6.7.4 Burials

At the start of the early medieval period, commemoration of the dead in formal but unenclosed cemeteries became common (Maldonado 2013). From around the 8th century, burial practice became more standardised as it moved towards Christian churchyard burial. In Perth and Kinross a wide variety of burial practice is recorded, including long cists, log or plank-built coffins, flat graves and barrow or cairn monuments. Of an approximate total of 1,081 funerary monuments in the PKHER, 61 are of forms associated with early medieval burial, 15 relating to long cist and 47 to square barrows, the majority of which are known as cropmarks and have seen no further investigation.

Long cist graves are dug graves edged with stone slabs. They are generally thought to be early medieval in date but the tradition began in the Iron Age (Maldonado 2013). They are often referred to as ‘stone coffins’ in antiquarian accounts, such as those discovered at Evelick Castle (MPK5357) during the 19th century, and one at Cairn Wochel (MPK807) during the 18th century. Other records might describe the graves as stone cists or simply cists, such as the ‘stone cists and human bones’ discovered at Bruceton (MPK5045) making classification of these early discoveries quite difficult. Although skeletal preservation is generally poor due to acidic soils in Perthshire, good survival does occur. For example, at Blair Atholl, where a long cist grave with possible cairn capping was found to contain a skeleton of a male who died aged around 45 years in the late 5th–early 6th centuries AD (MPK1168; Reid and McLaughlin 1987). Multi-isotope analysis highlighted the diet and mobility of the individual, supplying valuable new insights into life and mobility in the period in Scotland. For example, his diet was found to be consistent with early medieval and Pictish individuals studied, rich in terrestrial resources, especially pork, and suggested a childhood in the west coast of Scotland (Czére et al 2021). 

Reconstruction of Blair Atholl man by Hayley Fisher © Perth Museum and Art Gallery

At Kingoodie (MPK5105), three long cists were discovered in 1956, with one adult female radiocarbon dated to the early 5th to mid-6th centuries AD (Winlow and Cook 2010). At Peterhead (MPK18243; adjacent to Peterhead enclosure (MPK1287) three graves were excavated 35m from Peterhead Farm Pictish symbol stone (MPK15111). Only the long cist grave had surviving skeletal material, that of a poorly preserved, probable adult male, radiocarbon dated to the 5th to early 7th centuries AD (Dingwall 2019). The second grave had evidence of a log coffin, and the third grave had no surviving remains. While no barrow ditches were identified, it seems likely there was some form of above-ground marker to prevent burials being intercut. The graves are spaced, organised head to foot, in a similar way to the group at Powmyre Quarry, Angus (Bailey and Smith 2012, 46) and a group at Redcastle, Angus, where barrow ditches may have been ploughed away (Alexander 2005).

Plan of long cists at Kingoodie, Longforgan by DB Taylor © Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Barrow and cairn cemeteries of square and circular monuments are generally considered to be Pictish. The distribution extent broadly aligns with the Pictish symbol stones. The square monuments, especially those with causeways at the corner, are particularly recognisable. It is possible that cemeteries with round barrows only are also early medieval, for example Blairhall (MPK5480) but without square barrows they are harder to categorise (Winlow 2011). Upstanding examples at Garbeg and Whitebridge, both Highlands, show something of the original construction, as low platform mounds. The majority of barrow cemeteries in Perth and Kinross survive as cropmarks but there is an unusual upstanding barrow at Hallhole (MPK5323). It is exceptionally large with three circuits of ditches and banks (Abercromby 1904): cropmarks of square and circular barrows lie immediately to the south. Another possible example of an upstanding cemetery is at Balmenoch (MPK18620), where seven low mounds were identified during a walkover survey.

Hallhole from the air ©️ HES

Almost all of the known early medieval burial sites in Perth and Kinross are cropmark sites. The Welton (MPK5494) barrow cemetery of around 12 circular and square barrows lies in arable farmland at the edge of a river terrace. Excavation at cropmark sites in Scotland often reveals extensive truncation (Dunwell and Ralston 2008). At Forteviot, much like other excavated barrow cemetery sites, the barrow ditches and grave cuts were being actively ploughed away (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 68–9). It is possible that some of these cropmark sites will be lost in the next few years (Dunwell and Ralston 2008; Mitchell et al 2020). Excavation of a barrow cemetery at Bankhead of Kinloch (MPK18751; Mitchell et al 2020, 21–5; see Bankhead of Kinloch Case Study) encountered two round barrows, two conjoined square barrows and another square barrow, none of which were previously recognised as cropmarks. Only square barrow SQB1 had stone grave furniture: two large boulders may have held a lid in place. The two round barrows had evidence of an organic lining at the base of the grave. In the grave fill of SQB3 there was charred material, possibly the remains of a wooden coffin or some charred material deposited in the upper fill similar to the round barrow at Forteviot. Preservation was poor but the fragmentary remains of three individuals were radiocarbon dated to between the 4th to 6th centuries AD.

