Case Study: The Medieval Bishops of Whithorn

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers

University of Bradford

When applied to human remains, stable isotope analysis can offer both population level and individual data, revealing details of the lives of individual people, and informing on broader societal trends. To date, few isotope studies have focused on material from Scotland, although the handful of research projects undertaken reveal the true potential of these methods to the key themes of Scottish Archaeology, from Prehistory to the post-medieval period.

Figure 1: General view of Whithorn Priory from south-east ©HES

The first isotopic study undertaken on the later medieval human remains at Whithorn Cathedral Priory (Dumfries and Galloway) was published in Antiquity (Müldner et al 2009) and demonstrated the power of stable isotopes to inform on individual life histories, and through this, reveal important information about past societies. In combination with traditional archaeological approaches used to assess the later medieval burials, this study undertook isotope analysis to assess diet and status using carbon and nitrogen (δ13C, δ15N), and strontium and oxygen for mobility (87Sr/86Sr, δ18O) between different individuals and groups. The study revealed differences between the lay community, high-ranking clergy and the bishops buried in the later medieval cemetery. Results suggested that the bishops consumed more fish than the meat-eating lay community and possibly moved to the area from further east in Scotland. The consumption of fish – a spiritually-significant fasting food in the mid-later medieval period – provided direct evidence for this religious practice in the lives of medieval clergymen. In contrast to the bishops, the lay community were largely identified as having local upbringings, implying that within medieval society, mobility itself was status-dependant. Whilst revealing the life-histories of individuals, the isotope data attested to the expression of contemporary social, religious and status differences within later medieval society (Müldner et al 2009).  

Figure 2: Whithorn Skeleton

Fast forward ten years later and the Cold Case Whithorn project began, which offered new research that focused on the early medieval burials at the site. Led by The Whithorn Trust and Dr Adrián Maldonado (National Museums Scotland), scientific analyses were undertaken that included new radiocarbon data and multi-isotope data (SUERC). Demographic data for southwest Scotland are virtually non-existent from the Bronze Age onwards, and Whithorn currently represents the only archaeological site with a sizeable human skeletal assemblage available for study. The Cold Case Whithorn project therefore gave researchers a unique opportunity to study this assemblage; create a reference population for early medieval southwest Scotland, and establish a chronology based on absolute dating instead of relative chronology based on artefact typology. Key questions included, ‘can isotopes discern differences of status, diet or mobility across different types of grave form (long cist, coffin, chest coffins and log coffins at Whithorn)?’ and ‘can we test Hill’s (1997) theories of incoming Irish, Northumbrian and Viking populations?’ 

Multi-isotope research led by Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers (University of Bradford), alongside Dr Orsolya Czére (University of Aberdeen) revealed that some of the earliest settlers at Whithorn ate mostly terrestrial animal and plant-based protein foods (Curtis-Summers et al. forthcoming). Interestingly, dietary data for these individuals are like that from the later medieval lay community at Whithorn (Müldner et al 2009), and at contemporaneous sites across Scotland, such as the early medieval monastic community at Portmahomack, Easter Ross (Curtis-Summers et al 2020) and at Cramond, Edinburgh (Czére et al in press). This evidence suggest that fish used as a fasting food is clearly not the norm in the early medieval period compared to later periods, and faunal remains such as deer, juvenile pig and cattle bones suggest a range of rich meats were consumed. Strontium, oxygen, and sulphur isotope results revealed that most early medieval individuals were local to the Whithorn or wider Galloway area, although there were a couple of individuals who may have originated from the Highlands of Scotland or Northeast England. These mobility results are like those from Müldner et al. (2009) that suggest mobility was influenced by status and/or religious practices. Whithorn was (and is) a popular pilgrimage site, which would have attracted clerics and pilgrims to settle there. New scientific evidence from the Cold Case Whithorn project (Cold Case Whithorn webinars), alongside established archaeological evidence in the form of imported glassware and animal bones that represent rich meats such as venison, suckling pig and beef (Hill 1997), suggests high status feasting by the early medieval people who, whether local or not, chose Whithorn as their home, yet had connections to the wider world; the Cradle of Christianity stretched far and wide. Further research is underway on the Whithorn skeletons that includes analysis on the later medieval populations. There is much more to be revealed.  

Figure 3: Replica log coffin at Whithorn

Return to Section 2.4 Isotope Analysis


Curtis-Summers, S., Czere, O., and Maldonado, A. (in prep). Reconstructing identities from the ‘Cradle of Scottish Christianity’: a multi-isotope study of early medieval inhabitants from Whithorn, Scotland.

Curtis-Summers, S., Pearson, J.A., and Lamb, A.L. (2020). From Picts to Parish: stable isotope evidence of dietary change at medieval Portmahomack, Scotland. Journal of Archaeological Science Reports 31: 1–20.

Czére, O., Lawson, J. A., Müldner, G., Evans, J., Bozle, A., Britton, K. (in press). The Bodies in the ‘Bog’: A Multi-Isotope Investigation of Individual Life-Histories at an Unusual 6th/7th AD Century Group Burial from a Roman latrine at Cramond, Scotland. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Hill, P. (1997). Whithorn and St Ninian. The excavation of a monastic town 1984-91. Stroud: Whithorn Trust/Sutton Publishing.

Müldner, G., Montgomery, J., Cook, G., Ellam, R., Gledhill, A., and Lowe, C. 2009. ‘Isotopes and individuals: diet and mobility among the medieval Bishops of Whithorn.’ Antiquity 83: 1-15.

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