9.4.1 Farming, fishing, Husbandry, Hunting and Gathering

For the medieval period, key sites with evidence for food and subsistence are the burgh sites of Cromarty and Inverness, the monastic site of Portmahomack and middens from Freswick in Caithness. In this period there are also documentary sources, especially for the later medieval period, which can shed further light on diet. In some places food appears to have been exported as well as grown locally by inhabitants. Cultivated Food

The introduction of the mould board plough and collars for horses allowed for an expansion of cultivation in medieval Scotland (Fenton 1976, 30ff ; Ross 2011, 10). In general the evidence for crops grown in the Highlands is similar to what one finds elsewhere in Scotland (ScARF Medieval section 3.5) with barley and oats predominating the grown grains. Oats could have been for animal as well as human consumption, and they had an advantage in colder and wetter conditions as the climate deteriorated (Oram forthcoming a). Other crops included rye and limited evidence of wheat (Dixon 2011). Flax is also present on some sites (eg Freswick) where it could have been grown for fibre as well as food.  Chronological distinctions are important as well, as the climatic downturn in the late 13th and 14th centuries would have had a major impact on harvests (Oram 2014c).

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

Interestingly, at Glassknapper’s cave in northwest Sutherland, naked barley was also found in the most recent deposits, suggesting that it might have been a reintroduction by the Norse. The extensive range of weed seeds recovered came to the cave from a number of different habitats (Alldritt 2005). Further environmental sampling in this area would be warranted, especially given the scarcity of evidence from the northwest Highlands.

Work at Freswick, Caithness by the University of Durham team showed cultivation of hulled barley and oats, in roughly similar amounts, and beans and flax as well as a very limited number of wheat grains. The evidence of broad beans is significant as pulses are rarely preserved (Morris et al 1995; Dickson and Dickson 2000, 149). Building VII excavated in the 1930s has been interpreted for drying grain (discussed in Batey 1987, 91–2; Case Study Freswick Links).

The site of Home Farm, Portree, Skye had a long period of occupation. Medieval occupation is demonstrated by pits, one of which had a high concentration of well-preserved charred oat and lesser amounts of barley. Peat was being used as a fuel, or perhaps for specialist activity such as smoking of meat or fish (Hastie 2013).

At Eilean Donan Castle, a midden dated to the 14th to 16th centuries yielded a substantial cereal assemblage interpreted as an oat crop accidentally charred during a late stage of processing or preparation (Clark et al forthcoming; Case Study Eilean Donan Castle). Other charred plant remains included hazelnut shell, and wheat or barley.

At Portmahomack, starch grain analysis preserved in dental plaque from medieval individuals showed that oats, barley and beans were being grown (Carver et al 2016, 311; Case Study Portmahomack). This data has been augmented by isotope analysis of human remains (see 9.4.2).

Excavations at the medieval burgh site in Cromarty have revealed well preserved cereal remains. Bere barley, barley, oats, rye and wheat are all present, as is flax. There is also evidence of vegetables and other plants (Vawdrey nd). A medieval grain drying kiln was found nearby in Cromarty House’s walled garden. The final report will provide full details.

archeological site where an iron sickle has been found
Iron sickle from 13th -14th century layer, Cromarty. ©Cromarty Medieval Burgh Community Archaeology Project

At Inverness, historical sources provide a framework for settlement, which when combined with results from a number of recent excavations in advance of development, are providing good evidence of production in this area. For recent excavations, much of this remains to be gathered from data structure reports or again is awaiting publication.

Dixon summarised the variety of grain drying kilns found in medieval Scotland, from keyhole kilns in stone or wattle to small kilns set in platforms inside buildings to free standing stone circular kilns and kiln barns (Dixon 2011). Since this was published new finds have add to this picture in the Highlands.

A medieval keyhole-shaped grain drying kiln, the most common type found in Medieval Scotland, was located near the burghal ditch in Inverness investigated in 1999 and 2000. A number of environmental analyses were carried out on it. A radiocarbon date of a barley grain from the kiln suggested its use between the late 12th and late 13th century, dating corroborated by three pottery sherds. Charcoal was analysed from the kiln, showing a wide range of species: oak, ash, hazel and alder. The oak and ash were slow-grown, and from large timbers, whereas the hazel and alder were mainly fragments of roundwood. The oak would have had high value, and it has been interpreted as possibly part of the superstructure of the kiln. The remains from the kiln, not surprisingly, had a high density of charred grain, dominated by oats, but also including barley, rye and to a much lesser extent wheat, as well as weeds, probably coming in with the harvested crops, or possibly as fuel for the fire (Ellis et al 2002).

Grain drying kilns have also been excavated at Torvean on the outskirts of Inverness and Bellfield North Kessock (MHG53532, Murray 2011, 27). The Torvean kiln had a hazel wattle framework and hazel supporting posts (Peteranna 2019, 14).

A radiocarbon date for remains in the Inverness burghal ditch shows probable cultivation of the backlands on the town side of the ditch, probably in the 14th or 15th century. Eight samples from the kiln and ditch were taken for macroplant and invertebrate analysis. Insect material was poorly preserved, but the presence of beetles suggested pastureland nearby. Plant remains varied in preservation quality. From the ditch, barley, oat and a possible emmer grain were found, but in small quantity, together with weeds, which suggest different types of soils. In addition, soils were analysed for pH, phosphate and calcium carbonate content. Thin sections were also undertaken. These confirmed the hypothesis that the primary ditch fill was a composite of re-deposited soil clods and of turf derived from the ditch. It had been dug over and cultivated, and it may have been manured before placing in the ditch (Ellis et al 2002).

