8.5 Craft and Industry

As noted in 8.3, there is little evidence of settlement sites for the early medieval period in the Highlands, and archaeologists are dependent on radiocarbon dating at many sites. Our best evidence for industry and craft in the early medieval period is perhaps atypical of the period of the whole, as it relates to the special high status settlement and then Christian monastery at Portmahomack (Case Study Portmahomack; MHG8473). There is evidence of metalworking before the monastery was established, such as a hearth and slag pit. The fuel included heather roots and peat, suggesting secondary smithing at lower temperatures. The craft activities were also related to a wicker-lined well, evidence of basketry techniques, and suggestions of careful water management. Radiocarbon dating suggests a date of the 7th century for these activities (Carver et al 2016, 86–8).

There is also evidence of industrial activity in the monastic period. Excavations revealed extensive metalworking materials combined with larger scale water management which was important for provision of fresh water. One area was interpreted as being the structures needed for the preparation of hides for the production of parchment (vellum); this interpretation is based on finds of craft working artefacts, weights for stretching frames and styli. There was even evidence of the burning of shells, thought to have produced quicklime, which could have been used for mortar and also for dehairing and degreasing hides. There is little contemporary comparative evidence for this activity elsewhere, underlying the importance of this material (Carver et al 2016, 180ff, 194ff; Spall and Mortimer 2016).

Photograph showing a large, open trench being excavated by six people using trowels and buckets. In the foreground, a cobbled stone floor and large boulders represent the surviving evidence of a workshop. The trench is located in an enclosed, grassy area next to a kirkyard which is visible in the background.
A workshop area at Portmahomack under excavation. Carver at al 2016; Illus 5.6.3, p.196

The production of vellum then suggests its use in the monastery in the production of manuscripts, although none survive that can be attributed to this scriptorium. The production of manuscripts would have necessitated knowledge of pigments and ink production and would have placed Portmahomack within a special relationship held between similar establishments in Britain and Ireland.

Other areas in the monastic centre display evidence of metal and glass working, sometimes taking place in a ‘bag-shaped’ building. No furnaces or kilns survived, but there were hints of the production of high status objects in copper alloy, silver and glass artefacts. Evidence included moulds and crucibles, some with residues, as well as glass studs. The bag-shaped building that contained hearths was also used for smithing, as the excavators found preserved parts of a smithing hearth. A variety of wood, turfs, peat and animal bone were burned in the hearths. The glass working evidence is unusual in early medieval Scotland, with other examples from Iona (Reece 1981) and Whithorn (Hill 1997; Campbell 2007); it continued into the post-monastic period as different phases in the production cycle were discerned by the excavators (Carver et al 2016, 211ff, 218ff; Campbell 2016).

The northern workshop area was destroyed in the raid that took place around AD 800, but metalworking started again shortly afterwards, as shown by smithing hearths and working surfaces being placed on areas levelled up from the rubble and smashed sculpture. This time, however, the focus was on non-ecclesiastical objects in silver and copper alloy, with some glass – high status but interpreted by the excavators as for a secular consumer. This metalworking lasted only for a few generations, probably finishing before AD 880. A large number of ingot moulds, crucibles and clay mould fragments survive. These were for making pins, rings, brooches, buckles, strap ends, mounts and probably weights, valuable evidence for this period. Slag and hammerscale show that ironworking was also taking place.  From this post-monastic period too there are roughouts for a possible albertite bangle, suggesting possible production of jet-like bangles at Portmahomack. This shift in focus at 9th century monastic sites can be paralleled elsewhere in Ireland and Scotland (Carver et al 2016, 261ff).

