7.4.1. Food, Farming and Diet


Food, once grown, gathered and processed, was cooked in either the hearth or cooking pits, and some sites in Scotland suggest the use of hot stone cooking technology, as found at burnt mounds, continued in the Iron Age. The National ScARF panel highlighted the need for further research in this area, combined with an assessment of artefactual evidence, particular pottery (ScARF Iron Age section 4.3).

The evidence for food grown, collected and hunted in the Highlands during the Iron Age still needs to be pulled together, as their details are included in a number of excavation reports and Data Structure Reports that have yet to be published. Reports from Culduthel, North Kessock, Clachtoll broch, High Pasture Cave and Dun Deardail hillfort when published should provide more detailed evidence of what people were eating in the Iron Age. These fortunately cover different areas of the Highlands. While a large number of samples were taken at Culduthel, relatively few were selected for analysis, and a number relate to undated features (Hatherley and Murray 2021, Case Study: Culduthel Iron Age Craftworking Site); however, if stored properly this material could be revisited. Reports from various Caithness brochs can be added to this picture. Good preservation and environmental analysis at Oakbank crannog in Highland Perthshire has provided an insight into the food resources, both cultivated and wild, which ought to have been available at many Highland sites from the Early Iron Age. Interestingly this included the first evidence for spelt and opium poppy in Scotland; both were interpreted as exotics, perhaps obtained as a trade or tribute (Miller et al 1998). Ongoing work by AOC Archaeology and Durham University on the environmental remains from roundhouses and their surrounding areas in Caithness and Sutherland will also provide greater insight into subsistence practices (Andy Heald pers comm).


Six-row barley was the main crop grown throughout Iron Age Scotland, although occasionally naked barley appears, with a low percentage of oats and occasionally emmer wheat as well as spelt. Flax is also occasionally identified, and could have been used for food, oil and/or fibres. Rye is rarely identified (ScARF Iron Age section 4.2).

Broadly speaking, the Highland sites conform to this pattern, but recent excavations with good pollen analysis are presenting a more nuanced picture. At Lairg, barley predominated, but oats and wheat were also grown in the area (McCullagh and Tipping 1998). Naked barley continued to be cultivated at some sites, with evidence for example at Crosskirk broch (MHG29521), Caithness and Cyderhall, Sutherland (MHG11834; Pollock 1992, Dickson and Dickson 2000, 108–9). A sub-rectangular lined storage pit near a roundhouse at Cyderhall, Sutherland, with good preservation contained a large amount of burnt grain, predominantly six-rowed barley but also reasonable amounts of naked barley, some emmer wheat and a few grains of spelt and oat, together with weed seeds. Chaff survived for both barley and wheat, suggesting the grain was not winnowed thoroughly or had not been sieved before the fire, and may have been stored in spikelets in an internal pit within the house. A carbonised barley grain within the pit was dated to 400–126 BC (GU-2633; Pollock 1992, 158–9; Dickson and Dickson 2000, 109).

At Bellfield, North Kessock, there appears to have been an increase in the cultivation of oats in the Iron Age (Murray 2012); this was also seen across the Beauly firth at Culduthel (Timpany et al 2021b). Preservation varied at Culduthel but included barley (mainly hulled 6-row), oat and lesser amounts of wheat (emmer and spelt) and rye. Some of the barley had sprouted, which may indicate brewing (Timpany et al 2021a; 2021b. The small amounts of spelt and rye at Culduthel may have been the result of trade rather than local cultivation (Scott Timpany pers comm).

Evidence for flax is similarly sparse in the Highlands; evidence comes from Cyderhall, Sutherland (Pollock 1992) and from a single seed found at Crosskirk broch in Caithness (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 108). Flax could have been grown for food or cloth. It was cultivated at Oakbank crannog so was possibly more widespread in the Highlands than current evidence suggests. It requires well-drained soils without competition from weeds, so may also have been an exotic (Miller et al 1998).

Environmental evidence has also suggested times of agricultural intensification during the Iron Age, which can be seen at An Druim, northwest Sutherland around 500 BC, in an area showing gradual woodland clearance (Tipping 1994, 24). This is an area with a number of roundhouses, and it might repay further landscape studies to complement the environmental work that has already been done. Other sites can provide similar information for the Iron Age, for example, Freswick Links in Caithness (Morris et al 1995, 15; Case Study; Freswick Links). Evidence of agricultural intensification at other Highland sites should also be gathered together and correlated with settlement remains.

