8.2 Environmental Evidence

Settlement remains are sparse in this period, and environmental evidence of agriculture and subsistence is therefore very important. While the focus of many environmental cores is the prehistoric period (see Chapter 3.2), in some cases they extend into the early medieval period (eg Davies et al 2004). To this picture can be added pollen investigations from some recent developer-led excavations.

As noted in previous chapters, peat formation varied greatly in the Highlands. There is evidence that peat cover was still expanding in the early medieval period in some areas, for example at Portmahomack (MHG8473; Carver et al 2016, 42) and Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). In many places, woodland cover had all but disappeared by this period (Tipping 1994, 37). Information from multi-period studies on climate, peat formation, woodland cover and sea level changes (see Chapter 3) needs to be brought together, with local and regional focus. The need for detailed local studies has been highlighted by the work in Glen Affric where in the early medieval period, three different sites show different peat coverage; peat encroachment can be seen at one site, there is increased cultivation at another and a mixed picture at a third (Davies et al 2004).

At Lairg, there was a significant renewal of activity in the landscape from around AD 450. The activity from agriculture and grazing together hindered woodland regeneration. Although no paleoclimatic data was available in this area of the landscape, elsewhere evidence suggests that by or within the 6th century there was a significant downturn in average temperature. At Lairg, blanket peat continued to spread in areas which were not cultivated. Towards the latter part of the early medieval period, fields were abandoned and blanket peat spread further, even directly on previously cultivated fields (McCullagh and Tipping 1998 210–211; ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project).

Good environmental analysis for the early period was undertaken at Brotchie’s Steading, Caithness (MHG46260). This site is unusual not only for its use of whalebone crucks in the post-medieval period, but also for its deeply stratified remains from the Iron Age to the present (see Case Study Brotchie’s Steading; Holden et al 2008). Nearby the multiperiod site of Freswick Links (MHG1669) and the peated areas in its vicinity were the focus of extensive environmental analysis in the 1980s, which provided good data on subsistence, plants and peat formation (Morris et al 1995, Case Study Freswick Links).

The Pictish settlement at Portmahomack was situated on a raised beach with marshy ground in a valley to the south. The earliest peat in the valley floor dated to 720–380 cal BC and the latest to between cal AD 600–760; vegetation evidence indicated a wetland environment which was drying out in the early medieval period. Good evidence of the plants and animals present in the period was obtained, allowing fine-tuning of the palaeoenvironmental record into the pre-monastic, monastic and post-monastic periods (Carver et al 2016).

At Lochloy (MHG145354) in Nairn, investigations carried out in advance of a housing development revealed multi-period occupation, including at least two grain kilns with barley from the early medieval period. Environmental analysis was undertaken, but much remains unpublished, and it is difficult to separate out the data for this period from other evidence (Timpany 2007; Case Study Lochloy, Nairn). There almost certainly exists environmental data for this period from Inverness, but much of it will be embedded in excavation reports.

The Bronze Age roundhouse at Rhiconich (MHG12142) in the northwest Highlands was re-used in the early medieval period and provides some welcome environmental data for this area (Case Study Roundhouse at Rhiconich). Birch remained the dominant wood, and blackthorn remains begin to appear in the archaeological record (Donnelly et al 1997). At the nearby Smoo Cave (MGH11597) complex, analyses provided evidence for the presence of a number of cultivated and other non-cultivated plants, coming from a range of habitats, together with charcoal which was mainly from birch, but also alder, hazel and willow (all tolerant of wet conditions) and small amounts of pine and spruce. The presence of oak and elm are probably evidence of either driftwood or imports.  Unfortunately dating and stratigraphic evidence do not allow detailed refining (Aldritt 2005; Pollard 2005; Case Study Geodha Smoo Cave Complex).

Photograph of an ongoing excavation showing two people trowelling, one in the foreground and one in the midground. The photograph shows a bright, sunny day. The site has large, white boulders throughout and is located at the bottom of hills, seen in the background.
The excavation at Rhiconich hut circle in 1993. ©The Highland Council

Little work has been done in Lochaber, although relevant to this period is a peat core that was analysed near to a site between Morar and Arisaig which had occupation layers dating to the early medieval period (MHG58041). It revealed an early medieval landscape probably given over mainly to grazing, with pockets of birch/hazel and oak woodland (Carter et al 2005, 25–6, 32ff).

LairgSutherlandMcCullagh and Tipping 1998; ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project
Geodha Smoo Cave ComplexSutherlandPollard 2005; Case Study Geodha Smoo Cave complex
Brotchie’s SteadingCaithnessHolden et al 2008; Case Study Brotchie’s Steading
Freswick LinksCaithnessMorris et al 1995 provides a summary; Case Study Freswick Links
PortmahomackEaster RossCarver et al 2016; Case Study Portmahomack
Glen AffricInverness-shireDavies et al 2004
Table 8.1  Key Highland sites for early medieval environmental evidence associated with human activity


ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project


Case Study: Roundhouse at Rhiconich


Case Study: Brotchie’s Steading


Case Study: Freswick Links


Case Study: Geodha Smoo Cave Complex)


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