8.7 Transport and Movement

8.7.1 Movements of People

Limited aDNA and isotope analysis have been done on human remains dating to the early medieval period, with the exception of those from Portmahomack. At Portmahomack in the pre-monastery period, before AD 680, one middle aged male was local, while a middle-aged to elderly female was a migrant from the west. Of the burials in the monastic phase, there was a mixture of local and migrants, two unexpectedly being from Scandinavia. After the 6th century, only 18% of the sampled remains were local, suggesting that the monastery attracted people from a wide area. Of the burials assigned to the 9th and 10th centuries, all were male like the monastic period and a number were non-local (Carver et al 2016, 59, 78–9, 114–7). Did the activities in this period attract craftsmen from further afield? Further aDNA analysis might be able to suggest whether some of these were of Scandinavian descent, particularly in the post-monastic period.

The brutally killed male at Learnie was probably local (Steven Birch pers comm). He has been sampled for aDNA analysis, as have human remains from Pictish burials at Crosskirk broch, Lower Dounreay and Keiss long cist (Sheridan et al 2018). Their results are still awaited.

The initial Viking raiders will have been from outside of Scotland, although given the long period of raids, this need not be Scandinavia.  Isotopic analysis elsewhere in Scotland has shown that some of the female burials in a pagan fashion were not from Scandinavia but had grown up elsewhere in the British Isles and Ireland, possibly within mixed Scandinavian settlements.  A recent study of aDNA from Viking Age individuals found that ‘pagan’ burials at Buckquoy and Brough Road, Birsay in Orkney were of ‘British-like’ heritage, that is not Scandinavian (Margaryan et al 2020).

Unfortunately, virtually no material survives for analysis of Highland Viking burials. Isotope analysis has been undertaken on the teeth from the individual buried in a Viking grave on Ardnamurchan who was not local but the place of origin could not be narrowed down beyond eastern Ireland, northeastern mainland Scotland, Norway or Sweden (Harris et al 2017, 199–200). The bones of the male Balnakeil youth (Case Study Balnakeil Viking Burial) have been sampled for aDNA, and results are awaited.

8.7.2 Movements of objects

Other links can be identified by material remains. The high-status secular site of Craig Phadrig outside of Inverness produced E-ware, a type of pottery made on the Continent, and found in elite secular and ecclesiastical sites across Britain and Ireland in the 6th to 7th centuries (RARFA 8.3.8).

The Croy hoard, probably deposited in the second half of the 9th century, contained Anglo-Saxon coins which had been double-pierced to become jewellery and a knitted silver chain which was probably of Insular manufacture (Graham-Campbell 1995, 3–4); however, there is no way to determine how these objects ended up in the Highlands, whether directly or indirectly.

Similarly, it is not possible to determine how an early 8th century coin found at Portmahomack and minted in the Low Countries on the Continent made its way to the monastery. On limited evidence, Blackburn (2016) leant towards a direct rather than indirect link for the coin. The excavators have argued that the ornamental and iconographic evidence from the Portmahomack sculpture shows links into wide Christian networks during the early medieval period, to Ireland, West Scotland, southern Pictland, Northumbria, Mercia, Cumbria and south-west England (Carver et al 2016, 158). The Pictish sculpture from elsewhere in the Highlands shows links to Irish and Northumbrian traditions (Henderson and Henderson 2004).

Other artefacts show similarities with contemporary objects in Scotland, but without clear ideas of origin or production. For example, the heavy silver chain found at Torvean in Inverness (MHG3800) is one of 11 examples of this type of object found in Scotland. Some have Pictish symbols carved on the terminals, although the terminal plate for the Torvean chain is lost. Interestingly, most of these chains have been found in southern Scotland, not in the area of Pictish sculpture. They are another example of a high status object, probably meant to display rank (Blackwell et al 2017, 95ff).

Anglo-Saxon objects found in Scotland have been recently studied by Blackwell (2018). During this period the Kingdom of Bernicia, based in the Tweed valley, expanded its influence into the Lothians, taking Edinburgh in 638 and establishing monasteries as far north as Abercorn by AD 685. It is clear from the historical, sculptural and archaeological evidence that the Kingdom of Bernicia had entanglements far beyond the Firth of Forth. In the Highlands evidence of their influence includes a 6th century bridle mount from Morayston, Inverness-shire, a 7th century disc mount from Dornoch (Case Study Anglo-Saxon Mount from Dornoch), 8th/9th century strap ends from Rogart, Sutherland and Reay Links, Caithness, as well as a gilt interlace-decorated mount and glass vessel from Portmahomack. The mount dates to the pre-monastic period, showing high status links even at that period; the glass vessel fragment is probably from monastic activity, and may have been manufactured in western Scotland. There are also Anglo-Saxon beads and a pin from Culbin Sands. The later material, particularly the strap ends, may have arrived via Viking contacts. Blackwell notes that the assemblage is small, but significant and it is different from material found in southeastern Scotland (Blackwell 2018, 129ff, 261, Table 5.17; Carver et al 2016, 91).

