9.6.2 Burial Evidence

In theory the burial evidence should reflect a single Christian tradition, with burials in the church being reserved for important people, and the others being relegated to burial grounds around the church. In reality, there were some unusual practices as well.

As has been seen elsewhere, the fact that there has often been continuity of church and churchyard, from their foundation to the present day, means that few graves have been excavated. Of those with dated remains, all are from the eastern Highlands apart from Cladh nan Sasunnach in Wester Ross (Table 9.6). The constant re-use of cemeteries means that earlier burials were also swept aside to make way for later ones. At Kingussie, at the site of the Whitefriars Friary, a narrow excavated trench appears to have uncovered such remains, either an ossary or simply a dump. In the narrow trench, at least 28 people dating to the late medieval to early post-medieval period were uncovered including men, women and children, showing it was not just friars (MHG4413, Birch 2018b; 2020; Case Study Whitefriars Priory Kingussie). Disarticulated bones were also found at John o’Groats (MHG39354; Case Study John o-Groats Burial Ground) and St Trolla’s Chapel, Kintradwell, Sutherland (MHG31515) (Table 9.6).

John o’GroatsC891–1163 900–1274 1217–1390Four skeletons oriented west or southwest, and a large amount of disarticulated bone. Later two post-medieval burials cut through. No associated structure.MHG39354; Driscoll 1993; Case Study; John o-Groats burial ground l GU-2654; GU-2655; GU-2652; calibrated dates Elaine Dunbar pers comm
Mains of MurkleC1266–1411Over 30 burials revealed when ploughing. Analysed bones came from more than one individual. No associated structure.MHG1397
St Trolla’s Chapel, KintradwellS1030–1250 1150–1280 1450–1650  17 skeletons at chapel site, and disarticulated bones from machine spoil heap. No associated structure. Cemetery in use 11th – 17th centuriesMHG11563 / MHG31515; Lelong 2003b ; AA-45871; AA-45873; AA-45872
Dornoch Bridge QuarryS998–1155Single inhumation, possibly adult maleEHG5372; Young et al 2019;
LittleferryS1039–1224Found during trenching, inhumation in grave pit just above beachMHG32680;
PortmahomackER13th–16th centuries
88 burials excavated in and near Tarbat Chapel. Extensive analysesCarver et al 2016; Case Study; Unusual medieval burials from Tarbat
Hilton of CadbollER980–1160
1310–1620 1410–1630
Chapel site. Seven individuals. Osteological analysis undertaken. Also disarticulated bones, which were not radiocarbon dated.MHG8547/ MHG42384; James et al 2008; Roberts 2008
AA-54986; AA-54982; AA-54983
Chapelton, Newhall Point, BalblairER990–1215 1010–1230Reputed chapel site, but no structural remains. 38 graves, and another possible 20 burials. No further analysis; bones reburied.MHG40739; Reed 1995
GU-2073; GU-2071
Cromarty East ChurchERNo radiocarbon datesExcavation within the church revealed burials and disarticulated bones; medieval gravemarkersMHG8828; Wood 2010
Whitefriars Friary, KingussieB&SMid 15th–17th centuriesLimited excavation with narrow trench. Remains of at least 28 individuals. Disarticulated; poor preservation.MHG4413; Birch 2020; Case study; Whitefriars priory Kingussie
Cladh nan SasunnachWR1420–161823 graves excavated. Graves under angular boulder cairns. No human remains survived; One fragment of wooden coffinMHG7920; MHG7920; Atkinson & Photos-Jones 1999
Table 9.6  Dated Medieval burials in the Highlands
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1

The dated burials in the Norse areas of the eastern Highlands span the period when this area was politically linked to the Norse kingdom. The earliest burial at St Trolla’s chapel, Kintradwell, Sutherland dates to cal AD 1030–1250, and the placename of the chapel is thought to be Norse (Lelong 2003b, 160).

The only dated burials from the west coast are from Cladh nan Sasunnach (MHG7920), but conditions were such that no human remains survived, and the one radiocarbon date has a broad range so could indicate a later post-medieval burial (Atkinson & Photos-Jones 1999).

Our best evidence for burials in the southern Highlands is from Portmahomack. There, after a gap from around AD 1000 to 1150, new activity began near the church; the first burial from this new phase dated to cal AD 1150–1270, is of a male who had died from a sustained violent attack. The next grave is dated cal AD 1280–1420. In total 88 medieval burials of males, females and juveniles dating to the 13th to 16th centuries were excavated.  One grave in particular was the site of exceptional commemoration.  During the late 13th to 14th centuries a large grave was dug at the mouth of the crypt to inter the tallest male in the Tarbat assemblage.  The individual died of violent wounds including one which was likely to have detached his jaw from his skull.  His body was prepared for burial and interred in a large oak coffin.  Four skulls had been prepared to accompany his burial presumably these were curated during grave digging elsewhere and then placed around the head of the casket.  This burial was not apparently extraordinary enough and, after the body had become a skeleton, the grave was reopened.  Then the skull of the man was removed and the body of another man laid over his remains.  The skull was replaced at his feet and the burial closed again (Carver et al 2016, 296–7). The aDNA results have provided details about the kinship shared between these burials (see Case Study Unusual Medieval Burials from Tarbat). This burial illustrates that even at the end of the medieval period there were variations allowed in Christian practices if not beliefs (ScARF Medieval section 4.3).

excavation site with what appears to be an almost complete skeleton and 6 skulls
Six-headed burial from Portmahomack. ©FAS Heritage/University of York

More broadly, the assemblage of medieval individuals from Portmahomack is one of the most important from Scotland, for both its chronological reach and its scientific potential, and it is the subject of a number of ongoing studies providing information on diet, disease and mobility (see 9.4 and 9.7).

Leave a Reply