violence? The relationships of incoming people, in the Early Neolithic, Bronze Age, Viking period and medieval period still remains to be fleshed out in the archaeological record as it is hampered by the incomplete data. Even in the historical period, however, we must remember that history is often written by the victors.

The historical period also provides many examples of conflicts large and small, including the extension of lowland Scottish crown authority in the medieval period, clan warfare, battles taking place during English invasions, the 17th-century civil wars and of course the Jacobite risings (see Chapter 10.8). Landscape and topography are important factors within conflict archaeology.

Military and engagement warfare can be shown to have influenced social change, including how people lived their lives in the post-medieval period (MacKillop 2002; 2012); this likely applies to earlier periods as well.