6.3.1 Landscape Patterns

During the Early to Middle Bronze Age there was expansion of settlement into the uplands of Scotland (ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Age section 3.3), with evidence of this expansion also available specifically for the Highlands (Chapter 6.2; Table 6.3 below). Whether this process started before 2000 BC is not known. The process has generally been interpreted in terms of population expansion from lower-lying areas; whether people were moving in from farther afield is unknown. Moreover, some of this expansion overlaps with evidence of climatic deterioration, as detailed in ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Age section 3.2 and Chapter 6.2, so the expansion took place despite increasing constraints. Further work in the Highlands is needed to provide further chronological, geographical and topographic details.

Challenges facing the farming communities of the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age include the steady expansion of blanket peat throughout the Highlands (Chapter 3.2; Chapter 6.2). At Lairg there was evidence for tillage, the removal of large stones, and the application of midden material as a fertiliser over a large area that was subsequently covered by blanket peat; conditions then favoured peat expansion. The application of middens may have been a response to the evident loss of soil depth through erosion (Carter 1998, 150–61; Chapter 6.2). This intensive, repetitive and presumably very costly investment of effort reflects both the challenges that the natural conditions imposed, and the scale of the human endeavour needed to overcome these challenges.

Another constraint in northern Scotland is aspect. North-facing slopes offer fewer advantages to present day settlement and land use, and we can assume the same rule applied during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age. Nonetheless, as the work at Kilearnan Hill in Strath of Kildonan, Sutherland, showed, such places were occupied in this period. Despite traces of earlier occupation, the main period of the settlement and land use was from about 1200 BC to 800 BC (McIntyre 1998, 200). It seems that in Strath of Kildonan, during a period when farming on the better land was increasingly challenged by environmental changes, less fertile land was exploited.

The site of Upper Suisgill, also located near Helmsdale in Sutherland but on the floodplain, contains good evidence for ploughed land pre-800 BC. It seems that rather than diminishing, the pressure for land during the later Bronze Age continued, and this obliged every opportunity to be taken in for agriculture.

Large excavation area in a field with five archaeologists working at the far end.
Excavations at Upper Suisgill, Area ll from the east, 1980. ©HES

It remains unclear whether the settlement changes as a result of climatic deterioration actually correlate to a reduction in population or land use or to a change in land use. Studies such as at the Garbh Allt catchment near Rogart, Sutherland (Case Study Environmental Investigations at Garbh Allt), suggest that Bronze Age people resiliently adapted to worsening conditions rather than retreating (Tipping et al 2007b; 2008a). The National ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Age section 2.2 advocated the need to clarify the complex interconnected history of settlement and land use during different periods of the Bronze Age; it is the particular quality of the Bronze Age archaeology in the Highlands that offers the chance to achieve this ambition.

One key impediment to understanding the histories of land use and settlement is the problem of discriminating between genuine absence and an absence of the relevant evidence due to subsequent erosion by later phases of land use. Evidence of Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age settlement in the Highlands is sparse (Table 6.3 below). Despite the pollen evidence for increased agricultural activity in this period, the burial evidence shows the presence of people over much of the Highlands (Chapter 6.6). At Lairg, there was good evidence that extensive Bronze Age ploughing had flattened and removed earlier structures. The project also produced good evidence for the extensive movement of soil downslope, with the result of masking and/or burying structures in the process. The probable destruction of Bronze Age sites by medieval and post-medieval land use and settlement on better lands is responsible for the survival of Bronze Age sites mostly in the present-day areas of rough pasture.

Rectangular excavation area with four baulk walls crossing it. Within the excavation trench an archaeologist excavates the footprint of a round stone building.
Excavations at Lairg, Achany Glen. ©HES

At the end of the Bronze Age around 850 BC, there appears to be a disruption in settlement (ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Age section 2.2). The settlement at Lairg appears to have been deserted by 1000 BC; Lairg has some of the best-dated archaeological evidence for abandonment in Scotland. It is interesting that the pollen record, however, is at odds with the other evidence for abandonment suggesting instead that there could have still been grazing at this date. Perhaps the settlement merely shifted elsewhere in the valley while extensive land use continued (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 208–9). If so, then perhaps the evidence points to a change in the structure of land holding in which the large houses of the Bronze Age were no longer required, or permitted, to be located among the farmed lands. Other sites, however, show evidence for late Bronze Age occupation (see Table 6.3 below).

There are still too few well-dated settlements in the Highlands to contribute to the debate on settlement types and upland versus lowland settlement patterns. Much of the discussion hinges on Lairg, but in the absence of comparable evidence from subsequent projects, the data from Lairg is unchallenged. One exception is the extensive survey, test-trenching and dating work undertaken in Strath Suardal on Skye by Wildgoose (2016). Of the 16 roundhouses dated, five provided Bronze Age dates: two are Middle Bronze Age and three Late Bronze Age. As Wildgoose noted, the results suggest intermittent occupation from the Early Bronze Age, with only three or four structures occupied in the Strath at any one time (Wildgoose 2016, 33).

