The focus on food production in the Highlands, as elsewhere in Scotland, sees a watershed with the ‘improvements’ of the late 18th and 19th centuries, overturning long-established settlement structures, and conversion of much agricultural land into first large arable farms or sheep farms, then in some cases into deer forests, and even into the 20th century into forestry plantations. Our evidence for this period remains weighted on documentary sources, with little pollen or other analyses, though the potential is great. Rentals, particularly in the more arable areas, were often paid inkind, providing subsistence evidence (Donnachie 1986, 56).
Limited evidence survives for the early Post-Medieval period. Eighteenth century estate plans can show existing and proposed landuse. The information from estates annexed after the Jacobite 1745 rising is a valuable detailed snapshot of cultivation and animal husbandry – and attempts for new initiatives (Scottish Record Office 1973).
While the trend is certainly towards increased mechanisation as time goes on (Sprott 1995), some hand tools, particularly for agriculture, are preserved, with the Highland Folk Museum in particular having a good collection. Machinery required power, initially oxen or horse-power, and questions remain on different sources of power in local areas.
For meat and fish, preservation issues were important. Fish could be salted, dried or smoked. Large estates usually had icehouses, some of which were associated with the mansion house while others were scattered along the shore for the commercial fishing. A number survive, including Invergarry on the Great Glen where the construction plans also survive (MHG29834). Many of these structures are deteriorating, and further monitoring and recording is needed.
Cultural traditions are also a factor. In Gaeldom certain foods were seen as high status, particularly grains. The potato was resisted for decades due to a cultural taboo against tubors (Kevin Grant pers comm).
Following on from the Medieval period, barley (often in the form of bere) and oats continued to predominate, with rye and pease also known and wheat being introduced in eastern areas (Donnachie 1986; Dixon 2011). Barley was used both as food and for drink. Further work is required to determine the varieties of cereal crops being sown and, of particular importance, the yields. In the 18th century the major change was the adoption of the potato, providing more food security until the widespread blight showed how vulnerable the Highlands had become on one crop (Hunter 2019). Stone-lined pits for storing potatoes are increasingly being identified in some places, for example Culduthel (MHG56081) and Strathconon (MHG57694), and special potato pits are remembered in some oral histories (Baldwin 1994, 321).
The Highland landscape preserves both rig and furrow (Halliday 2003) and, in wetter and more marginal ground, lazy beds, both mainly where improvements have not ploughed out earlier evidence. Little attention has been paid to dating, though the potential of multi-proxy studies when investigating rig and furrow cultivation to provide dating and phasing of different types of ploughing has been shown by work elsewhere in Scotland (Carter et al 1997), and could be usefully applied to the Highlands. The remnants of the short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the Duke of Sutherland to use steam ploughs on his estates can still be traced on the ground in some places (Tindley and Wodehouse 2014).
The detailed investigation of soil composition and documentary sources at Nairn has shown the importance of the domestic, hearth, byre and butchery waste, combined with turf, some probably from buildings, in building and maintaining soil fertility in the areas outwith the burgh (Davidson et al 2006), a practice probably stemming from the Medieval period and continuing into the 19th century. Waste was not a nuisance, but rather an asset (Oram 2011b; MacAskill nd); it also thereby accounts for many of the metal detected finds on fields in the backlands and outwith the burgh boundaries. Nairn is unlikely to be unique, and such attention to soil fertility is likely to have applied to rural as well as areas around burghs. While development around some Highland burghs has led to the loss of rigs just outwith the burghs, there is potential in some areas such as Dornoch and Tain (where the metal-detecting finds provide a good indication of midden dumping).
Elsewhere fishing waste was important, and given the importance of the fishing industry in the Highlands (see 10.5), there is potential to investigate its use around major fishing centres. The drawbacks of over cutting of turf and peat to use to increase soil fertility were recognised by authorities. There were conflicting pressures on land for fuel and agricultural development (Oram 2011b).
Coastal areas used seaweed for fertilising the soil (Baldwin 2000). The practice of re-using old turf from house walls and roofs on the fields was also well known. The benefits of lime were recognised with the improvement period. Areas with limekilns (especially Caithness, Badenoch and Strathspey, Wester Ross and Skye) had good supplies, and many small crofts may have made use of the local resource.
Drainage was a major drawback for fertility, and one of the problems improvers turned their hands towards. The landscape one sees today in the Highlands, particularly in lowland areas, has often had extensive drainage, reworking of water courses and land reclamation (Stratigos 2018). For example, The Mound at Golspie, Sutherland (MHG11757), with its sluice gates [AH5] transformed Loch Fleet, ensuring sea water could not penetrate into the loch, and allowing land reclamation; but there are countless examples of smaller works. The introduction of tiled drainpipes was of particular importance to the draining and extension of the cultivatable land in arable areas. By contrast the miles of drains opened on sheepfarms were open.
Once harvested, the grain needed to be threshed. At first by hand, but with the invention of the threshing mill in the 18th century, it became more mechanised, with horse drawn mills in steadings (circles still traceable on maps or at the steadings in some cases), or steam engines on large farms (where remains of smoke stacks can still be seen in some cases, eg Kirkton on the Black Isle, MHG8761). Photographs and memories record the mobile steam thresher which travelled in some of the better agricultural lands (Hume 1977, 26-28).
