9.1 Introduction

The medieval period in the Highlands was very different from other areas of Scotland, as there were different political and cultural influences in the region. Its progressive integration into the Kingdom of Scotland from the later 11th century created particular tensions, conflicts and contrasts in its social, economic and broader cultural development of the Highlands.

In many ways the Highlands was a contested zone or frontier area, with three different external influences pulling it in different directions at the start of the medieval period. From the north, after the initial Viking raids around c 800, a Scandinavian-influenced society was present, called here the Norse to distinguish from the initial raiding Vikings. At the beginning of the period Caithness and Sutherland were part of this Norse world, and indeed theoretically answerable to Norway, for secular and ecclesiastical matters. But at the end of the 11th century a division seems to have become established through the Pentland Firth into the island territories that were considered Norwegian and the mainland districts that were viewed as subject to Scottish kings (Ross 2011; Crawford 2013). Although it is worth pointing out that notions of formal ‘treaty’ arrangement are likely to be a late 12th to early 13th century fiction (Oram 2011; 2012).

Despite ideas of zones of Scottish or Norwegian overlordship, in fact, much of this area still looked towards Orkney, which was the principal centre of power for the joint earls of Orkney and Caithness. Scottish kings started to extend their authority into the region in the second quarter of the 12th century and directed military campaigns there in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, particularly kings William and Alexander II. Their aim was to try and impose their authority and counter the influence of dynastic pretenders to the Scottish kingship in these areas. Through dynastic intermarriage and the grant of lands in the far north to their followers, the Scottish kings progressively absorbed the northern Highlands into their realm (Crawford 1982; Cant 1986, 52–53; Crawford 2000; 2013; Bangor-Jones 2000, 36ff; Oram 2011; 2012). Although the Viking raids mainly occurred in the 9th and 10th centuries, there was still an interest amongst the Orkney earls in expanding their sphere of authority southwards. They even led military campaigns into Moray into the early 13th century, although these last events were more of a dynastic conflict in character than the blatant territorial aggrandisement of earlier centuries (Grant 2000, 106ff; Carver 2008; Ross 2011; Oram 2012).

The west coast was controlled by the Kings of the Isles, based on the Isle of Man. They also had a northern power-base in Lewis (and to a lesser extent Skye) into the early 13th century. The western Highlands then came under the sway of the Earls of Ross in the mid-13th century. Then from the early 15th century the region was under the control of the Lords of the Isles from the Islay-based MhicDomhnuill kin, a dynasty which combined Gaelic and Viking traditions, but also well integrated into Lowland Scottish society through marriage into the Stewart and Leslie families. Their MhicRuairidh kinsmen, who held Garmoran, had a presence on the ‘North Argyll’ mainland coast from the 13th to mid-14th centuries/ This holding passed by marriage to the MhicDomhnuills and was then given to their Clann Raonaill cadets, based at Castle Tioram (Stell 2014).

Aerial view of Castle Tioram, Loch Moidart, a stronghold with 13th century origins (continuously modified according to fashion until abandonment in the 18th century). ©Historic Environment Scotland

For much of the medieval period the senior Lord of the Isles line of the MhicDomhnuill, based at Finlaggan on Islay, were fairly autonomous in Scotland although they recognised the overlordship of the Stewart kings, until their suppression in the late 15th century. At times the areas the MhicDomhnuill’s controlled expanded over to the east coast into Easter Ross, including Dingwall, and on into Banffshire and Buchan (Munro 1981, Armit 1996, 206ff; McDonald 1997, Grant 2000; Oram 2014a; RARFA chapter 9).

At the beginning of the medieval period, much of the central and southern Highlands was part of Moray though how so is poorly understood. The historical MacBeth secured the kingship of Scotland in the mid 11th century, possibly in a final episode of a centuries’ long conflict between northern and southern Scottish-based rulers for supremacy on the Scottish mainland (Ross 2011). MacBeth’s Moray-based dynasty, however, lost out to their southern Scottish rivals who were descended from King Mael Coluim mac Cinaeda, later in the 11th century; the Macbeths were eventually eliminated by the southerners in a final prolonged episode of conflict from 1130 to 1230 (Oram 2011; 2012). The story of that conflict has most often presented the history of the southern Highlands as the gradual attempt by the Scottish Kingdom to expand and consolidate its control within the Highlands. Although there is a tendency to present conquest as a narrative of key foreign families being granted lands, and imposing their rule, the biggest beneficiaries of the southern Scottish takeover of the Highlands were the great Gaelic magnates of the south, including the earls of Atholl, Fife, Mar and Streathearn (Oram 2011). The institutions considered synonymous with medieval society – feudal relationships, burghs owing dues to their lords, coinage, church organisation – gradually spread in their wake (Grant 2000, 102ff).

None of these processes occurred or operated in isolation. The complex inter-dynastic relationships of the whole western and northern maritime zone from Man to Shetland and the intermarriages between lordly as well as royal dynasties, created overlapping and intersecting bonds through family and wider political loyalties. This, however, was not a condition unique to the Highlands and there were similarities with the social and political development of southern Scotland as well, including political interaction, dynastic interconnection and organised religion.