The large number of sculptural fragments also suggests a thriving stone carving workshop at Portmahomack. Most of this sculpture was found broken and discarded after the burning event around 800, though some had been incorporated into later buildings. At least four different stone fabrics were identified, with much sourced locally. The nearby Hilton of Cadboll cross slab also used local stone (Case Study Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross Slab; MHG8546). Although no ‘stone waste’ was found at Portmahomack, an object interpreted as a sculptor’s chisel was found in the vellum workshop. It is not possible to determine whether the expertise was imported, but the work shows that the sculptors were aware of other Christian repertoire, and were creatively interpreting it (Carver et al 2016, 167–8). Recent analysis by Thickpenny (2018) of the Applecross, Wester Ross cross slab has argued that a master carver or team worked at Applecross, Nigg and possibly Rosemarkie in Easter Ross, showing links across the country.

Image showing a truncated fragment of a symbol stone which has been mounted in plastercast. Depictions of a bull and cow with their calf is carved at the bottom of the fragment.  At the top of the stone, three other, irregular, animals are engraved on the grey stone in relief.
A fragment of stone depicting a bull, cow and calf from Portmahomack. ©National Museums Scotland

The importance of the assemblage at Portmahomack cannot be underestimated, as it provides rich evidence of industrial activity occurring on this early medieval period secular and religious site. But how much of this activity and skills transferred to the local population in the Highlands?

SiteAreaDateLab noEvidenceCommentsSource
Dornoch Business ParkSAD 675–878 AD 774–994 AD 773–994 AD 774–1014
AD 775–1156
Ferrous metalworkingThree phases identified, with a building in phase 2MHG28197; Coleman and Photos-Jones 2008
PortmahomackERvariousFerrous and non-ferrous metalworkingMonastic and post-monastic periodsMHG42936; Carver et al 2016
Dun Morangie, TarlogieERAD 235–385Hearths, slag, possible furnaceRe-use of Iron Age roundhouseMHG8706; Hatherley 2015b
Learnie 1A and 2BERAD 685–874
AD 671–772
AD 636–762
Beta-280908Metalworking debris and furnacesCaves. Oak, ash and birch charcoal. Rosemarkie Caves projectDates Steven Birch pers comm.

Case Study; Rosemarkie Caves Project

Culduthel, Inverness (phases 7 & 8)IAD 570–655
AD 770–990
Pits with smelting and smithing slag MHG56080; Hatherley and Murray 2021
Hatherley forthcoming
Slackbuie, Inverness (ASDA site)IAD 881–991SUERC-34984Pit with slagIn area with multi-period occupationEHG3271. Date J. Garry pers comm
Case Study Lower Slackbuie
Craig PhadrigIAD 343–654
AD 416–556
Mould for non-ferrous metalworkingFirst date from 1970sMHG3809; Small and Cottram 1972; Peteranna and Birch 2018
FanellanIAD 687–883
AD 777–984
Pits with slagRe-use of Iron Age roundhouseMHG61055; Masson-Maclean 2014; Sneddon forthcoming
St Columba’s Friary, KingussieB&SAD 775–965
AD 891–1012
Slag, metalworking debrisNarrow trenchMHG4413; Birch 2020
Coille GaireallachSkyeAD 760–890
AD 891–1012
SUERC-33711Pit with slag; hearth basesLS08MHG61719; Wildgoose 2016
Table 8.3: Early medieval sites with dated metalworking evidence
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Metalworking evidence has been found at a number of other sites in the Highlands (Table 8.3 above). As Photos-Jones noted (Coleman and Photos-Jones 2008, 13) interpretation can be difficult, with pits often variously described as pits, bowl furnaces or hearths, leading to difficulties in comparison. Similarly, nearby gullies are sometimes interpreted as windbreaks or open fronting working areas. Now that archaeologists are finally obtaining widespread evidence, some of these issues can be confronted.

