The purpose of this study is to look at the archaeology of Argyll in the period between circa 1000 and circa 1600. Argyll is taken to be as defined by the current local authority area (i.e. not including the area north of Ballachuilish, which was part of the former county of Argyllshire) but also excluding Bute, covered by a separate research agenda (Raven 2012a).
By the eleventh century Argyll was the product of a meeting of Gaelic and Norse cultures. There seems to have been some continuity from the old, Gaelic Dalriadic kingdoms, especially, but not exclusively, on the mainland, but centuries of interaction with Norse settlers and polities around the Irish Sea had heavily influenced their political structures and culture. Whilst seemingly retaining a heavily Gaelicised identity and language the Inner Hebrides had become part of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, or Sudoroy, under the sovereignty of the Norwegian Kings and in the archdiocese of Nidaros. Nevertheless, the Isles and the mainland remained heavily integrated, with the major landholders, often styling themselves as kings, holding cohesive territories in both the islands and mainland. Links with Gaelic Ireland and Scotland were maintained throughout. From the eleventh century onwards Scottish royal power increasingly asserted itself from the east. In the west the kings appealed to and swapped allegiance between the Norwegian and Scottish crowns in attempt to bolster their respective positions and independence until their shenanigans prompted Norwegian invasion and, ultimately, the ceding of Norwegian sovereignty to Scotland in 1266. After this blow Gaelic culture eclipsed any remnants of Norse language and cultural affinity. The kings came to be styled lords who continued to be fluid in their loyalties to the factions of the Scottish court. In southern Argyll the MacSweens were displaced by lords loyal to the Stewarts, in the north and west, the MacDougalls, were displaced by the MacDonalds, who rose to create a burgeoning polity – the Lordship of the Isles. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Gaelic culture experienced a renaissance, partly through the stability, unity and patronage of the Lordship of the Isles, then backed by royal favour, and largely funded by the profits of exported fish and mercenaries. It resulted in a complex, structured social system, arts, learning and architecture. However, a mix of over expansion, infighting and failure to maintain royal favour, probably fuelled by economic and environmental crises, led to the collapse of the Lordship, social decay and over two centuries of increasingly destructive clan warfare. Into the vacuum stepped the Campbells, who emerged from a small landholding in the central mainland to ultimately eclipse all other contenders. Throughout the medieval period the tension between Gaelic and the wider European culture, and the pull between Gaelic Ireland and the rest of Scotland, both Gaelic and Lowland, remained.
This grand narrative of five hundred years of history is based on a very small number of primary documents, many of which were written to appease a specific audience. For instance, as David Caldwell has pointed out (pers. comm.), the presumption that the Isle of Man was the centre of Sudoroy comes from a chronicle written in Man to sustain the claims of the then Manx royal lineage. Read critically, one could reasonably postulate that the centre of the kingdom was nearer its geographical centre, in the Inner Hebrides. In order to fully understand medieval Argyll a multi-disciplinary approach that makes the most out of all the available sources is required. However, the archaeological record is the key resource and needs to be placed at the centre of any future scholarship.