In contrast to the national medieval ScARF document (Hall and Price 2012), it has been decided to split the medieval period into two sections: an early medieval section covering roughly AD 400-1100, and a later medieval section covering c.1100- c.1600. The early medieval section will deal with the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dál Riata, and the impact of Norse-speaking incomers on this area. The reasons for this split are principally that we are dealing with very different sources of data and academic specialisms for the two periods, with different major research themes. Obviously, there is overlap of themes in some areas, and also with the later Iron Age period in this area of Scotland, but the present approach was seen as the most practical.
Argyll and Bute have some of the most important early medieval sites in Scotland, or indeed in the entire Atlantic Façade. Pre-eminent amongst these are the monastery of Iona and the royal fort at Dunadd, but apart from these key sites, and the Early Christian carved stone monuments of the region, the archaeology of the area is rather poorly studied compared to other areas of Scotland. Apart from the introductory sections of the RCAHMS Inventories (RCAHMS 1971, 1975, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1992), the only specific previous overview of Argyll’s archaeology was The Archaeology of Argyll edited by Graham Ritchie (1997), which included chapters by Ian Fisher on the Early Christian archaeology, and Marilyn Brown on the Norse period, but nothing on early medieval secular society. Margaret Nieke’s chapter in the Argyll Book (Omand 2004) does however cover this area, and Campbell’s Saints and Sea-kings (1999) is a popular account of the early medieval period. The Norse period evidence is more fully covered within Graham-Campbell and Batey’s (1998) Vikings in Scotland: an archaeological survey. This paper will concentrate on archaeological evidence for the period, as the historical, ecclesiastical, art historical and placename evidence has been extensively discussed and is not easy to summarise. The literature on Iona itself is vast – Professor Richard Sharp (pers. comm. ) has listed over 1500 bibliographic references relating directly to Iona, but a short archaeological bibliography is given below (see Iona Case Study).It should also be noted that there is a separate Iona Research Strategy in production, specifically related to Iona (Campbell, Forsyth and Maldonado forthcoming). This research strategy is inter-disciplinary, covering archaeology, history, toponymics, Gaelic language, literature, environment and art.
Traditionally, early medieval Argyll has been seen as being settled from north-east Antrim by Gaelic peoples, the Dál Riata, supplanting an original Brittonic-speaking (‘Pictish’) people. This view has been challenged by Campbell (2001), who has shown there is no archaeological, historical or linguistic evidence for this migration. This view has been generally accepted by many archaeologists, but has in turn been challenged (McSparron and Williams 2012). Whichever view is accepted, there is no doubt that Argyll was a Gaelic-speaking area throughout the early medieval period. The precise location of the Norse hybrid Gall-Gaedhil (Gaelic-speaking foreigners) of western Scotland has been much debated, with all areas from the Hebrides to Ayrshire and Galloway being proposed (Clancy 2008), but they would have been well-known in Argyll. The political history of Dál Riata is complex and difficult to unravel from the surviving documentation, but involved competing lineages of four major dynasties of peoples or cenéla, and interaction with their Pictish and British neighbours. There are competing ideas on many aspects of political organisation, dynasties, and warfare in the period 600-800 (for a recent summary up to c. 800 see Fraser 2009; for one detailed discussion Broun 2015). Some aspects of religious life are better known, but are dominated by works associated with Iona, with other important sites such as St Blane’s, Bute, or St Moluag’s, Lismore being relatively undocumented. The period from 800-1100 is even less well understood, but is when Dál Riata became known as Airer Gaedel (the shore of the Gaels) or Argyll.
Apart from the long-standing major problems of chronology, exacerbated by a sparse material culture, themes of transition and culture contact have tended to dominate discourse on early medieval Argyll. These themes include: the development of the early Scottish kingdom of Dál Riata from an iron age kin-based society, focussing on the power centres such as Dunadd; the adoption of Christianity and its impact on society, craft and monumentality; and culture contact, both between Dál Riata and neighbouring Irish, British and Anglo-Saxon polities, and later with Norse peoples.The term ‘early medieval’ is widely used throughout Europe for this period, and is adopted here in preference to less neutral labels such as Dark Age, Post-Roman, Early Christian, or Alcock’s (1981) term of Early Historic, but it is recognised that the period also falls within the scope of the Late Iron Age of western Scotland. The geographic scope of the RARFA is confined to the modern administrative council of Argyll and Bute, but this discussion necessarily includes the wider region of the kingdom of the Dál Riata, which extended to Ardnamuchan, Morvern and possibly Arran. A draft of this document was presented at the two day Symposium entitled Unfolding Argyll’s Archaeological Story in Kilmartin on 27-28th November 2015 and after circulation further discussed and revised at subsequent meetings on July 13th 2016 and 3rd Nov 2016.