The Iron Age in the Highlands did not feature prominently in the National ScARF in 2012. Few sites were mentioned from the region and most of these were old excavations. Since then, there has been a huge amount of important research undertaken in the Highlands. Excavations have taken place at many sites with good preservation; these now provide type-sites which are of national importance. As the final reports are awaited for Culduthel, Clachtoll broch, High Pasture Cave, Dun Deardail and the caves near Rosemarkie, aspects of what follows are provisional. These sites, and some others, also provide key data to shed light on many of the research questions and recommendations of the National ScARF.
The fact that many of the projects have been undertaken in the last two decades means that there is a good body of radiocarbon dates available to underpin future studies (Datasheet 2.1). However, radiocarbon dating for the period is hampered by plateaus in the Early to Mid Iron Age, hindering precise dating in this period (Jacobsson et al 2018), although statistical techniques are refining this to some extent (ScARF Iron Age section 5.9).
An overview of Scottish Iron Age research pre 2012 can be found in the National ScARF Iron Age section 2. There are no published overviews of Iron Age activity in the Highlands, though regional overviews for Caithness (Heald and Barber 2015) and Skye (Armit 1996) are available. There is some overlap with the Iron Age section of the Regional Archaeological Research Framework for Argyll (2017), as some sites that are now in Highland Region were long considered part of Argyll and Bute. Other information and assessments appear in reports for certain sites and artefacts, and these are highlighted in the individual sections below.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some archaeologists adopted a chronological scheme entitled ‘the long Iron Age’, which uses the Viking raids and settlements as the end point of the Iron Age (ScARF Iron Age sections 2.6, 8.4). While there are arguments for this, it creates confusion with earlier works, and there is evidence of distinct changes in the Highlands from the 4th century AD, notably in burial evidence. As a result, the Highland Archaeological Research Framework is using the term Late Iron Age to refer to the first two centuries AD (AD 1–299), and the term early medieval for c AD 300–1000.
Unlike the National and many regional research frameworks, the Highland Archaeological Research Framework has no separate chapter for the Roman period. This is because the Romans probably did not directly reach the Highlands, or if so, they were only fleeting visitors. Their impact on the Highlands is discussed in section 7.4.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Highland material for the Iron Age
Before suggesting research questions and recommendations (section 7.9), it is useful to identify the regional Iron Age archaeology strengths and weaknesses and to characterise these as either ‘within reach of a solution’ (opportunities) or with no obvious solution (threats). Some of these relating to all periods are outlined in Chapter 3, and should be read in conjunction with these below.
- Good type sites at Culduthel (settlement and industry), Clachtoll broch (settlement), High Pasture Cave (ritual) and Dun Deardail (hillfort), and a wealth of other settlement sites, some excavated, some not. These include crannogs, hillforts, roundhouses (simple and complex) and caves, with examples in most areas of the Highlands, providing evidence of both high status and more ordinary settlement.
- The Atlas of Hillforts provides recent summaries of the many hillforts in the area.
- Large number of surviving roundhouses allow the study of material associated with them as well as their form through time and across areas.
- Large artefactual base from excavated finds as a result of the large amount of attention paid to settlement studies. Much cannot be finely dated, nevertheless it is a body of evidence which holds potential. Metal detected finds have greatly contributed to this picture.
- First steps towards gaining an understanding of burial traditions in the period have been taken.
- A growing number of radiocarbon dates exist for the Iron Age Highlands.
- Outcrops of limited raw materials such as steatite and jet-like materials which can be compared to finished artefacts have been identified.
- There is a large amount of antiquarian work providing finds and site information which can be revisited. This is particularly the case for Caithness.
- Relatively few landscape studies.
- Apart from hillforts, there are gaps in settlement evidence from Badenoch and Strathspey, Nairn and southwest Highlands.
- The plateau in the radiocarbon calibration curve and the absence of artefact typologies (or very frequently, any artefacts at all) hinders precise chronological discussions. For example archaeologists have, as yet, no defined pottery sequence for the Iron Age in the Highlands.
- Large number of surviving structural remains allows for discussion of architectural variation on site, between sites, between sub-regions and through time.
- Large numbers of Iron Age sites in the region so there will likely be further burnt-down or waterlogged sites to be found.
- Sub-regional variations allow for highly nuanced observations that are usually unavailable in less variable landscapes.
- Coastal erosion is a risk on some promontory forts.
Much of the material mentioned in this chapter is still unpublished. The project is grateful to Candy Hatherley for sharing the draft of the Culduthel publication, input from Steven Birch (High Pasture Cave), and Andy Heald and Graeme Cavers (Clachtoll broch). The full publication of a number of the sites mentioned in this chapter may revise some of the information cited.