9.3.2 Building Traditions

Work on rural building traditions in Scotland was reviewed in National ScARF (ScARF Medieval section 3.3), but most traditions appear rooted in post-medieval structures. This includes Roger Mercer’s fieldwork in the 1970s in Caithness and Sutherland where he identified three types of pre-Clearance settlement (Mercer 1980); none however have been dated in the Highlands. Alasdair Ross’s analysis of documentary record evidence for wood-management and use in settlements in Stratha’an on the Gordons’ Banffshire estate throws important light on building types and volume of materials needed for construction (Ross 2012). This data can be extended to wood-management for construction purposes in adjacent Badenoch.

There is more evidence for the burghs, with important excavations at Inverness and Cromarty (Case Study Medieval Inverness; Case Study Cromarty Medieval Burgh). High status houses, such as castles, survive throughout the Highlands, but most have been extensively rebuilt and date to the later medieval period, in part due to the warfare during the Wars of Independence and other campaigns which would have resulted in timber structures being destroyed. Other occupation evidence survives from caves, though these sites were probably seasonal in nature (Tables 9.1, 9.2, 9.3).

A number of Highland standing buildings are at increasingly at risk due to issues of climate change, exacerbating the decay of some structures. For example, the Castle of Old Wick (MHG2035) has seen collapse in the last decade, and the castle at Braal, Caithness (MHG1768) which is currently known only from a 19th century survey. Attention to these at-risk structures should be prioritised.

Photo of castle remains. They are in ruin, but the castle shape is still identifiable
The remains of Castle of Old Wick, Caithness. ©HES

Apart from masonry construction at high-status sites, there is little evidence of building traditions in the Highlands. The evidence at Inverness shows sill beam construction with panels and wattle and daub. Elsewhere there are hints of turf construction which must have been much more common. On the west coast, the round house tradition continues, or at least re-use of roundhouses, along with a variety of other building techniques. National and regional ScARFs also noted the need for more investigation and dating of cruck-framed construction to determine if any date from the Medieval period (ScARF Medieval section 3.2; RARFA Medieval section 9.6; Dixon 2019)

Access to stone for building materials is unlikely to have been a problem in the Highlands, with earlier dwellings to rob and plenty of sites for quarries. Access to wood would have been a regional issue, as it is clear that some areas, like now, had little woodland left. It is interesting that many of the oak timbers used for medieval buildings were grown in the early medieval period. In general there is little indication of woodland management in medieval Scotland before AD 1450. After this time, documentary evidence makes it clear that large oak and then pine timbers became scarce in Scotland as a whole (Mills and Crone 2012, 20, 28–29; Oram forthcoming b). Further dating of wooden finds and construction evidence, combined with documentary research and environmental analysis, would determine if the wooded parts of the Highlands were part of this pattern. Unfortunately, much of Scotland’s traditionally wooded areas (for example the Great Glen) have been planted and felled repeatedly, destroying much of the evidence.

A number of theories have been suggested as to the reasons behind the missing evidence for rural settlement. For example buildings may have been rebuilt on the same site, so that our medieval examples are under existing structures, or older buildings may have been rebuilt and totally adapted. Widespread use of turf for walling will leave little trace. If a single course of stones were used for the foundations, it might have been easier to shift the stones to a new site, leaving little or no evidence of the previous structure or indeed settlement. Antiquarian accounts supply support for most of these theories. Excavation strategies which focus on standing buildings are unlikely to find the earlier structures (Lelong 2003a). In recent years metal detecting finds have provided clues, although since most of these finds have been spread on fields as midden deposits, the actual settlements are likely to lie elsewhere.

In 2003, Lelong outlined strategies for setting out hypotheses on rural settlement location in the Highlands (and elsewhere) and testing them; most still apply (Lelong 2003a). Archaeologists need to have good dating: without the testpitting undertaken by the Scotland’s First Settlers and Strath Suardal projects many sites would not have ascribed to the medieval period. Testpitting, however, is not conclusive in assessing the nature of the occupation or the stratigraphic context of the dated sample. The benefits of large scale excavations have been illustrated by the Portmahomack excavations.

Archaeologists need to focus, not just on the buildings themselves, but also the edges of settlements. The chance discoveries from excavations in Inverness where, for example, grain drying kilns are situated at the edge of the burgh ditch, or industrial furnaces in backlands of properties, have added greatly to the picture. But these finds are generally due to chance and are identified from commercial archaeology. The advantages of having good surveys and geophysical evidence, combined with knowledge of underlying geology, and detailed analysis of the documentary evidence beforehand has been shown by the Borralie project in northwest Sutherland (Lelong and MacGregor 2003) and Tain Burgh Survey (Oram et al 2009). Norse Areas in the North and East Western Highlands Southern Highlands


Case Study: Medieval Inverness

Case Study: Cromarty Medieval Burgh

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