As in other periods, so few organics survive that it is rarely possible to determine if they are diagnostic or not. An exception comes from Portmahomack where a man was buried wearing boots and woollen hose. Parallels with clothing elsewhere suggest a date of the 14th to 15th century (Carver et al 2016, 297, 302), which was confirmed by radiocarbon dating (Cecily Spall, pers comm). From Springhill in Rogart a body with shirt thought to represent a leine or long tunic was found in a grave; the shirt may date to this period, based on a similar shirt found in Sweden (Henshall 1952; Owen-Crocker et al 2012). The shirt was described by Henshall as a ‘primitive and careless piece of work’ (Henshall 1952, 18ff), so it would be good to have a more exact dating. It provides, along with the low boots and woven hose from Portmahomack (Carver et al 2016, 297, 302) the limited evidence archaeologists have of actual clothing.

Leather boots and hose block lifted from the excavation at Portmahomack. ©FAS Heritage/University of York

A rectangular wooden trough containing bog butter found near Durness, northwest Sutherland has been radiocarbon dated to cal AD 960–1260 (MHG12958). Rectangular wooden troughs from Scotland and Ireland date from the early medieval period onwards, and other wooden dishes have been cited for the Iron Age and early medieval periods. The Durness example was carved from oak. Bog butter has been found elsewhere in the Highlands dating from the Iron Age onwards, showing a long tradition. The reasons behind burying dishes with butter in peat bogs has been much debated, with preservation and ritual being the more common interpretations, although experiments show that the becomes rancid after several months (Earwood 1993, 357).

Wooden trough from Durness, Sutherland containing a shrunken lump of bog-butter (AD 960-1260). ©National Museums Scotland

The west Highlands has a tradition of fine carving in bone and wood, though little survives. A fragment of an openwork wooden panel of tracery carved from pineand found on King Fergus’ Isle, Loch Laggan, Lochaber (MHG2583) may be a rare survival of furniture, perhaps from a cupboard (Caldwell 2014, 237). The island was reputedly a hunting lodge, but its earliest recorded appearance is in 1451 as the ‘tower of the loch of Laggankenze’. This reference places it in the hands of the Bishops of Moray as what appears to be an administrative centre for a cluster of episcopal properties around Loch Laggan (Innes 1837, no.193)l this offers a different context for the provision of an item of quality furnishing at the site. When the loch was lowered in 1934 fragments of pottery, wooden vessels, sewn leather shoes and probable cloth fragments were revealed along with organic structural features and a clinker-built boat, with further finds of dug out canoes elsewhere in the vicinity (Maxwell 1951). Altogether the site is a reminder of the potential of crannog and island dwellings for organic survivals.

Bone, Antler, Ivory

Certain combs are diagnostic for the period, and as more are found in excavated contexts will provide finer dating (Ashby 2006; 2016). Distinctive double-convex terminal combs found at Freswick are similar to late 13th century examples from northern Germany or Oslo, Norway, probably making their way to Caithness via Norse trading links; these are fairly rare in Scotland (Batey 1987, 209; Case Study Freswick Links).

double-sided antler comb. Some prongs are broken, but it is otherwise in good condition
Double-sided comb with plates of antler cut into teeth from Freswick, Caithness (1275-1300). ©National Museums Scotland

A nationally unique hair parter or gravoir was recovered during excavation at Eilean Donan Castle; it is made from red deer antler. The item is carved with the figure of a robed man, perhaps a cleric, and belongs to a pan-European corpus of high status decorative items including knife handles (Hall forthcomingCase Study Eilean Donan Castle).

hair parter made from red deer antler. It has the shape of a tapered spike, with a carving of a person on the blunt side
Hair parter, or gravoir, from Eilean Donan Castle made from red deer antler. ©FAS Heritage

Other diagnostic bone objects include playing pieces discussed below. Many other bone objects, such as pins are less diagnostic.

Spindle Whorls

The many finds of spindle whorls are evidence of a phase in textile production. The surviving whorls are made of different materials – bone, ceramic, lead – and presumably wood would have been used as well. Analysis of those found in well-dated excavations, such as Portmahomack and Cromarty, provide a good baseline in the Highlands and allow comparisons with similarly well-dated examples elsewhere. Decorated and undecorated lead alloy examples are known from many areas in the Highlands; these are often attributed to the medieval period. Spoiled castings were found at Redcastle on the Black Isle and Dornoch (Shiels and Campbell 2011, 79–80). Further work on spindle whorls and decorations would be useful to anchor the dating of a number of these metal- detecting and chance finds.

three spindle whorls
Spindle whorls from Portmahomack. ©FAS Heritage/University of York


Case Study: Freswick Links

Case Study: Eilean Donan Castle

Case Study: Portmahomack

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