9.5.7 Fish Processing

In Caithness and northern Sutherland, there is evidence of increased fish processing in the medieval period, starting during Norse control but continuing into later in the period. This is best demonstrated at Freswick, where extensive analysis of fish remains revealed that there was both deep sea and shallow water fishing, both for domestic and probably commercial use (Morris et al 1995, 269). A similar picture is visible along the coast at Roberts Haven where evidence suggests probable commercial activity; associated with a settlement, seasonal or full time, that no longer survives (MHG1734; Simpson and Barrett 1996; Morris et al 1994, 147–152). Smoo cave on the north coast of Sutherland also shows evidence of evidence of deep-sea fishing in the Medieval period, but it is unclear if for consumption there or elsewhere (Pollard 2005). The trade of dried fish was important in medieval Scandinavia, and these Norse areas of the Highlands probably did participate in the trade, catching and exporting fish in the 13th and 14th centuries, although it is likely domestic consumption accounted for some of the fishing (Barrett 1997).

cave entrance
Smoo Cave, near Durness, Sutherland. ©ScARF

That this was not simply a Norse network can be seen in the recent excavations at Cromarty. A large number of fish bones, especially cod, were found dating to date to the 13th and 14th centuries. The sheer numbers of bones, large ash middens and the absence of cooking pots suggest that fish processing may have been occurring (Vawdrey nd, 30–31). The final publication of the site, and links to other objects may provide further insights.

The salmon fishery was one of the biggest sectors in Scotland’s late medieval economy (Hodgson forthcoming; Hoffmann forthcoming); it was more highly regulated and managed than any freshwater fishery anywhere else in Europe because of its value. The documentary evidence at Inverness suggests that towards the end of the medieval period exports in hides had declined, and salmon was the main export; this continued into the early 16th century (Perry 1998, 841).

The infrastructure for the medieval fisheries is perhaps the most poorly researched of any of Scotland’s forms of food production. Archaeologists can identify cruive and yair locations but little survey work has been undertaken at or near them and we have no idea of how the caught salmon were processed and barrelled for trade or even local consumption. Barrelling fish for trade or long term storage required salt and barrels, the latter with timber resource implications.

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