8.2.4 Rural and agrarian settlement

A key marker of rural settlement in this period is the grübenhaus or sunken-featured building (SFB). They are the most abundant form of settlement structure in early medieval England, used for a variety of purposes, but mainly grain storage and weaving or other textile production (Hamerow 2012, 53–66). About a quarter of all SFBs from Scotland fall within the SESARF area: the HER lists 19, with another excavated as part of the Castle Park, Dunbar settlement.

The distribution of SFBs seems to offer a plausible index to the extent of ‘Anglian’ expansion in the area. However, only two have been excavated, at Ratho and Dunbar. The example from Dunbar dates to between the 7th and 9th centuries (Perry 2000, 48), while Ratho was dated to the 6th to 8th centuries. In both cases, they contained loomweights, as is frequently the case across England during the early Anglo-Saxon period. It is clear, however, that in the absence of excavation, the remaining SFBs identified as cropmarks are not all certainly early medieval, and may cover a range of different uses depending on when they were built; indeed, other related sunken-featured structures have been identified in Pictish areas of Scotland, which do not seem to owe much, if any, cultural affinity to continental grübenhauser (Driscoll 1997; Noble and Evans 2022). In addition, the cluster of SFBs in the SESARF region, and those from just across the modern border, form a distinct regional grouping in an otherwise sparse distribution north of the Humber. In other words, they are not indicative of a wider ‘Northumbrian’ style of settlement, but something rather more specific to the SESARF area itself. Lumping them into the period of Northumbrian ‘colonisation’ is therefore somewhat premature without more dating evidence. Therefore, the use of the more neutral term SFB is to be preferred over the German term grübenhaus which presupposes a specific cultural affinity.

Black and white photograph showing the outline of a the remains of a  structure of a sunken building in the ground
Ratho Quarry sunken building © HES
Black and white photograph showing the remains of the structure of a building among the stones
Ratho Quarry palisade alignments (1012 and 1026) and sunken-featured building © HES

Aside from fortified enclosures and royal hall complexes, development-led work has begun identifying smaller scale rural farmsteads, particularly in the sprawl on the outskirts of Edinburgh at Ratho, Gogar Mains, Gogarburn, Newbridge, Burdiehouse and Newmills Road. Excavations at Gogar Mains revealed two corn-drying kilns (SESARF 8.2.6 Food production) and related features C14-dated to the 7th to 8th centuries (Will and James 2017). This complements more fugitive evidence at nearby Gogarburn, Burdiehouse and Newmills Road, in the form of features with C14 dates spanning the 7th to 10th centuries (Morrison et al 2009, 237–9; MacIver and Paton 2023; Shaw forthcoming). At Ratho, a sunken-featured building of likely Northumbrian type was excavated with clay loomweights in situ, and again it produced C14 dates centred on the 7th to 8th centuries (Smith 1996). At Newbridge, two grain-drying kilns were dated to the 11th to 12th centuries (Engl and Dunbar 2016).

A rare example of upland settlement at Kersons Cleugh, Longformacus was found in mitigation for the construction of the Fallago Rig windfarm. Two sub-rectangular stone structures were associated with an array of finds of ‘middle Saxon’ (7th-9th century) type, including five stone spindle whorls, fragments of bun-shaped fired clay loomweights, an iron knife, a blue/green glass bead, and handmade ceramic (Suddaby 2011).

There is also a growing archaeological record of rural settlement in the coastal zone of the Lothians. At Eldbotle, East Lothian (MEL1233), an Old English place-name meaning ‘old hall’, excavation of a medieval rural settlement revealed at least two phases of early medieval occupation, dated to the 5th–7th and 8th–11th centuries (Morrison et al 2008; Hindmarch and Oram 2012). As with much of the recent work around Edinburgh described above, this consisted mainly of cut features and gullies with no diagnostic artefacts, but the range of dates shows the potential for early settlement to be identified beneath later medieval occupation. Recent unpublished excavations of settlements and occupation at Aberlady and Dalmeny  are beginning to add rich detail to the kinds of building types and craftworking activities going on in undefended Northumbrian-period settlements.

At Dalmeny, butchered bone and other domestic midden material adds to an assemblage of metalworking dated to the 7th to 9th centuries (see AOC article). Similar finds were found in association with the large stone structure at Aberlady described above, which relates to a higher-status form of settlement, but another, as yet undated, stone platform was encountered in excavations at Maybury Park, South Gyle, Edinburgh. It is likely now that this is a related form of early medieval structure (Moloney and Lawson 2006). All of these fleeting glimpses of settlement show a vibrant rural landscape in the Lothian lowland zone.

Other than these glimpses from development-led excavations, there is only scattered evidence for the nature of early medieval settlement relating to later medieval burghs and towns. The evidence is largely in the form of early Christian sculpture (SESARF 8.4.5 Early monasteries and monumentality), stray finds of Northumbrian coins (SESARF 8.3.3 Coinage), or other stray finds in the fringes of medieval settlements identified largely through metal-detecting (as at Roxburgh, Coldingham, Sprouston and Melrose – see Shiels and Campbell 2011; Blackwell 2018).