Many large mills had a kiln for drying grain before grinding. However, most townships had at least one freestanding corn-drying kiln or kiln barn, where the kiln has an attached chamber. A third type, a kiln platform built into a barn, is also known in some areas of Scotland, including Skye and east Sutherland (Dixon 2011). Excavation of a kiln at Glenbanchor, Badenoch provided evidence for the reconstruction at the Highland Folk Museum (Noble 2003, 48-49), and seven kilns were identified at Rosal, with one excavated (MHG11549; Fairhurst 1968, 152) but there have been few other detailed investigations. Further work on these structures, dating and regional variations would be useful.
Over time, landlords required grinding of the grain in their mills, requiring a payment (thirlage) and actively suppressing rotary hand querns in some cases (Gauldie 1981, 43ff; Dixon 2011, 11ff). In general the abolition of thirlage in the late 18th to 19th centuries (formally with the Act in 1799), tended to encourage the building of more mills, particularly of horizontal mills. A number of corn mills survive in the Highlands, most with vertical wheels. Sites of 18th century vertical mills, such as at Grudie in Sutherland (MHG11241), are very rare. The remains of many horizontal mills survive in the north and west Highlands (eg Clashnessie, northwest Sutherland; MHG12224) (Hume 1977, 20ff). Information on individual structures is scattered (see eg Hume 1977; Watson and Bruce 2018; regional architectural guides; Cheape nd) but more work could focus on regional and chronological issues, as well as sources of millstones. Hand querns were in use into the 20th century, for example on Skye (Jones 2000, 99-100), showing the durability of this tradition first encountered in the Iron Age.
While most of the crops grown in the Highlands until the 19th century were for local consumption, some of the more favoured environments in parts of the eastern Highlands allowed a surplus which could be exported for profit by the landlord. Documentary evidence is the main source of this activity, although some girnals, large warehouses for gathering grain before export usually by sea, survive in the east (Beaton 1986; Adamson 2014). Exporting grain dates to pre-improvement times, for example at least from the 17th century on the Cromartie estate in Easter and Wester Ross (Baldwin 1986, 194ff; Richards & Clough 1989, 42).
Documentary sources show that even small tenants kept a variety of stock including cattle, horses sheep, goats and poultry, and in some cases pigs. These were kept for local use, such as the provision of dairy products, and not primarily for meat, although some trade in butchered beef is recorded from the 17th century (Bangor-Jones 2000, 67). Access to good grazing lands, including shielings, was essential (Baldwin 1986). The better cattle were raised for selling on in the long-distance cattle droving, and from at least the 16th century (see 10.7; Donnachie 1986, 56-57; Baldwin 1986). Those involved in the cattle trade often paid rents in cash (Bangor-Jones 2000, 66-67). Poor harvests also had an impact on fodder for overwintering stock, which often resulted in fatalities or severely weakened animals (Baldwin 1986, 189ff).
With the improvement movement came the switch from agriculture to large scale sheep farming from the late 18th century (Bangor-Jones 2002; Macdonald 2005; Richards 2007), though cattle were still important (Baldwin 1986, 197-198). Remnants of sheep husbandry still survive in the landscape: sheep and lambing pens often constructed in cleared townships, larger stells (Slimon 2007), enclosures and more modern manifestations of fanks and sheep dips.
Pigeons were kept for their meat and eggs in winter, probably from as far back as Medieval times, with the droppings (guano) a useful by-product for fertilising. Doocots [AH13] (dovecotes) were allowed only for larger properties after 1617 (Close-Brooks 1995, 76; Beaton 2008, 12). Doocots survive in a number of locations: as freestanding beehive structures (eg Boath, Nairnshire: MHG7224) or lectern-shaped structures (eg Ardersier near Nairn MHG44781), or sometimes built into towers at large farm complexes (eg Conon Mains, Easter Ross MHG16516). Little work has been done on dating or regional styles of doocots in the Highlands apart from Beaton (1980; 2008), and there is potential for integrating with documentary research, as at Lethen, Nairnshire (MHG7199).
Hunting and Collecting
Hunting was the prerogative of the rich and landed (Bangor-Jones 2000, 65f; Dixon 2009), primarily deer but also gamebirds. Little of this is preserved in the archaeological record, but photographs and documentary accounts show its importance to the elite Highland estate. The extent in which wild foods were collected to augment diet has been little explored, with evidence primarily from ethnographic accounts (Dodgshon 2004) or related to healing charms (see 10.6).
Fishing / Shellfish Gathering
Scotland’s coastal communities relied on fish and shellfish, although there is some debate as to how much use was made of them before the late 18th century. Fish was salted, dried and smoked to extend its shelf life. These communities were also heavily involved with commercial fishing, especially when the herring was present (see 10.5). Shellfish was also used for baiting, but documentary sources show how shellfish was often sought at times of scarcity (Dodgshon 2004, 15). In the Western Isles bait-holes have been identified on the shore, where local people ground up shellfish for bait (Grant 2018-274-275, but the evidence on the mainland remains to be gathered.
The importance of freshwater inland fishing to the Medieval economy was discussed in Chapter 9.5. This continued in the Post-Medieval period on an industrial scale (see 10.5). Little attention has been paid to its importance for local subsistence, except as a resource which attracted poachers. In the 19th century the river fishing became part of the sporting estates and associations. Waterways were transformed and fishing bothies constructed, many still surviving though little studied.