The use of metal and the knowledge of how to obtain and work it was one of the key novelties introduced to Britain and Ireland by the ‘Beaker people’ from the Continent during the 25th century BC. The use of metalwork was to have a significant social and economic impact on the Highland Region. This is particularly true for the Early Bronze Age when the ‘Migdale-Marnoch metalworking industry’, developed in the region. It used copper imported from Ireland and tin that almost certainly originated in Cornwall and/or Devon (Coles 1969; Needham 2004). The process of metalworking is covered in Chapter 6.5; this section will focus on describing the range of artefacts in use and the ways and locations in which they were deposited.
The overall typochronology for Scottish Chalcolithic and Bronze Age metalwork outlined in the National ScARF Bronze Age report (Chapters 2.2 and 4.5) generally holds true for the Highland Region. And, thanks to a series of studies undertaken over the last 60 years, a corpus of the metal objects found in this region can be assembled to provide a fairly comprehensive picture of its Chalcolithic and Bronze Age metalwork. The previous studies include Coles’ period-specific catalogues of Scottish metalwork from the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age (Coles 1969), Middle Bronze Age (Coles 1964) and Late Bronze Age (Coles 1960) published in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, together with more recent studies of axeheads (Schmidt and Burgess 1981; Boughton 2015), daggers (Gerloff 1975), rapiers (Burgess and Gerloff 1981; O’Connor and Cowie 1995), swords (Colquhoun and Burgess 1988, Cowie and O’Connor 2007), spearheads (Davis 2012; 2015), and gold objects (Taylor 1980; Eogan 1994; Needham and Sheridan 2014). The nature and significance of the ‘Migdale-Marnoch industry’ was discussed in an important study by Needham in 2004 .
The earliest Chalcolithic metal objects were flat axeheads and halberds of copper made using copper imported from the mine at Ross Island in southwest Ireland (Needham 2004). Elsewhere in Scotland, and in Britain and Ireland more broadly, the Chalcolithic metal repertoire included tanged copper knives and daggers, as at Inverurie (Cowie 1988), and copper awls, though no example of these artefact types has yet been found in the Highland Region. Of late Chalcolithic or earliest Bronze Age date are the gold-capped copper rivets on the wristguard found in a Beaker-associated male cist at Culduthel (MHG3776; Woodward and Hunter 2011, no. 79; material confirmed as copper through XRF analysis by National Museums Scotland).
Copper axeheads have been found in an unspecified location in Caithness (MHG18491); Rosemarkie, Black Isle (MHG16090); Balchraggan, Inverness-shire (MHG59067); Glenelg, Wester Ross (MHG5287); and possibly Glen Urquhart on the Great Glen (MHG2669; Needham 2004, fig 19.4). Map 6.2 shows all Chalcolithic and Bronze Age axeheads found in the Highland Region and more details can be found in Datasheet 6.2. The distribution of halberds, which, as Needham has argued, continued to be produced in copper after bronze started to be used around the 22nd century BC, is shown in Needham’s 2004 publication as well (fig 19.13).
The Early Bronze Age metalwork repertoire was somewhat wider. More details about other metalwork finds in the Highlands can be found in Datasheet 6.3. In addition to axeheads and the occasional halberd, there were daggers, awls, razors (from around 1800 BC) and a remarkable assemblage of jewellery and dress accessories found in a hoard at Migdale; this hoard is summarised below and described in the Case Study The Migdale Hoard. With the exception of the rivets from Migdale, one or two copper halberds and perhaps a very few flat copper axeheads, the metal used was bronze. Some of the Migdale-type flat bronze axeheads were embellished by being ‘tinned’, where the tin gave the axeheads a silvery colour. As for the use of gold, the gold-capped copper rivets in the Culduthel wristguard, the dates of which straddle the Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age transition, have been mentioned above. No examples of a gold lunula or gold basket-shaped ornament have been found in the Highland Region, although a lunula and a pair of basket-shaped ornaments were found not far from the southeast boundary of the Highland Region at Orbliston in Moray (Paton 1869; Taylor 1980, pls 3f and 17b; Clarke et al 1985, 269–70, fig 5.19).
