9.4.2 Health and Diet

Overall Diet

Taken together, the evidence suggests a broad diet, with cultivation, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing all contributing, at least for the elite. The isotope analysis of human remains from Portmahomack allows for this evidence to be more finely analysed. The assemblage of medieval individuals from Portmahomack is one of the most important from Scotland, for its chronological reach and for its scientific potential, and it is the subject of a number of ongoing studies.  It is by far the best source of evidence for the Highlands and medieval Scotland for lifeways, though without wider evidence it is difficult to gauge how typical the lives of these individuals were. Analysis of teeth wear patterns, dietary isotopic information and ancient starch granules from dental calculus has provided information on foodstuffs and sex difference in dietary habits including weaning strategies and childhood malnutrition. Of interest as well from the isotopic analysis is that males in general had a higher meat diet than females in this population.

Evidence for malnutrition, particularly in the children, might suggest undocumented crop failures or localised famine which could have led to a movement of people from west to east during the later 15th century.  Another possibility is that the non-local individuals (which account for a surprising number of the analysed people) may have been itinerant fisherfolk who perhaps were required to move from place to place due to the nature of the fishing industry (Carver et al 2016, 309, Curtis-Summers 2016, Curtis-Summers et al 2014).

Human Health and Trauma

The analysis of the human remains from Portmahomack also provided evidence of health. The majority of those buried on the site lived to relatively older ages compared to other medieval assemblages in Scotland with the exception of Glasgow Cathedral. More females had dental disease, which may relate to diet or also possibly environmental stress in childhood. Cases of rickets and tumours were identified (Carver et al 2006, 302–303; Curtis-Summers 2016). Shirley Curtis Summers (forthcoming) has also been investigating the evidence of juvenile health.

The only other fully published cemetery site with analysis of human remains is from St Trolla’s Chapel, Kintradwell. Here, 31% of the individuals were children or infants, and only one of the 13 skeletons was over 40 years old at the time of death. In general the evidence suggests the individuals were reasonably healthy and well nourished. There was evidence of infectious disease, including possible congenital syphilis and spina bifida, as well as degenerative joint diseases. As at Portmahomack, some skeletons had Schmorls nodes, suggesting heavy lifting when young. Dental disease presence at St Trolla’s was also similar to that found at other medieval sites (Roberts 2003). This is one of the earliest potential cases of syphilis in Scotland which became more common in late medieval and into post-medieval times (Oram 2011a, 213–214).

While analysis of human remains has been undertaken from St Columba’s priory, Kingussie, the preservation was poor, hindering detailed analysis and the sample size very small. Evidence of dental disease was, however, preserved (Birch 2020).

Some analysed human remains from Portmahomack and St Trolla’s chapel show evidence of trauma. At Portmahomack, two individuals had suffered from blade attacks and one of the individuals probably died from the cut. Three adult males and two adult females had also suffered from fractures (Carver et al 2016, 303, 306). At St Trolla’s Chapel, there were a number of fractures and dislocations. One of the fractures suggests a cut with a blade, possibly an axe, which was probably fatal (Roberts 2003).

The medieval church was involved in provision for the poor, including running almshouses and hospitals. Only one, at Killearnan at the head of the Beauly Firth, is known from the diocese of Ross (Cowan and Easson 1976) and none from Argyll (Cowan 1981, 96). The Killearnan hospital is known only from a brief window of records at the turn of the 13th to 14th centuries and may have failed before the Reformation. In the See of Caithness there was a hospital of St John in Helmsdale (MHG10119) and St Magnus in Spittal Caithness (MHG1350) in the 14th century (Cowan 1981, 96). A hospital is thought likely to have been in Inverness, although there is no hard evidence for a permanent establishment there (Oram 2011a, 207). Nothing further is known about these hospitals, but there is potential for further work at Spittal. Elsewhere in Scotland, around a fifth of the known hospitals were for lepers, but none of these are known from the Highlands or the Northern and Western Isles (Oram 2011a, 206–207).

Assessing the impact of the Black Death in Scotland, much less the Highlands, is very difficult (Jillings 2003), but it was probably as devastating as elsewhere in the British Isles and Europe (Oram 2014c). From the mid 14th century onwards there were periodic outbreaks in Scotland, notably 1349, 1362–3, and 1401. Documentary evidence for this period is lean for Scotland as a whole, hindering assessment of the impact. The limited evidence suggests that the plague affected people in rural areas as well as urban. There are also hints of other epidemics. When added to the evidence of the Little Ice Age in the late 13th and 14th centuries, living conditions would have been severe (Oram 2011a; Oram and Adderley 2008, 81; Oram 2014c, 230ff). More dating from settlements in the Highlands, linked to evidence for contraction or abandonment, would allow a better assessment of whether researchers can trace these issues locally and regionally. Analysis of human remains from these years might also shed light on local impacts. Local palaeoenvironmental studies might also reveal changes in subsistence practices, where sharp falls in population might have led to withdrawal from marginal agricultural zones and a trend away from low-yield but labour-intensive regimes.

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