The rotary quern first appears in the Iron Age, probably between 400 and 200 BC (McLaren and Hunter 2008). Querns, both saddle querns and rotary querns, are common at Scottish Iron Age sites, though the date and circumstances of the change from saddle querns to rotary querns are still not much understood. There also appears to be regional differences in design (ScARF Iron Age section 4.2, 4.5; McLaren 2021). The majority of rotary querns at Culduthel were bun-shaped; this shape is generally more common in the south and east (McLaren 2021). At Clachtoll broch a knocking stone full of grain shows that these were also used in the period (Graeme Cavers pers comm; Case Study: Clachtoll broch). A number of querns are known from well-dated Highland sites, and would repay more detailed investigation.

rotary quern made of stone, leaning against a wall
Upper stone of a rotary quern from Crosskirk broch, on display at Castlehill Heritage Centre. ©Susan Kruse

A few sites have evidence of grain drying and storage. At Broadford Medical Centre on Skye, a grain drying kiln with stone bowl had been re-cut several times, with use dated to somewhere between around 350 and 50 BC. There were also contemporary grain storage pits on the site (MHG55638; Birch 2012; Birch forthcoming). A circular, stone-lined kiln from Rhicullen, Easter Ross had a flat stone base and small flue; nearby were postholes which might be related or which belonged to a postulated roundhouse. The fill in the kiln and nearby postholes dated to the last centuries BC (MHG49778; Farrell 2005). Pits containing grain from several sites including Cyderhall, Sutherland (MHG11834) and Torvean, Inverness (M Peteranna pers comm) have been interpreted as designed to store grain.

Souterrains are often cited as having been built for food storage, as some preserve evidence of grains, but they are also interpreted as ritual structures. They are discussed in 7.6.

A closer inspection of cereal pollen may provide evidence of the movement of food goods. At Culduthel, for example, there is very little chaff (Scott Timpany pers comm). This suggests that the inhabitants were importing much of their grain, though it is not possible to determine how far away it would have been grown and transported. Despite the fact that domestic cultivation finds were rarer at Culduthel, iron reaping hooks were found (Hunter 2021).

Animal Husbandry

National ScARF noted that animal bones on Iron Age sites are generally consistent across Scotland, with cattle and sheep dominating, and pigs playing a minor role. Goat are difficult to distinguish from sheep and may be under-represented. Horses were present, but whether they were used as food is unclear. A few sites show domestic fowl (ScARF Iron Age section 4.2).

As noted in Chapter 3, the acid soils of the Highlands have resulted in less bone preservation, hindering analysis of general trends in animal husbandry over the Highlands. Where preservation allows for discussion, for example at Comar Wood dun (MHG55867; Peteranna and Birch 2017a), some Caithness coastal sites (Robertson 2012), Kintradwell broch, Sutherland (MHG9777) and Applecross broch in Wester Ross (MHG7680), the situation generally conforms to the wider Scottish picture. For example, at Kintradwell there were teeth and/or bones from horse, ox, pig and goat/sheep, as well as dogs (Joass 1864).

The major exception is at High Pasture Cave on Skye (MHG32043; Case Study High Pasture Cave) which shows a very different picture; it is one that must relate to the nature of the site. Over 60,000 individual animal bones were identified and analysed. They include cattle, sheep/goat, pig, deer, dog and horse; there were juvenile and foetal elements of the assemblage for all species except horse. An unusual assemblage of over 23 juvenile pigs, with unusual butchery and processing, was deposited during closure of the stairwell around 185–100 BC. This may indicate that this assemblage is the remains of a large feast. The detailed analysis of the faunal remains at the site shows different episodes, choice and treatment of animals, butchery practices, and depositional preferences (Birch et al forthcoming).

There is little evidence of foddering or stalling animals, although environmental work on parasites may in the future provide an indicator. Sites that have good preservation of animal remains of older animals, such as at Thrumster broch, Caithness, where all animals were older than one year, show that some overwintering must have occurred, although it need not have been at the site where the bones were found (Robertson 2011). Ring-ditches in roundhouses may, in some cases have been caused by the overwintering of animals, with scoops caused by clearing out the interiors (ScARF Iron Age section 4.2, 5.4).

