9.7 Transport and Movement

Movements of People

The burials at Portmahomack were the subject of isotopic analysis to identify the likely places of birth of the individuals buried there. The teeth enamel and pulp were analysed from several juvenile burials. The results challenged the view that life in the Middle Ages was relatively sedentary with birth, marriage and death revolving around a small group of parishes. The children from the population at Portmahomack had the closest affinity with the geology and rainfall values of the west of Scotland and with other burials from the west which had been analysed. These surprising results have shown that many of the people who were worshipping in the church and living close by had been born and travelled from the west coast (Carver et al 2016).

Isotopic analysis has not yet been undertaken on other medieval Highland bone assemblages. Future analysis would determine if the evidence from Portmahomack is unusual or part of a general picture of mobility in the medieval period.

Movement of livestock and objects

Analysis of medieval pottery shows trade occurred in this period. While local production sites of Scottish redwares are now being identified (see 9.5), it is also clear that even when redware pottery was made locally, other redwares were being exchanged within the Highlands and Moray (Hall 2016). Other imports include Yorkshire type wares (Portmahomack, Inverness), Whitewares (Portmahomack, Roberts Haven, and Freswick, Caithness) and even foreign imports (Portmahomack, Inverness), though whether direct or indirect is difficult to determine (Hall 2016; MacAskill 1982). At the settlement site at Castle Street, Inverness, the earlier phases contained primarily imports (MacAskill 1982; Case Study Medieval Inverness).

Coins also graphically show movements, with coins from England, Scotland and other areas found in a number of locations, not just in the southern burghs. They are unlikely to show direct trading links, but add to the picture of a society able to participate in long distance trade (see 9.4, 9.5).

Documentary and archaeological evidence show long distance trade from the burghs in Scotland, with controls of taxation, but even at the end of the medieval period, there were few burghs in the Highlands. Local markets, well documented in the post-medieval period, were probably active in the medieval period as well, particularly as a more feudal landholding structure emerged (ScARF Medieval section 3.6); however, this evidence remains to be gathered together for the Highlands. It is probable that beach markets were areas of exchange (ScARF Medieval section 3.6); the finds from Achnahaird Sands, Wester Ross (MHG9129; Long 2002), indicate a lively exchange over a number of years, far from the nearest burgh.

Aerial view of the surrounding landscape and archaeological remains at Achnahaird Sands, Wester Ross
Aerial view of the surrounding landscape and archaeological remains at Achnahaird Sands, Wester Ross. ©HES

Although droving is generally seen as a post-medieval activity, it is thought to have originated as early as the late 12th or 13th century in Scotland (Haldane 1997, 7; ScARF Medieval section 3.5). There was clearly large-scale movement of stock occurring throughout the Highlands and Islands from the late medieval period at least. For example, references in the royal Exchequer Rolls show late 15th-century driving of cattle and sheep from the Ormond lands held by the Crown down to Stirling, and shorter range movement between royal lands in Ross, to Moray and Mar. This suggests well-established networks for moving and over-night grazing and watering of livestock (Burnett 1881–91). The use of shielings in summer also shows movement of livestocks on a regular basis (see 9.3). The challenge is to identify infrastructure remains associated with these activities.


Drove roads are difficult to identify and date. Many of the drove ‘roads’ at the later date appear to be wide areas to roam, rather than what would be considered a confined roadway today.

The sea and rivers appear to continue to be major routeways, based on known settlement sites, but it is likely land routes were active too. Documentary sources show some Highland ferries were in existence in the medieval period, including the Chanonry ferry between Ardersier and Fortrose (Lord High Treasurer Accounts for James IV: LHT Account 383); these ferries would have linked overland routes. References to ‘stock fords’ on the crossing of the inner Cromarty Firth implies built and stake-marked crossings (Richard Oram pers comm).

Means of Transport

Remains of land-based transport such as carts has proven elusive, and would survive only in exceptional circumstances. Equestrian equipment such as spurs and harness pendants are distinctive for the period, with metal detecting produces large numbers of the latter. At Portmahomack there is evidence of horseshoes and nails (Carver et al 2016, 313–4).

Documentary and saga evidence all show that maritime vessels of the period could travel short and long distances. Depictions on west Highland sculpture show birlinns, clinker-built vessels with square sails, but also oars, Scandinavian in influence but with local features (McWhannell 2002; Martin 2014). Analysis of fish caught in Norse Caithness (Barrett 1997) shows that many were from deeper waters, which would have required substantial vessels for fishing.

The widespread use of boats would have required landing places, harbours and anchorages. Place-name evidence can hint towards some sites, and as signal points. Alexander Lindsay’s Rutter for the Scottish Seas, perhaps from the early 16th century, suggests the possibility of late medieval safe havens (Martin 2014). Many of the anchorages and harbours likely dated back to prehistoric times, as suggested by hillforts near likely candidates, such as Dun Gallain, Lochaber (MHG147), where a small natural harbour appears to have been enhanced (Martin 2014, 180). While more attention has been directed to possible west coast sites, there is also potential for similar place-name and topographic investigation on the east.

Timbers from two Highland boats have been dated to the medieval period. A fragment found in the loch at at Rubha an Dùnain on Skye was from a clinker-built vessel, and it has been radiocarbon dated to around 1100.  It belonged to a small faering, a four-oared clinker-built vessel. Further survey in the area revealed that the shallow loch was linked to the sea by a stone-lined canal, which had two distinct building phases. Docks with boat nousts, quays and possible buildings were identified, but further dating is needed (Case Study Rubha an Dùnain; MHG4895; Martin 2014; Martin and Martin 2018). No castle is known nearby, but there is a galleried dun on the headland which perhaps was reused (Martin 2014, 184–5).

boat timber fragment in display case
Boat timber from Rubh’ an Dùnain. ©Museum of the Isles

A small logboat found at Conon Bridge, Easter Ross was built in the late 13th or early 14th century, and would have been used for river crossings. It is crudely built, but may have been designed to be a paired vessel, to allow for heavier loads to make the crossing (Mowat et al 2015). Such logboats are likely to have been common where suitably large trees were available.

Reconstruction of the River Conon logboat following laser scanning of the separate timbers. ©AOC Archaeology


Case Study: Medieval Inverness

Case Study: Rubha an Dùnain

Leave a Reply