8.3.2 Identifying the Settlements

In most places, with the major exception of Portmahomack, archaeologists only have a radiocarbon date to provide occupation evidence, though there are a few indications of building traditions.

The vitrified Iron Age hillfort of Craig Phadrig outside Inverness was re-occupied in the early medieval period, and from artefactual evidence it was certainly a high-status settlement (MHG3809). Although structural remains are alluded to by Small and Cottram (1972) the archive for the excavation is missing and thus little can be said about the structural remains. Recent work has suggested the fort was refortified with a palisade constructed on top of the ruined ramparts. The radiocarbon date from the palisade ditch was cal AD 416–556 (Peteranna and Birch 2018, 79–80). The finds from Craig Phadrig include E-ware and evidence of metalworking thus fiiting in with the picture found elsewhere in northeastern Scotland for high status defended sites (Noble and Evans 2019, 39ff).

Image shows an aerial view of a heavily wooded area. The trees are green, pine trees and very little open ground can be seen. In the centre of the image, an oval patch of open grass can be seen amongst the tree, with a bank and ridge separating the area from the surrounding forrest.
Aerial view of the vitrified hillfort of Craig Phadraig, Inverness. ©HES

Urquhart Castle was probably the site of another high status fortified settlement; albeit this is an interpretation based on limited evidence such as the find of a Pictish penannular brooch fragment probably from the site (MHG45240). Excavation in 1983 showed evidence of occupation from around AD 650-1000, with hearths, a cobbled floor and possible post-pits all dated to the early medieval period. The Alcocks concluded, however, ‘nothing can be said about the structural features of the internal buildings, nor about the activities which had taken place there’ (Alcock and Alcock 1992, 242ff).

The evidence from Craig Phadrig suggests the potential for finding early medieval phases at other Iron Age hillforts, for example at Knockfarrell near Dingwall. As part of the Northern Picts project, various Easter Ross hillfort sites were investigated in the hopes of finding evidence of secular Pictish power bases (Hatherley 2014), but the latest dates obtained through radiocarbon dating were 3rd to 4th century AD. Nevertheless, hillforts in the eastern and western Highlands hold potential.  The excavations of the timber-laced promontory fort at Burghead in Moray have shown it was the site of a major high status settlement. The ongoing excavations by the Northern Picts project have provided major evidence for the structures and layout of the fort. Taken together, evidence from these sites suggests further investigation of Highland hillforts, both coastal and inland, holds great potential to uncover further evidence of settlement of this period. The Atlas of Hillforts (hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk) provides recent summaries of evidence and provides a good basis to go on. As more dating is available, it may be possible to relate hillforts to the emerging picture of borders.

No site similar to Rhynie, an extraordinary early, high-status lowland site in Aberdeenshire, or Forteviot, a late Pictish power centre in Perthshire, have been discovered yet in the Highlands, but surely sites like this must also have existed in the Highlands. The area around Golspie is a major candidate for study, with its burials, Pictish stones and chance finds such as the Golspie pin (Case Study Golspie Pin). A number of enclosures around Baddan, near Golspie, are also possible contenders. The area around Kintradwell is also home to a concentration of Pictish symbol stones, and human remains were found at the broch (MHG9777). A towering cross slab, judging by the remains of the fragment, was found at nearby Collieburn (MHG9797), and this is now in Dunrobin Castle Museum. Other areas to investigate would include Littleferry (MHG32679), a site with long prehistoric importance (Case Study Littleferry Links), and a major transport route until it was bypassed by Telford in the early 19th century. At Rhynie, both burial and settlement evidence were found, suggesting that the areas near barrow cemeteries (see 8.6) would also be likely candidates for lowland settlement.

An image of a long, silver pin taken against a black background. The pin has a carved head, including ears, forehead lines, eyes and a square nose. Below the head is small, crossed arms. Below the figure is a long, cylindrical  shaft, which is parallel all the way towards its blunt end. The pin is dark grey and brown, with deep carvings to create the face and arms.
Golspie Pictish pin. ©NMS
A close-up image of a carved stone, taken in black and white. The stone is vertical, rectangular and has been broken toward the top, creating an irregular shape at the top, truncating the design. The bottom third of the stone has not been carved. The top two thirds are filled with an intricate celtic design, with four circular symbols, filled and connected with interconnected lines. The stone is mounted using iron arms.
Collieburn cross slab fragment. ©HES

