7.8 Conflict

As noted in the Introduction and the previous prehistoric chapters, evidence of violence and conflict are difficult to demonstrate conclusively. The National ScARF panel noted that evidence for the Iron Age is particularly difficult, especially with so few human remains, but on the balance the interpretation is of probable inter-community warfare (ScARF Iron Age section 7.5). However, the issue was seen to need further research, and there is little the Highland evidence can offer at present to the debate.

There is no evidence of human remains that show blunt force trauma, although just outside the Highland region, at Sculptor’s Cave, Moray, there is evidence of decapitation with a sword, probably in the 3rd century AD (Armit et al 2011; Armit and Büster 2020). The difficulty is the interpretation: is this indication of violence, or a ritualised killing where the motive was not interpersonal animosity but rather religious? No such evidence survives for the Highlands.

The sheer number of hillforts and evidence of enclosures around settlements suggest uneasy times, but as the National ScARF panel noted, the evidence for conflict at Scottish hillforts and enclosures is limited and open to interpretation (ScARF Iron Age section 6.7). It is important also to note that one of the wealthiest Highland community, at Culduthel in Inverness, was unenclosed, as is the case of the similarly wealthy site of Birnie in Moray. Without detailed dating of hillforts and duns, it is not possible to determine if there is a chronological element at work in the Highlands. If the vitrification of hillforts and duns was the result of deliberate action, it has been interpreted as the action of victors in some conflict (ScARF Iron Age section 6.6); however, accidental fires cannot be ruled out.

An aerial photograph showing a clearing in amongst a wooded area. The remains of earthworks and ditches can be seen in the clearing.
The vitrified hillfort at Craig Phadraig, Inverness. ©HES

The placement of crannogs may also have been defensive in some cases, as the placement of causeways sometimes appear to have been chosen to make approaching the crannogs difficult for an attacker, although the sites would still have been vulnerable to attack by water.

Clachtoll broch in northwest Sutherland (MHG13002; Case Study; Clachtoll broch) burnt down in the early years AD, and was not resettled. Other sites in the vicinity, including two promontory forts and a crannog also appear to show no evidence after this period. The fire could have been accidental, but the excavators suggest it could have been due to a hostile attack on the area, after which the population moved elsewhere (Graeme Cavers pers comm).

Little Iron Age weaponry survives in the Highlands, but this is in part due to a lack of metalwork hoards as found in other parts of Britain as well as the poorer preservation of iron compared to bronze. An exception is Culduthel (MHG49950) where weapons, including a spearhead and two daggers, were deliberately placed in postholes of roundhouses. A copper alloy sword hilt was also found, and it has been interpreted as material for repair or recycling (Hatherley and Murray 2021; Hunter 2021). A ritual element is also found at High Pasture Cave on Skye (MHG32043) where weapons including daggers and spearheads were deliberately deposited (Birch and Wildgoose 2013; Birch et al forthcoming). At Clachtoll broch (MHG13002), a sword or dagger pommel made from a cetacean bone tooth, similar to examples from the Northern Isles, was found (Graeme Cavers pers comm). 

Copper alloy sword hilt from Culduthel ©Headland Archaeology Ltd

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