bronze age

3.4 Agriculture

Fields in Bronze Age Scotland

Since the beginning of the 1970s and Richard Feachem’s (1973) summation of the work on highland zone field-systems by the OS Archaeology Division, it has been clear that there are extensive traces of prehistoric agriculture across the uplands of Scotland, represented by scatters of small cairns, stony banks and lynchets. Following excavations in the late 1970s on Arran (Barber 1997) and more recent work at Lairg, Sutherland (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) it is also irrefutable that the majority of these remains are probably Bronze Age in date. However, by the yardstick of lynchetted field-systems and other enclosures taking in huge blocks of countryside in southern Britain (Fleming 1988; 2008; Yates 2007), the Scottish field-system has always appeared comparatively small-scale and incoherent, so much so that individual fields with four sides are unusual, and recognisable systems of fields so rare that they can only be presented as exceptions rather than any rule. By way of example, Drumturn Burn in Perth and Kinross (RCAHMS 1990, 47-9), with its photogenic trackway wending down between fields to a cluster of hut-circles often appears as a text book illustration of a Scottish field-system, and yet it is the only one of its kind amongst the dozens of hut-circle groups of north-east Perthshire. Another half dozen have a recurrent arrangement of banks in the immediate vicinity, but none of these define any fields as such. Small wonder that Stuart Piggott’s Celtic Cowboys ( 1958), written at a time when Celtic field-systems were thought to date from the Iron Age, proved an enduring explanation of subsistence strategies in northern Britain.

This same contrast between northern and southern Britain has to some extent been recast by more recent work, most notably by David Yates ( 2007), albeit that the data are fuller and the analysis draws on more sophisticated social and economic arguments. Yates’s model couples the coincidence of large tracts of enclosure in southern Britain with concentrations of metalwork deposition to argue the case for the intensification of stock production in a competitive prestige goods economy. On the basis of the random sampling of commercial excavation he has established a reasonably robust distribution for the extensive enclosure of parts of the southern English landscape in the Middle Bronze Age. This pattern, which roughly echoes the division between lowland and highland Britain coined by Sir Cyril Fox in The Personality of Britain ( 1932), leaves little doubt that settlement and agriculture in northern Britain developed on a different trajectory without resorting to large scale enclosure, though whether this can be equated with non-intensive farming systems is more contentious, particularly when developed into core periphery models that emphasise the relative importance of one area above another in the manner that Kristiansen has argued in Scandinavia ( 1987). The work on Arran (Barber 1997) and at Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) is now amongst a host of excavations revealing the massive expansion and intensification of settlement in the Middle Bronze Age throughout the Scottish landscape (e.g. Kintore; Cook and Dunbar 2008). As in southern England, this expansion of settlement does not extend unbroken into the Iron Age, and in the uplands at least is suddenly fractured at the end of the 2nd millennium BC. While Iron Age settlements in southern England reveal evidence of much larger quantities of cereals than their Bronze Age counterparts, it is far from clear where these were being grown. In southern England, it seems, cereal production in the Iron Age did not require extensive enclosure as such and earlier Bronze Age field-systems were only brought back into use in the late Iron Age (Yates 2007, 110), the same period when settlement reappears on many Bronze Age settlements across Highland Scotland (e.g. Lairg).

Despite the contrast between north and south, Scotland has a rich and varied record in a wide range of environmental settings. In many of these there is also the huge potential to exploit palaeoenvironmental data as a proxy record of local vegetation cover from which to reconstruct the history of land-use and contemporary farming systems. The majority of the visible remains lie in areas of rough pasture in the margins of the modern landscape, often under a blanket of peat. Inevitably, their equivalents are largely missing from the areas that now comprise Scotland’s best agricultural land. Though skewed in this way, the excavation of settlements in advance of development in the eastern lowlands is providing records of the agricultural economy in the form of carbonised plant remains. At Kintore, Aberdeenshire, for example, small quantities of cereals were recovered, but little evidence of chaff, echoing the findings at Lairg, while stratified beneath the Early Bronze Age barrow at North Mains, Perthshire, a ridged field surface was uncovered (Barclay 1989). The potential of large standing Bronze Age monuments to preserve fragments of earlier field surfaces across the lowlands is an important resource.