- two flat bronze axeheads, one of which had been tinned to give it a silvery appearance
- six V-perforated buttons of cannel coal or shale
- a pair of decorated ribbed bronze ‘armlets’, which could conceivably have been worn as anklets
- two sets of three bronze bangles, graded in size
- one basket-shaped hair ornament of bronze and a fragment of what had probably been its pair
- at least 40 tubular sheet-bronze beads
- five conical sheet bronze mounts
- an embossed sheet-bronze mount
The beads and mounts may well have been sewn onto a garment such as a hat, as suggested by the small perforations in the conical mounts. A piece of willow, used as a stiffener for the tubular bronze beads, has been radiocarbon-dated to 2282–1787 cal BC (Sheridan 2002).
Bronze razors have been found in funerary contexts accompanying cremated human remains; one example is the local-style cinerary urn found at Balnalick, Glen Urquhart (MHG2673; Grant 1888; Clark et al 2017, 25, no. 60). Elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, where the sex of the skeleton found with the razor has been determined, it has been male. At Ness Gap, Fortrose, however, two possible razors were associated with remains identified as ‘possibly female’ in one case and ‘probably female’ in another; the razor associated with the probable female is thinner than normal razors (Cowie and Sheridan 2020).
The Middle Bronze Age metalwork repertoire featured flanged axeheads, palstaves, and socketed spearheads of bronze. A single dirk (long dagger or short sword) was also found at Abernethy, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG4557; Coles 1964, 145). The axeheads are generally found as single finds and are sparsely distributed through the Highland Region when compared to the findspots for central and southern Scotland (Schmidt and Burgess 1981). John Coles’ (1964) corpus also included decorated razors. Their inclusion as Middle Bronze Age artefacts depends on how one defines the period chronologically; in the present context, they are counted as being Early Bronze Age.
Hoards of metalwork deposited during this period are rare in Scotland (Coles 1964), and the only metalwork objects from a Highland Middle Bronze Age hoard are a spearhead found with a bronze socketed hammerhead and a bronze anvil from Inshoch Wood, Nairnshire (MHG7060; Coles 1964, 117). The only other bronze anvil to have been found in Scotland was found at Kyle of Oykel, Sutherland, also in the Highland Region (MHG10068; Coles 1964, 118). A Middle Bronze Age gold bar torc was found at Milton of Leys, Inverness (MHG3789), but was subsequently lost, although a facsimile in lead was made in the 1850s. It is worth noting that a gold ribbon torc, found at Loch Broom (MHG7836) and included in John Coles’ list of Middle Bronze Age artefacts, is in fact almost certainly of Iron Age date.
The Late Bronze Age bronze metalwork repertoire in the Highland Region featured tools, weapons and ornaments: socketed axeheads, socketed spearheads, leaf-shaped swords, socketed knives, a socketed gouge, sunflower-headed and cup-headed pins, two penannular bracelets, a cup-ended ornament (probably a dress fastener) and various rings (Coles 1960). Some of these objects were probably associated with horse harness and others with cauldrons or bucket-shaped bronze vessels. Other types of Late Bronze Age bronze artefacts are known from elsewhere in Scotland; shields, complete vessels and flesh-forks have not been found in the Highland Region.
Swords are relatively numerous, with examples found at Culloden, Inverness-shire (MHG3015, Clark et al 2017 no. 1260); Fendom Sands, Easter Ross (MHG8521, Clark et al 2017, no. 125), Lynegar; Caithness (MHG51808); Forse, Caithness (MHG1847); Moss of Lyndale, Skye (MHG5820); Waternish, Skye (MHG4838); elsewhere on Skye (four examples; MHG13874; Cowie and O’Connor 2007, 327–8); Ardintoul, Lochalsh (MHG9234); and on Muck (MHG3982). A hoard found at Point of Sleat, Skye, contained a sword along with a socketed knife, a cup-headed pin and two socketed spearheads (MHG5197; Coles 1960, 111–2). Another sword was found at Loggie (Loch Broom/Inverbroom), Wester Ross (MHG7828), not far from the findspot of a swan’s neck sunflower-headed pin on the southwest side of Loch Broom (MHG7809: Coles 1960, 53). Swords were also being made outside Inverness (Cressey and Anderson 2011). The number of sword finds is striking as is their geographic spread in the Highland Region.
