8.4.3 Aspects of Daily Life

Without settlement evidence and with limited diagnostic artefacts, which generally reflect high status, it is difficult to gauge other aspects of daily life apart from diet. For example, had rotary querns replaced saddle querns completely by this early medieval period? How much were stone tools used? The evidence for flax at Freswick in Pictish deposits (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 149; Case Study Freswick Sands), suggests that linen clothing might have been worn, alongside the wool from sheep.

With limited settlement evidence, and a burial tradition without grave goods, the identification of diagnostic finds for the period is very important as it provides at the least some evidence of occupation, and sometimes insights into social status and lifestyles.

Pictish period objects

The most iconic finds of the period remain the Pictish carved stones (see discussion in 8.6); they have been the focus of many studies over the years (see eg Noble and Evans 2019, 119ff; Future Thinking on Carved Stones section 2.3; Henderson and Henderson 2004; Carver et al 2016, 123ff). The symbols are clearly then diagnostic of the period, and they appear in contexts other than stone carvings. For example, a pendant of jet or cannel coal from Breakachy, Inverness-shire was designed as a miniature cross slab, with an incised cross on one side and a serpent on the other (MHG 48202). An unusual pin from Golspie depicts a person on the pinhead; the design has parallels to human depictions on the carved stones (MHG11648; Case Study Golspie Pin).

Jet/cannel coal pendant from Breakachy (front and reverse). Ewen Weatherspoon courtesy of Inverness Museum and Art Gallery/High Life Highlands
The unusual Pictish pin from Golspie. ©NMS

The other main diagnostic objects from the time are the distinctive Pictish penannular brooches with their expanded terminals, swelling in the hoop, and decorated pins (Blackwell et al 2017, 108ff). Some are clearly high-status items made of gold, silver and glass. When building the railway at Rogart, Sutherland, nine brooches were said to have been found, although only three now survive (MHG11596). The Croy hoard, possibly a metalworker’s hoard that was deposited after the mid 800s (see 8.5), had fragments of three brooches (MHG2903; Fraser and Anderson 1874-1876). Other examples of fragmentary penannular brooches come from Urquhart Castle (MHG45240); Shurrery, Caithness (MHG1551); Freswick (Batey 1987 Batey 1987, Plate 20A, 463) and Achavrole, Caithness (MHG1157). A penannular brooch from Dun Cruinn on Skye (MHG6488) is listed in the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology catalogue, but was unable to be examined at time of writing. A zoomorphic penannular copper alloy brooch found at Dun Morangie, Tarlogie in Easter Ross (MHG8706) also appears to date to this period, with further analysis promised for the final publication of the site (Hatherley 2015b). A recent metal detector find of a brooch pin from Conon Bridge, Easter Ross is thought to also be Pictish (MHG48673). The quality of many of these brooches clearly indicates that high status owners were somewhere in the area. The workshops at Portmahomack do not provide evidence of local production of these particular objects, but attest that the skills and technology existed.

Silver-gilt penannular brooch – one of the few surviving pieces from a large hoard of Pictish metalwork found by a workman in 1868 at Rogart in Sutherland during railway construction. ©NMS
These objects, together with two Anglo-Saxon coins which had been converted into jewellery, were buried at Croy in Inverness-shire sometime between 800 and 900. ©NMS
Portion of a silver pennanular brooch with gold filigree work and amber settings, from Achavrole, Dunbeath, Caithness. ©NMS

The heavy silver chain found at Torvean, Inverness (MHG3800) when digging the Caledonian Canal is one of 11 known from Scotland, and is the heaviest of the group, weighing 2.88 kg. These were clearly high-status items that flaunted personal power by using large quantities of this precious metal. Two have Pictish symbols on the clasp, though not the Torvean example (Blackwell et al 2017, 95ff).