Findspots for artefacts (see 8.4) can also suggest areas to look for high status settlement. The hoard of Pictish brooches from Rogart (MHG11596) suggest a possible focus of Pictish activity nearby. Dornoch with the nearby finds of Anglo-Saxon metalwork is another area to look at (Case Study Anglo-Saxon mount from Dornoch). The Northern Picts project has targeted areas where Pictish sculpture has been found with great results. They have begun to study the area of Balblair near Beauly which has an unusual stone with figural carving, that has similarities with Rhynie. Additionally, the context of the Croy hoard near Inverness is being re-evaluated by Adrián Maldonado as part of the National Museums Scotland Glenmorangie project (Maldonado in prep).

In Caithness high status sites are still elusive, but several areas hold promise based on burial and sculptural evidence. Hillfort reuse remains a possibility. The chapel site of Skinnet, Halkirk (MHG1764) has Pictish sculpture and was later associated with the bishops of Caithness in the medieval period; it has not had much later building, providing a good candidate for future work.

The enigmatic structures known as ‘Wags’ have been found near some broch sites in Caithness. Both their function and date are unclear, though they are generally thought to be post-broch and therefore possibly early medieval in date (Heald and Barber 2015, 122–6). Current fieldwork at Wag of Forse (MHG2404) by the University of Aberdeen should shed more light on their dating, function and building tradition.

In addition to the burials at brochs (see 8.6), samples at Nybster broch (MHG1601) and an antler comb from Keiss Harbour broch (MHG1659; Sheridan et al 2017), both returned radiocarbon dates which showed the reuse of these structures in the 5th to 6th centuries. Giving further attention to the outbuildings at brochs may provide evidence of re-use of these structures during this early medieval period, although the excavations at Nybster broch showed that, in this instance, these outbuildings dated to the first centuries AD (MHG1593, Heald and Cavers 2012; Chapter 7.3). There is also evidence of reuse at Applecross Broch, Wester Ross (MHG7680) where the broch was much altered, with a radiocarbon date of cal AD 340–540 provided by one of the hearths in the courtyard (Peteranna 2012a).

Aerial photograph of a green, grassy cliff-side, which shows the extent of a settlement site. The central area of the site is a circular structure with low and very thick walls. Smaller sructures can be seen to the north and south of the broch stucture, recognised by their thinner, curved walls. To the west is an open courtyard area. The cliff and coast are rugged and the tide is hardly visible, suggesting the photo was taken at low tide.
Aerial view of Nybster Broch, Caithness. ©HES

There are radiocarbon dates and artefacts, both Pictish and Viking, from Freswick showing activity at this period (Case Study Freswick Links). However, it is difficult to pinpoint any Pictish buildings. Evidence for Viking presence at Freswick is also unfortunately negligible, despite the relatively topographically wide-ranging investigation carried out at the site (Morris et al 1995). The only potentially structural trace is what could be the remains of a fragmentary wattle and daub construction of indeterminate extent underlying Curle’s Building VII (Batey 1987, Chapter 6.1.3).

Limited excavation of an eroding dune at Dunnet in Caithness (MHG14544) revealed artefacts that included a possible 8th century pin, a 12th or 13th century comb and a shale bracelet which could date from Bronze Age onwards; unfortunately no radiocarbon dates were run (Pollard 1999). Further work at this site might provide a wider context, as Heald has previously stressed (Heald and Barber 2015, 134–5).

For high status settlement in the west, archaeologists are on even less firm ground. Hillforts in Argyll are the location of the elite settlements of Dal Riata Gaels (Campbell and Batey 2017), and perhaps similar sites could be found in Morvern and Ardnamurchan. The political affiliations of Skye and northwest Sutherland are unclear, and therefore so are the types of power centres we might find. Ashaig, near Broadford on Skye, which is traditionally the ferry crossing to the monastery at Applecross, would be one candidate to investigate. Applecross itself might have had a secular as well as religious focus.

