7.1 The Iron Age: 700 BC – AD 500

7.1 Introduction

The intent of this paper is to outline a brief history of excavation of Iron Age sites in Argyll and how these contribute to our current understanding of the period. A discussion on the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age has not been included at this stage. This is definitely something, however, which merits further work and, as such, is included as one of the research questions in Section 7.6. Given the limited extent of this piece there is no room to repeat the often heated discussions that got us to where we are, although it touches on some of the more important, and in some cases ongoing, discourse. The paper then concentrates on the excavated evidence and suggests where we might take this in the future.

7.2 The Chronological Framework of Scotland’s Iron Age

Important to the ongoing debate is of course when the Iron Age begins and ends. The date 600BC was used by the Royal Commission on the Historic and Ancient Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) for the inception of the Iron Age in Scotland and used in its Argyll Inventories (RCAHMS; 1971197519801982198419881992). Some researchers, such as Harding and the Ritchies, have argued for an earlier C7th-C8th BC date and it has become increasingly common to discuss the late Bronze Age/early Iron Age together with no hard delineation between the periods (Harding 1974; Ritchie and Ritchie 1981, Hunter and Ralston 2015). Similarly, the termination of the Iron Age in Scotland is often framed by the broader agendas of individual researchers; whereby the Roman invasion in the C1st AD or their withdrawal from their northern frontier in the C3rd AD have been used. This period, in a modified form, is still used by some researchers in order to distinguish the Picts from earlier Iron Age cultures (Piggott 1966; Hingley 1992, Armit 1997; Armit and Ralston 2003,). However, it has become increasingly common to view Scotland’s Iron Age as part of a much longer period of development with the adoption of the ‘long Iron Age’ seen by some to continue until the arrival of the Norse in the late C8th AD with the traditionally defined Iron Age ‘merging imperceptibly’ into the Early Medieval period (Armit 1997). This has led towards a more integrated study across inherited chronological boundaries as epitomised by the First Millennia Studies Group. The breaking down of inherited chronological boundaries in recent research perhaps suggests there is no need for a universally accepted chronological scheme for the Scottish Iron Age, although this paper will adopt age brackets of 800BC to AD400, to dovetail with the earlier and later period discussions.

7.3 Previous accounts of Argyll’s Iron Age

Some of the earliest references to Argyll’s Iron Age remains appear within the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Statistical Accounts of Scotland, these often appearing as descriptions of parish antiquities (Statistical Accounts of Scotland 1791-99 Volume 5 and 1834-45 Volume 7). These predominately mention ‘forts’, ‘castles’ or ‘watchtowers’, or other ‘ancient defences’ many only briefly mentioned if they were significant remains or had traditional tales attached to them, reflecting the close relationship of educated ecclesiastics and early antiquarianism.

The collecting, recording and reporting of antiquities was given a formal framework with the founding of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1780 and from 1856 provided a more systematic framework for reporting survey and excavation results in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS). The locations of many these defended sites were surveyed during the compilation of the 1st Edition Ordnance Survey maps, often accompanied by brief descriptions within the associated name books.

Area surveys of the forts and duns of Argyll appeared in PSAS from the late 19th century but sites were also reported within other publications. These include those in Lorne (Smith; 1871, 1872 and 1875, Christison 1889; Watson 1914), Mid Argyll (Currie 1830; Christison 1904, Graham 1948; Campbell and Sandeman 1962; Scott 1966) and Cowal (Honeymann 1890). Antiquities on the Argyll islands received similar attention with monuments noted on Bute (Hewison 1893), Coll and Tiree (Sands 1882; Beveridge 1903), Mull (Duns 1883; MacLean 1923), Luing, Seil and the Garvallachs (MacAdam 1896), Colonsay and Oransay (Stevenson 1881, Symington Grieve 1923; Piggott and Piggott 1948), Arran (MacArthur 1873), Gigha (Anderson 1939) and Islay (Childe 1935a). Much of this survey work informed the list or Inventory of Scotland’s surviving heritage compiled by the RCAHMS after its establishment in 1908. The RCAHMS published seven volumes covering Argyll, the first published in 1971 and the last completed in 1992. The RCAHMS volumes provided overall summaries of Argyll’s Iron Age in their respective areas, while broader syntheses of the period have been undertaken by other authors (Neike 1984; 1990; Ritchie 1997, Harding; 1997, 2004a; Armit 2004). The RCAHMS classifications adopted for forts, duns and enclosures, along with other possible sites dating to the Iron Age in the first volume has led to much discussion over their continued suitability and while the categories have enabled comparative analysis it has also conversely constrained discussion on other types of more ephemeral structures that may also be present in this period.

Attempts have also been made by various academics to culturally bracket the regions of Scotland in the Iron Age. Argyll for example, was seen by Gordon Childe as belonging to one of his ‘cultural groupings’ (Childe 1935b) while Stuart Piggott saw Argyll as a region within a larger Atlantic province (Piggott 1966). Some later researchers have argued for different definitions of these ‘provinces’. For example Hingley separated the Atlantic north and west from the rest of the country while Harding used a division of southern, central/eastern and Atlantic/Argyll in his synthesis of the period (Hingley 1992, Harding 2004a). While these schemes have been subject to later revision and criticism they have informed the debate on Argyll’s Iron Age and we now see the region as influenced by a broader Atlantic culture which continues to inform current discussions.