Massive silver chain from Torvean, Inverness-shire. ©NMS

The importance of the finds from Portmahomack cannot be underestimated. There are well-dated finds from three different social situations: a high status, probably secular, pre-monastic presence on the peninsula, an 8th century monastic presence and the post-monastic focus of the 9th to 10th centuries which the excavators have argued was secular and the settlement possibly had new Scandinavian overlords (Carver et al 2016). Finds include antler combs from the final period, rare survivals from the Highlands (Ashby 2016).

Simple pins usually are difficult to date, but the well-dated examples at Portmahomack provide examples of the types which would have been in use in this period. Examples in the pre-monastic period are made of iron, and in the monastic and post-monastic periods they are of copper alloy and bone. In the monastic, but more commonly in the post-monastic periods, there is evidence of moulds being used for the manufacture of dress pins, including three which may have had zoomorphic heads (Ashby 2016; Carver et al 2016, 90–1, 94, 267, D70, D73). Some pins have been found in the Highlands by metal detecting, including a copper alloy example from Tain; from the same collection there was a decorated copper alloy triangular strap end fragment (MHG29372, TT 81/02). Pins and combs spanning from the Iron Age through into the early medieval period have been investigated by Foster (1989), providing parallels elsewhere. Combs are also discussed in Ashby (2006).

Iron dress pins from Portmahomack. Carver et al 2016; illus 4.22, p. 94

Beads are another object that are often difficult to date. However, recent work by Blackwell (2018) has identified a number possibly related to Anglo-Saxon objects from this period; from the Highlands these are from Culbin Sands on the border with Moray, which is a site that is producing beads in the Iron Age (see 7.5). Blackwell (2018, 219ff, 351) also noted the need for bead identification by other criteria than eye alone. Other beads have also been found in the Highlands, but usually without context, hindering dating unless they are diagnostic. Two small beads were found during excavations at Portmahomack which may have been manufactured on site (Campbell 2016, D100).

Moulds in the post-monastic period at Portmahomack have been interpreted as being used for making lead weights (Carver et al 2016, 273). This raises the possibility that in this period the site had Scandinavian connections, as a metal weight economy flourished in the Viking and Norse world. However, no diagnostic Scandanavian objects were found during the excavations.

Interestingly, the monastic phases at Portmahomack did not include any evidence for ceramics (Hall 2016). The Hebrides has a local pottery tradition during the early medieval period, continuing into the Viking period but examples are not known from Skye (Armit 1996, 179, 193), though settlement sites are mainly lacking.

A sherd of E ware, pottery made on the Continent, was found at the hillfort at Craig Phadrig, Inverness (MHG3809), though its route for arriving to the Highlands can only be guessed at. Similar examples are known from 6th/7th century high status sites in Britain and Ireland (RARFA 8.3.8). Also found at Craig Phadrig was a mould for making mounts for hanging bowls, objects associated with high status sites that were used during feasting. An actual mount was found at Castle Tioram, Lochaber, very similar to the mould from Craig Phadrig (MHG33350; Laing 1972-1974, 195). These finds show that high-status individuals in the Highlands were tapping into wide networks.

Mould for casting mounts for Pictish hanging-bowls from the Pictish fort of Craig Phadrig, Inverness-shire. ©NMS
Rim and mount of a hanging bowl, from Castle Tioram. ©West Highland Museum, Fort William

Everyday objects cannot be attributed to this period unless other dating survives. A wooden dish made from alder from Polloch found at Loch Shiel, Lochaber (MHG 558) is a rare survival of what must have been a much more common type of object. The radiocarbon date of cal AD 800-1165 is broad (Earwood 1993a), and the object may perhaps date to the Norse period, as does an oak trough from Durness, dated to AD 960–1260 (MHG12958; Earwood 1993). Pottery is virtually unknown, but since we have so few settlement sites, this is perhaps not surprising.

