9.3.1 Landscape Patterns

Until the elusive rural settlements are identified, it will be difficult to fully discuss the landscape context. In only a few cases has investigation been focussed on more than a single structure. Over the years, much attention has focussed on the multi-period site of Freswick in Caithness which combined extensive environmental analysis (Case Study Freswick Links). The evidence at Portmahomack, Easter Ross (Case Study Portmahomack), although focussing on a smaller area, was nevertheless extremely well-dated, showing changes over this long period.

The Strath Suardal, Skye project is one of the few in the Highlands to carry out a survey and obtain dating evidence in the landscape. A number of roundhouses were dated, from the Bronze Age through to the medieval. The results suggest that only a few were active at any one time. The three medieval roundhouses may be contemporary, as they all date before the climatic deterioration of the late 13th century (Wildgoose 2016; Table 9.2).  The Scotland’s First Settlers project also carried out test pitting of sites on the west coast, and found evidence of medieval use of rock shelters (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009; Table 9.2 ; Case Study Scotland’s First Settlers Project).

The multi-period beach sites such as Achnahaird, Wester Ross (MHG9129; Long 2003; Farrell 2020) and Culbin Sands which straddle the border with Moray have produced medieval artefacts, but rarely any structural evidence. These beach sites deserve more investigation (ScARF Medieval section 3.6, RARFA section 9.6). The issue of what was used as a medium of exchange and how purchases were undertaken and regulated at these beach sites, markets and burghs is also an interesting question on which the evidence of coins and weights from the assemblage of Highland finds could shed light (ScARF Medieval section 6.1).

Aerial view looking over Achnahaird Bay, Loch Raa and Loch Vatachan towards Achiltibuie © HES

Documentary sources provide references to administrative divisions (sherrifdoms and thanages) and landholding units (davochs and pennylands), but there is little ability to match these terms to the physical remains of structures beyond single dwellings (Bangor-Jones 1986, Grant 2000, 101; Ross 2011; 2015). Ross (2011, 25-33) has mapped davochs in Moray (which extended to the west coast) and has shown that davochs would have had detached portions providing access to a range of resources from good arable to pasture and woodland. These detached portions may help link shielings to main settlements.

In areas with land administration terminology is based on ounce, penny or merklands, there are suggestions of other traditions of landholding and infrastructure outside the davoch system (Grant 2000, 95), but Ross’s (2015) analysis, however, has demonstrated the presence of davochs in these regions, too, albeit often subsumed into and rebranded with Scandinavian terminology. There are also settlements identified in charter documents but archaeological verification remains elusive in most cases (Lelong 2003a), in part because most charters refer to lands rather than places.

There are no surviving townships which can be dated to the medieval period. The post-medieval exploitation and population growth, with high levels of farming and crofting, has destroyed the majority the evidence except in cleared straths like Kildonan which were not subject to later resettlement. There is a prime facie case for medieval settlements to lie in the same locations as post-medieval ones. The Strath of Kildonan presents excellent potential to study medieval settlement, having been cleared in 1816 and having a documentary record that goes back to the 14th century. Landscape surveys by RCAHMS and others (eg Mercer 1980) have mapped rural settlement in many parts of the Highlands including Strath of Kildonan, and have thrown up a handful of buildings of different character that might be medieval rather than post-medieval, for example Learable, Strath of Kildonan; RCAHMS 1993a).  

The practice of using shielings in the summer months has been dated in other areas to the medieval period (ScARF Medieval section 3.5; see also Chapter 3.3). Although there are many shielings identified in the Highland uplands, few have been excavated and even fewer dated. From the Highlands only two shielings excavated on Skye had medieval dates (MHG5158) where a medieval shieling was found under a later one showing continuity over time. Nor is it usually possible without documentary records to link shielings with the main settlements, although in his analysis of Medieval socio-economic structures in Moray and Badenoch, the late Alasdair Ross’s work (2011; 2015) shows great potential for linking seasonal shieling grounds to permanent settlements.

