5.2 Regional Overview

Due in part to the challenges to radiocarbon dating presented by the Hallstatt Plateau, the Bronze Age to Early Iron Age transition is largely defined by an absence of evidence for Bronze Age metalworking as opposed to the presence of tightly dated material evidence for distinctly Iron Age activity. Greater clarity of the region’s Early Iron Age is emerging through the application of Bayesian modelling and comparative ‘wiggle-matching’ with dendrochronological records. However, the national questions around the adoption of Iron Age lifestyles and the origins and development of new architectural forms, such as forts and enclosed settlements, remain priorities for clarifying the regional picture (ScARF Iron Age section). Summed probability approaches to radiocarbon dates have been used to suggest a widespread population decline across north-west Europe around the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition (eg Ireland – Armit et al 2014). This coincides with an increasingly wetter climate and the subsequent abandonment of upland unenclosed settlement (Tipping et al 2008). The timing and nature of such changes is complex however (Gearey et al 2020) and compounded by the relatively low yield of evidence that can be unambiguously dated to this key transitional period (800–600 BC). It is also possible that summed probability data primarily reflects a change in archaeological visibility and not a decline in population (Dave Cowley pers comm). Understanding the nature and mechanics of change therefore remains an ongoing challenge for archaeological research spanning the 1st millennium BC. Iron Age Scotland is dominated by various domestic architectural forms including sites recorded as hut circles, roundhouses, ring-ditch houses, duns, brochs, monumental roundhouses and crannogs. Perth and Kinross is nationally important as all of these forms are found offering an opportunity to explore the drivers for the diversity of known house forms. The region’s settlement evidence includes a wide range of monument types from well-preserved hut circles in the uplands, and an equally impressive cropmark record of roundhouses, enclosures and souterrains, as well as enclosed monumental structures such as forts, brochs, duns and crannogs. 

Oblique aerial view of Iron Age structures at Wester Peathaugh ©️ Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

As discussed in the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age chapter, Perth and Kinross has an extensive record of unenclosed timber and stone roundhouse forms predominantly identified as cropmarks in the lowlands, and hut circles, often with associated field systems, in upland areas. With the exception of Dalrulzion (MPK4038; Thorneycroft 1933; 1946), Carn Dubh (MPK1752; Rideout 1996) and Tulloch Field (MPK2854; Thoms and Halliday 2014), the region’s roundhouse tradition and unenclosed settlement chronology remains poorly understood due to a general lack of excavated examples. This in turn makes it difficult to disentangle the extent of open settlement in the Iron Age from that of the Bronze Age. 

A relatively well-dated Roman presence, represented by a number of sites of national and international significance, spans the 1st to 4th centuries AD. The location on the fringe of the Empire’s north-west frontier provides a unique opportunity to study interaction which has arguably yet to be fully realised. 

Plan drawing of features across farmland, outlined with dark black lines. The boundaries of different field are shown using hashed lines.
Fortress and temporary camp at Inchtuthil ©️ HES

The uplands include excellent survival of open settlement in the form of hut circles and associated features, especially in the north-east of the region which has one of the densest concentrations of hut circles in Scotland (RCAHMS 1990, 2). They are of note due to their exceptional preservation, and variation of form, including single-walled, double-walled and tangential pairs (Harris 1985, 203–9; RCAHMS 1990, 2–4) and occur over a long chronology of use between the 2nd millennium BC and 1st millennium AD. The most distinctive are double-walled hut circles (Thorneycroft 1933; 1946), which are uncommon beyond the area (RCAHMS 1990, 3). Complex sequences of multi-period construction of hut circles were confirmed through excavation at Carn Dubh, which produced Late Bronze Age dates (intra) with subsequent occupation during the Early-Middle Iron Age (745–385 BC), and reoccupation in the early medieval period (Rideout 1996, 175). Similar reoccupation was found at Tulloch Field, here with Middle Bronze Age and Late Iron Age (173 BC) activity (Thoms and Halliday 2014, 12). Cultivation remains, usually in the form of clearance cairns, less commonly as field systems and banks, and at Drumderg as lynchets and strip-fields, are found in association with this open settlement (MPK4022; RCAHMS 1990, 4–5). While they suggest long histories of cultivation and animal grazing, the extent to which they represent Iron Age activity is difficult to ascertain. 

