8.1 Introduction

The National ScARF merges together the early medieval and medieval periods. The decision has been made to separate them into two periods, similar to the Regional Archaeological Research Framework for Argyll (RARFA) and future Regional Frameworks. There are very distinct factors at work in the period before and after the formation of the Kingdom of Alba by AD 1000, and much of the National ScARF Medieval section is weighted towards the latter part of the period.  

The volume edited by Noble and Evans (2019) pulls together much of the recent work on this period for the eastern Highlands, exploring written sources (Evans 2019) and funerary evidence (Mitchell and Noble 2019) though its geographical focus does not extend beyond Easter Ross. Ross (2011; 2015) discussed historical texts for Moray, which extended to the west coast. This publication provides a useful discussion of previous scholarship and the implications for land and religious organisation. For more historical summaries of the period the standard works are Fraser (2009) and Woolf (2007); see also RARFA (Campbell and Batey 2017, 8.2) and Foster (2014).  For detailed excavations and consideration of the period see the important excavation volume documenting investigations at Portmahomack which revealed a Pictish monastic site, and its later medieval settlement; it is the most comprehensive to date (Carver et al 2016; Case Study Portmahomack). For the Viking evidence, the survey by Graham-Campbell and Batey (1998) is out of date in places, but still useful; the forthcoming volume on Scottish Viking Age excavations should provide more up to date details (Horne et al forthcoming). The nature of this Viking impact in Scotland as a whole is summarised in the ScARF Medieval section 2.3.

The transition from the Iron Age to early medieval period is subject to some debate. An influential study (Hunter 2007) sees a major change in the 3rd century. Hunter proposed that changes in the Late Roman Iron Age had a profound effect on Iron Age societies and may have been instrumental in the development of what became the Early Medieval polities of this region. The withdrawal of Roman influence and goods clearly had an impact in southern Scotland, though it may have had less of an impact in the Highlands than other areas beyond the frontier (Hunter 2007). Changes certainly occurred in the 3rd century AD with the earliest reference to the Picts from the late 3rd century onwards. The Picts went on to dominate eastern Scotland and probably the Highland area until the 9th century. Changes in burials can be tentatively dated to this period, and a new religion certainly arrived by the late 6th century. Unlike the Iron Age, settlements are difficult to trace in most areas, though some continuity or reoccupation of Iron Age sites can be found.

By the 7th century the Pictish kingdom of Fortriu had emerged and the power of the north had been consolidated by Bridei’s victory at Nechtansmere. Once thought to be focused in central Scotland, Fortriu is now considered to be based around the Moray Firth (Woolf 2006). The extent of this kingdom, how far it stretched into the Highlands and whether it incorporated sub-regions is still unclear, but from the 680s and even possibly before, Fortriu appears to have dominated northern Pictland. One version of the Pictish king lists mentions Caithness as one of the seven sons of Cruithne, the Father of the Picts. The prefix ‘Cat’ is included not only Caithness, ‘the promontory of Cat’, with Norse ness, but also Sutherland, which is Cataibh in Scottish Gaelic, from i Cataibh, ‘among the Cats’. The same word, perhaps denoting the Cat-people, is found in the medieval Gaelic name for the Shetlands, Innse Catt, ‘Isles of the Cats’ (Watson 1926, 29–30, 117). By the end of the Pictish period in the later 9th century, the main power centres of Pictland appear to have moved south, and names such as Fortriu had disappeared from contemporary documents by the early 10th century (Evans 2019, 19ff, 28f).

Parts of the Highland zone were also part of another kingdom: Ardnamurchan and Morvern, formerly in Argyll but today part of southwestern Highland Council area. This area is considered to have been under the control of the Dal Riata Gaels who gradually, over the early medieval period spread throughout much of the Highlands. Current thoughts on the Dal Riata Gaels, their origins and major centres can be found in RARFA. The status and political affiliation of parts of the western Highland mainland and nearby areas such as the Western Isles are uncertain in the early medieval period.

Towards the end of the first millennium AD there were major changes, with the first Viking raids and settlements perhaps taking place from the 9th century. The Annals of Ulster record Viking raids to Fortriu in 839, 866 and 904 (Anderson 1990, Woolf 2007), and at Portmahomack an episode of burning and destruction around 800 has been linked to an undocumented Viking raid (Carver et al 2016, 285–6). In the last two centuries of the early medieval period, and certainly by the early second millennium AD, areas of Caithness and Sutherland were part of the Norse world, with the earldom of Orkney incorporating Caithness, Sutherland and possibly parts or all of Easter Ross.