Archaeologist excavating within a round impression in a field.
A hut circle at Suardal, Skye. ©Martin Wildgoose

The WeDigs project in Wester Ross took a similar approach to survey and sampling. Of the seven roundhouses dated, three had Bronze Age dates, all Middle Bronze Age (Welti and Wildgoose nd). Both this and the Strath Suardal project revealed evidence for clusters of hut circles, as was noted in National ScARF (Chalcolithic and Bronze Age section 3.3); both caution against seeing all of the structures as necessarily being contemporary. Further postgraduate work on the WeDigs data currently underway at UHI Orkney will also provide further information about the local environment.

The investigations at Lairg were important because they had a landscape emphasis rather than simply focussing on one house (ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project). Yet, even with a huge investment in radiocarbon dating for the time, it was still not possible to demonstrate which buildings were contemporary in use. Current re-examination of the radiocarbon dates using Bayesian modelling may provide more insights. 

The study of field systems also needs a landscape approach that requires extensive excavation. They are best understood when the fieldwork includes a strong palaeo-environmental element. Lairg was a good example of how Highland landscapes with dense evidence for settlement can appear structured in layout. When they were excavated, however, actual ‘field-systems‘ could not be identified. In general in Scotland, there is little evidence for coherent and formal parcels of fully enclosed land during the Bronze Age (RCAHMS 1990). Instead, at Lairg, sinuous accumulations of rubble along the downslope edges of very long-lived tilled ground were found. This must imply farmers separated cattle from tilled land by distance, season or some means of close control. At Belladrum near Beauly, excavations revealed evidence of Bronze Age drystone field walls (MHG56866; Hunter 2014a); this suggests that there is more evidence to be uncovered in well-dated research projects.

One of the major lessons learned at Lairg was that the stones accumulated at the edge of Bronze Age ploughed areas were seldom disturbed in subsequent periods. This meant that these stone accumulations sealed datable stratigraphies providing evidence of past land use through sequences of buried soils. In addition, several deposits of cremated remains were found inserted into these linear clearance heaps. In terms of cost-benefit, the excavation of field-edge clearance heaps was arguably a better source of information than any of the other recognisable structures, including dwellings.

While the evidence for Bronze Age parcelling of land is weak, there is good evidence for heavy investment of human energy into Bronze Age land use. Lairg revealed extensive examples of prehistoric rig and ard scarred subsoils (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 58–60), testifying to systematic soil preparation. The project’s bulk routine and micromorphology sampling recovered considerable evidence for manuring practices that would maintain or enhance soil quality. In the 1990s, when the Lairg post-excavation programme was underway, it was not possible to determine precisely how this evidence related to the adjacent Bronze Age buildings. The project also could not determine which crops were intended for this managed land. To some extent, the technical capacities of soil science have caught up with these unanswered challenges and the resolution of Lairg’s ambiguities is at hand.

Questions remain on whether there a was seasonal pattern to Bronze Age settlement (ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Age section 3.3). Little evidence from the Highlands has shed light onto these issues, yet the region retains an immense untapped capacity to address these issues through archaeology.

Buildings in the Bronze Age are discussed in chapters 6.3.2 and 6.3.3. However, many of the activities that seem closely related to roofed domestic spaces would probably have taken place outwith the building. Activities requiring good lighting which carried a risk of accidental fire or which broke some social taboo may always have been exiled to the house exterior; others may have been removed from the house at different seasons or even times of day. Very few excavations invest in the external areas of a building because these are so unpredictable in their nature, extent and location but, as Fairhurst’s investigation of post-medieval Rosal, at Strathnaver in Sutherland showed (Fairhurst 1968), Highland inhabitants subsisted by very broad-focus land use, and building interiors represent a small segment of this wide arc. By focussing just on the structures that we see in survey, archaeologists may be missing significant elements of the settlement evidence.

It is probably only possible to address such issues in large scale projects. This was attempted at Lairg, but there the emphasis was on developing a chronology of land use and settlement and not a characterisation of land use. Extensive topsoil stripping has occurred, for example on the many developments around Inverness, but the funding structure of such mitigation projects often militate against the investigation of the unknown or the atypical. As a result, archaeologists probably remain ignorant of many Bronze Age settlement activities.

