Our sources for military activity comprise written accounts, places – defendable enclosures – and things – weapons and horse gear. All three categories of evidence are scarce.
Texts and things
The textual evidence, including for the location of battles or skirmishes between various Pictish and Scottish dynasties and places of viking raiding, is translated in Anderson (1980; 1990) and has been reviewed in the context of viking raiding, for example in the Dunkeld Annals (Hall et al 1996, 141–2). During the reign of Cinead mac Alpín, the Annals record that the Danes (‘Danari’) laid waste to Pictland as far as Clunie and Dunkeld (Anderson 1980, 250), probably in the late 850s as it happened just before Cinead’s death in 858. The moving of some of St Columba’s relics to Dunkeld in the 9th century may have been, at least in part, a response to viking raiding against Iona and reminds us how violent actions had knock-on effects in other areas of social life. There is a debate about whether the relics were moved by Cinead as part of his (re-)founding of Dunkeld or whether it happened earlier in the 9th century under Constantin son of Uurguist. In 875 Dunkeld was presumably further attacked – in that year the Danes were victorious in the battle of Dollar and wreaked havoc as far as Atholl, remaining in Pictland for a further year (Anderson 1980, 250; Broun 1997, 118). In 903 the Norse (‘Normani’) plundered Dunkeld and all Alba (Anderson 1980, 251; Broun 1997, 120 n 39). In addition to the stray finds of harness and other mounts with signs of modification and reuse mentioned above (see Migration), hoards of objects such as the group of brooches from Loch Clunie may also be proxy evidence for unrest in the 9th century (Maldonado 2021, 82–5).
While primarily an Iron Age phenomena, forts were constructed or reoccupied across Scotland in the early medieval period (Alcock 2003; Harding 2004; Ralston 2006). Suggested early medieval forms include ‘nuclear’ forts (Stevenson 1949), promontory forts, and ring forts (Noble 2016, 27). Assigning chronology on the basis of morphology alone has proved problematic, however. For example, Moredun fort (MPK5232), Perth, was for a long time believed to be a ‘nuclear’ fort, with an inner, summit enclosure and lower enclosed terraces. However, targeted excavation to date the various enclosures has produced only Iron Age dates (Strachan et al forthcoming). Moredun is thought to have been the location of a battle between claimants to the Pictish kingship in the 8th century; it is often cited as additional evidence which points to an early medieval power centre there (Hall et al 2006, 277). The new archaeological evidence might suggest that the battle at Moredun was perhaps no more than coincidental to that place, though perhaps the remains of an older fort were seen as an appropriate, legitimising arena for the conflict. Of 15 or so examples excavated in the region, only two – Dundurn and the King’s Seat – have been confirmed as early medieval (Alcock et al 1989; Strachan and MacIver forthcoming).
Of over 60 known palisaded enclosures in Perth and Kinross, almost all discovered as cropmarks, fewer than ten have seen any archaeological excavation. While palisaded enclosures are generally considered to be prehistoric, rare early medieval examples have been identified elsewhere in Scotland, for example at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire (Noble and Evans 2019) and Titwood, East Renfrewshire (Johnson 2003). Palisade phases are also known at some forts, so early medieval palisaded enclosures could be regarded as fortifications (RCAHMS 1994, 51; Noble et al 2013).
The only early medieval palisaded enclosure in the area was discovered through limited excavation at Upper Gothens (MPK5496) near Blairgowrie. Originally thought to be Neolithic (see PKARF Neolithic section), excavation revealed an irregular octagonal inner palisade ditch and an exterior ditch with evidence of multiple phases of activity. Three radiocarbon dates from secondary ditch fills provided dates spanning the 9th–13th centuries AD. A medieval iron buckle (PKARF Early Medieval LINK) and metalworking slag were also recovered from the site, which was suggested to have been the seat of an early medieval lordship (Barclay 2001).