The non-elite (or lesser elite) settlements are even less easy to identify. They have usually been found by chance, and are only attributed to this early medieval period due to radiocarbon dating (see Table 8.2). There is limited evidence of roundhouse use in this period, but this lack of evidence cannot be used to conclude that there was a change in domestic building, especially as the tradition continued into the medieval period (see Chapter 9.3). The roundhouse partially excavated at Kilearnan Hill, Sutherland (MHG9986) may be late Iron Age. It was constructed at a time when a nearby peat profile showed rapid growth (McIntyre 1998, 186). Three structures in Coille Gaireallach, Strath Suardal on Skye were re-used in the early medieval period, but two of the three radiocarbon dates related to enclosure walls rather than domestic studies. The third, LS08, was interpreted as a smithy (see 8.5; Table 8.2; Wildgoose 2016).

In the WeDigs surveys in Wester Ross, one roundhouse at Meall Mor (Rhue) provided an early medieval date inside the wall of cal AD 259–426. The evidence suggests the Iron Age roundhouse may have been reused as an animal pen (Welti and Wildgoose nd). Both the Skye and Wester Ross investigations had limited excavation, so more evidence of settlement may be waiting to be found.

A Bronze Age roundhouse at Rhiconich in the northwest Highlands was also reoccupied in the early medieval period, which is valuable evidence of occupation in this area of the Highlands. The nature of the use of this roundhouse, whether as a domestic structure or for burial/ritual use, in unclear as cremated bone, possibly human, was found in the hearth (Donnelly et al 1997; Case Study Rhiconich Roundhouse). Cremated bone was found in similarly-dated houses at Pitcarmick in Highland Perthshire, where the excavator’s interpretation was that animal bone had been used as fuel, as is also the case of workshop hearths at Portmahomack (Carver et al 2012, 161). Further analysis of the Rhiconich material, if possible, would be useful. The only other evidence of activity from the early period in the northwest Highlands was the re-use of the Bronze Age burnt mound at Stronchrubie (MHG13052). It is unclear if its earlier function was known to the early medieval people, or replicated in this later phase; indeed the nature of the occupation is still unclear (Cavers et al 2013, 19–20).

At Brotchie’s Steading in Caithness (MHG46260), archaeologists found a deeply stratified sequence of buildings from the Iron Age onwards. A hearth was dated to cal AD 420–620, and occupation layers to the 8th and 9th centuries, although no structural evidence was recovered, and it is not clear if the occupation was continuous or episodic (Holden et al 2008, 273–4; Case Study Brotchie’s Steading). If some of the walls were made of turf, as is the case elsewhere, this would account for the difficulty in finding structural evidence. It also highlights the potential for tracing continuous occupation where conditions are favourable.

Some evidence of human activity can consist only of pits without any structures (see Table 8.2), including the only evidence thus far of occupation in the early period in Lochaber. At a site between Arisaig and Morar in Lochaber, a pit was dug into peat which had formed after Bronze Age activity on the site (Carter et al 2005, 10–11, 32ff).

The number of caves and rock shelters showing evidence of occupation in the early medieval period is surprising; many appear to have been used as workshops (see 8.5). Middens providing dates into the early medieval period have also been obtained (see Table 8.2), although the nature of their use is not clear from the limited investigation. Occupation in caves is found in other regions at this period, including in Argyll (RARFA 8.3.5). The Rosemarkie Caves project is providing well dated information about the use of caves in the eastern Highland region. Further investigation of west coast caves would also be useful for comparison, with the Scotland’s First Settlers project (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009) providing obvious contenders for further work.

Photograph taken looking into a dark cave, with an arc shaped entrance. The area to the back of the cave is too dark to see clearly, however, multiple buckets, rope and trowels are seen within the cave. The floor level inside appears to continue uphill as it reaches the back of the cave. The stone is grey, with green moss towards the inside of the cave. The ground level is deep brown, having been freshly excavated.
The excavation at Learnie Cave 2b in 2016. ©NoSAS

Elsewhere in Scotland some crannogs show settlement evidence in the early medieval period (Crone and Campbell 2005; Cavers and Henderson 2005; Foster 2014, 56; RARFA section 8.3.3; Stratigos and Noble 2017), but no evidence is available in the Highlands. Good candidates for early medieval activity can be pointed to across the region however and includes Eilean Chaluim Chille (MHG5781), a possible early medieval centre of Christianity. Few crannogs from the Highlands have been sampled or excavated in modern times, so the presence of Highland crannogs in the early medieval period remains an open question.


Case Study: Golspie Pin


Case Study: Littleferry Links


Case Study: Anglo-Saxon mount from Dornoch


Case Study: Freswick Links


Case Study: Rhiconich Roundhouse


Case Study: Brotchie’s Steading


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