A further important mechanism for greater integration of the Highlands into the rest of Scotland was the progressive development of the structures of church government in the Highlands, with the Sees of Moray, Ross and Caithness being integrated into the ecclesia Scoticana, in the latter countering the strong Orkney-led influence of the Norwegian archdiocese of Nidaros. The appointment of bishops from the ranks of the southern Scottish ecclesiastical elite, many of an English or French cultural background, turned the northern bishoprics into key instruments for the political domination of the region (Oram 2021).  The continuing processes of intermarriage through strategic family alliances in the later 12th to 15th centuries also accelerated the integration of the social leadership of the Highlands into the ranks of the lowland Scottish nobility. It was through such connections that Highland lordships held by the Comyn, Stewart, Leslie, Graham, Grant, Chisholm, Dunbar, Fleming, Sutherland, Cheyne and Durward as well as a number of other families were created. These lordships formed effective links that embedded key regional families into the wider Scottish political community.

Frontiers are also, as in the early medieval period, likely to have ebbed and flowed to some degree and researchers should probably speak of ‘fuzzy zones’ of shifting interaction rather than hard-edged territories at any point before the mid-13th century. From that date onwards, the recognisable territorial building-blocks of regional power that were to persist into the post-medieval period had crystallised. But it is clear that the Highlands around AD 1500 was a very different place than AD 1000. One key manifestation of change across this period is the emergence and establishment of new expressions of social and political relationships marked by rise of the clan system with its militarised kindreds, complex internal dynamics of power and display, economic exchange, and mechanisms for cultural production (ScARF Medieval section, 2.4; Munro 1981; Cathcart 2006 Boardman 2007; Oram and Adderley 2008; ).

The historical divisions resulted in four languages being used currently in the Highlands during the medieval period: Norse, Gaelic, Scots and Latin. The Gaelic tradition proved to be the strongest in the Highlands, continuing well into the post-medieval period.

Historical documents start to provide evidence during the medieval period in the Highlands although there are very few dated to before the 12th century, and in many places none until towards the end of the period. Most historic texts relate to the southern Highlands, extending up to southeastern Sutherland. These documents provide some information about landholding and political elite (Barrow 1981). The Norse sagas, particularly the Orkneyinga Saga, relate stories contemporary with some events, though issues of bias still remain. Woolf (2007, 241ff, 277ff) has argued that much of the Orkneyinga Saga reflects a justification for the 13th century Norse raids of Moray. There are also few documents for the west (RARFA 9.1). As a result, the history of this period has tended to be written from the perspective of the documentation from the south of Scotland.

An interdisciplinary approach is essential to bringing the northern and western Highland perspective into this narrative. Any research on the medieval Highlands also needs to be better related to the political structures of the Isles. For example, the role of the earls of Ross in extending Scottish political and legal authority from the Inverness and Dingwall area west to Lewis is well attested but its long-term implications for patterns of landownership, communications networks, trade, fiscal systems etc are only beginning to be researched in detail (see, for example, Mac Coinnich 2003 for Mackenzie reconstruction of this dynamic in the 16th and 17th centuries; Oram 2020b).

Although there have been some notable interdisciplinary investigations, which were a key recommendation of National ScARF (ScARF Medieval section 6.3), there is still a need to integrate different disciplines into the narrative more consistently.

In an area as large as the Highlands, with different cultural traditions and differing levels of documentary evidence for each, providing a political narrative is a complex task. A compendium published by the Inverness Field Club in 1981 covered a number of key topics for medieval Highlands (Maclean 1981), but is now out of date in places. Overviews of the Scandinavian impact in Scotland are discussed in National ScARF (ScARF Medieval section 2.3). Crawford’s 2013 publication on the earldoms of Orkney and Caithness can now be added to this discussion as well..

The main focus of research for the Highlands, however, has been on the production of narratives that explore key families or political sub-units, such as earldoms and lordships, rather than on an overarching narrative for the whole Highland Region. The quality of this research is variable, especially the 19th and earlier 20th century family histories, which were uncritical in their analysis of clan histories and tradition, with their main value often being in the transcription of documentary records that they contain. There is much of great importance contained in the four volumes of Highland Papers collected and edited by J R N Macphail (1914–34).

More recent historiography has taken a much more critical and analytical approach to the record evidence. This approach is evident, for example, in the important discussion of 13th century Comyn power in the central and south-western Highlands provided by Young (1997) and summarised in Oram and Stell (2005). A number of overviews on the Lords of the Isles have emerged over the years, many coming to different conclusions (see Oram 2014b). The impact of the Lords of the Isles is explored in Oram (2014a), with the RARFA Medieval summary also relevant to the Highlands (Raven 2017); the work on Mingary Castle by Addyman and Oram (2012) also provides useful summaries for this region.  