The accretion, survival and destruction of sediments is no less an issue in the Highlands, where the ongoing succession of settlement and land-use prior to the growth of blanket peat differentially preserves earlier soils and surfaces. Hut-circles are often found to have been built on previously cultivated soils, and may equally be ploughed over after their abandonment, as can be found at both Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) and on Arran (Barber 1997). Indeed, at Tormore on Arran ploughing also encroached upon one of the hut-circles between two major phases of occupation (Barber 1997,8-11), while at Cnoc Stanger, in a machair environment, a cultivated soil was found separating two phases of a hut-circle that used elements of the same stonework at the entrance (Mercer 1996). Occasionally, a series of banks give the impression of greater order, such as the example noted already at Drumturn Burn, or Tulloch Wood in Moray (Carter 1993), but in general there is no tidy Bronze Age landscape preserved in these remains as such, so much as fragmentary archaeological deposits providing insights into complex histories of settlement and land-use over long periods of time. The field remains simply do not conform to concepts of field-systems driven by southern English models. Essentially, the field-system of Bronze Age Scotland is an untidy, cumulative and haphazard piece of ground, shaped on the one hand by the presence of earlier remains, and on the other by the intensity and extent of the cultivation practices that have taken place successively within its compass. Cumulatively, through time and the ongoing process of successive cultivations, it consumes its own history, and while relatively deep sediments may accumulate as a record of this history, trapped against an undisturbed baulk or an earlier boundary, dating the beginning of the process is as fraught with difficulty as dating its end. Field soils are by their very nature stirred and mixed contexts, and in Scotland rarely yield any cultural material that may assist in the establishment of a coarse chronology. As often as not the cessation of cultivation is conferred by a basal peat date and the assumption that the onset of peat growth followed the final season of cultivation in relatively short order (see Carter in McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 157).

The apparent absence of large scale landscape enclosure is not universal. On Shetland around settlements such as Scord of Brouster (Whittle et al. 1986), which although often referred to as Neolithic settlements are probably mainly Early Bronze Age and later, there are extensive enclosure walls which can be followed for hundreds of metres, dipping in and out of the peat blanket. As has happened in mainland Scotland, detailed investigation will probably reveal a more complex history, but at face value the Scord of Brouster field-system, with its enclosing walls, low lynchets and clearance heaps, seems to form part of a much bigger enclosed landscape (see also Whittington 1978). In Argyll, on the Atlantic seaboard, the dykes beneath the Black Moss of Achnacree, at Black Crofts, North Connell, hint at a series of large enclosures of perhaps 10ha extending back from the shore, but this is very unusual and has no immediate parallels (Carter and Dalland 2005).

Evidence of Bronze Age arable farming, though rarely of the form of the plots themselves, is also routinely recovered from machair deposits. These blown shell sands are found mainly around bays in the Northern and Western Isles, and though prone to catastrophic deflation, equally accrete in ways that with the addition of midden material create long and deep sequences of successive field soils with finely preserved evidence of the tools that were used to till them. Such soils underlay the hut-circles at Cnoc Stanger, Caithness, and have been found extensively in Orkney, such as at Tofts Ness, where there is evidence of the addition of manures including heathland turf (Dockrill et al. 2007, 386). Many of the deepened soils found in the Northern Isles around Iron Age settlements at places like old Scatness are also likely to have their origins in the Bronze Age. Examples of hut-circles and field enclosures are also beginning to be discovered in the moorland in the interior of some of the large Orkney islands, whereas in the Western Isles there is little sign of settlements penetrating inland. Again the evidence of ploughing and manuring is extensive, for example on South Uist at Cladh Hallan or at Rosinish, Benbecula (Shepherd and Tuckwell 1977). This sort of evidence, however, is found everywhere that there are coastal sands, for example at the mouth of the River Ythan at Rattray, Aberdeenshire, where in addition to ploughmarks and cultivated soils, part of a burnt and carbonised hurdle fence was found (Murray et al. 1992). Machair seems to have attracted farmers throughout the Bronze Age.