Caves near Rosemarkie held extensive Pictish-period metalworking (Case Study Rosemarkie Caves Project). At Learnie 1A well-preserved remains of a smithing hearth with hammerscale were found. Two other nearby caves also show metalworking evidence from this period, including Learnie 2B which was the site of a male burial (cal AD 427–580), and also the burial of a young cow showing minimal butchery and deliberate deposition. Radiocarbon dates for these activities suggest some are contemporary with Portmahomack, both pre and during the monastic period (Rosemarkie Caves Project; Birch and Peteranna 2019). The other main Pictish monastic site in the eastern Highlands is at Rosemarkie, raising the possibility that these caves might have been the workshops for the monastery. However, the burials suggest earlier activity, which may have then carried on when the monastery was active (for which we have no dates). Access to the Learnie caves would only have been easy by boat. The final publication of the site should provide finer dating and allow more comparisons with Portmahomack.

At Caird’s Cave (MHG8855), the closest cave to Rosemarkie, there was evidence of bone working. Of the dates obtained from recent excavations, combined with those from four objects in the National Museums Scotland, two were post-medieval or modern, four were Iron Age, and one, a worked red deer antler fragment, was dated cal AD 710–940. This suggests a specialised and long use in the cave for bone working. Most of the early medieval levels were in all probability removed during excavations in the early 20th century; these excavations also found a small antler or bone pin with amber settings, dated by typological considerations to the 8th or early 9th century (NMS X.HM 237). These early excavations were also selective in what was saved, and more recent work suggests that the cave may be better seen as a workshop where various activities took place. The spoil was shown to have considerable potential and is under threat; further work here may provide more insights (Anderson-Whymark 2011, 67ff).

A close up photograph of a yellow-brown bone pine, taken against a white background. The pin has a round head, with a circular piece of orange amber inserted into the head. The shaft of the pin is long, and comes to a point. Brown scratches are visible across the pin, and the item number 1931-1429 is written down the pin shaft in black ink.
Pin with amber settings from Caird’s Cave ©NMS

Another cave site with evidence of industrial activity, including bone working, is at Glassknapper’s Cave in northwest Sutherland (see Case Study Geodha Smoo Cave Complex). Activity in this, and nearby caves, was interpreted as episodic, perhaps for a limited range of specialised crafts and, in the later Norse period, boat repairs and fish processing. Unfortunately, there was mixing of midden layers, and relatively few dates, but further dating of the bone artefacts would be possible (Pollard 2005).

In addition to the caves and Portmahomack, other evidence of metalworking has been found on several Highland sites. The workshop at Coille Gaireallach, Skye had an oval shape and cobbled floor (MHG59524). Two test pits were dug, one at the wall that showed it had a rubble and earthen core, and one in the interior which revealed a pit with iron slag and four plano-convex hearth bases. It has been interpreted as a smithy, in use in the early medieval period based on the radiocarbon date of cal AD 760–890 (Wildgoose 2016, 18).

At Dornoch, in the 8th or 9th century, ditches and pits containing fragments of a clay furnace or hearth were found, together with slag and fragments of iron. In the 9th or 10th century an enclosure was established with an internal building or structure, and finds of slag, fired clay and bog iron all suggested more ironworking in this area (Coleman and Photos-Jones 2008). The nature of this site is unclear. Intriguingly, activity at both Skye and Dornoch could be related to either Viking or native activity based on the dating.

The Iron Age hilltop roundhouse at Dun Morangie, Tarlogie, Easter Ross was reoccupied between cal AD 235 and 385, with a number of hearths, possibly a furnace, and a concentration of slag, suggesting it was used in this period for metalworking (Hatherley 2015b).

At Craig Phadrig vitrified hillfort outside Inverness high-status metalworking happening during the period this Iron Age hillfort was reoccupied. There, a mould for making escutcheon mounts for a hanging bowl was found; these objects are generally associated with feasting at elite settlements. This is the only provenanced evidence of the production of hanging bowls, and a rare Scottish find (MHG3809; Susan Youngs pers comm). Radiocarbon dates suggest occupation at the fort in the 5th to 6th century (MHG3809; Peteranna and Birch 2018).