Photograph shows a copper-coloured, broken mount against a light blue background. The artefact appears to be one third of a fully circular mount, with ornate carved details across the whole item. It is decorated with chip-carved, interlocking, backwards biting beasts around the central boss and narrower, more ambiguous zoomorphic interlace around the outside, with imitation beaded filigree between and outside of these. The object is copper-coloured and shows some dark brown areas where is has been tarnished.
Anglo-Saxon mount from Dornoch. ©Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

Finds of exotic material in Dornoch continue to be made by metal detectorists; besides the Anglo-Saxon disc-mount (Case Study Anglo-Saxon mount from Dornoch ), a ringed pin of Hiberno-Norse type was found by metal detecting (MHG61261). An Anglo-Scandinavian polygonal bell of a type mainly found in the Danelaw and the Isle of Man came from a 9th to 11th century metalworking site, only the second known from the Highland region after Freswick Links (Batey 1987; Coleman and Photos-Jones 2008). These finds attest to extensive maritime contacts active in the Dornoch Firth pre-dating the establishment of the Medieval burgh.

The Viking silver hoards and graves contain a number of objects which circulated in the Viking world, from as far as the Arabic-speaking world and the Baltic. The Storr Rock, Skye hoard (MHG5265), deposited around AD 935-940 contained Arabic coins, a fragment of a neckring made in the Baltic, fragments of Scandinavian and possibly insular jewellery as well as ingots (Graham-Campbell 1995, 28, 144–6; Case Study Storr Rock Viking Hoard). The collection shows silver which had travelled a great deal, but would have been gathered and exchanged in parcels. It has similarities to Irish Viking hoards (Graham-Campbell 1995, 28). How this collection came to be in the possession of someone on Skye, and why it was buried is also unknown. However, the nature of the hoards and the grave goods from the burial shows cultural parallels with Vikings elsewhere, and they provide evidence that Scandinavians or later generations continued to move and interact within this larger sphere.

Photograph showing a collection of silver artefacts, with a bundle of coins of varying sizes, all of which are tarnished and have taken on a dark grey to brown colour. In the foreground, highly polished silver items are seen, including small pieces of irregularly shaped silver. In the centre is a silver armlet, or bracelet, made of one, long piece of moulded silver. The items are photographed against a black background.
The Storr Rock Hoard, Isle of Skye, deposited c. 940, including 18 dirhams of the Samanid dynasty. ©National Museums Scotland

The Tarbat hoard (MHG8470), deposited in AD 990-1000, is an important outlier in many respects. Except for the pierced stycas from the Croy hoard (MHG2903), it is the first Viking hoard with coins to be deposited in the mainland Highland region since the Late Iron Age, and it is also one of only two extant Viking hoards on the mainland north of the Forth, along with Kirk O’ Banks hoard in Caithness (MHG2255). Both hoards contain silver armrings or ‘ring-money’ used as currency in the Scottish Viking Age (Graham-Campbell 1995, 57–9). At Tarbat the armrings were buried with 14 silver coins, including coins of Louis le Begue or Louis II the Stammerer, King of West Francia (877–9) which were a century old by the time they were buried alongside more up-to-date Anglo-Saxon and French (Quentovic) issues (Metcalf 1995, 22–23; Graham-Campbell 1995, 103–4). This diversity of objects shows that this was a cache of someone with trade networks spanning various currency zones. Outside of hoards, silver ring-money is rare on the Scottish mainland, but a clipped fragment of one was recently found in Dornoch (MHG59704).

Aerial image of four black armrings against a white background. The four rings are all very similar in appearance, but vary slighlty in size. They are made of plain bands of silver, in an incomplete circular shape. The are placed in the photo with their gaps to the top, creating U-shapes.
Silver armrings from the Tarbat hoard. ©National Museums Scotland

8.7.3 Means of transport

As in previous periods, there is no surviving evidence from from native sites in the Highlands of how people travelled. For the Picts, evidence of means of transport is confined to some hints in documentary references and depictions on carved stones. None of these depictions are common, or from the Highlands, and without artefactual evidence it is unclear how much they were modelled on contemporary boats and carts. Documentary evidence mention sea battles so ships must have been used (Foster 2014, 137–8), although none survive. Gordon Noble suggests that Burghead in Moray with its sheltered harbour may have been a naval base for Pictish rulers.

For the Viking period there is more evidence.  An individual was buried in a small boat at Ardnamurchan with various grave goods. No wood survived, but 213 rivets recorded in situ show that it was a small craft around 5.1m in length. It was therefore a rowing boat for inshore use rather than the large boats sailing in the North Sea or Atlantic (Harris et al 2017, 194). Two pieces of carved wood, probably the stem posts [AH4] of a boat, were found on Eigg, and are generally considered to be Viking from clinker-type boats. One has been dated to AD 885-1035 (NMS website for Stempost). Further work at Rubha an Dùnain, Skye (MHG4895; Case Study Rubha an Dùnain) where Norse period timbers and harbours have been found (see Chapter 9.7) might determine if this use goes back into the early medieval period.

Photograph of long, wodden post, taken diagonally against a grey background. The post is curved, with the bottom side shaped in a smooth convex arc. The upper side has been carved in a stepped, zig-zag shape using notches. The post is dark brown to black in colour.
Wooden stem post of oak, for a clinker-built boat of Viking type, from a bog at Laig, Isle of Eigg, 885 – 1035 AD. ©National Museums Scotland


Case Study: Balnakeil Viking Burial


Case Study: Anglo-Saxon Mount from Dornoch


Case Study: Storr Rock Viking Hoard


Case Study: Rubha an Dùnain




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