The extensive cropmark record in the lowlands has revealed extensive prehistoric unenclosed settlement, including a significant number of roundhouses (RCAHMS 1994, 43–48). These vary considerably in size and form and are evident in the cropmark record as ring-ditches, maculae and enclosed crescents. While only a relatively small sample has been excavated, the scale of recent developer-funded work has begun to shed further light on the variations of form present. Recent sites of note include Bertha Park near Perth (Engl 2020), the A9 Dualling Programme (Paton et al 2018), and at the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age palisaded enclosure at Kirkton Farm, Blackford. This last site has some of the earliest evidence (742–397 BC) for enclosed settlement in the area (MPK17955; O’Connell and Anderson 2021, 94–106). In addition, there is an extensive cropmark record of larger, undated uni- and multi-vallate enclosures in both rectilinear and curvilinear forms, many of which are of probable Iron Age date, including interrupted ring-ditches (RCAHMS 1994, 57–62). Souterrains are often found in close association with these various forms, and as with elsewhere in Scotland (ScARF Iron Age section), debate continues regarding their storage function and/or ritual use, their relationship to the Roman military and the dating of their abandonment (Armit 2000; Coleman and Hunter 2002; Halliday 2006). 

The uplands west of the River Tay contain a notable concentration of massive, stone-walled roundhouses, found on high ground proposed as ancient pasture overlooking upland passes. They have previously been referred to as ‘ring-forts’ (Stewart 1969), ‘homesteads’ (Taylor 1990) and ‘monumental roundhouses’ (Strachan 2013). Stewart and Taylor proposed an early medieval origin for these types of sites. However, excavations at Aldclune (MPK3; Hingley et al 1998) and Black Spout (MPK1607; Strachan 2013) confirmed construction and use in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, with secondary occupation in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, but with early medieval reuse. Also found in the uplands west of the Tay are forts and duns. Both are infrequent, however, and the forts, located in the hills around lower Strathtummel and Strathtay, are generally smaller than larger examples in the lowlands. Crannogs are also predominant in this area; the use of water as a natural form of enclosure occurs from the Early Iron Age as crannogs become a distinctive settlement feature.   While crannogs are present throughout the region, one of the densest known concentrations in Scotland are found on Loch Tay (Dixon 2004, 10). Radiocarbon dating of structural timbers from seven of the Loch Tay examples (Dixon et al 2007) and the lowland crannog in Loch Monzievaird (Dixon and Shelley 2006) suggests they were occupied from as early as 820 BC (Oakbank crannog, Loch Tay; MPK484; see Oakbank Crannog Case Study). They thus began a water dwelling tradition that continued in the region into the late medieval period (Stratigos and Hamilton forthcoming). 

Excavation of the entrance at Black Spout ©️ Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

A single broch tower, of the height and proportions more commonly found in the north and west of Scotland and in lesser numbers across the lowlands, has been confirmed at Castle Craig, Auchterarder (MPK1399; James 2011; 2012; Poller forthcoming). A second, unexcavated example has been proposed at Little Dunsinane, Collace (MPK6571; RCAHMS 1994, 51, 74). While a monumental roundhouse, similar to those found in the Highland zone (see above), was recently discovered within a series of forts on Moredun Top, Moncreiffe Hill, Perth (MPK5232; Strachan et al forthcoming). Radiocarbon dating suggests that Castle Craig is a Late Iron Age site of the early centuries AD, occupying a previously fortified prominent hill and post-dates the monumental roundhouses of the uplands, and the Moredun monumental roundhouse. 

Monumental roundhouse at Moredun ©️ Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

The series of hilltop forts found along the Ochil and Sidlaw Hills vary in scale and form, while smaller forts are found along the interface with the uplands and along the lowland straths. Recent programmes of excavation of forts along the Ochils and at the head of the Tay estuary are beginning to improve our understanding of the chronology of these sites. Notably, Late Bronze Age dates have been secured for activity from Rossie Law and Ogle Hill (Poller pers comm). Early Iron Age dates from Moncreiffe Hill fort range from around 700–250 BC (MPK3203; Strachan et al forthcoming) while lower lying forts along Strathearn, such as Dun Knock, Dunning (MPK2004) and Jackschairs Wood Forgandenny, (MPK1874), range from 600–400 BC (Poller forthcoming; for an analysis of vitrification at Dun Knock see Donaldson et al 2004). 