Photograph showing a collection of silver artefacts, with a bundle of coins of varying sizes, all of which are tarnished and have taken on a dark grey to brown colour. In the foreground, highly polished silver items are seen, including small pieces of irregularly shaped silver. In the centre is a silver armlet, or bracelet, made of one, long piece of moulded silver. The items are photographed against a black background.
The Storr Rock Hoard, Isle of Skye, deposited c. 940, including 18 dirhams of the Samanid dynasty. ©National Museums Scotland

The Scandinavian power bases, and native-Scandinavian interactions in the western Highlands are difficult to document. The early evidence of contact is funerary, through the identification of Viking pagan graves. Evidence of settlement is lacking, as is the extent of Scandinavian influence, though place-names give a good indication of where Scandinavian speakers settled. Scandinavian rulership and influence continued into the medieval period with Caithness and Sutherland staying a part of the Norwegian kingdom until the later medieval period (see Chapter 9.1).

With regards to terminology discussing the Scandinavian presence, the term Viking is often applied to the initial raids and settlements which coincide with this period. The term Norse is used for the later settlement, and here will be applied after c 1000, and discussed in the medieval chapter (Chapter 9).

The excavations at Portmahomack (Tarbat) are a major source of evidence for the period, from the high status cemetery and workshops dating up to c 680 to the monastery in the 700s which appears to have suffered a disastrous raid around 800, followed by reoccupation shortly after, to continued activity in the 9th and 10th centuries (Case Study Portmahomack). This last activity could be related to new Scandinavian overlords or a native secular and/or ecclesiastical resurgence. No Scandinavian objects were found in the excavations, but towards the very end of the period, around 1000, a Viking silver hoard was hidden in a wall near the church (MHG8470; Carver et al 2016, 282ff). Pagan Viking graves just north of the Dornoch firth were found at Dunrobin and Ospisdale, suggesting settlers nearby (Graham-Campbell and Batey 1998, 68). Carver (et al 2016, 284–285) argued that Portmahomack, and indeed this entire area of Easter Ross, became a frontier area from the 9th century onwards.

Image shows a horizontal line of ten people, crouched and trowelling in a large, open trench. They are digging in a line, with three wheelbarrows behind them. The soil shows a range of features with light brown and dark brown soil. A line of white buildings can be seen in the background.
A trowelling line at Portmahomack. ©FAS Heritage/University of York

The expansion of the Gaelic speakers into much of the Highlands during this period is another difficult process to trace (ScARF Medieval section 2.2; RARFA 8.2). Ogham inscribed on the Pictish stones from Latheron, Caithness suggest some Gaelic speakers were in the region in the 8th or 9th century.

Parts of the Highlands are likely to have come under the control or at least influence of the Kingdom of Alba by the 10th century, although in areas like Moray control was only effective sporadically (Woolf 2007, 220–71; Ross 2011, 82–95). The frontiers of Alba, with the Scandinavian settlements and overlordship, are difficult to determine, and may have ebbed and flowed depending on local power struggles (Evans 2019, 27).

Written sources for the Highlands are generally sparse and much contested (RARFA Medieval Section 8.2, Evans 2019; Broun 2000; Ross 2011). Only with the few ogham, and in one case Latin inscriptions on sculptured stones do researchers have contemporary written language from the area. However, if the Pictish symbols do indeed denote names (Samson 1992; Forsyth 1997; Noble et al 2019), this undeciphered source survives in quantity. Place-name evidence has been much used to try and sort out cultural identities and influences, for example by Cox (1994) for the northwest and Bankier (2005/2006) for northern Argyll, but it is hampered by the fact most names are recorded for the first time in the 13th century.

Reliance on the much later saga evidence, particularly the Orkneyinga Saga, as historical texts, has been controversial, and recent works by Alex Woolf (2007 241ff) exploring the bias and reasons behind the saga should be noted. An interdisciplinary approach is essential, and caution is needed when corroboration is not possible.

In terms of archaeology, a significant amount of work has been undertaken on the Pictish sculpture which is a major defining characteristic of the period (see eg ScARF Carved Stone section 2.3; Henderson and Henderson 2004; Carver et al 2016, 123ff; Noble and Evans 2019, 119ff). Pictish burial evidence is now being actively investigated (Mitchell 2019; Mitchell and Noble 2019; Birch and Noble 2020), and James Graham-Campbell and Caroline Paterson are also running a project to reassess the evidence for pagan Viking graves evidence (see also Batey and Paterson 2012). Burials at Crosskirk broch and Learnie Cave illustrate just how diverse the burial practices were in the early medieval period. Settlements are still elusive, though a number of metalworking sites have been identified in recent years. The early Church has been extensively studied through the work of Martin Carver at Portmahomack which represents one of the most thoroughly researched monastic settlements of the period (Carver et al 2016). Few other church sites have been investigated to any level.

