6.4.1 Food, Farming and Diet

It could be speculated that, in the Bronze Age, quite sophisticated farming economies developed. Some areas might have concentrated on livestock and specialised in meat production but may have needed to import grain, whereas others relied on grain cultivation. The challenge is finding the evidence to sustain this level of analysis at a generational timescale.

Cultivated Food

In general, evidence from the Early Bronze Age sites in Scotland show an intensification of agriculture, despite evidence of worsening climatic conditions, as the period advances (Tipping 1994). Evidence from the Highlands comes from a variety of sites, but only at Lairg (ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project) has there been a large landscape investigation (as detailed in Chapter 6.3). In general terms, barley was the main grain grown. Wheat and oats are known but are less common. Further investigation is needed.

At Lairg, six-rowed barley predominated in the Bronze Age carbonised seed record, but as there was little chaff, and relatively scant evidence for cereals in the pollen record, the team could not correlate the evidence for tillage with local cereal production (Tipping 2015, 109). Although poor preservation may be a factor (Holden 1998, 169–70), there remains a crucial and still unanswered question: during the Bronze Age, did specialised cereal farming develop, and was processed grain imported into pasture areas? If local cereal production cannot be proven, other arguments need to be considered. McCullagh (2011, 153–4) argued that the relatively poor soils at Lairg only permitted agricultural use in the Bronze Age through constant ploughing and manuring, and that the Bronze Age practice of manuring deserves far greater attention.

Unusually, the Middle Bronze Age roundhouse at Home Farm, Portree, had virtually no cereal remains. This is in contrast to most round house sites and suggests it may have had a non-domestic function. In contrast, the ring ditch of the Late Bronze Age roundhouse at the same site had well preserved remains consisting mainly of barley with occasional oat. Barley chaff fragments were found in the fill of the ring ditch; a rare survival from Scotland. This suggests that the grain was being dried as whole ears. There is ethnographic evidence for scorching ears of grain over a fire to assist threshing which suggests that grain was probably processed only in small quantities when needed (Hastie 2013, 50–1).

Aside from pollen remains showing evidence of what crops were grown, a few sites have identified Bronze Age ard marks. At Skaill in Caithness, the ard marks predate an Early Bronze Age burnt mound (MHG62040; Cavers et al 2016). At Cnoc Stanger near Reay, also in Caithness, machair soils were cultivated, and the traces of ard marks were interpreted by the excavator as resulting from human traction rather than animal. There was evidence of manuring with domestic midden material including cooked animal bone, seaweed and shells (Mercer 1996). At Lairg, there was also evidence of the constant improvement of soil fertility (McCullagh 2011).

A Middle Bronze Age grain drying kiln was found at the Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works (MH60799; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW); a very rare find for the Bronze Age. Large lumps of charcoal suggest that some form of drying platform was above the fire pits. It was primarily used for barley, although small amounts of wheat were found. Interestingly, the barley was mainly naked barley, which is generally associated with Neolithic sites. The transition from naked barley, so common in the Neolithic, to hulled barley occurred during the Bronze Age to Early Iron Age in Scotland (Fraser 2014, 64–5) and needs further investigation.

Domesticated Animals

In Scotland as a whole archaeologists have evidence of sheep, cattle and pigs in the Bronze Age (ScARF Bronze Age section 3.1). The evidence from the Highlands specifically remains to be gathered. On acidic soils upon which Bronze Age settlement more generally occurs, bone does not survive except as burnt fragments and micro-fragments although there is potential for bone survival in rarer deposits of limestone and calcareous gravels. At Lairg, routine sampling of tilled soils and house sediments offered the potential for understanding the role of animals and their waste products. At the time, it proved impossible to identify the almost microscopic fragments with species, and analysis was not pursued. Minute burnt bone is probably present on and around most settlements, but its recovery remains expensive, and analysis is often not taken forward. Its potential remains unknown.

The unusually well-preserved cist burial at Langwell (MHG51530; Lelong 2014; Case Study Langwell Cist Burial) contained the remains of the complete skin of a mature brown cow. Among the preserved hair were the remains of parasitic mites (Eulaelaps stabularis). While there are several explanations for their presence, one possible way the mites got onto the live cow was from byre debris. If this was the case, it would provide evidence that cattle were being kept indoors during the Early Bronze Age. In several of the buildings at Lairg (eg House 2) slab floors had been laid into erosion hollows and may have been intended as a remedy for the ill-effects of heavy hoofed animals. If the practice of stalling cattle in byres can be proven, then it would fall into the growing list of agricultural innovations that occurred within the Bronze Age, along with extensive field manuring as identified at Tofts Ness, Orkney (Guttmann et al 2004).

The Bronze Age ScARF section questioned whether there was any evidence for horses in the Bronze Age. A horsehair hat, found in peat near Kirtomy, Sutherland, was dated to 1127–931 cal BC and provides, along with a composite object of horse hair, cattle hair and wool from Sheshader, Lewis, the earliest evidence for domestic horse in Britain and Ireland (MHG60588, Sheridan et al 2014).

Hunting and Gathering

As noted above, the predominantly acid soils of the Highlands have had a detrimental effect on survival of bone, which means that evidence of hunting only survives where conditions are favourable. There are, however, numerous finds of barbed and tanged arrowheads (Map 6.5) suggesting that hunting was part of Bronze Age subsistence, although bows and arrows could have been used in interpersonal violence. Wild food is also represented in some studies. Hazelnuts are often more ubiquitous than hazel pollen due to the good preservation of charred shells. Further work is needed to bring this information together, to link it to settlement information, and to determine whether any chronological or regional trends can be identified. It is also possible that the constant focus on domestic sites leads archaeologists to miss evidence outside of this context.

Five arrowheads arranged in an arc.
Barbed and tanged arrowheads from the Dornoch Nursery cist burial. ©Michael Sharpe

Fishing and Shellfish Gathering

Fish bones are particularly fragile, surviving only where conditions are favourable, and their recovery during excavations depends on the sampling and sieving strategy adopted by the excavators. There is little evidence at all of fishing, despite a general coastal distribution of sites. At Navidale, Sutherland, stone weights were interpreted as possibly for fishing, but this was mainly due to the coastal location of the site (MHG10284; Dunbar 2007).

Overall Diet

Isotope analysis is beginning to reveal the diets of Early Bronze Age people. From studies in Scotland and elsewhere, their diet was overwhelmingly terrestrial, with little or no use of marine resources despite the availability to coastal populations (Parker Pearson et al 2019, 428–9; Curtis and Wilkin 2019). A young female (‘Ava’), buried in the Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age at Achavanich in Caithness, ate a terrestrial rather than marine diet. Ava was also lactose-intolerant, though probably ate dairy as well as meat, and was buried with a shoulder of beef (Hoole et al 2017; Case Study Ava Bronze Age Burial). The young female, aged 25 to 29, buried in a cist at Langwell, Sutherland, also had a diet high in animal protein, which possibly includes freshwater fish; she probably grew up locally (Lelong 2014; Case Study Langwell cist burial). A human tooth found in the midden at Sand, Wester Ross, dating to 2040–1730 BC belonged to an individual aged four to eight who had a twenty percent marine diet (Schulting 2009). More data exist and should be brought together for the Highlands.


Case Study: The Lairg Project


Case Study: Fortrose and Rosemarkie WWW


Case Study: Langwell Cist Burial


Case Study: Ava Bronze Age Burial


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