Hunting and Gathering

While domestic cultivation and the keeping of animals appear to have been the main sources of food for which archaeologists have evidence, hunting, gathering, fishing and fowling are evidenced on a number of sites in Scotland (ScARF Iron Age section 4.2). Analysis of animal bone on some Caithness sites shows that animal husbandry was supplemented with the hunting of wild species such as red deer, whale, seal and otter (Robertson 2012). Preservation was good at Kintradwell broch, excavated in the late 1800s, with evidence of fox, deer and multiple species of birds (MHG9777; Joass 1864).

Evidence at Bellfield, North Kessock and Culduthel, Inverness showed evidence of foraging for wild foods especially hazelnuts (Murray 2012, 25–26; Timpany et al 2021a; 2021b). Wild plants found at Culduthel included crab apple, bramble, blackthorn (sloe) berries and probably wild strawberries. Some of the wild plants may also have been gathered for medicinal purposes (Scott Timpany pers comm). At Oakbank Crannog, Highland Perthshire, cloudberries were gathered, probably from some distance away (Miller et al 1998). It could be expected that cloudberries grew on peatland soils in the Highlands, although little evidence has been found to confirm this.  

At Dun Morangie, Tarlogie (MHG8706) an orca or killer whale tooth was found in the construction raft of rubble used to level the site before the roundhouse was built in the 4th century cal BC, suggesting exploitation of beached whales (Hatherley 2015b). This site also had good bone preservation, which will be outlined in the final report.

Fishing and Shellfish Gathering

Poor survival of fish bones hinders detailed analysis but there are some sites with good preservation, such as Kintradwell broch (MHG9777), Applecross broch (MHG7680) and some of the caves and rock shelters; this evidence should be pulled together. The ash-filled tank from Crosskirk broch in Caithness was interpreted as possibly designed for preserving seafood, based on ethnographic parallels (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 108). Even inland sites have some evidence of fish remains, including at High Pasture Cave, but as noted above, this cannot be taken as necessarily normal given the special nature of the site.

Shellfish was plentiful at some sites. For example, at Applecross broch examples of periwinkle, limpet or mussel, oyster, scallop and razor shells were all found (MHG7680; Wessex Archaeology 2006). While some shellfish could have been used as bait, they could well have formed part of the diet. This is a topic of interest given the general Bronze Age avoidance of marine protein (see Chapter 6.4) identified from isotope analysis. At Caird’s Cave in Easter Ross, the shallow in situ deposits dating between 4th to 3rd century cal BC and the 2nd to the third 3rd century cal AD contained a range of shellfish, including periwinkles and to a lesser extent limpets and crabs. They are interpreted here as being for human consumption as evidence of fish and land mammals was much less prevalent and therefore less important to local diet (Anderson-Whymark 2011, 71).

Fish gorges made of bone have been identified from some sites, including Dun Ardtreck, Skye (MHG5019; MacKie 2000), Keiss Harbour broch (MHG1659) and Crosskirk broch, Caithness (MHG39521; Fairhurst 1984). Given the general poor preservation of bone in the Highlands, these items are likely to have been more common.

Overall Diet

The only isotope analysis undertaken on Iron Age skeletons has been on the human remains from High Pasture Cave (Steven Birch pers comm) and Applecross broch (Ian Armit pers comm), with published results awaited from both. A number of skeletons of juveniles and adults were recovered from High Pasture Cave, most from the midden deposits in the cave; but there was also an adult female buried with two infants at the top of the stairway, as part of a final closing act that took place around AD 25 to 90. Isotopic analysis for a young adult from the 4th to 3rd centuries cal BC showed that their diet had a high level of marine protein, an unusual find for the period. The adult female buried at the top of the stairway, in contrast shows a more traditional diet of animal protein, though interestingly different from the herbivores from the site (Birch et al forthcoming).

While not plentiful, there are other Iron Age human remains which could be investigated to determine more about diet and mobility (see 7.7). In particular, it would be useful to determine if Iron Age peoples continued to avoid marine protein in the Highlands, though limited evidence suggests shellfish and fish may have been important in some areas (see above). Further work is needed and should be combined with environmental evidence.

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