Weapons and Equipment
An assemblage of antiquarian finds from St Serfs Priory, Loch Leven, includes a Scandinavian-style iron arrowhead of 10th/11th century date (Perth Museum K1972.149; Hall 2007b). It fits into the picture of Norse/Viking activity in this area (see also Taylor 2004; Taylor 2007). Another antiquarian find, poorly provenanced, from Loch Leven, is a decorated iron axe (Perth Museum K1972.291; Caldwell 1981, 268–9), which conforms to Petersen’s Type M Danish broad axes (1919, 46-7, figs 44–45). It is likely to date to the 11th/early 12th century. The decoration comprises silver inlay, comprising spirals around the neck and shaft hole, with long strings of decoration alternating with elaborate spears, radiating towards the cutting edge. The inlay was subjected to XRF analysis at National Museums Scotland, showing that the silver was of a high purity and mixed with traces of copper, gold and possibly mercury. This suggests that the silver may have been gilded. This was a high-status weapon that must have belonged to someone of importance. Caldwell (1981, 269 and n 45) gives examples of silver decorated axes from the Continent (Germany and Finland) of a similar date. There are two further axes that should be noted. The first derives from the Perth High Street excavations (Caldwell 2012, cat 5, 191; Caldwell 1981, 269–70) classified as a Petersen Type M, which begins in the 11th century. However, its imprecise High Street phasing means it could have been in use as late as the 14th century. The second axe is in the collections of National Museums Scotland (H.RY 8) and was found at Leargan, Rannoch (MPK255). Long suggested to be a probable 16th century example (Caldwell 1981, 286, fig 158), a recent reassessment (Bourke 2001, 87) proposes such T-shaped axes had an earlier, 6th–11th-century currency. They are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and the 9th/10th-century Hurbuck hoard contains two examples. In this case we may then be dealing with an axe from the close of the first millennium AD.
Perth also provides the provenance for two apparently Viking Age swords, one comprising pattern-welded blade and hilt fragments (MPK3362; Perth Museum 147) and the other a lobed hilt only, from the Perth High Street excavations (Caldwell 2012, cat 1, 189–91, including PMAG 147 at 191). The first was found in the 19th century, during work on Watergate, one of Perth’s earliest, pre-12th-century streets. The PHS example was recovered from a later context suggesting it, possibly both, survived as heirlooms before being committed to the ground (Hall et al 2006, 277; Gilchrist 2013, 174–5). A Viking Age date means they are just as likely to have been used by Picts or Scots as Viking raiders.
One final weapon to be noted is the iron spearhead from Kinclaven (MPK5865; Perth Museum 1991.55). This was found by chance in the River Tay, opposite Kinclaven Castle. At the time of its discovery, it was presumed to reflect 13th-century activity and possibly be linked to the AD 1297 skirmish between Wallace and the English during the Wars of Independence. More recently a re-evaluation suggested that typologically the spear head was a good fit for Germanic and Anglo-Saxon typologies with a 6th/7th century date. At the same time the surviving fragment of ash haft preserved inside the socket was radiocarbon dated to the 11/12th century. If this represented a re-hafting of the spear rather than the original haft it might suggest a spearhead made in the 10th century. If rehafted as an heirloom, it may have been deliberately placed in the river at the end of its life.
The high-status of the inlaid Loch Leven axe is matched by the 11th/early 12th century, ‘Romanesque’ gilded spur in Perth Museum and recovered from early levels of the Perth High Street excavation (Ellis 2012, cat 20, 194–7; Pedersen and Rosedahl 2008, 32, fig 3). It is a copper-alloy prick spur with considerable gilding surviving. The neck is formed as an animal head with the tapered point of the ‘prick’ issuing from its mouth. Of course, spurs were used when riding horses whether in conflict situations or not, and the same applies to a range of horse gear, including mounts, some examples of which are cited above (Migration). To them we can add the metal-detector found, copper-alloy harness pendant from Inchyra (MPK18584; Perth Museum 2013.16; Hall 2021, 475–7). Of probably 11th century date, by analogy with Continental examples it may well have been gilded and so can be regarded as of comparable high-status to the spur and the axe. In situations of conflict, such gear and its ornament may have taken on extra significance in terms of seeking to compel supernatural protection (Hall 2021, 474–84).