8.4.1 Farming, Fishing and Hunter Gathering

Cultivated Food

Despite so little evidence of buildings from this period (see 8.3), radiocarbon dating has shown evidence for cultivation activity on several sites.

At Lairg, there was significant amount of renewed activity in the landscape from AD 450. Charred six-hulled barley, occasionally naked barley, oats and wheat pollen grains were found. After AD 700 oat and wheat evidence increases. At the same time, there appears to be evidence of grazing. Ard marks may indicate the presence of iron rip ards, and if so, these would have facilitated ploughing through the glacial till which previous inhabitants had found so difficult (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 210–11).

The multiperiod site of Freswick Links (MHG1669) and areas covered by peat in the vicinity were the focus of extensive environmental analysis in the 1980s (see Case Study Freswick Links). Barley, oats and flax were being grown; the flax had the potential to be used for food and clothing (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 148–50). In the Pictish period, the midden deposits suggested large areas were under cultivation; with some areas short-lived and others much longer. The Durham University team concluded that their areas of investigation were not near any Pictish structures, which remain elusive (Morris et al 1995, 9ff, 268).

A pit at Dornoch Business Park, a site which mainly has evidence of industrial activity (MHG28197; Chapter 8.5), fill has been dated to cal AD 870–1070, with concentrations of cereal grain (barley, rye and oat), chaff fragments and weed seeds. The concentration of rye is unusual, and the evidence suggests that it may have been charred on the ear. It may also have been grown for thatching or fodder (Hastie 2008). 

At Portmahomack (MHG8473), the data show that in the pre-monastic period people grew rye, barley and wheat, and evidence of ard marks survive. In the monastic period (8th century), there is little evidence of cultivation, and knowing the excavation techniques used at the site, this data would have been recovered if present. In the monastic period no rye and only one grain of wheat were found. Barley and occasionally oats were more common in this period. In the post-monastic period (9th/10th century), cultivation again became more prominent. It is noteworthy that the large ‘bag-shaped’ building previously used for craft activity was converted into a kiln barn and adapted with an upper floor and flue. Another building nearby, in use until around AD 900, may have been for drying grain, and has evidence for barley processing (Carver et al 2016, 93–9, 222, 276ff).

At Lochloy near Nairn (MHG54239), examples of at least two early medieval corn kilns were found; one radiocarbon date of cal AD 680–890 was obtained from charcoal in the lower fill which also contained barley. These corn kilns were figure-of-eight in shape. One had stakeholes on several sides, possibly to serve as a windbreak (Farrell 2007).  Other grain drying kilns for the period are known from Torvean, Inverness (Mary Peteranna pers comm; 2019) and Portmahomack (see above).

Photoraph shows a prepared section of a corn kiln feature for recording and analysis with measuring rods both horizontally and vertically. The natural soil in light yellow-brown, and the kiln feature has black soil. A straight, right-angled cut is seen through the middle of the feature, revealing its depth and the extent of the kiln - about 2 metres wide and 50 centimetres deep.
Mid-excavation view of an early medieval corn kiln, Lochloy. ©Stuart Farrell

At Rhiconich in the northwest Highlands (MHG12141), the hearth of the re-used roundhouse had carbonised barley grains, both naked and hulled, dated to cal AD 421–641 (Donnelly et al 1997; Case Study Roundhouse at Rhiconich). The remains at the Smoo Cave (MHG11597) complex were dominated by barley and oat in the later part of the early medieval period (Aldritt 2005; Case Study Geodha Smoo Cave Complex).

Domesticated Animals

As in all periods, preservation at Highland sites in the early medieval period is often not good for bone, with the exceptions being all the more valuable as a result. At Freswick, Caithness, animal bone analysis provided evidence of cattle, sheep, pig and deer as well as cats, domestic and wild fowl, geese and horse (Morris et al 1995, Dickson and Dickson 2000, 148–150; 268).