These various forms of monumental structure are designed to be seen from their distinct locations with crannogs at water level, forts on high elevations and monumental roundhouses between (Strachan 2013, 112). They may well have had significant socio-economic and potentially local political roles (Strachan 2013, 10). While forts are common along the Sidlaws, they are notable by their absence in the uplands to the east of the Tay. This is in contrast to the uplands west of the Tay where again they occur relatively frequently. Significantly, other monumental forms are also absent in the uplands east of the Tay: there are no monumental roundhouses, duns and, with one exception, crannogs. The question then, is to what extent an upland-lowland division dictated the nature and density of the region’s population, settlement forms, land use and economy? In the broad lowland straths, larger politico-economic groups, supported by grain-rich, mixed arable and pastoral economies, suggest a tiered society represented through the presence of hilltop power centres and a hierarchy of settlement forms. A smaller-scale, more fragmented social structure in the uplands, with greater emphasis on cattle-based transhumance, is represented by fewer forts and the presence of monumental roundhouses (Strachan 2013, 114). Monument survival, resulting from both land-use change and archaeological survey bias, appears to have influenced the distribution of some known site types. The contrast between monumental forms present to the west of the River Tay, but absent to the east, suggests the river, perhaps unsurprisingly, as a significant cultural boundary throughout the period. 

With regards to the disposal of the dead, it is likely that the dominant tradition in Scotland was excarnation, with occasional inhumations, as is assumed for much of Britain. In common with much of Scotland, the nature of Iron Age burials remain difficult to establish in Perth and Kinross, with only two possible excavated examples known at Castle Menzies Home Farm, Weem (MPK1026; Clark 1970) and The Women’s Knowe, Inchuthil (MPK6943; Winlow 2010). An assessment of Scottish Iron Age burials lists a total of five sites in the area, two of which are possible Roman cremations (Wallace 2011); a further example has since been identified from Baledgarno (Hunter 2021). With so few examples known or excavated, it is difficult to comment on the nature of Iron Age burial in the region, but it is likely that several traditions existed, based on excarnation and extended inhumation with variations in construction, monumentality and associated material culture (Winlow 2010; Mitchell et al 2020). 

A major and tangible phase of the Iron Age in parts of Perth and Kinross was the Roman military incursions of the 1st–3rd centuries AD. Despite threats from development, erosion and agriculture, we know more about the Roman presence in the region than in many other parts of Scotland. However, the historically partitioned approach to Iron Age and Roman studies in the region, and elsewhere, has made it difficult to assess the extent to which the Roman army interacted with and induced change within local Iron Age society, particularly beyond the immediate physical impact of the military campaigns. Nationally, this interaction has been the subject of study in recent years (e.g. MacInnes 1989; Hunter 2001; Hunter 2007a; Hunter 2007b; Ingemark 2014 and cf. Wilson 2014; Wilson et al 2014; Ivleva et al 2018) and evidence for such contact within Perth and Kinross is both extensive and varied. This includes stray single finds and hoards of Roman coins, as well as the recovery of Roman material culture from Iron Age sites throughout the region, especially in association with hilltop enclosed settlements such as on Castle Craig (MPK1399), Auchterarder and also with souterrains. The roundhouses, identified as cropmarks and through geophysical survey by the Roman Gask Project, near Roman forts such as at Cargill (MPK3570) remain undated. As a result, it remains unclear whether they represent Iron Age structures forming vicus settlement contemporary with fort occupation, a deliberate insertion of Roman forts into culturally rich settled landscapes, or post-Roman reclamation of sites by Iron Age communities, as at Cardean, and possibly Inverquharity in Angus. The unusually complicated bank system in Ardoch fort (MPK665) and the juxtaposition between Iron Age, Roman and early medieval features on the Inchtuthil plateau are also suggestive of complex landscape narratives and cultural interactivity which merit further study. 