The area of Ross and the southern Highlands are covered by Grant (2000) and Oram et al (2009), and a discussion of the relationship of the Earls of Ross to the Lords of the Isles can be found in Munro (1986) and Oram (2020b). The rise of the Mackenzies to regional dominance is explored in MacCoinnich (2003) and Oram (2020b), while the MacIntosh and Clann Chattan confederacy is explored in depth by Cathcart (2006). Ross (2011) discussed Moray which was far larger in extent than the present county, and the evidence for political revolts after the death of Macbeth, with attention to previous scholarship. His narrative is extended and refined in Oram (2020).

During the medieval period, there was climatic downturn in the late 13th and 14th centuries that affected much of Scotland, and its impact in the Highlands remains to be traced (see 9.2). Indeed Oram (2014c; forthcoming a) argues that environmental factors are as important as political changes in understanding life in medieval Scotland. As in earlier prehistoric periods in the Highlands, there is also evidence of human resilience, adaptation and indeed violence, in the changing conditions.

In the medieval period we can begin to see from a variety of evidence that the Highlands was comprised of subregions, for example a richer agriculturally productive east and a poorer west with the ‘braes’ in the middle. This variation is reflected in the differences in the size of parishes and the numbers and distribution of churches, castles, taxation records and burghs. These subregions were linked by patterns of trade and landownership: more than one landlord ot chief owned both lowland and upland properties. There is also a pattern of central and eastern lowland Scottish lords with interests in the central, north and west Highlands, to go along with Highland lords with interests that extend from the firthlands in the east to the Atlantic coast. The Rosses and the Mackenzies are the key families for the 13th to 17th centuries (Mac Coinnich 2003; Oram and Stell 2005), but they are not alone (Bangor-Jones 2000).

There are various themes and sub-themes in the National ScARF to which the Highlands can evidently make a critical contribution. These include understanding the process of state formation, critiquing the urban-rural dichotomy, living with animals and sustaining cereals, the medieval church, and the study of pilgrimage and human remains. A surprising amount of evidence for industrial activity, especially metalworking, exists for the Highland area (see 9.5).

The National ScARF Medieval section (1.4) also emphasised that for the Middle Ages in particular high-quality field design and excavation is needed. This means a move away from dogmatic trial trenching strategies which still dominate research fieldwork. Examples singled out for special mention in the National SCARF are all found in the Highland Council region: the Lairg project for its soil analysis regime where little observable strata were present (McCullagh and Tipping 1998), Portmahomack for open area excavation (Carver et al 2016) and Horace Fairhurst’s seminal examination of the post-medieval settlement at Rosal in Strathnaver (Fairhurst 1968). Notable projects executed since the National ScARF are the Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project and the Rosemarkie Caves project, both high-quality investigations with results to match.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Highland Material for the Medieval period

Before suggesting research questions and recommendations (see 9.9), it is useful to identify the regional medieval archaeology strengths and weaknesses and to characterise these as either ‘within reach of a solution’ (opportunities) or with no obvious solution (threats). Many of these relate to all periods, outlined in Chapter 3, and are relevant to this discussion.


  • A number of dated midden sites, which have potential to provide evidence about diet and subsistence. These can be compared to good analysis from some sites, including Freswick, Portmahomack and Cromarty.
  • Evidence for the use of caves over much of the area.
  • A growing framework of radiocarbon and dendrochonology dates.
  • Good type sites such as at Portmahomack (for rural settlement) and Cromarty and Inverness (for burghs).
  • A growing assemblage of metal detecting finds, together with excavation and older museum finds, are largely untapped for the information they can provide.
  • A large number of surviving high status sites (castles).
  • A large number of chapel sites with varying survival of buildings.
  • Good body of evidence relating to iron working, both of smelting and smithing, which can be compared to evidence elsewhere.
  • A good corpus of place-name evidence that remains untapped for many areas of the Highlands.
  • A good corpus of late medieval and early post-medieval documentary record evidence for many areas of the Highlands survives and is still awaiting analysis.


  • Sparsity of settlement sites, especially rural sites, and therefore structural evidence.
  • Relatively few environmental studies to assess climate change and local variation.
  • Gaps in the archaeological record for much of northwest Highlands, Lochaber and Badenoch and Strathspey apart from castles, with little evidence of material culture or settlements.
  • Relatively few published documents and few studies linking documentary evidence with archaeology and environmental data.
  • More burial evidence is needed to allow for DNA and isotope studies.


  • Potential to identify local ceramic production sites.
  • Potential to further tease out information from high status sites.
  • Ability to explore use of caves in more depth for the medieval period. Apart from Rosemarkie Cave project, the use of most caves from this period are known from only test pitting or limited investigation.
  • Potential to undertake local and regional landscape studies.
  • Detailed evaluation by Alasdair Ross (2011; 2015) on Moray and landholding records provides a basis for investigating a number of issues of settlement in southern Highlands.  Ross’s unpublished material could be the subject of a very productive research project.  


  • Concerns about disturbing burials has led to re-interring human remains without full recording or analysis, resulting in the loss of potentially important information. Good models (eg Portmahomack) and sensitivity are needed when studying human remains.
  • Erosion on some coastal sites and growing erosion threatens inland sites due to run-off from increased rainfall.

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