The rig uncovered at North Mains also holds the possibility that there were ridged field surfaces, although the successive restatement of the agricultural landscapes has effectively erased what evidence may once have been visible. The recorded stratigraphic relationships of cord rig in the Border counties (Halliday 1982; Topping 1989; Halliday 1993) suggest that this form of cultivation is mainly of Iron Age date and later, and it remains absent from the traces of fields that occur around several unenclosed platform settlements. In south-eastern Scotland it also seems likely that several of the field-systems normally considered Romano-British in date are probably Bronze Age, such as on Ellershie Hill in Lanarkshire, where an unenclosed house platform belonging to an adjacent settlement is apparently cut into the leading edge of a lynchet. Elsewhere, the only stratified rig that is significantly earlier cuts across a deposit probably dating from the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age in the machair at Kilellan Farm, Islay, Argyll (Ritchie 2005, 38fig. 46).

The final category of evidence worth considering is provided by the artefactual record, in the Northern Isles principally represented by stone ard points and other bar tools that have probably been used as hoes and mattocks (Rees 1979; Clarke 2006). Many of these are probably Bronze Age in date, including those ard points found broken off at the ends of ploughmarks at Kebister, Shetland (Owen and Lowe 1999, 263-5), though how they were mounted is open to debate. Waterlogged deposits elsewhere have also preserved a number of remarkable wooden agricultural implements. Although perhaps Iron Age rather than Bronze Age, the Milton Loch share and the Lochmaben plough beam have been long known (Fenton 1968), together with several ard tips from peat in Shetland, but the dating programme of the National Museum of Antiquities has also taken in several older discoveries with surprising results. These include an ox yoke from Loch Nell, Argyll, and a swingle-tree from Shapinsay, Orkney (Hedges et al. 1993; Cowie and Shepherd 2003, 164) both of which are firmly Bronze Age in date.

The combination of sources – palaeoenvironmental, excavation proxies, deep stratified soils and visible field remains – suggests that Bronze Age arable agriculture in Scotland was not only extensive, but in places sustained and intensively practiced. There was almost certainly some regional variation in agricultural practice, which in the Northern Isles gave rise to large patches of deepened soils; these were artificially created through intensive manuring regimes and the addition of moorland turf. The benefits of these practices and the addition of domestic rubbish were evidently understood throughout the Bronze Age, the adding of turf and peat representing an extreme form of nutrient transfer from grazing land. Whether this latter practice, which persisted throughout Scotland into the post-medieval period, was limited to the arguably hostile farming environment of the Northern and Western Isles remains to be demonstrated. The equivalent locations in the mainland have been intensively cleared, dug over and improved for at least the last two centuries. Although areas of deepened soils have been mapped in the lowlands of eastern Scotland, these are generally believed to be of medieval date. On higher ground, the emphasis of the agricultural regime may well have leant more heavily towards stock farming, and it is known from palynology that the uplands were extensively grazed. In these areas arable farming may have been more akin to gardening, though it is still a persistent feature wherever there is settlement. The general absence of fixed field boundaries is probably the most significant contrast with the evidence from southern England. Possibly the pattern of arable farming was part of a much more dynamic and flexible approach to farming in which arable may have been constantly shifting in location and extent. This seems to be manifested in later cord rig plots recorded in the southern uplands, where the visible rig seems to represent the last season of cultivation within much larger areas of turned and smoothed ground demarcated by fainter traces of cultivation scars (Halliday 1993). This too is perhaps the explanation of the multiple lines of stake fencing and the intercutting ploughmarks found beneath the stone circles on Machrie Moor (Haggarty 1991). Enclosure, such as it was, was temporary, designed for folding beasts onto the next year's arable rather than to formalise the layout of the farming landscape.