Landscape photograph of a roman fort, which looks like long ridges in the grass, with deep spaces in between each ridge. The sky is cloudy and grey and trees can be seen in the background.
Ardoch Roman fort ©️ ScARF

There are currently three periods of Roman activity in Scotland where historical sources indicate a presence in parts of Perth and Kinross (Flavian, Antonine and Severan). Archaeological investigations across the region have revealed an increasingly complex picture with continued debate over exactly when the Roman military incursions into the region first occurred. What is clear is that Rome’s arrival in Perth and Kinross saw the construction of both temporary and more permanent military installations from the Flavian period (around AD 77–86/90) onwards. Following an initial period of campaigning and temporary camp construction, more permanent auxiliary forts, fortlets, towers and a road were established. A Legionary fortress, which was begun but not completed on the upland/lowland Highland boundary at Inchtuthil, hints at unrealised Flavian ambitions to springboard further into northern Scotland (MPK3639; Pitts and St Joseph 1985). Accurately dating the military campaigns through the region and the establishment of individual sites is still debated and tied up with the interpretation of the conflicting historical sources.  The sources suggest various dates for the arrival of Roman forces in the area; these range from the early AD 70s to the traditional date of AD 79. However, there is insufficient geographical detail to confidently link the sources with the archaeological record. In the wider context, Carlisle is currently the northernmost fort with clear evidence for occupation in the early AD 70s (Caruana et al 1992; Shotter 2002; 2009). The first Roman occupation appears to have continued to about AD 86/87. 

In the mid-2nd century AD, during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius, a number of the Flavian auxiliary fort sites show evidence of being reoccupied for at least 10 years, where they potentially served as outposts for the Antonine Wall. The forts of Ardoch (MPK665), Strageath (MPK714), Bertha (MPK2048), Cargill (MPK3570) and Dalginross (MPK308) have all produced material datable to the Antonine period (around AD 139–165). In the case of Strageath, and to a lesser extent Bertha, evidence for large-scale occupation exists outside the fort defences and merits more extensive future research to define its nature and relationship to the forts. Although situated in Angus, excavations at Inverquharity suggest that the well-engineered Roman road (as opposed to the earlier track) may also date to 2nd century AD reoccupation. Some of the smaller installations, such as the fortlets at Glenbank (MPK675) and Midgate (MPK5642), have provided some suggestion of a second phase of occupation which could equally relate to Antonine activity. 

Beyond the 2nd century AD, only excavations at the Roman fortress at Carpow (MPK4624) near Abernethy have so far produced evidence for permanent occupation and relates to the short campaigns of the Emperor Septimus Severus around AD 208–211 (Birley 1963; Dore and Wilkes 2000; Hodgson 2014). Late 2nd century AD finds at Strageath and possibly Cargill might suggest reoccupation of these permanent sites in the 3rd century AD as well. A Roman presence continued following the Severan campaigns but it is more subtle and mainly recognisable in the archaeological record through material culture, especially silver coins which occur as stray finds or on Late Iron Age and early medieval sites (Blackwell et al 2017, 33–40). This has been interpreted in broader studies as indicative of a different, less-military form of Roman foreign policy that was more covert but still subversive in its involvement in local political systems across selected regions beyond the edges of the Empire (Blackwell et al 2017, 33–40). 

The end of the Iron Age is not defined by any fundamental shift in economy, technology or settlement patterns, but rather through the detection of new early medieval identities. In this area the Picts are known historically, and were the successors to the Caledonians and the Maeatae. While often cited as emerging AD 300–400, the relevance of any specific date range in defining the beginning of the Pictish period remains open to debate (Noble et al 2018). Initially, many site types, such as forts, crannogs and roundhouses, with broadly similar material culture and economy appear to continue across the same landscape settings. The proximity of post-Iron Age monuments, such as castles, churches, long cists and tumuli, to the forts of Inchtuthil and Ardoch may suggest that abandoned Roman sites had some continued purpose and value after the Roman military withdrew. This is paralleled across Roman Britain where Roman sites attracted post-Roman settlements from the early medieval period on, often with a local governance, religious or monastic association (e.g. the forts at Burgh Castle, Carlisle and Birdoswald). It is not until around AD 600 that distinctively new site types emerge, notably the Pitcarmick-type buildings, Pictish longhouses, that survive in the uplands east of the River Tay (Carver et al 2013; Strachan et al 2019). New types of ritual landscapes are introduced, with the appearance of square burial barrows and barrow cemeteries. (Maldonado 2017; Mitchell et al 2020). Importantly, in terms of material culture, important new insular art forms are introduced, significantly the Pictish symbol stones (Fraser 2008; Hall et al 2020). Nonetheless, Roman influence persists through the role of silver as a status symbol and as a catalyst for social change (Blackwell et al 2017).