Photograph of a long, rectangular, symbol stone which stands vertically against a black background. The stone is a light brown to grey colour and the carving is done in relief. A border surrounds the edge of the stone, filled with curved decorations and celtic designs. The central area is split into three equal sections. The top section shows a cresent and v-rod symbol, with two circular designs below it, filled with intricate lines. The middle section depicts a battle scene, with men on horses. A small mirror and comb is carved in the top left hand corner of this scene. The bottom section is filled with curving designs, intertwined and swirling. The stone is incomplete at the bottom, with a metal plate holding it in place and completeing the bottom section of the design as it probably appeared originally.
The Hilton of Cadboll Cross Slab with decoration featuring a hunting scene; found at Hilton of Cadboll, Ross and Cromarty, 7th or 8th century AD. ©National Museums Scotland

Strengths and Weaknesses of Highland Material for the Early Medieval Period

Before suggesting research questions and recommendations, it is useful to identify the regional early medieval period strengths and weaknesses and to characterise these as either “within reach of a solution” (opportunities) or with no obvious solution (threats). Many of these relate to all periods, outlined in Chapter 3, and are relevant to this discussion.

  • Information gained from excavations at Portmahomack provides well-dated and comprehensive data for different periods and foci during this period. The information on the monastic settlement is of national importance, and allows for wide reaching comparison.
  • Important work on early medieval burials by Juliette Mitchell and Gordon Noble, the Rosemarkie Caves Project, the Tarradale Through Time project and the re-analysis of burials from Caithness brochs is at last allowing for an assessment of the range and nature of funerary practices in this period. Aerial photographs provide a number of possibilities for future research.
  • The evidence for the use of caves, primarily from the Rosemarkie Caves Projects, is shedding light on the mainly industrial use of these sites.
  • A large and growing number of metalworking sites have been identified for the period.
  • A large body of Pictish sculpture allows for detailed analysis and there is potential for integrating this data with other evidence.
  • A strong corpus of Viking hoards and stray finds, mainly from the Viking Age, has emerged from early improvements and antiquarian excavations that have taken place since the 18th century. The Viking silver hoards have been fully published (Graham-Campbell 1995), as has the finds assemblage from Freswick Links (Batey 1987).
  • Major works in progress include the Pagan Norse Graves of Scotland project, and the ongoing work on the material culture of the 9th-12th centuries, on mixed hoards like Rogart and Croy as part of the National Museums Scotland’s Glenmorangie Research Project.
  • Good environmental analysis at Freswick, combined with a dated core nearby, provides evidence of the landscape and crops, even if the actual settlement remains elusive. Further work could be undertaken in this area.
  • Although no high-status sites other than Craig Phadrig and probably Urquhart Castle have been identified so far, there are a wealth of hillfort and promontory sites in the Highlands which on analogy with Burghead, might provide further evidence of high status sites.
  • Active community projects, notably the Rosemarkie Caves Project and the Tarradale Through Time project, and active research projects, such as the University of Aberdeen Northern Picts project and the National Museum of Scotland Glenmorangie Research Project provide potential for new insights.
  • Evidence of settlement remains lean, and with that evidence of daily life. Building evidence remains elusive, with suggestions that turf was a major component, and making evidence difficult to find.
  • There is no structural evidence of early churches other than that at Portmahomack.
  • There are gaps in the record especially from Badenoch and Strathspey and Lochaber.
  • The high amount of antiquarian activity in Caithness particularly may have destroyed numerous settlement mounds and brochs while making little or no record of stratigraphy.
  • Much important work remains unpublished, for example the excavations at Applecross.
  • The growing corpus of metal detecting finds provides useful information for the period, but is not publicised widely.
  • There are a number of possible contenders for settlement and church sites that could be investigated (see 8.9), some of which are free of later construction.
  • Reappraisal of large assemblages, mainly midden material, excavated from brochs in the 19th century have the potential to reveal much more about Late Iron Age and early medieval settlement.
  • The corpus of Pictish sculpture allows for analysis in a number of directions. It could also be combined with good community projects to facilitate future work.
  • The high level of visibility and interest being leveraged by the Northern Picts project shows the real interest globally in these topics and the value of a high impact outreach element. There are tourism opportunities to be developed.
  • As in other periods, coastal erosion remains an issue, including at some promontory forts.
  • Many possible Pictish cemetery sites identified by aerial photography have no legal protection.


Case Study: Portmahomack

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