To return briefly to Yates’ model of farming in southern England, the supposed contrast with the north may be more apparent than real. While enclosure can be used to increase stocking ratios on downland, this is only achieved by intensive management of the pasture within the fields. Indeed, the hypothesis that enclosure per se represents intensification rests on the ideas of improved farming in the historic environment. As yet, there is no other yardstick of the use of these fields by which direct comparisons can be made into the integrated palaeoenvironmental and archaeological datasets that have been recorded in Scotland. The greater contrast is probably between the implicit long-term stability implied by current interpretation of the enclosed landscapes of southern England, and the sheer complexity of land-use pattern that the Scottish datasets reveal. In themselves, these latter may well hold a lesson for researchers further south.

Archaeologists often associate feasting with the Iron Age because of literary evidence for the Celts, but a range of equipment was present during the Late Bronze Age: Scottish finds are represented by the bucket from Cardross, ladle from Corrymuckloch, both Perthshire, and cups from Glentanar, Aberdeenshire, for drinking, with the cauldron from Hattenknowe, Peebleshire, and flesh-hook from from Killeonan, Argyll, for eating. ©E O’Riordan

3.3 Settlement, Landuse and Resources

Settlement forms

The settlement evidence is apparently the least responsive regional aspect of the record until the Late Bronze Age, when in the South‐east at least a distinctive regional pattern of enclosed settlements seems to make its appearance. Across much of the South‐east there is little to be seen of any settlement before this period, the notable exception being the unenclosed platform settlements of upper Tweeddale and Clydesdale. The appearance of these clusters of platforms, often on quite steep slopes, is not immediately akin to the hutcircle groups of the Highlands, though in essence they are no more than groups of roundhouses, sometimes with traces of fields and stone clearance in attendance. The hut‐circle is otherwise ubiquitous across mainland Scotland, with no distinguishing features, though in Galloway they tend to occur in ones and twos, sometimes with baffle walls around their entrances, while in Perthshire and Sutherland they often occur in larger groups of a dozen or more. The greatest contrast is to be found in the Northern Isles, where the buildings are often more oval in overall shape, while the interior is less regular, with a series of alcoves set back into the thickness of the wall.

Prehistoric houses exist in both Highland and Lowland contexts  set either in  solitary locations or clustered in the remains of a settlement. In general terms the houses survive in more immediately intelligible form in the Highland zone and, if these are typical of what existed elsewhere,  the standard form was circular or oval, with an internal diameter between 5m and 12m and with a single entrance aligned to the South or East. In upstanding sites, the walls survive as a penannular embankment of stone and earth, often with evidence of numerous phases or stages of construction. Either as part of the original design or as a by-product of use, the interior contains a penannular hollowed area running concentric to the wall. In the lowland context, many examples have this gully more deeply cut forming perhaps a basement or cellar. In both zones many sites have the penannular gully infilled and surfaced with a slab pavement within the duration of occupation, perhaps indicating a cessation of one kind of use.

Beyond this simple pattern, there seems to be no consistent orthodoxy of construction (some have posthole rings, some have occasional post-holes, some have none) or evidence of use (some have stone hearths, some have hearth pits, some have burnt ground surfaces, some have no evidence of a hearth). Many houses in the Highlands have the entrance marked by large, often quartz, boulders but again this is does not apply to the majority of cases.

This interpretation of settlement form and development may apply to parts of northern England and mainland Scotland, but there is variation elsewhere, particularly in the Northern and Western Isles – and these island group differ from each other. Early Bronze Age timber built houses occur in Shetland, the Western isles, and possibly Orkney, and , as referred to above these are more oval than round in shape. Early Bronze Age stone built houses occur also in Shetland and Orkney, where their form can be paired houses of either oval form or, in Orkney at Crossiecrown, of a form similar to Skara Brae house plans. Although the Crossiecrown houses are built to traditional late Neolithic design similar to Skara Brae, they are an isolated pair similar to other Bronze Age houses  rather than being part of a village settlement like Skara Brae. In the middle and late Bronze Age, terraced stone built houses occur at Cladh Hallan, and at Jarlshof. In Shetland and in Orkney paired stone built oval and round houses are found, such as those in Shetland at Sumburgh (see the ScARF Case Study: Sumburgh), and in Orkney at SkaillDeerness, Links of Noltland, and numerous unexcavated examples are apparent.