Cnoc StangerCRoundhouseMBASeries of 7 roundhouses, not securely datedMHG747; Mercer 1996
SkaillCBurnt Mound, RoundhouseEBA MBARoundhouse built on site of burnt moundMHG62040; Cavers et al 2016
LairgSRoundhouses, enclosures, landscapec 1800– 1000 BCDating being re-evaluated. Some dykes and occupation layers may date to ChalcolithicMcCullagh and Tipping 1998; ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project
Connagill, Strath HalladaleSRoundhouseMBA and LBA occupationGood structural evidence and finds DatesMHG61678; Dagg 2014; Cathy Dagg Pers comm
Upper SuisgillSPosthole for roundhouseLBARepeated rebuildingMHG9345; Barclay 1985
Kilearnan Hill, Strath of KildonanSRoundhouse 2, Roundhouse 3, Burnt Mound1380–930 BC 1050–400 BC LBA  Internal postholesMHG9986; McIntyre 1998
NavidaleSRoundhouseMBAStone floor, drains, internal postholesMHG10284; Dunbar 2007
Bellfield, North KessockERRoundhouse, PitsMBAAwaiting publicationMHG58023; MHG53531; Hatherley and Scholma-Mason forthcoming
CulduthelIRoundhouse PitsMBA toLBA EBAPhase 7 and 8; Pits with beaker sherdsMHG56078; Hatherley & Murray 2021; Case Study Culduthel Iron Age Craftworking Site
West Link Road, InvernessIHearth,
Post-defined structure
MBA LBAAwaiting publicationMary Peteranna pers comm
Loch RaaWRRoundhouseMBA: 1529–1420 BCWeDigs projectMHG9126; www.wedigs.co.uk
Achtercairn 2WRRoundhouseLBA: 896–801 BCWeDigs projectMHG59292; www.wedigs.co.uk
Achtercairn 3WRUnder Roundhouse wallEBA: 1736–1716 BCDate from hearth is Neolithic.www.wedigs.co.uk
RhiconichNW SRoundhouseMBALater Early Historic use tooMHG12143; Donnelly et al 1997; Case Study Rhiconich
Allt na Garbhlain SkyeRoundhouseMBA MHG59527; Wildgoose 2016
Allt nan SuidheachanSkyeRoundhouseLBA MHG59629; Wildgoose 2016
An SitheanSkyeRoundhouseLBA MHG59702; Wildgoose 2016
Coille GaireallachSkyeRoundhouseMBA MHG59526; Wildgoose 2016
Home Farm Portree (Kiltaraglen)SkyePits, Ring ditchEBA toLBATwo enclosures, one EBA,and one MBA; MBA Roundhouse; LBA ring ditch’MHG51648; Suddaby 2013
Seafield WestISettlementLBACharcoal from posthole fill with LBA clay mouldsMHG3058; Cressey and Anderson 2011; Case Study Seafield Bronze Age Cemetery West
Nybster brochCRampartMBARampart phase 1MHG1593; Heald and Cavers 2012; Case study Nybster broch
An CorranSkyeRock shelter, MiddenChalcolithic, EBA and MBABone tools Chalcolithic/EBA; animal bone MBA; Multiperiod useMHG6497; Saville et al 2012; Case Study An Corran
SandWRRock shelter, MiddenEBAPrimarily Mesolithic site.MHG35892; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, SFS4; Case study Scotland’s First Settlers Project; Case study Sand
Coire SgamhadailWRCaveEBAShell midden in multiperiod caveMHG37258; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, SFS89a and b
Uamh an DòbhrainSCave with middenLBAMidden in multiperiod caveHardy and Estevez 2014
Mointeach Mhor, ArisaigLRock shelterMBAMultiperiod, episodic useMHG37955; Carter et al 2005, Site 8
Mointeach Mhor, ArisaigLOccupation layerMBASealed by peat; site later used in Early Historic period[SA32] MHG58041; Carter et al 2005, Site 6a
Ballachulish MossLStakes, Occupation layerMBA, LBAMBA stake worked, cut with metal axe. Overlain by peatMHG18008; Clarke 1998
Kinloch, RumRumOccupation layerChalcolithic and[SA33]  EBAPrimarily Mesolithic siteMHG3987; Wickham-Jones 1990; Case Study Kinloch, Rum
High Pasture CaveSkyeOccupation layerEBA and MBA1 NE of stairwell entrance: EBA 2. W of stairwell entrance: MBAMHG32043; Case Study High Pasture Caves; http://www.high-pasture-cave.org/
Slackbuie, InvernessIPitMBA MHG54071
Slackbuie Way, InvernessIPitsEBA to MBA MHG55807; Kilpatrick 2016
Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site)IPitsChalcolithic to MBACereal grains and hazelnut shellsEHG3271; Garry nd; Nick Garry pers comm; Case study Lower Slackbuie
FanellanIPitsMBA to LBACharcoal, burnt bone, ceramic sherdsMHG61055; Sneddon forthcoming
BalmakeithNPitLBADate from residue in cooking vesselMHG54304; McNichol 2011
LochloyNPostholeEBA MHG54241; Farrell 2007; Case Study Lochloy
LochloyNPitEBAHearth and pitEHG1049; Farrell 2004
Lochloy[SA35] NPitMBA MHG54244
Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWWERPitsMainly EBA to MBA Fraser 2014; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW
Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWWERGrain drying kilnMBA MHG60799; Fraser 2014 Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW
Table 6.3 Chalcolithic Bronze Age settlement sites with radiocarbon dates
All dates cal at 95.4% probability[SA38] . For full details of dates see Datasheet 2.1

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