8.3.1 Landscape Patterns

As a result of the lack of evidence, there is little that can be said at present about the landscape settlement in the same manner as earlier and later periods. The only structural evidence archaeologists have is for single buildings (see 8.3.3), and there is even little evidence of those. At Lairg, which had evidence of only cultivation in its study area, there was evidence of dykes dividing up the landscape from this early medieval period (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 210–11).

At Portmahomack a large area was excavated which showed several foci through the early medieval period. In the pre-monastic period (Period 1, up to c AD 680), the evidence is mainly of a cemetery and possibly a church with cultivation around it (MHG8473; ScARF Case Study Portmahomack). During Period 2, the monastic years of the 8th century, a church was present, the cemetery continued in use and there is evidence of industrial workshops nearby. After a raid around AD 800 which saw one area of workshops destroyed, there was a brief resumption of workshop activity, though not for the creation of ecclesiastical objects, probably lasting only until AD 880 at the latest. The burials continued at the cemetery, though in smaller numbers. The activity in this area of Portmahomack was placed in its local geographic context, with the excavators arguing the peninsula was almost an island. During the monastic period, large stone crosses marked the estate’s extent (Carver et al 2016).

Place-names in the past have been used to indicate ethnic settlements. Names beginning with Pit were often stated to show Pictish settlement, but it is clear that most have a Gaelic part as well. Therefore these settlements date to the time after Gaelic influence has arrived, from the mid 9th century onwards (Evans 2019, 33). It is also difficult to chart Norse settlement using Norse place-names, as it is not possible to date when these names would have been current. Given the long Norse presence in the north, many could date to the medieval period or even beyond. However, some areas, notably Caithness and Skye, have a large number of Norse topographic and some Norse settlement names (Crawford 1987, 92ff).

The ‘thing’ names, ‘thing’ being a Norse place-name term indicating an assembly or administrative centre, suggest the presence of important centres for lordship (Sanmark 2017). In medieval Scandinavia ‘thing‘ sites were at national, regional and local levels, though it is unclear if that was true for the Viking/Norse Highlands. Most of the attention has been directed to Dingwall in Easter Ross (Case Study Origins of Dingwall). Very limited archaeological investigation at Dingwall showed deposits dating to the medieval phases (11th century onwards), including formation of a mound which has been postulated as the thing mound, but there is no direct evidence of Viking or Norse activity (O’Grady 2013). As such, if this mound does relate to the thing mound, it reflects activity in the medieval rather than early medieval period.

Despite extensive research, only a scattering of definite and possible Norse place-names were found south of Dingwall. Crawford has suggested that this area was used to obtain timber from up the river valleys of Strathconon and Strathglass (Crawford and Taylor 2003); this is a possible scenario but one which needs confirmation through additional data. It is likely that this southern frontier was fluid, depending on local political situations.


Case Study: Origins of Dingwall


Case Study: Portmahomack


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