No Highland mills have been dated to this period, though documentary sources suggest some existed in late Medieval Highlands (Malcolm Bangor-Jones pers comm). The presence of mills suggests centralised control. On a more domestic level, rotary querns were certainly used, and some were re-used as building materials, for example at Cromarty (Vawdrey nd) and Portmahomack (Carver et al 2016, 313). As noted in other chapters, a study of querns found in dated contexts is needed, to allow types to be traced through the years. Domesticated Animals

The National ScARF also highlighted the fact that there is very little information about animal husbandry from Medieval sites. In the Highlands, only Freswick, Caithness was cited (ScARF Medieval section 3.5), but archaeologists can now add the important analyses from Portmahomack and Cromarty in Easter Ross, and Eilean Donan Castle on the west coast as well as some other sites that have provided additional information. Analysis of animal bones shows a wide range of animals at various sites. Some may have been kept for other reasons than food, for example horses. Documentary evidence suggests the presence of animal disease during this period in Scotland, which would have had a major effect on both domestic and wild stocks (Oram 2014c, 229). The animal bone in the Highlands has not been analysed to assess if this can be demonstrated or when it occurred.

The middens at Freswick in Caithness produced evidence of a number of animals including mainly cattle, with smaller quantities of sheep and pig. Many were young, but it is unclear if this was because of slaughtering practice or simply high infant mortality. Other animals included fowl, goose and horse. There were a number of cat bones, but whether they were domestic pets or perhaps kept for their fur is unclear (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 148–149).

At Portmahomack, there was an increase in the medieval period of sheep/goats at the expense of cattle and pig when compared to earlier periods. Cattle were killed as adults, suggesting the importance of dairy products. Other animals found in the assemblage include horse, dogs, chicken, and goose (Carver et al 2016, 310; Seetah 2016).

The preliminary analysis of finds from Cromarty shows mainly sheep and goats within the burgh. Cattle bones make up about a third of the animal bones. The cattle were at least three years old when killed, suggesting they were also kept for dairying purposes, and perhaps more for hides than food. There were higher numbers of horse bones than expected (around 6% of all bones). Other animal bones included pigs, poultry and birds (Vawdrey nd, 32).

At Eilean Donan domesticates included cattle, sheep/goat and then pig in that order, supplemented with chicken (Clark et al forthcoming).

Until the major climatic cooling from the early 1400s onwards, many cattle could be overwintered outside or kept outside later in the season, as grass growth started earlier and finished later in the year (Oram 2014c, 232–233). The analysis from places like Portmahomack (Carver et al 2016, 310) and Cromarty (Vawdrey nd, 32) where cattle were killed when over two years old provides confirmation of overwintering. Hunting and Collecting

Wild animals at Freswick were not a major feature of the middens; this suggests limited hunting. A number of bones of seabirds suggests hunting, and possibly also the collecting of the eggs (Dickson and Dickson 2000, 148–150); the collecting of seabird eggs was a subsistence source in the Northern and Western Isles into modern times (Fenton 1999, 184–185).

At Portmahomack there is evidence of red deer and roe deer, at levels similar to the 8th century early medieval monastic period. There is also faunal evidence of cat, fox, wolf, hare and some birds (Carver et al 2016, 310).

A significant bone assemblage has been recovered from the excavation at Eilean Donan Castle; they include strong evidence for exploitation of wild animals. The presence of red and roe deer, duck, pheasant, swan, white-tailed eagle, badger, wolf and cat has been recorded (Clark et al forthcoming). Fishing and Shellfish Gathering

A major difference from the prehistoric periods appears to be the more regular eating of fish in medieval Highlands. This has been demonstrated for the Viking and Norse populations (Barrett 1997; Barrett et al 2001), but is also found in non-Norse areas including Portmahomack (Carver et al 2016, 308).

There is widespread evidence of fishing, both inshore and deep sea, and the collection of shellfish, some of which could have been used for bait. Cetacean mammals were also hunted or utilised if found on the shores. Most of the settlement sites from the Norse areas noted in Table 9.1 had evidence of fishing, with extensive collections at Freswick and Roberts Haven.

 A medieval fish hook recovered from the shell middens exposed in the eroding coast edge at Cromarty. ©SCHaRP

The fish assemblage at Portmahomack showed a range of caught fish, especially cod and haddock. Most of the fish could have been caught from the shore or boats close to the shore. Butchery marks on some of the bones are consistent with filleting, suggesting for curing and then possibly export (Carver et al 2016, 310–311, Holmes 2016). Fishing was also important at Cromarty, especially cod and other gadids (saithe, pollack and whiting), with particular concentrations in the 1200s and 1300s (Vawdrey nd).

Butchered cod bones from Portmahomack. ©FAS heritage/University of York

The evidence from several sites suggests probable fish processing on a commercial scale, such as is also found in Orkney in the Norse period.  This is also true for freshwater fishing, which documentary sources show were also commercially important (see below 9.5). In the Middle Ages, the Beauly/Farrar, Conon, Ness, Nairn, Findhorn, Spey, Carron and Shin rivers were important salmon fisheries (Batten 1877). As yet largely unpublished ducumentary evidence reveals that the fisheries on the Carron, Sutherland, controlled by the canons of Fearn, were one of the resources most coveted by the Rosses of Balnagown (MacGill 1909) during the Reformation. The attraction was the commercial value of the fishery, which was integrated into the international trade in processed salmon.


Case Study: Freswick Links

Case Study: Eilean Donan Castle

Case Study: Portmahomack

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