The evidence for conflict in this period is both direct and indirect.
The reuse of Craig Phadrig hillfort (MHG3809) in this period suggests that defended sites were considered necessary. The evidence shows that the heavily vitrified wall was cut to hold a palisade, which in turn may have burnt down in the early 5th to mid 6th century (Peteranna and Birch 2018, 77). Adomnán’s account of St Columba mentions the Saint’s visit to the stronghold of Bridei by the River Ness, describing a hall within the fortress. This fortress has been equated with several sites, with Craig Phadrig the frontrunner. Nevertheless, It remains unclear how much Adomnan’s perception of the term ‘fortress’ matches our own (Noble and Evans 2019, 51–2).
The promontory fort of Burghead, just outside the Highland region, was clearly a high status settlement, and again shows attention towards fortification, though Noble points out that fortification also has a political significance. Evidence exists for different types of fortified settlements in northern Pictland including hilltop enclosures, such as Craig Phadrig, coastal promontory forts, such as Burghead, and ‘ringforts’ or duns, with dating evidence elsewhere suggesting a focus in the 5th and 6th centuries (Noble and Evans 2019, 39ff). Examples of all of these can be found in the Highlands, although dating evidence to the early medieval period is only available for a few. Whether other settlements were enclosed or fortified is not known given the lack of evidence.
In the southwest, in the areas controlled by the Dal Riata Gaels, there were also fortified settlements, some of which have been excavated including Dunadd (RARFA 8.3.4). However, no dating evidence as yet been undertaken for sites in Ardnamurchan or Morvern.
Pictish stones, particularly scenes on cross slabs, depict warfare, with fighting by sword, spear and bow and arrow. Helmets and shields are also depicted (Hall et al 2020, 135, 139ff). Do these represent Pictish scenes and stories, or are they depictions of biblical tales in a design and format meant to have a resonance with Pictish viewers?
The most evocative battle scene from just outside the Highland Region is the massive Sueno’s Stone in Moray which depicts ranks of armed warriors and what appears to be a mass decapitation. Theories around whether this stone represents a historical battle have swirled for centuries, but archaeologists are no closer to deciding on a date for the stone or indeed which battle it depicts (Southwick 1981; Henderson and Henderson 2004, Downham, 2011; Foster 2014, 154–5). Weapons depicted include swords, scabbards, shields, bows, spears and possibly ringmail.
The monastery at Portmahomack had extensive damage around AD 800, with evidence of widespread fire damage and destruction and then the deposition of over 230 fragments of smashed sculpture. This has been interpreted as a raid. Given when known Viking bands were raiding elsewhere in Britain, they have been viewed as the likely culprits (Carver et al 2016, 256ff). The only note of caution is that the evidence from Ireland shows contemporary monasteries there were sometimes raided by native as well as Viking (Lucas 1966): as centres of wealth and power they attracted attention.
Only at Portmahomack has there been a substantial investigation of skeletal remains, in this case a cemetery in which the earliest burial is dated cal AD 420–610. A large number of male burials occur during the 8th century when the monastery flourished (Period 2), and 17, again mostly male, are thought to date to the period after the raid took place around AD 800 (Period 3). Of the 58 burials dating to Periods 2 and 3, 15 had suffered fractures or more severe damage, many of which might not be evidence of trauma, but rather accidents. However, in two cases, both buried after AD 800, the individuals had sharp cuts to the skull; one probably died from the wound, while the other healed (Carver et al 2016, 118–9). Clearly this does not represent a massacre in the raid, but it is possible that casualties from that event could have been buried elsewhere.
The issue of initial Viking–native interaction has been the subject of much debate (Armit 1996, 202–3). Historical sources make clear that initial contacts were raids – and the Portmahomack evidence may well point to a Viking attack. But the nature of the interaction afterwards is difficult to determine. In other areas such as Shetland and the Western Isles, there have been some arguments of population replacement, mainly based on the overwhelming Norse place-name evidence. However, place-name evidence is based on much later documents, and the Western and Northern Isles had longer political links to the Norse world. Excavators in Orkney where Norse place-names are dense, have interpreted the archaeological evidence as largely peaceful (ScARF Medieval section 2.3.1). It is also worth remembering that even in areas which were Pictish and not influenced by the Vikings/Norse (eg Badenoch and Strathspey), there are virtually no Pictish names surviving, yet ethnic cleansing is not considered the reason for the lack of evidence there.