Scandinavian Diagnostic Objects

In around AD 1000, a silver hoard containing four penannular armrings of a type found especially in Viking Scotland (‘ring money’), together with coins from the continent and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom was hidden in a wall at Portmahomack near Tarbat church (MHG8470). Similar armrings were found in a hoard from Kirk o’Banks in Caithness (MHG2255), and two from Skye (MHG17433; MHG55552). Two other silver hoards are known from Skye (MHG55553; MHG5265), most probably dating to the 10th century (Graham-Campbell 1995).

Silver penannular armrings from Portmahomack. ©NMS

One of the most ubiquitous object types from the Viking Age in Scotland are ringed pins; a simple kind of dress-fastener with a loose ring at the head first developed in Ireland (Fanning 1983; 1994). These are mainly made in copper alloy and are found in pagan burials and as stray finds in settlements as well as through metal detecting. Their distribution is weighted toward the Hebrides and Northern Isles (eg Eigg, MHG5689; NMS X.BN 51;), but there are a number of stray finds including from Sandwood Bay, Sutherland (MHG12157; NMS X.FC 300), Camore near Dornoch (MHG61261) and Freswick Links (Batey 1993; NMS X.IL 709) where three ringed pins were found. Those from pagan burials include the unique brooch from Balnakeil (MHG11310; NMS X.1992.22.6; Batey and Paterson 2012); a rare knobbed Irish type from Swordle Bay, Ardnamurchan (Adrián Maldonado pers comm); plain-ringed, loop-headed types include one from a rare cremation burial in Tote, Skeabost, Skye (MHG5134); and three from the Viking cemetery at Reay (MHG2529; NMS X.IL 373, X.IL 336 and X.IL 384). There is a growing cluster of ringed pins being found from the Moray Firth area, mainly from sand dunes and coastal sites including at Castle Stuart (MHG56879) and Culbin Sands (NMS X.BI 25166).

Norse ring-headed pin from the Castle Stuart area (Inverness Museum and Art Gallery). ©Michael Sharpe

Although no Viking settlements are known for the Highland region, the pagan burials are often richly furnished (see 8.6). The distribution of these objects is primarily north of the Dornoch Firth in the eastern Highlands, and on the north and west coasts. Together the objects from hoards and burials provide a range of diagnostic objects for the Viking settlers in the Highlands, especially when compared to Viking hoards and burials from Scandinavia, the rest of Britain and Ireland. The hoard material is discussed in Graham-Campbell (1995), and the pagan grave material is being reanalysed as part of the Norse Pagan Graves project in progress; see also Case Study Storr Rock Viking Hoard. Other useful discussions with a regional focus can be found in Graham-Campbell and Batey (1998).

The Storr Rock Hoard, Isle of Skye, deposited c. 940, including 18 dirhams of the Samanid dynasty. ©National Museums Scotland

The objects found in the pagan burials include dress accessories, weapons, playing pieces, textile equipment, and agricultural and blacksmithing tools. Some of the objects, especially the jewellery, can be shown to be non-Scandinavian, with objects of Hiberno-Scandinavian production being the most common; they are also occasionally from the Continent. Others, such as ringed pins, were shared across cultures, spreading across the North Atlantic and to parts of Scandinavia. Vikings will have bought or stolen objects in their travels, then possibly traded with others, burying these acquired objects along with ones from Scandinavia. A blurring of cultures would also have occurred as generations passed, and presumably intermarriage occurred. This means that single finds of some objects cannot be firmly attributed as native or Scandinavian without additional contextual information. Few finds have been excavated in modern times, and the metal detected finds such as fragments of ring-money (MHG59704) and hacksilver (MHG60720) from the Dornoch area provide no context. The information obtained from the Balnakeil, Sutherland (MHG11310; Case Study Balnakeil Viking Burial) and Ardnamurchan, Lochaber (MHG55331) burials provide a welcome glimpse into textiles and other organics from the medieval period (Batey and Paterson 2012; Harris et al. 2017).


Case Study: Freswick Sands

Case Study: Golspie Pin

Case Study: Storr Rock Viking Hoard

Case Study: Balnakeil Viking Burial

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