9.3.3 Burghs

The march of southern Scottish influence into the Highlands took several forms including castles to support new landlords (9.3.4) and the establishment of burghs. Researchers can chart the expanding influence of Scottish kings by the establishments of burghs, with Nairn recorded 1190, Dingwall 1226–27, and Rosemarkie 1214–1286. The Highland Council area has a contribution to make to the exploration of the theme of the urban-rural dichotomy springing from work on burghs within the region. Some Highland burghs have historically been the subject of assessment and publication under the Scottish Burgh Survey for example Inverness (Gourlay and Turner 1977), Dingwall (Simpson and Stevenson 1982a), Dornoch (Simpson and Stevenson 1982b), Wick (Turner et al 1983), Nairn (Dennison and Coleman 1999) and Tain (Oram et al 2009). These sites also have the potential to contribute to the theme of medieval Highland education, as the church provided schooling at Fortrose, Dornoch and Tain (Watt 1981, 82). While most of the medieval burghs were royal burghs, at least at establishment, Fortrose (Chanonry) was an ecclesiastical burgh (Alston 1999, 236).

Inverness was omitted from the National ScARF discussion on burghs (ScARF Medieval section 3.6), but extensive excavations at Inverness combined with good preservation and documentary evidence in some areas has provided good evidence of life in the medieval burgh (Wordsworth 1981, Wordsworth 1982, Perry 1998, Ellis 2002, Berdow and McKeggie 2017, Peteranna 2014, Peteranna and Stirling 2018, Case Study Medieval Inverness).  At Castle Street, evidence for ploughing has been identified from perhaps as early as the 11th century, but it is not until the 13th century that any significant settlement is detected and not until the 14th century that any form of urban planning can be detected archaeologically. From this period evidence for sequential timber-framed buildings occupying 8m wide plots was encountered. These show extensive use of timber, some over 200 years old, in sill beam construction, some with plank walls and some with wattles (Wordsworth 1982; Mills and Crone 2012). There is also evidence of industrial activity as well as grain drying in the burgh (Ellis et al 2002).

The exact foundation date of Cromarty as a burgh is not known, but by 1315 the burgh (with its rights) was granted from the crown to the earl of Ross (Alston 2006, 15–16). Metal detecting finds, including an important assemble of coins (Bateson 1993) and excavation over three seasons at Reeds Park, Cromarty, clearly revealed a vibrant medieval occupation (MHG51786). The excavations identified an exceptional sequence of buildings, property boundaries and zoned activity all arranged in relation to a road, with structures being rebuilt within plots from the 13th through to the 19th century. During the 13th to 15th centuries alignments of postholes and slots indicate the presence of large timber buildings that were oriented onto the medieval High Street. Paths between the buildings were maintained with gravel and areas and zones of activity were marked out by slabbed stances and fence lines. Widespread evidence for a fire between the 13th and 15th centuries was also identified. A preponderance of querns were recovered from various contexts including three stacked examples reused as hearth bases in a sequence of five hearths. Medieval artefacts were varied but included a rare tuning peg from a harp. Evidence for the cod trade was also found in the form of bait middens, fish hooks and boat rivets (Peteranna and Birch 2017b, 14–15, Vawdrey nd; Case Study Medieval Cromarty). The final publication of this site will provide information of regional and national importance on a significant medieval burgh in Scotland.

The Cromarty Medieval Burgh community excavation. ©Susan Kruse
Artistic impression of what medieval ‘Thief’s Row’, Cromarty may have looked like based on the 2014 excavation, with larger multi storey buildings aligned gable-end onto the street. © Pat Haynes

Information about Tain has been published by Historic Scotland and the Scottish Burgh Survey (Oram et al 2009). For much of the medieval period Tain was not a burgh but an ‘Immunity’, a defined area where sanctuary could be sought. By the late 14th century it had emerged as a major pilgrimage destination focused on the shrine of St Duthac. The Immunity area can be seen to have formed a large semicircular territory overlooking the Dornoch firth marked out by four girth crosses. The Tain Immunity is juxtaposed by the medieval sites on the Tarbat peninsula and the estate of Fearn Abbey; this was clearly an area with rich potential for understanding the medieval church. Though little archaeological investigation has happened in Tain, and of that very little with any dating evidence, this landscape survey is an example of how desk-based survey can enrich our understanding of the medieval Highland landscape and can contribute to understanding of medieval pilgrimage. The data from this survey could now be combined with analysis of metal detecting finds. An assessment of the archaeological potential of different areas was highlighted by the Burgh Survey (Oram et al 2009, 115–117).

The fact that no burghs were established in the area of the Lordship of the Isles must be a conscious decision, just as the main centre at Finlaggan, Islay was not a castle (Caldwell 2014).

Burghs, – The Future

A number of places with potentially important burgh and urban settlement archaeology are under-explored in the Highlands, particularly Fortrose, Dornoch, Kingussie, Wick and Thurso. The important coin evidence from Dornoch has been highlighted by Holmes (2004), and there is a wealth of other metal detecting finds which should be integrated into any research on the site. Around Fortrose and Rosemarkie on the Black Isle, metal detecting finds of lead and lead-alloy items provide evidence for literacy and church-based education that is otherwise lacking from the record.  The types of items recovered are the same as from across Scotland, and the suggestion that such finds are confined to royal and baronial settlements is now being revisited.  They can in some cases also be paralleled with material in the rest of Britain and some European sites. Further work at urban sites has potential to contribute to our understanding of issues such as demography, resource acquisition and utilisation, the development of specialist trades and technologies, regional and inter-regional economic and commercial activity, and the fostering of urban social and cultural values.


Case Study: Medieval Inverness

Case Study: Medieval Cromarty

Comments 1

  1. Exciting new discoveries by AOC Archaeology at Church Street, Inverness discussed in a talk at Highland Archaeology Festival 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WH2s_2OKhtw&list=PL3a4JjmOyiwh_hoykosh4Oa37GFfGCRIW&index=1 It included a burnt down medieval building which should provide dating and more evidence of building construction in the Medieval Burgh. A range of artefacts preserved, including a range of ceramics. Environmental post-excavation work also planned.

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