Rarely do the undamaged archaeological remains of Bronze Age settlement show any evidence of defence by suitable enclosure against wild beasts or aggressive neighbours. Yet it seems reasonable to suspect that both were sometimes real threats, especially in times or seasons of shortage. Large communal defences are not yet recognised as present in the Scottish Bronze Age, but some late Bronze Age instances, such as Eildon Hill, may be defensive. If the general absence of defences is real then should such a simplistic reconstruction of the primary drivers of Bronze Age life be challenged? Were the perceived threats or risks resolved or averted by procedures that lie beyond current powers of reconstruction.

See also Section 3.3.1 Burnt Mounds

Knowledge Gaps

Sites with concentrations of structures in close proximity still present huge difficulties in chronology. It remains practically impossible to identify contemporaneity between two adjacent buildings or temporal difference between two stratigraphically sequenced structures.

The archaeological remains of post-holes and earthen walls do not usually retain enough evidence of the duration and intensity of use of any structure. It might be more accurate to say that they do not contain the kind of evidence that is currently often recognized and nano-archaeology may well have a great deal to offer here. Occasionally excavation chances upon remains that are revealing, for example a building destroyed by fire, but the prospection techniques required to increase the chances of detecting such sites are currently lacking. It is also true that archaeologists are seldom equipped well enough to handle the wealth of bio-chemical information that can exist in well preserved contexts – opportunites need to be maximized for such analyses (as in Cladh Hallan).

How buildings were utilized and inhabited is under-researched and needs to be considered on an intra- and inter- regional basis.

A synthesis of settlement evidence for the whole of Scotland is required.

Settlements need to be considered more in terms of their relationship to landscape (see the ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project).

The relationship between a building and a dwelling is yet to be understood. Would people dwell in buildings as families? Do variations in building design reflect social differentiation or do variations in building shape, footprint or internal layout reflect any meaningful variations in human behavior? Current research is woefully ignorant of social relations within any Bronze Age context; for example, one may suspect that slaves existed but how power was managed is not yet understood.

If the absence of defences is real then should such a simplistic reconstruction of the primary drivers of Bronze Age life be challenged? Are the perceived threats or risks beyond modern day comprehension?

Models of Bronze Age Land-use

There is little surviving tradition of demarcating territories with built boundaries in the Scottish Bronze Age landscape, and until the creation of the improved landscape some two to three hundred years ago the bounds of landholdings marched largely ‘where wind and water shear’. Distinctive natural features might also be pressed into service, but only occasionally were these supplemented with artificial markers. Thus, in contrast to the landscape of south-west England, where extensive Middle Bronze Age boundary-systems suggest the existence of fixed territories at several scales, for most of Scotland it can only be an assumption that such territories may once have existed. As a result, interpretations have tended to focus on the exploitation of the resources in the landscape, firstly through the proxy records provided by the excavation of settlements, and secondly through the locations of those settlements within the landscape and the traces of farming activity around them. More recently these have been integrated into a third category of evidence drawn from palaeoenvironmental analyses and reconstructions, operating at both local and regional scales.

Traditional approaches to the settlements of the Bronze Age landscape have assumed that the groups of hut-circles and platforms found in the uplands represent the remains of farms that occupied their sites continuously for hundreds of years and variously cultivated and grazed the ground round about. Implicit in this interpretation is that their presence in numbers in the uplands is testimony to the extent of settlement in the lowlands by the Middle Bronze Age, and that they therefore represent the expansion of a relatively dense and static pattern of sedentary settlement on the better lowland soils.

