The post-medieval period saw major disruption to traditional settlement patterns in Perth and Kinross. A combination of agricultural improvement, industrialisation and changing attitudes to land tenure meant the 18th and 19th centuries saw many older settlements being abandoned, while other locations experienced unprecedented levels of development. It is therefore important to recognise that the rural settlement patterns of today, or indeed the late 19th century, may differ significantly from those of the 17th and early 18th centuries.
Early maps provide a partial window onto the distribution of pre-improvement settlements. Well-known resources such as the maps created by Joan Blaeu and John Adair, as well as William Roy’s detailed military survey, still have potential for further study. However, many less famous collections of estate plans also survive for this period. Work in the Ben Lawers area of Loch Tayside has highlighted the significant research possibilities such estate plans can hold (Atkinson 2016). In the 2000s a major map regression exercise was undertaken for Ben Lawers which compared survey information from the RCAHMS, OS map data and 18th-century maps created by John Farquharson for the Breadalbane estate (Boyle 2009). This revealed a complex pre-improvement landscape of multiple tenancy townships, with infield and outfield, and upland summer grazing. This was a pattern of land use and settlement which was largely swept away in the 1790s with large sheep walks and the creation of single tenancy farms. Similar evidence survives for many other estates in Perth and Kinross, but usually has not received the same, or sometimes any, degree of study.
The nationwide First Edition Survey Project made a major contribution to our understanding of post-medieval rural settlement in Perth and Kinross (RCAHMS 2002). This project mapped buildings recorded as unroofed on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey – thereby providing an overview of the distribution of abandoned settlements visible in the mid-19th century. However, inconsistencies in how sites were recorded by the Ordnance Survey teams has resulted in issues with the data. For example, former shielings – traditional seasonal shelters for upland herders – were not always noted by the Ordnance Survey, whilst some sites identified by them as shielings may in reality have been the remains of small permanent settlements. If studied in isolation, maps have the potential to distort our understanding of post-medieval settlement patterns, and under-represent some, often lower status, types of sites. Despite the obvious value of historical maps, it is vital that the information they provide is compared with evidence from modern field survey.
In recent decades there has been significant survey work regarding rural settlement in Perth and Kinross. However, the degree of study has varied between different parts of the region. The RCAHMS previously surveyed much of the eastern area of Perth and Kinross (RCAHMS 1990; 1994). Meanwhile, our understanding of a small, and possibly exceptional, part of the north-west of the region has been greatly enhanced by the Ben Lawers Historic Landscape Project (Atkinson 2016). However, most of the north-west remains relatively unstudied, and deserves much greater investigation through aerial and field survey. Currently, the overall lack of field survey in the northern and western areas of Perth and Kinross may be significantly skewing our understanding of post-medieval settlement.
At present, it seems as though the varying landscapes of Perth and Kinross strongly influenced pre-improvement settlement patterns. Map evidence from the 17th and 18th centuries indicates that in upland areas most settlements were traditionally located along loch shores or beside rivers. The majority of these upland settlements were quite small and consisted of dispersed townships and farms. In contrast, in lowland areas there appears to have been greater variety in the size of settlements, and they were more generally distributed across the countryside, rather than being restricted to the strips of land around significant watercourses.
Only a tiny proportion of these rural settlements have been excavated. The Ben Lawers Historic Landscape Project led to several excavations in the area around Loch Tay, and revealed many of the challenges associated with studying pre-improvement upland communities (Atkinson 2016). Post-medieval settlements excavated include Balnasuim (MPK9430), Croftvellich (MPK9467), and Easter Tombreck (MPK9433, all in north Loch Tayside). Interestingly, despite their geographic proximity, the pre-19th-century buildings at these sites ‘exhibited no consistency in form’ and even had differing construction techniques (Atkinson 2016, 128). The factors that drove this variety are at present unclear. The Ben Lawers excavations highlighted the difficulty of dating rural settlements in upland Perth and Kinross prior to the late 18th century, when significant quantities of mass-produced goods began to enter the region. In particular, the excavations produced very few 17th and 18th-century ceramic fragments, and it is possible that some upland communities in Perth and Kinross were largely aceramic prior to the 1790s (Atkinson 2016, 262).
The Ben Lawers project saw the excavation of several shielings along the Lawers Burn and the Edramucky Burn (Atkinson 2016, 213–46). Radiocarbon dating for the Edramucky shielings (MPK174) indicated use during the 16th or 17th centuries, while shielings at Meall Greigh (MPK214) on the Lawers Burn produced two phases of date ranges, one spanning the 15th to the 17th century, another suggesting activity in the 18th or 19th centuries. Relatively little material culture has been discovered at shielings – although ‘shaped stone discs’ have been found (Atkinson 2016, 240, 246). These have sometimes been interpreted as weights for pressing cheese curds, although this theory is not universally accepted. As shielings form one of the most common monument types in upland Perth and Kinross, there is a clear need to better understand their diverse designs, construction techniques, chronology, usage and seasonality. Whilst some initial work has been carried out on place names associated with transhumance, such as shiel, airigh, ruighe and bothan, the broader extent and experience of transhumance in post-medieval Perth and Kinross requires further research (Bil 1992). A particular area of debate relates to the permanence, or otherwise, of shielings. It should perhaps be noted that at some sites there is evidence of shielings shifting from seasonal into year-round occupancy as the land improved with the creation of pasture and frequent manuring (Bil 1990).
The exceptionally disruptive nature of agricultural improvement in the Highlands means that upland Perth and Kinross has large numbers of abandoned settlements. Stewart was something of a pioneer in excavating such sites, and has left a legacy of assemblages and sites that could be reassessed, notably at Allt na Moine Buidhe and Allt Lochan nan Losgunn (Stewart et al 1999). In contrast, post-medieval sites in lower lying parts of the region have more frequently experienced continuous occupation. This obviously creates challenges for excavation. However, lowland areas often have relatively detailed post-medieval documentation and are more likely to have standing buildings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Ongoing changes in rural communities, and in particular the trend for converting and developing historic farms, may provide opportunities for excavation and detailed recording of standing buildings. There is arguably a need for greater discussion between planners, researchers and local communities about how we can best use this window of opportunity for archaeological investigation. If we do not rapidly identify research priorities for lowland rural settlements, there is a risk that a whole swathe of evidence regarding post-medieval agricultural life will be destroyed before it is properly understood.