9.8 Conflict

Documentary sources and traditions show clearly that extensive conflict was the norm during this period, particularly in terms of warfare and raids. Castle, burghs and even churches were targets (Oram et al 2009, 25–6, Perry 1998, 836f). The Highlands were drawn into the Wars of Independence; for example, Urquhart Castle was occupied by the English in 1296 and again in 1303 (Maclean 1975, 200). The material evidence for these conflicts is varied.

stone effigy carved in the shape of a man with a sword
Late medieval grave effigy, Skeabost, Skye. ©FAS heritage

In certain cases, examination of human remains has shown evidence of injury caused by bladed objects. At Portmahomack, a male who lived between AD 1150 and 1270 had a number of blade wounds suggesting he had been attacked from behind, and he probably died from the attack. The remains of another male who lived between AD 1290 and 1430 had evidence that suggested violent conflict earlier in his life from which he recovered (Carver et al 2016, D29-D30). At St Trolla’s Chapel, Sutherland, two of the 17 skeletons excavated had evidence of trauma perhaps caused by interpersonal violence (Roberts 2003, 156–157). The weapons which could have caused such injuries are occasionally found, or preserved in museums (see 9.4).

The presence of defended sites, notably castles, are also evidence of unsettled times, and the need to provide refuge from raiders, as well as being expressions of high status and wealth. In some places the castles are situated on islands, both re-using crannogs and utilising natural islands, adding extra security. Further work exploring areas of frontiers for example between Norse and Scottish areas might provide further insights, although the situation was certainly not static.

The Highlands was also a great exporter of mercenaries to Europe and Ireland as well as elsewhere in Scotland (Boardman 2007; Duffy 2007; Hayes-McCoy 1937). Such mercenaries might have returned with artefacts as well as coinage, though there has been little investigation of such materials.

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