At Culduthel on the outskirts of Inverness a cobbled surface had metalworking debris including furnace bottoms, smelting and smithing slag as well as charcoal dated to cal AD 570–650. Analysis confirmed that the slag cakes or bottoms were from smelting within a non-tapped furnace. Metal objects including a small knife blade, hook, decorated copper alloy pin and lead. No structures were identified, but they possibly lay outside the excavation area (Case Study Culduthel Iron Age Craftworking Site; Hatherley & Murray 2021). Nearby at Lower Slackbuie a pit with slag was found, with a radiocarbon date to the early medieval period (Case Study Lower Slackbuie; EHG3271; J. Garry pers comm).

At Fanellan, near Beauly, Inverness-shire (MHG61055) pits with slag, charcoal and burnt bone near an Early Iron Age roundhouse were dated to cal AD 777–984. No other evidence of structures or activities date to this activity (Masson-Maclean 2014; Sneddon forthcoming).

Evidence from a narrow trench near St Columba’s Priory, Kingussie provides much needed evidence for this period in Badenoch and Strathspey. Metalworking debris showed different stages of metalworking, including a fragment of roasted bog iron ore, smelting slag indicating smelting and hammerscale indicating smithing. Probable remains from clay tuyères or furnace lining were also found. They appear to be associated with a stone structure. Radiocarbon dates place the activity in the later part of the early medieval period. The location suggests that this activity may relate to an ecclesiastical workshop, but the presence of an early church on the site, before the medieval friary, remains unproven (Birch 2020).

It is noteworthy that many of these metalworking sites have been identified by chance, due to excavation before development. Some have no structures, and some have no other obvious activity, though in many cases that may lie outside the limited excavation area. Dating is essential.

Five charcoal burning platforms on Loch Doilean (Loch Doilet), Sunart in Lochaber provided dates ranging from the Mesolithic to post-Medieval. A hazelnut shell in the occupation layer of platform 3 was dated to cal AD 261–527. The mixed wood charcoal suggested a hearth, but it is possibly from a burnt forest litter layer (Ellis 2016, 10). Charcoal burning would have been needed for metalworking, and it is likely that sites such as this would have been widespread.

Towards the end of the period, and sometime after the mid 800s, a hoard of fragmentary metalwork and beads was buried at Croy [AH4] between Inverness and Nairn. It contained a silver penannular brooch of Pictish style, parts of two others, amber and glass beads, a fragment of knitted silver wire, Anglo-Saxon coins (minted 839–858, but double pierced), and a balance beam (MHG2903; Fraser and Anderson 1874-1876). The fragmentary nature of the objects has led researchers to suggest that the hoard might have belonged to a metalsmith, and someone who would have worked for high-status patrons. The hoard is currently being re-assessed by Adrián Maldonado (Maldonado in prep).

Pottery production and use in this period is still virtually unknown, and will remain so until good settlement evidence can be obtained. The coarseware found at Brotchie’s Steading in Caithness (MHG46260; Case study Brotchie’s Steading) was not able to be dated more closely although the site did produce some early medieval period dating (Holden et al 2008). Similarly, we have little indication of stone tool production or use in this period, although it is likely to have occurred. This evidence, too, must await future settlement evidence.

Textile working is evidenced only indirectly in the period, by a radiocarbon dated weaving comb from Keiss Harbour broch, Caithness (MHG1659; Sheridan et al 2017). Although Portmahomack had spindle whorls dating to the Medieval period, none were found for the early medieval occupation layers. As this was probably an activity taking place in domestic contexts, the scarcity of evidence reflects our paucity of settlement evidence with good preservation.

Evidence of wood working is similarly sparse. The bog butter container from Kyleakin may date to this period, but is probably late Iron Age (MHG5418; Earwood 1991; Chapter 7.6).

Case Study: Portmahomack


Case Study: Hilton of Cadboll Pictish Cross Slab


Case Study: Rosemarkie Caves Project


Case Study: Geodha Smoo Cave Complex


Case Study: Culduthel Iron Age Craftworking Site


Case Study: Lower Slackbuie


Case Study: Brotchie’s Steading


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