10.2 Environmental Evidence

Whi,le in general much less attention has been focussed on the post-medieval environmental evidence compared to earlier periods, work in this period has much potential, especially when combined with documentary and other archaeological work.

There have been some studies especially focusing on climate changes. The impact of the decline in temperature and increase in storminess from the late medieval to the 19th century (the Little Ice Age), with especially severe weather between 1670s to 1715 (the Late Maunder Minimum), was discussed in RARFA (Modern section 10.2), Dodgshon (2005) and Harrison (2020). The importance of local studies has also been shown by work at Loch Sunart, Lochaber which revealed a brief warming of temperatures in the early post-medieval period (Cage and Austin 2010).

Documentary evidence has recorded various famine years, though often for Scotland as a whole rather than for the Highlands alone (Richards 2007, 30ff; Dawson 2009; Cullen 2010; Oram 2014c; Hunter 2019). Dendrochronology has provided corroboration for temperature variation, especially in the late 17th century (Wilson et al 2011), and should be utilised more widely, which would allow for more local information. Rental evidence for some areas of the Highlands suggests that the effects of the Little Ice Age resulted in abandonment of some farms (Dodgshon 2005). Environmental analyses have the potential to focus on the local manifestations of these events.

The majority of pollen studies in the Highlands cover the prehistoric period; much more work is needed on later periods. These may have to target small or former lochs in order to gain sequences not affected by peat cutting.

Pollen studies can provide evidence of local cultivation. For example, environmental work at township and shieling sites in northwest Sutherland shows evidence of cultivation and grazing, with burning used to control moorland at the shielings, especially in late 17th century. Upland sites at other locations outwith the Highlands showed cultivation at shielings, suggesting that as well as herding the animals, some cultivation may have occurred (Davies 2016). Any investigations of shielings should incorporate multi-proxy studies to determine which activities at Highland shielings change over time; such investigation is only beginning to be undertaken in the Highlands (Scott Timpany pers comm). Detailed archaeological investigation incorporating a range of environmental analysis, including of phosphates, for a couple of shieling sites with grid sampling would provide information on agronomy, diet and fuel use, as well as mapping where different activity occurs within each shieling site. This could then be compared with documentary evidence.

Photograph of the front side of a reconstructed shieling structure on grass and surrounded by trees. The building is rectangular shaped, with rounded ends. Its walls are built with layers of large, white and grey boulders and turf. It has a curved, wattle and daub roof, which covers almost half of the walls height, There is a strip of turf on top of the roof. A wooden post is seen in the doorway of the building, and a stone hearth can be seen on the floor inside. Some scattered white boulders are located on the grass outside the structure.
A reconstructed shieling at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore. ©Susan Kruse

There is scope to explore the environmental impacts of different forms of land management. This includes not just the wholesale abandonment of land to sheep or deer, but also the impact of crofting, particularly on common grazing. For example, 19th and 20th century sources refer to the idea that crofters were overstocking the land; environmental studies could usefully test this. Environmental investigations such as phosphate analysis also have potential to identify manuring and other soil enrichment strategies (Davidson et al 2006; Oram 2011). Such environmental investigations would also have much to offer in modern debates about land management, rewilding, peatland or woodland restoration, and the use of commons. The potential for this has been shown by the work on ancient woodlands informing modern planting in times of climate change; see eg Davies (2011), Sybenga (2020) and current research by Rob Wilson at the University of St Andrews.

Woodland cover changed over the post-medieval period, and pollen, plant macrofossil and charcoal remains combined with documentary sources and maps can all contribute to investigating this picture, though few studies of this type have been undertaken in the Highlands (but see Davies 2011). The Forestry Commission’s Ancient Woodland Survey is a starting point; it provides an idea of what established (semi) natural woodland survives in the Highlands (National inventory of woodland and trees – Scotland – Forest Research). Although much of the Highland had limited tree cover in this period, especially the north and west, microclimates preserved some trees (Buntin and Farrell 2017; Davies et al 2017). In general, those areas preserving woodland had more diversity in species than survives today (Stewart 2003a).

Evidence of woodland management can also now be applied to this period, with documentary evidence, analysis of charcoal and waterlogged remains, and even some woodland survivals showing coppicing. Areas with good woodland survival not only provided important resources for local building and fuel, but also potentially exportable goods (Chapter 10.5.5; Oram forthcoming b). As a result, more detailed work combining environmental and documentary sources would be useful.

There was also active reforestation, continuing today, which also has affected much of the Highlands. In the early post-medieval period, legal clauses began to appear that relate to planting (Oram forthcoming b). Detailed work at Migdale, Sutherland, has shown that some development of increased oak and pine actually dates to the last 1,000 years (Davies et al 2017; Bangor-Jones 2014a). Elsewhere in the Highlands, studies show varied woodland coverage, with human intervention, for a variety of reasons, appear to account for changes in woodland structure over the last 500 years. Oak and pine in particular are useful indicators of climatic factors, especially in the Highlands where these species are often at their limits (Davies 2011).

The Highlands hold great potential for investigating charcoal burning platforms (see Chapter 10.5.5) and environmental studies could shed more light on what wood was being used. Many of these structures have been mapped or had some landscape survey done (see Wordsworth 1993b; Ellis 2016), but charcoal analyses have been very limited in the UK. More work has been undertaken in Europe (eg Dupin et al 2017), showing the great potential for the Highlands.

Migdale, SutherlandDavies et al 2017
Garbh Allt catchment area near Golspie, SutherlandTipping et al 2008a; 2008b
Glen Affric, Inverness-shireTipping 2003b; Davies and Tipping 2004; Davies et al 2004; Tipping et al 2006; Tipping 2008
Glenleraig and Ruigh Dorch, northwest Sutherland Davies 2016
Loch Sunart, Lochaber Cage and Austin 2010
Table 10.1  Sites with good post-medieval environmental evidence

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