7.1 Introduction

The medieval period saw significant social and economic changes in Perth and Kinross, resulting in shifts in land use and a variety of new building and monument types. The centuries between the accession of Malcolm III in 1058 and the union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 witnessed considerable alterations in the governance and economy of the region. This period was characterised by more complex administrative structures, a development and growth in urban settlements, reorganisation of the Church, expansion in international trade, the arrival of new diseases and significant climatic change.

Yet there were also elements of continuity. At the beginning and end of the Middle Ages most people in Perth and Kinross were living in rural communities, primarily sustained by subsistence farming. Many of the same places continued to be occupied, travel remained challenging and early death was ever present. It is likely that many features of daily life in the 11th century would have seemed familiar to a 16th-century inhabitant of the same locality. As with many periods in the past, whether researchers regard the Middle Ages as a time of change or continuity depends largely on the aspect of society under consideration, and the broader narrative being conveyed.

Antique map, stained brown and wrinkled. Image shows the locations of Loch Leven - painted blue - and Kinross-shire, among others.
Map showing parish boundaries in Perth and Kinross
©️ Perth and Kinross Museum and Art Gallery

Recent scholars have revised many traditional assumptions about Scotland in the Middle Ages. Previously, medieval Scotland was often portrayed as a ‘remote’ and ‘primitive’ ‘Celtic realm’ which was brought into a ‘more orderly’ Anglo-Norman style of kingdom by the efforts of David I (reigned 1124 to 1153) and his successors (Duncan 1975, 132–73). In contrast, current discussions tend to highlight Scotland’s international connections, to emphasise the blending of cultures, and to be more sceptical of the Crown’s role in imposing change. The archaeology of the area which is now Perth and Kinross is potentially highly relevant to these debates.

In the Middle Ages, as today, the region encompassed a range of landscapes and cultures. The relatively low-lying and fertile lands around the River Tay were part of the heartlands of the medieval Scottish state. Scone was for many centuries the site of royal inaugurations and ‘one of Scotland’s principal medieval ceremonial and legislative gathering places’ (O’Grady 2018, 137). Meanwhile Perth was one of the kingdom’s richest trading centres and during the early 15th century was ‘the favoured location’ for parliaments (MacDonald 2011, 30).

Perth and Kinross also includes more inaccessible upland areas, parts of which may have had a less direct relationship with the Scottish Crown. By the end of the Middle Ages these uplands were regarded by some Scots as culturally different – a distinction that was reinforced by the predominance of Gaelic in upland areas, whereas in contrast Scots was more prevalent around Perth and further south. Perth and Kinross straddles the interface between what later generations would regard as ‘the Highlands’ and ‘the Lowlands’. How and when this cultural divide was created, and the modes of interaction across it, should be a key research priority for the region. This is topic which has considerable significance for our understanding of the nature of medieval Scotland.