Case Study: Medieval Inverness

Susan Kruse

There has been more excavation in Inverness than in most Scottish burghs (Wordsworth 1981; Wordsworth 1982; Perry 1998; Ellis et al 2002; Peteranna 2014; Berdow and McKeggie 2017; Peteranna and Stirling 2018; MHG3332). From these surveys it is clear that the preservation and depth of materials varies greatly (Wordsworth 1981, 73).

Inverness was first mentioned between 1165 and 1171, and the burgh slightly later, but it is generally accepted that it was a royal burgh from the time of David I (1124–53). There may well have been a settlement already there, under the Earls of Moray, but evidence so far is lean (Perry 1998, 836; Peteranna 2014, 49). It was a frontier outpost, planted by the Scottish kings to impose control in the Highlands, and as such it suffered frequent raids by the English, Lords of the Isles, disaffected nobles and clan warfare:  Inverness was captured 14 times between 1163 and 1500 (Wordsworth 1982, 322). Some of these raids resulted in widespread burning.

The evidence from historical sources has been combined with the archaeological evidence up to 1998 by Perry (1998), Since then there has been an explosion of activity in Inverness, primarily on the periphery which were outside the burgh limits, but not exclusively.

The burgh was defined by a ditch which has been traced in several excavations over the years (Ellis et al 2002). It certainly deteriorated over time, being termed later a ‘foul pool’, presumably due to the waste thrown in it (Wordsworth 1981, 71)

The excavations at Castle Street, situated near to the castle, had good preservation, and well-stratified deposits grouped into 9 phases and dated mainly by artefacts. Frontages of three properties were traced for two and a half centuries, with 18 buildings excavated in part, 10 of them on the frontage. The earliest walling was comprised of vertical oak planks supported by clay, an unusual and rare survival. Probably from the 14th century, sillbeam buildings were constructed, separated by substantial timber posts; there was little evidence of wattle walls over the sillbeams, suggesting planks, either vertical or horizontal, were used. Other walls on the buildings may well have had wattling, as there is evidence of wattle walls on some buildings. Some of the buildings were gable end to the street frontage, but others lay parallel. Roofs were supported on vertical posts, though roofing materials are unclear but possibly grass thatching in at least one case.

Evidence of internal divisions were recovered in some cases. Floor deposits were thin lenses of sand and gravel, with no evidence of timber flooring. The sand may have been brought to the site in small quantities at a time. Only one domestic hearth was identified. Some may have been destroyed, and one theory is that cooking may have been done elsewhere, as there were few cooking pots. Perhaps heating was supplied by braziers which would leave no archaeological trace.

Evidence for the backlands – the grounds behind the houses – was fragmentary. Some structures did extend back, and there is evidence of cobbling, presumably courtyards and stables. In the late medieval period there were also furnaces built in this area (discussed in Chapter 9.5.1). Other evidence included cesspits in phase 2, one of which was timber-lined. It also included large quantities of fish bones and bramble seeds, suggesting short-lived use. Sections of the road were also traced in places, made up of coarse sand and gravel (Wordsworth 1982, 380ff).

The good preservation resulted in a valuable assemblage of artefacts including pottery (imported and local), worked wood, metalwork including a copper alloy pin, barrel padlock, iron awl, knife blade, iron arrowhead, leather and textile scraps, slag, large quantities of animal and fish bones.

Stone vessel decorated with a face with the mouth agape.
Figure : A pot quern from Inverness Dominican Friary. ©Inverness Museum and Art Gallery

Excavations at nearby Rainings Stairs shed further light on the backlands (MHG14554). Excavations in 1993 by Inverness Museum revealed evidence for a timber building terraced into the slope, which had been destroyed by burning. Pottery suggested a date of 14th or 15th century (Perry 1998, 851). More recently, further excavations up the slope have shown evidence of activity back to the 13th century, with medieval pottery and environmental data (Berdow and McKeggie 2017; Lachlan McKeggie pers comm); the final report is awaited.

The excavation of a grain drying kiln situated near the ditch, and dated to the 12th and 13th centuries shows that agricultural activities were taking place at the edge of the defined burgh. The kiln was keyhole-shape, similar to other medieval kilns from Scotland, with walls of clay-lined gravel and coarse sands. Its fill was charcoal-rich, with oak, ash, alder and hazel. The oak may have formed part of the superstructure.  Plant remains in the fill were dominated by oats, with also barley and rye and a much smaller amount of wheat, probably representing crops dried at the kiln (Ellis et al 2002).

A series of castles have existed on the present site, with the placename Auldcastle suggesting an alternative site at some periods (MHG33329). It is still unclear how much if any remains of the medieval castle survive. The burgh also held the parish church and the Blackfriar’s priory (Perry 1998, 845).

While not as extensive as Perth or Elgin, the evidence from Inverness is a valuable insight into medieval construction over several centuries.

Further information

Perry, David 1998 ‘Inverness: an historical and archaeological review’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 128, 831–857.

Wordsworth, Jonathan 1982 ‘Excavation of the settlement at 13-21 Castle Street, Inverness, 1979’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 112, 322–391.