In this model it is assumed that each settlement had a specific area of relatively fertile land for cultivation, pasture for grazing, and woodlands for fuel, structural timbers, pannage and other forage; to these basic requirements for settlement and agriculture can be added water – seldom far away in the Scottish landscape. From what is known about manuring practices at this time, it is clear that cultivation and pasture went hand in hand, the one in part dependent on the other for the transfer of nutrients into the arable soils. In some cases this was by deliberate inclusion of composted household waste, animal manure and turf, in others probably by management of the grazings. Difficult to demonstrate either archaeologically or from palaeoenvironmental sources, this traditional practice in historical times, operated by pasturing the beasts on the hill by day and folding them onto the next years arable by night; known as ‘tathing’, this could have operated from after harvest to cultivation in the spring, and possibly explains the interwoven fence-lines and ploughmarks discovered beneath two stone circles on Machrie Moor. In the documented farming systems of post-medieval Scotland each holding required a ratio in excess of 10:1 between pasture and arable to work successfully, though as the population increased in places like the island of Tiree it fell to 5:1 shortly before clearance and massive depopulation and reorganisation took place (Dodgshon 1998).

The widespread palynological evidence that the Bronze Age landscape was extensively grazed, and the general absence of systems of stockproof fields with permanent boundaries, suggest that once the crops began to sprout the beasts were driven to pastures at some remove from the parent settlement, though we should probably anticipate that they were always tended to prevent them straying. This raises the possibility that there were also temporary settlements occupied only in the summer months. In some cases this may provide a role for the enigmatic burnt mounds that are found scattered through the landscape.

In the uplands, the mix of the farming systems may well have leant more heavily towards beasts than arable crops, but though it is conceivable that in some places landuse was driven by wholly pastoral communities, nowhere has this been demonstrated. Indeed quite the reverse; evidence of arable farming seems to go hand in hand with hut-circle settlements, with the caveat that the crops that were being grown around them cannot necessarily be identified. If any farms specialised in cereal production for export, these will have been mixed farms with large herds to maintain the fertility of their soils. In part, the idea that grain was exported to some settlements rests on the absence of chaff from the carbonised plant remains recovered from settlements, but this is a general pattern across north Britain and is more likely to relate to the nature of the evidence and the conditions required for its preservation (e.g. the burnt hut-circle on Tormore, Arran; Barber 1997, 6-25).

More recent syntheses, however, have challenged this model (Halliday 1999; 2007; Barber and Crone 2001), emphasising that the duration of occupation of individual buildings is at best uncertain, perhaps representing periods as short as ten years, and that a characteristic of some of the multiperiod buildings that appear to represent longterm occupation is that their use is episodic and punctuated by periods of abandonment of equally unknown duration. While it is still possible to argue that a group of hut-circles represents longterm settlement on a hillside, this needs to be demonstrated rather than assumed. Equally possible is that the group of hut-circles as a whole represents episodic occupation of that hillside in a much more complex and dynamic pattern of settlement and land-use, in which clusters of apparently separate hut-circle groups represent a series of locations successively occupied and cultivated by a single settlement.

If these new approaches have any value, they disrupt the idea that each hut-circle group formed a relatively static agricultural unit, standing with its arable fields within a mosaic of grazings and woodlands in its immediate vicinity. All the various elements of the farming system – the settlement, the arable, the pasture and the woodland – are still present, but rather than being immediately around the occupied hut-circles, they may be spread over a much wider area containing half a dozen or more other hut-circle groups, to say nothing of the numerous discrete scatters of small cairns where there is no visible evidence of settlement. Presumably the arable ground would move round with the settlement, if only so that the crops could be protected from wild herbivores, but the arable plots left fallow around each of the unoccupied hut-circle groups represent the prime grazings. To some extent the management of these grazings would see some nutrient transfer onto this ground year on year; to make the comparison with the locations of the huts of later shielings, these are often distinguished by more verdant vegetation than their surroundings. The active folding of beasts onto next years arable would only be seen around the occupied settlement, after they had been brought back from the more distant pastures.

