7.3 Settlement

As in other periods there are few landscape studies for the Iron Age Highlands. The settlement at Lairg, a model study for the Bronze Age (Chapter 6.3), had only one house in use in the Iron Age, although there are radiocarbon dates showing agricultural activity in this period (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). The Strath Suardal, Skye (Wildgoose 2016) and WeDigs, Wester Ross (Welti and Wildgoose nd) projects show roundhouse occupation continuing into the Iron Age, and indeed later, but generally with only test pitting to obtain dates, and little evidence of the nature of the settlement. The Strath Suardal survey is of special interest since some of the roundhouses were contemporary with the ritual site at nearby High Pasture Cave. As part of the investigations of the rock shelter at Fiscavaig, Skye, a survey was undertaken of sites in the vicinity, although no further dating or investigation of these sites was carried out (MHG51768; Wildgoose and Birch 2009). Excavations in the 1960s at Kilphedir, Sutherland, investigated several roundhouses and tried to relate them to cultivation in the vicinity (MHG9858; Fairhurst and Taylor 1971), but there was little dating evidence. The area was covered with peat after abandonment, suggesting that the cultivation remains are likely to be contemporary with the buildings.

Earthworks marked by lines of pits that are found in southern Scotland (ScARF Iron Age section 3.4) do not seem to be a feature of the Highlands, but in much of the Highlands we would expect upstanding remains. Few earthworks have been dated. If there is a genuine difference, between how earthworks were constructed in the Highland and Lowlands, this may indicate a different way of perceiving the landscape and territories.

Field boundaries associated with settlements are rare for all of Scotland (ScARF Iron Age section 3.5). As such, there is no diagnostic way to identify Iron Age field systems as good dating is essential. The National ScARF panel concluded:

‘Essentially, the field-system of Iron Age Scotland is an untidy, cumulative and haphazard layout, shaped on the one hand by topography and by the earlier remains within its compass, and on the other by the intensity and extent of the cultivation practices.’

Excavations of a series of banks at a croft Leidcruich near Dingwall (MHG58319) showed turf dykes with a clay layer deposited at the bottom; this is a deliberate construction technique that would have required clay to be sourced and transported. A radiocarbon date of 536–385 cal BC (SUERC-75687) was obtained, but this only shows that the turf was burnt in the Iron Age. The dyke could date anytime after the radiocarbon date (McKeggie 2017).

The Highlands have a wealth of potential sites for landscape studies. There are a number of clusters of high-status structures for example at Glenelg, Lochalsh, Waternish on Skye and Sinclair Bay, Caithness (Map 7.3). Were these high-status structures in use at the same time? There are also many areas with different types of sites that were all in use in the period; for example hillforts, crannogs and roundhouses were all constructed of timber and stone. Studies such as Strath Suardal (Wildgoose 2016), show the benefits of both looking widely at a landscape and providing the potential for more detailed examination of individual houses. There have also been a number of excavations in the Culduthel area of Inverness. This major high-status settlement occupied between the 2nd century BC and the early 2nd century AD has been the main focus of attention (Hatherley and Murray 2021), but a number of other sites with Iron Age remains are also in the area (see summary in Hatherley and Murray 2021).

Investigation of high-status and low-status buildings in the landscape is hindered by the general scarcity of knwon low-status buildings (ScARF Iron Age section 6.3). However, a few places in the Highlands can shed light here. The landscape survey at Strath Suardal in Skye was deliberately chosen because of its proximity to the ritual site at High Pasture Cave. Most of the roundhouses dating to this period were fairly modest (Wildgoose 2016), although the excavations at High Pasture Cave have shown access to exotic and high status goods.

The relationship between different types of sites in the same landscape remains to be further explored. Were some sites used for a special purpose or were they seasonal? Were some representing a social status (ScARF Iron Age section 5.1, 5.4)? Romankiewicz (2018) has explored criteria for identifying non-domestic structures, which is a useful way to approach the evidence. There are also some regional trends within the Highlands. For example, Complex Atlantic Roundhouses (cARs) are rare south of Tain in the eastern Highlands (Hatherley 2015c; forthcoming). On the other hand, hillforts and crannogs appear throughout the Highlands (see 7.3.1 and 7.3.3). As better dating emerges, it will also be possible to see if there are chronological differences in the use of different sites.

The last decades have seen a number of excavations and surveys, many of which are mentioned below. The Forestry Commission (now Forestry and Land Scotland) commissioned detailed and innovative surveys of some of the structures on their properties (Cavers et al 2015); see for example, the survey of Dun an Ruigh Ruadh in Wester Ross (MHG7808; Hudson and Humble 2015). These surveys provide a good first step when assessing these complex structures.

As in other periods, the accessibility of building materials in the Iron Age influenced construction in different areas. In areas where timber was becoming scarce, turf was probably a key material, although its presence in the archaeological record remains elusive (ScARF Iron Age section 4.4; Romankiewicz 2019). It is noteworthy that the roundhouse on the hill at Wester Rarichie, Easter Ross with an internal diameter of around 12m appears to have been turf walled, despite its prominent location where stone walls may have been expected. It is also of interest in that it is dated to the Early Iron Age (MHG8465; Hatherley 2014; 2015c).

Few settlements were only used in a single period. Some houses were reused from earlier periods, for example Loch Raa which was built in the Bronze Age (MHG91260), and others would in turn be re-used in subsequent centuries (Chapter 8.3). More work, such as has occurred at Kintore, Aberdeenshire (Cook and Dunbar 2008) and at other sites in the Highlands needs to be undertaken.

7.3.1 Enclosed Settlements

7.3.2 Palisaded Enclosures

7.3.3 Crannogs

7.3.4 Caves and Rock Shelters

7.3.5 Buildings

7.3.6 Other Settlement Evidence