Cropmarks of burials at Welton ©️ HES

Excavations at Forteviot as part of the SERF project encompass the wide variety of burial and provide a window on the evolution of burial practice through the early medieval period. The cropmarks of square barrows were long ago recognised on aerial photography of Forteviot (Alcock 1980). Between 2007 and 2011, three areas were excavated: two square barrows to the south (MPK1890); adjacent to the Neolithic enclosure (MPK1882) which may have been earliest element in the sequence. To the north there are two conjoined causewayed square barrows, one round barrow and 12 flat graves (MPK1883) which were  adjacent to the large probably Roman period square enclosure. There were also  eight flat graves within the churchyard extension area (MPK20323) that were later in the sequence and probably dated to around the 9th century. Many of the graves and barrow ditches were heavily truncated and no human remains were recovered. Despite this, a lot of information was obtained on the wide variety of burial types represented. The causewayed square barrows are of the typical Pictish type recognisable in aerial images, but the southern examples had continuous ditches. Two log or plank-built coffins were identified, and post holes around the graves of the two causewayed square barrows suggested the possibility of a structure projecting above the barrow (Maldonado in Campbell and Driscoll 2020).

Within wider burial landscapes, prehistoric burial monuments were being reappropriated as the focus for early medieval burial, possibly to signify links to an ancestral past (Driscoll 1998). At North Mains of Strathallan, extended graves were set within a prehistoric henge (MPK1359; Barclay 1983 [SET4]) and at Market Knowe, Longforgan, a long cist and flat grave were interred at the edges of what was an old burial monument (MPK5119; Cachart and Hall 2014). At Forteviot, an extensive prehistoric landscape formed part of the new early medieval burial landscape, and even more dramatic engagement with the prehistoric monuments was identified, with fire pits and cremated human bone buried in prehistoric features dated from the 6th to 11th centuries (Campbell et al 2020). Fire rituals are also suggested with the charring of oak coffins at Peterhead and Forteviot, and the burnt branches in the grave fill of the Forteviot round barrow. The barrow cemeteries extended out across the landscape in a linear but organic distribution, hugging the topography and framing terraces, routeways and rivers (Winlow 2011; Mitchell and Noble 2017).

By the 8th century burials started to become more standardised as churchyards were established (O’Brien 2003; Maldonado 2011). Evidence is more limited from this period onwards, in part due to the continuance of the sites as religious or sacred sites into the modern period. Excavations at ecclesiastical sites in the eastern firthlands at Auldhame, Isle of May and Kirkhill, St Andrews have all turned up evidence for the accrual of lay burial grounds – denoted by the mixed population of men, women and children – from about the 8th century onwards (Melikan in Crone and Hindmarch 2016 [SET5], 51; James and Yeoman 2008, 17–20; Wordsworth and Clark 1997). It is therefore likely that this shows a gradual move toward churchyard burial at this time. Excavations in Forteviot churchyard revealed simple grave pits cut into the natural gravel which must represent the earliest days of the cemetery, but no bone survived to be dated (Maldonado in Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 119–22). However, at nearby St Serf’s (MPK1999), Dunning, a slit trench at the base of the square tower showed a crowded accumulation of burials dated as early as the 9th century, indicating the likely foundation date of the cemetery here (see Christian Sites).

There is only scattered evidence for ‘pagan Norse’ burial in Perth and Kinross, consisting mainly of stray finds of Viking Age dress items and weapons as discussed below (Migration; Weapons and Equipment). The association of ‘hogback’ stones – recumbent stones with curved profiles bearing ‘roof tile’ tegulated ornament – with Scandinavian colonists is no longer very clear. However, it is still most likely that they are a form of grave marker dating to the 9–12th centuries in Scotland (Williams 2015; cf Lang 1974). The ‘hogback’ from Meigle (number 25) is perhaps the earliest in the series, bearing part of the local Pictish ‘house style’ and with an odd shape (Ritchie 1995, 7). A very weathered and fragmented tegulated coped stone in Tullibole churchyard identified by Robertson in 1991 may be a partly reworked hogback (MPK6715). However, in this area there are examples of later medieval tegulated coped stones such as one from Dunkeld (MPK2449) which are no earlier than the 12/13th centuries. It may be that the majority of ‘hogbacks’ and related stones from the eastern firthlands relate to the rise of a knightly class rather than anything to do with the Vikings (Maldonado 2021,195–6). It is more likely that the simple, undecorated cross-marked stones which occur in small numbers but are spread widely across the region hold the best evidence for churchyard burial in the 9–12th centuries, even if they are nearly impossible to date closely. Simple outline or low-relief crosses with no other ornament (cf Henderson 1987) occur widely in churchyards of the area – eg Fortingall, Dull, Weem, Cladh Bhranno, Muthill. Finally, it is also possible that burial outside of churchyards continued to a lesser extent in these centuries. A long cist cemetery developed within the east half of the Neolithic henge of North Mains of Strathallan. While such cemeteries are most frequently dated to the 5th–7th centuries, a female teenager in one of these cists was radiocarbon dated to AD 640–1040 (Barclay et al 1984, 145; GU-1382 recalibrated using IntCal 20 curve).