The implications of which of these two models is closest to an archaeological truth for the typical Middle Bronze Age settlement in mainland Scotland are far-reaching. With the abandonment that seems to be visited on so many upland hut-circle groups towards the end of the 2nd millennium BC, it raises the question of what changed. In the traditional model, the population collapsed catastrophically, though the post-medieval comparison drawn above for the ratios required between arable and pasture hints at one route to abandonment without recourse to natural events. In the second model, however, the impact of the whole system of settlement and land-use on the landscape is archaeologically exaggerated, with each community moving around multiple settlement foci, while continuing to graze and forage throughout the rest of the landscape. Within the resolutions of the palaeoenvironmental record, such impacts are as yet indistinguishable from those of settlements occupying single sites, but implicitly in this model neither the archaeological nor the palaeoenvironmental records need be the result of the large upland population that the traditional model demands to populate the extant settlements; after all, the Middle Bronze Age seems to be the period of most extensive settlement in either prehistory or history. But if this was an in extenso system of settlement and land-use in the first place, it could be as easily reorganised and supplanted by more intensive practice operating from a single site. Thus, the apparent abandonment at the end of the 2nd millennium BC is possibly about economic change rather than population collapse, but until Late Bronze Age settlements are discovered in the uplands the hypothesis remains untested. If there is any continuity in the settlement record into the Late Bronze Age in the uplands, sufficient work has taken place to indicate that it is unlikely to be found on the visible hut-circle groups, which do not seem to be re-occupied until later in the 1st millennium BC. Routinely the most favourable locations, and thus the most likely sites for more intensive farming, are occupied by modern farms and their improved ground, where nothing is now visible above the ground. Notably, the palynological record at Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998) shows grazing continuing after the abandonment of the visible hut-circles; even if the people left, beasts apparently remained.

Irrespective of the model of land-use that is favoured, the question arises as to how far the evidence from the uplands is representative either of the whole Bronze Age, or of the entire area of Scotland. To some extent the lowland settlements that have been excavated reveal similar chronologies, with this same focus of occupation in the mid to late 2nd millennium BC, though at Kintore, Aberdeenshire, after a statistically significant hiatus in the sequence of radiocarbon dates, the site was re-occupied early in the 1st millennium BC in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (Cook and Dunbar 2008). In this same part of North-east Scotland, the recumbent stone circles that have been excavated also seem to show a sudden burst of activity at the end of the 2nd millennium BC, with the insertion of cremation deposits after an interval of 1000 years or more since they were constructed (see Welfare 2011, 164-5, 167, 260-3). In the case of the undated circle at Loanhead of Daviot it appears that the cairn was reconstructed as a ring-cairn at this time, as if it was believed that this was its original form. South of the Dee at Cairnwell, a small ring-cairn was newly built on the site of a small timber enclosure and again associated with cremation burials (Rees 1997). The creation of monuments that replicate those built a millennium before is extraordinary, and suggests powerful forces at work. That it seems to coincide with the abandonment of so many hut-circle groups from Arran to Sutherland and Caithness is surely no coincidence and hints at a widespread dislocation of society. The new chronologies of settlements enclosed by palisades, banks and ditches that have been established on the Lothian Plain, which now can be traced back into the Late Bronze Age (Haselgrove 2009, 193-6), reveal the equivalent change in the South-east of Scotland, heralding the new regional settlement patterns that emerge in the Iron Age, with the striking contrasts between the drystone architectures of the north and west, and the timber and earthwork architectures of the east and south. Indeed, the end of the 2nd millennium BC is probably the key period of change that shapes the regional character of the Iron Age settlement record.

Loanhead of Daviot, Aberdeenshire ©RCAHMS

While mainland Scotland presents a general impression of synchronous periods of Middle Bronze Age settlement expansion and then collapse, particularly in the uplands, it would be a mistake to assume that this was the case everywhere. In Shetland, for example, the general tenor of the settlement record seems to run some 500 years in advance. The moorland settlements there, none of them at any great altitude but nonetheless subsumed into peatlands, seem to represent Early Bronze Age settlement, and at Scord of Brouster, for example, are falling into disuse in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC (Whittle et al. 1986), though this is not necessarily the case everywhere in Shetland. With a relatively low-lying landscape, the differences between upland and lowland, coastal and inland, moorland and pasture are probably finely drawn in complex patterns that do not lend themselves to simple generalisation. The extensive systems of stone dykes round the moorland settlements also hint at different land-use models, as do the areas of deepened soils, some of which seem to be of this early date. These relationships are only poorly understood.

