8.3.3 Evidence of Buildings

The structure for which archaeologists have the best evidence is at Portmahomack (Case Study Portmahomack), a ‘bag-shaped’ building interpreted as a workshop for a variety of crafts (see 8.5). A cobble-filled trench defined the building, which also had substantial interior and exterior post settings. At least two phases were present, the first phase of use was during the monastic period (8th century) and the second in the 9th/10th centuries when it was converted into a grain drying kiln. There was one entrance and a hearth slightly offset in the centre. The excavators proposed the building was constructed with a wall of turf and wattle cladding revetted by a stone or plank wall on the stone foundations. However, as they noted, the evidence lent itself to several interpretations (Carver et al 2016, 235ff). Similar shaped buildings are turning up at high-status secular sites of Rhynie (NJ42NE54) in Aberdeenshire and Burghead (NJ16NW0001) in Moray (Gordon Noble pers comm). Other structures in the Portmahomack workshop area were more ephemeral, but may have had similar forms and materials. There is also evidence of squared oak timbers and wattle panels. The burnt workshops left evidence of wattle work and heather roofing (Carver et al 2016, 229ff, 242ff). No evidence survived of the monks’ living quarters.  The presence of structure S11 at Portmahomack suggests that the roundhouse form also continued into the early medieval period in the eastern Highlands.

Oblique image showing the excavated remains of a stone-lined structure of sub-oval shape. The line of small stones and pebbles is curved on the side facing the camera, and appears to be squared off on the opposite side. The soil is light yellow and brown, with dark brown areas representing features. Small pits have been dug both inside and outside the structure, appearing to create the shape of postholes which would be used as wall and roof supports for the structure which once stood in this place.
Overhead view of a bag-shaped structure at Portmahomack showing the stone-filled perimeter. Carver et al 2016, 233.
An obliques reconstructive drawing of the structure described above, This digitally drawn building is three dimensional and is sub-oval in plan, with 15 posts supporting a pointed roof. The image shows a hearth in the east side of the structure, where the walls are curved.
Three-dimensional reconstruction of a structure at Portmahomack. Carver et al 2016, 240.

The evidence from Wag of Forse (MGH45712), assuming the dating confirms occupation in this period, may also provide further evidence of building traditions. However, for the construction of much rural non-elite settlement, and possibly also within high-status sites in the Highlands, it is likely that turf was used. Turf and stone construction has a long history in the Highlands, as shown at the Portmahomack workshops (Noble 1983 Carver et al 2016, 230; Romankiewicz 2019).

At Pitcarmick to the south of the Highland region border, but in Highland Perthshire, sub-rectangular buildings were identified by excavators. They were constructed with walling of alternating stone and turf courses, and byre areas, making then some of the earliest byre-houses in Britain (Carver et al 2012, 184; Foster 2014, 73–4). None are known from the Highland region, although structures at Garbeg, Inverness-shire (MHG3357), near an early medieval cemetery have been suggested as possible examples (Noble and Sveinbarnarson 2015). Trial excavations yielded Bronze Age dates, but further investigation is needed.

Taken together this is sparse evidence indeed. One reason may be that in general, turf was the main building material in this period. Even at Portmahomack, which certainly qualifies as high status, the workshops seem to have had turf walls. It is also noteworthy that some of these buildings are re-used earlier structures.


Case Study: Portmahomack

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