In the pre-monastic period at Portmahomack, cattle comprise the majority of bones, with also pig, sheep/goats and chickens also present. In the monastic period a greater dependence on animals was found, especially cattle but also pig, some sheep/goat, deer, goose, and dog, with smaller number of horse, cat and chicken. In the post-monastic period, cattle continue to predominate, with lesser numbers of pig and sheep/goat. Most cattle were slaughtered at three years, suggesting that they were also used for dairy products. In the monastic period they were also kept for non-food purposes, including the production of parchment which would have required a large number of cattle hides. In one case, evidence of slaughter by poleaxing survived. Very sharp knives were used in butchery, with the blades probably utilising steel technology (Carver et al 2016, 98, 222–3; Seetah 2016).

Hunting and Collecting

Although Pictish carvings show hunting scenes, poor preservation at most sites means there is little archaeological evidence of this activity. The midden remains at Freswick have limited evidence of hunting, with deer and wild fowl represented, although the treeless landscape would not have suited deer. Egg shells have survived, many of which are from sea birds (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 148–50). At Smoo Cave in northwest Sutherland there was limited evidence of birds, probably harvested from nearby high cliffs, and mammals (Barrett 2005).

At Portmahomack, where there is good preservation, during the pre-monastic period there is evidence of hunting roe deer and seals. A wider range of animals is evident in the monastic period, with bones of seal, fox, wolf, otter, bird (raven, gull, shag, gannet, capercaillie), whales and porpoise/dolphins found on site (Carver et al 2016, 98, 222–3).

Fishing and Shellfish Gathering

At Freswick, there was evidence of deep water and inshore fishing and collection of shellfish (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 148–150). Limpets and periwinkles were collected, but it is unclear if for bait or food. Fishing occurred, but bone preservation was poor, so it is also unclear how extensive it was in the early medieval period. This evidence of fishing does not appear in the Viking period, only to become important again in the late Norse period (Morris et al 1995, 9ff, 268).

The evidence at the Smoo Cave complex also provides good data for fishing, though most of it dates to the medieval period; unfortunately, dating and stratigraphic evidence hinder detailed refining (Barrett 2005; Pollard 2005). A youth buried at nearby Balnakeil (MHG11310) had an iron fish hook as one of their grave goods, a unique inclusion in Scottish Viking burials (Batey and Paterson 2012, 654; Case Study Balnakeil Viking Burial).

Image of grave goods against a blue background, from above. From left, we see a dark brown pumice stone, irregularly shaped, then a distressed pair of shears which have two triangular blades attached by a thin handle that curves at the top. In the centre in two iron needles, slightly tarnished, with a cylindrical wooden peg with a metal loop attaching it to a long, coiling thread, which is thread through the wooden peg and both needles. To the right of the image is a metal fishing hook of dark grey iron, attached to a neatly wound coil of brown thread.
Reconstruction of the grave goods from Balnakeil (pumice stone, pair of iron shears, iron needles and a wooden needle divider bound with thread, and an iron fishhook and thread). ©National Museums Scotland

Evidence of freshwater fishing is sparse, but depictions of salmon on Pictish sculpture hint at their importance. At Portmahomack there was evidence of freshwater or marine char (Carver et al 2016, 224). Isotope analysis on some human remains showed primarily terrestrial diet, however.

Image of an arc shaped symbol stone made of medium-grey stone. The edges of the stone are chipped and scratched all the way around. From the top, the stone has three separate symbols. First, a carving of a salmon, with a detailed face, facing towards the right. In the centre is a bat-like symbol, with a long parallel shaft and a crescent shaped handle. Finally, A large mirror symbol is carved in the bottom-centre of the stone, and to its right is a double-sided comb symbol. The stone is mounted in front of a wooden panelled wall.
A Pictish stone depicting a salmon, on display at Dunrobin Museum. ©Michael Sharpe


Case Study: Freswick Links


Case Study: Geodha Smoo Cave Complex


Case Study: Roundhouse at Rhiconich


Case Study: Balnakeil Viking Burial


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