In the Western Isles too, the records of buildings associated with Beaker pottery and agricultural soils in the machair on the coast of South Uist (Parker Pearson et al.  2004), for example, may represent different models of settlement and land-use, adapted to the local environment and its capacity for agriculture. The inland areas of many of the Western Isles appear unremittingly bleak in agricultural terms, the moorland peats often lying directly on to little more than bare rock. Thus physical evidence of Early Bronze Age settlement and fields is otherwise largely missing from the mainland, though at Cnoc Stanger, in Caithness, in a coastal setting there also seem to be deep cultivated machair soils of comparable antiquity (Mercer 1996).

With the exceptions of the Northern and Western isles, however, the Bronze Age settlement and land-use archaeologies seem remarkably homogenous. The caveat that might possibly be offered concerns south-eastern Scotland, where the clusters of house platforms on relatively steep hillsides in the headwaters of the Clyde, the  Tweed and other rivers, strike a contrast with the scatter of ring-banks found in the large cairnfields of northern Lanarkshire. The significance of this is uncertain, for elsewhere in the South-east the succession of later land-use seems to have largely erased any visible evidence of Bronze Age settlements, upstanding examples of which only re-appear in north Northumberland. The recently published palynological work in the Bowmont Valley in the northern Cheviots, however, clearly demonstrates Bronze Age farmers were moving into the uplands (Tipping 2010). At Swindon Hill, for example, at an altitude of about 365m OD, Tipping recovered near continuous records of Barley cultivation from c. 2850 to 1150 cal BC, albeit with a relatively low temporal resolution, and at Sourhope at 260m OD from 1800 to 1350 cal BC, while he more tentatively suggested cultivation was also taking place at the higher Cocklawhead plateau, above 500m OD, from 2100 to 1250 cal BC ( 2010, 174). The archaeological evidence for the settlements and fields from which the pollen is derived is as yet more tenuous. But while some of the pollen diagrams clearly show Early Bronze Age farming impacting on the uplands, it is notable that the arable farming at all these locations had ceased by the end of the 2nd millennium BC (Tipping 2010, 177), though grazing generally continues into the Late Bronze Age (Tipping 2010, 178), reflecting the broad trends noted elsewhere in Scotland.

Example Pollen diagram from Carn Dubh, near Pitlochry (Tipping 1995) ©Richard Tipping

Settlement technology

It has to be assumed that settlements were located with some regard to drainage, shelter and water. However, as many societies studied in recent centuries demonstrate, such considerations often lie well hidden within often magical or religious locational choice processes.

The two major imperatives of avoidance of in-breeding and survival of winter impose requirements of scale and complexity on Bronze Age buildings. In principle, the fully developed Bronze Age tool kit would permit sophisticated joint and trenail carpentry but for most buildings the limitations of binding and simple lap-joints impose limited ranges of ground-plan and roof forms. More sophisticated technologies were rapidly developed for soil management and perhaps the defining signature of the Bronze Age was the retardation of the declining trajectory of soils through relatively sophisticated land management (ploughing, manuring, land protection, etc).

Within the life experience of people living in Bronze Age Scotland, the life-span of all buildings was governed by the short-life span of the wood, thatch, turf and stone building components. It is unlikely that any building constructed mainly of wood could last, as a coherent structure, for more than 5 to 10 years without repair, and replacement of some components. Although Pope (2003) suggests a more generous estimate of 30-50 years for the majority of structures, this study should not be used to generalize across Scotland as there is great variation across time, and regional differences as outlined above. Indeed in the Northern Isles the large paired or double houses could have been occupied (with modification and repairs) for several hundred years.  

Knowledge Gaps

There is a gap between the well-exercised ability to micro-reconstruct the location for a Bronze Age settlement (e.g. using geomorphological and mapping techniques) and the little that is often done generally to model the topography within settlements.

It is necessary to undertake research to challenge the current architectural models for Bronze Age buildings, to test their applicability for various regions of Scotland.

See also the ScARF Case Studies: The Lairg Project and Teasing out regional settlement traditions