Place-name evidence has been investigated on Skye, looking at Old Norse saetr and Gaelic aergi (Foster 2017), with potential for repetition in other areas of the Highlands; however, this evidence does not conclusively show medieval use. Further work on Highland shielings, with dating could provide more insight into these temporary dwellings, the variety of constructions, use and re-use, and indeed whether they used were seasonally or full time (Dixon 2018).

The widespread broad ridge and furrow cultivations and its variants (low profile broad rig and narrow curving rig) in some areas are often thought to be medieval in origin (Dixon 2016) but few have been dated, and given the practice of manuring over the years, dating would be extremely difficult. Medieval and later ridging should be distinguished from prehistoric cord rig 1-1.5m in width that has been found in a number of locations in the Highlands and may have continued in use until the medieval period before being superseded (Carter 1993-1994; Dixon 2016, 118).

Ongoing work elsewhere on medieval landscape has been summarised by the National ScARF (ScARF Medieval section 3.3), and the desirability for further work in Argyll has been highlighted (RARFA section 9.6). Dating lazy beds, mainly found on the west coast, is also difficult for many of the same reasons. Once a better idea of dated cultivation emerges, researchers can then start to look at dykes and field systems – no easier to date. Enclosed portions of lazy-bed rig-systems found on the west coast (eg Waternish, Skye; RCAHMS 1993b) and ridge and furrow in Argyll (eg Lon Broach, Islay) appear to be relics of temporary outfield enclosures (Dixon 2016). As with rig types, regional differences in field systems between east and west are evident. At Portmahomack, careful analysis of coins and pottery were used to suggest a 13th century onset of the ridge and furrow cultivation, the remains of which were mapped and excavated across an extensive area of Sector 1 (Carver et al 2016, 308).

Medieval rig and furrow under excavation at Portmahomack. ©FAS Heritage/University of York

In the Norse area, the existence of ‘things’, assemblies of freemen, suggests a level of administration in the areas they affected. These congregations are likely to begin with the first settlements and have been discussed in the early medieval period chapter (Chapter 8.3). The evidence is entirely from place-names, with all the difficulties that involves (see Chapter 2). Things elsewhere in the Scandinavian orbit existed at national, regional and local level, and it is possible that this was the case in the Highlands. For the Highlands, things have been proposed at Thing’s Va (MHG39448) and Sordale Hill in Caithness; Dingwall, Easter Ross (MHG16352) and Glen Hinnisdal, Skye (Sanmark 2017, 198). Only two potential thing sites have been excavated in the Highlands, at Dingwall and Thing’s Va, in both cases the small scale excavations have raised more questions than they answered.

The site of the thing at Dingwall is intriguing (Case Study The Origins of Dingwall). It is well south of most evidence, place-name and archaeology, for Viking and Norse settlement. The dating evidence for the construction of the Dingwall mound shows that it was built in the medieval period (O’Grady et al 2016), but the dates are not precise enough to distinguish between Norse or Scottish origin. It is also not clear how long Dingwall and the surrounding area were under Norse control.

While most of the attention has been directed to Norse assembly sites, similar sites are likely to have existed in Gaelic areas throughout the medieval period. In addition, the landscapes of mounds present opportunities for further research, for example considering the possibility that they were for gallows. A key site in this context is the Ballintomb/Tom na Carragh complex in Strathspey, where a series of prehistoric ritual monuments acquired a function as an assembly-place, military muster site, judicial court-site and execution place; this site was associated from the later Middle Ages with the Grant lordship of Freuchie, which persisted until 1746 (Oram forthcoming e).

There are no documents reflecting the Norse units of ouncelands or pennylands, perhaps due to the Norse simply taking over an already functioning system of land tenure (Grant 2000, 95).


Case Study: Freswick Links

Case Study: Portmahomack

Case Study: Scotland’s First Settlers Project

Case Study: The Origins of Dingwall



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