The sunflower- and cup-headed pins can be paralleled in Ireland and, in the case of the former, in north Germany (Coles 1959). In addition to the aforementioned examples from Point of Sleat and Loch Broom, pins, all of sunflower-headed type, have been found in a hoard at Dingwall (MHG9050; Clark et al 2017 no. 138) and near a round house at Dores (MHG59165; Clark et al 2017 no. 139). Moreover, a shaft of a swan’s neck sunflower-headed pin was found at the An Corran rock shelter on Skye (Cowie in Saville et al 2012, 42–43; Case Study An Corran).
Finds of Late Bronze Age gold jewellery with strong stylistic links to Ireland in the Highland Region comprise penannular bracelets, cup-ended ornaments (probably dress fasteners), one penannular ‘lock ring’ (a sheet gold ornament with a triangular section) and several penannular rings of copper or copper alloy covered in sheet gold, which are sometimes referred to as ‘ring money’. The latter could have been worn in the hair or perhaps, in at least some cases, as nose rings. Several such penannular rings have recently been discovered through metal-detecting, with examples being found at Nairn (TT 03/19), Caithness (MHG60722), Cromarty, Black Isle (MHG60620), and Skye (MHG61232). An unusual pennanular ring with a ceramic core was recently discovered at Freswick, Caithness (MHG60722). That they had indeed been worn on the head is suggested by finds from Sculptor’s Cave, Covesea, Moray, where the penannular rings were discovered close to the remains of children’s skulls. One interpretation was that these children’s heads may have been suspended near the entrance to the cave (Benton 1931; Shepherd 2007; Armit and Büster 2020).
Hoards, be they of bronze or gold items, are a prominent feature of the Late Bronze Age. The aforementioned gold ‘lock ring’ was found along with a pair of penannular gold bracelets/armlets in a peat bog ‘in the West Highlands’ (Anderson 1886, 208–10). At Heights of Brae, at least eleven gold objects, of which nine survive, were found: three cup-ended ornaments that were probably dress fasteners, five penannular bracelets/armlets with expanded terminals and a corrugated sheet-gold band of uncertain function. These had a combined weight of 487.38g (MHG8921; Clarke and Kemp 1984; Case Study Heights of Brae Hoard). The penannular ornaments found in the Heights of Brae hoard, and similar examples from Skye (MHG61232), Hillhead, Caithness (MHG416; Gold object of the week No. 12: Late Bronze Age bracelets from Hillhead, Caithness ) and Kilmallie, Lochaber (MHG4170), are small and were perhaps for women or children.
Of particular note is the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age hoard found at Poolewe, which has been recently re-evaluated by Knight, Boughton and Northover (Knight et al 2021; Case Study Poolewe Hoard). It comprised five socketed axeheads in various states of completeness, including one with part of its haft surviving; three rings: a probable harness fitting, a cauldron ring handle, and a lost example of unknown form; and a bronze cup-ended ornament which may have been a fastener for a cloak. Radiocarbon dating of the axehead haft suggests that the hoard was deposited during the first half of the 8th century (ie the very beginning of the Iron Age). This indicates that the cup-ended ornament, which was probably made between 1000 BC and 800 BC, was old when it was deposited.
To conclude, metal objects would have been precious and valuable possessions throughout the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age, and they were used to underline the wealth and status of their owners. Some would have been prestigious weapons, while others were used as ostentatious adornments for the body and clothing; some would have been tools for everyday use. This last function is suggested by the discovery of the axe blade marks on some Neolithic pine stumps found at Loch Farlary (Tipping et al 2007b; 2008a) and Kilbraur, near Golspie (Timpany 2010, Case Study Environmental Investigations at Garbh Allt). At Loch Farlary, some probably belonged to a later Iron Age iron axehead, but curved-blade marks had probably been made by a Middle or Late Bronze Age bronze axehead. At Kilbraur it was possible to suggest that the same Bronze Age axe had been used on two trees. This chopping activity could have taken place during the cutting of peat for fuel.