Case Study: The origins of Dingwall

Susan Kruse

Dingwall in Easter Ross was important in the medieval and post-medieval times, the country town and administrative centre. However, its origins are still shrouded in mystery.

There are no known prehistoric finds from Dingwall other than the Pictish symbol stone in the churchyard which is a re-used Neolithic cup marked stone. However, it need not be in situ; Pictish stones were often moved to churchyards at later dates.

The town lies at the end of the Cromarty Firth, in an area which was known to be marshy. A local tradition suggests that Dingwall was under the water until the early medieval period. A number of properties at the west of the town encountered shell middens when digging foundations, lending support to the idea of the sea encroaching inland. The present landscape has been much changed due to land reclamation, canalising of the River Peffrey in Telford’s time and probably by hydro schemes on the River Conon which feeds into the Firth near Dingwall. The date of the retreat of the sea would be an easy hypothesis to check, requiring dated core samples taken in the town and up the strath towards Strathpeffer.

Dingwall was a medieval burgh, first recorded in 1226, with a castle of which only a bit of wall remains. The place-name suggests however, an earlier Viking or Norse centre for some period at the site. Dingwall is a Norse thing-name, a place-name suggesting administrative functions, where legal assemblies were held. In Scandinavia and elsewhere in the Viking-settled areas, these were organised on national, regional and local levels. Identification of thing sites depends on place-name evidence, and unfortunately there is little early documentation for the Highlands. Thing sites have been proposed for Caithness (Things Va and Sordale Hill) and Skye (Glen Hinnisdal) (Sanmark 2017, 198).

Dingwall is well south of most evidence, place-name or archaeology, for Viking and Norse settlement, which seems to suggest the Dornoch Firth as the main boundary. Yet the name persisted, taking precedence over its Gaelic name Inbhir Pheofharain. There have been attempts to link it to stories in the Orkneyingasaga (see summary in O’Grady et al 2016; Crawford and Taylor 2003), but these are controversial. The sagas were not written history but stories based on remembered history, written down centuries after the events occurred, and also with their own bias (Woolf 2007). Dingwall is not mentioned in the sagas; if not for the thing name we would not focus on this site as a potential Scandinavian outpost. The only other hint is the church dedication to St Clements, a popular saint in medieval Scandinavia (Crawford 1999; 2008).

View of Dingwall from above situated on the Cromarty Firth.
Figure 1: Aerial view of Dingwall. ©HES

For this reason, archaeological investigation is key to Dingwall’s early history. No early medieval finds are known from the town, although it is clear much has been lost due to later rebuilding. A very limited excavation of a trench from the mound near the church, which is one of two locally proposed sites of the thing, towards the church was undertaken in 2011–2012. Several radiocarbon dates were obtained, but no artefactual evidence. The earliest date, interpreted as the creation of the mound, occurred between 1029 and 1220. Other dates show activity in the 12th and 13th centuries (O’Grady et al 2016, 188ff). If this site is the thing mound, it shows that it dates to the medieval and not the early medieval Period when the initial Viking settlements occurred. It also does not conform to the chronology traditionally ascribed to the saga evidence.

If it is suggesting Norse activity rather than Scottish, the context and dating remains to be explored. The area south of the Dornoch Firth is likely to have been a frontier area, with control perhaps ebbing and flowing between Norse and Moray. Barbara Crawford speculated that Dingwall may have been an administrative centre for timber extraction up river systems to the south, to provide timber needed by Norse Earls in Orkney (Crawford and Taylor 2003), an interesting hypothesis but difficult to prove. However, a study focusing on place-names from around Beauly and Strath Glass, where some 13th century medieval documents are available, was only able to find a few definite or possible Norse names in this area (Crawford and Taylor 2003).

The trial excavations have shown more stratigraphy survives than might have been suspected, and the potential for further work. This could reveal the date of the establishment of a settlement at Dingwall, occupation details for the early medieval period, as well as its final focus as a medieval burgh. With luck it might also provide artefactual evidence and dating to match the place-name.

Further information

Sanmark, Alexandra 2017 Viking Law and Order. Places and rituals of assembly in the Medieval North, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh.