4.5.1 Human remains

Early Medieval Burials

See also Medieval Section 3.4 Demography and also Science Section 2.2 Human Remains

In terms of quantity, the archaeological record for early medieval Scotland is dominated by burials. At present, the National Monuments Record contains over 150 confirmed early medieval burial sites in Scotland, against a wider background of unconfirmed antiquarian reports and cropmark sites; in all they represent thousands of individuals. This body of data has yet to be exploited in a systematic way (cf. Maldonado 2011).

Burial sites in Scotland are plagued by poor bone preservation due to acid soils. Where preservation is suitable, radiocarbon dates and studies of health and disease are now undertaken as a matter of course. Dates for these cemeteries cluster mainly in the 5-7th centuries, as elsewhere in Britain. As far as can be discerned, the skeletal evidence indicates that the cemeteries were mainly used for adults, as children and infants are underrepresented. In terms of health and disease, it seems very few of these individuals suffered a violent death or physical trauma other than the strains of a pre-modern agrarian lifestyle (Maldonado 2013). 

But generalisations like these mask some slowly emerging discrepancies. An increasing number of inhumations have been dated to the early centuries AD, showing the Iron Age origins of the mortuary rites involved (see above). Yet few studies have compared populations across the first millennium AD, making it difficult to see what, if any, continuities from the Iron Age to the early medieval period exist. Most of the discussion of these sites focuses on the square barrows and long cists of the developed mid-first millennium tradition (eg. Alexander 2005Williams 2007Maldonado 2016). Some comparison to Iron Age and, at the other end of the chronological spectrum, to Viking Age burial populations is still needed.

Within the mid-first millennium floruit of cemeteries, the potential to extract yet more information from the skeletal evidence remains relatively untapped. While individual sites have been carefully analysed for date, demographics, diet and disease, these results have not been synthesised on a regional basis. Furthermore, the numerous burials excavated before modern scientific techniques were widely available have not been re-examined, with a few notable exceptions, e.g.Lundin Links, Fife (Greig et al. 2000).

As a result, discussions of these sites still revolve on the old narratives of conversion to Christianity and ethnicity, even though studies of early medieval cemeteries have proven time and again that burials are poor markers of religious or political affiliation. The focus of study has largely turned to what they can reveal about relationships within populations, or rather, perceptions of age, gender and other socially-determined identities (Lucy 2002). Skeletal analyses of sites in the 4-6th centuries in England, bridging the traditional boundary between the late Roman and Anglo-Saxon period, have begun to emphasise the way grave goods marked age and gender differences rather than ethnic identities (Gowland 2007). The lack of grave goods in Scottish burials has been seen as a barrier to such bio-cultural studies, but the variety of grave types known here show similar potential e.g. , the distinctions between log coffins, long cists, cists reusing Roman masonry, cists made with carefully worked slabs, square-ditched graves and post-defined graves, all found in the cemetery at Thornybank, Midlothian (Rees 2002), are unlikely to be random choices.

The study of trace elements in tooth enamel to identify diet and geographical origins is also beginning to throw up new and unexpected insight. For instance, island populations like those of Orkney seem to have avoided eating fish until the influx of Norse settlers from the 9th century (Barrett and Richards 2004). Discoveries like these may help to identify ‘indigenous’ people in future explorations, but not until it is recognised how mobile these people were. Preliminary stable isotope analysis of the cemetery near the royal hillfort of Bamburgh, Northumberland indicates non-local origins for the deceased, some of whom may have come from as far as western Scotland (Groves 2003); similarly, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ community atWest Heslerton, East Yorkshire may have had more migrants from Western Britain than Scandinavia or the Low Countries (Budd et al. 2004). Within Scotland, these kinds of scientific analyses are mainly employed in sites believed to incorporate migrant populations, like the Viking-period cemeteries of the Orkneys. In pre-Viking Scotland, however, research is still largely ignorant of internal social distinctions. For instance, the apparent clusters of shale and sandstone cists at the Catstane, Midlothian (Cowie 1978) may well be to do with the different geographical origins of the deceased, but little is known of the ‘catchment areas’ of these cemeteries. Without more rigorous scientific studies across a number of sites, there is lacking a clear control group for determining what a migrant would look like in the first place. 

Another gap is the funerary ritual itself. If the ‘catchment area’ of a cemetery is quite wide, a long procession should be posited, and such effort is likely to extend to an elaborate burial rite including the use of organic materials like faunal and floral deposits. Despite regular excavation of long cist and other graves in Scotland, low survival of organic materials means little is known of what, if anything, was actually deposited in the grave. A hint of what may be found comes from Hermisgarth, Orkney, where a long cist was found to contain evidence for a bundle of cloth, calling to mind the soft linings of many Anglo-Saxon graves (Downes and Morris 1997; Harrington 2007). Only careful excavation will reveal more such finds; Bronze Age graves have been excavated with the help of dedicated conservation teams, often by lifting entire grave fills as box-samples for excavation in laboratory conditions (ie., Hunter 2000). Pollen analysis of these soils may reveal organic materials that were part of the burial ritual, allowing new questions to be asked of the seemingly simple funerary remains. 

The strategy for the future study of medieval burial must then be two-pronged.

  1. Account must be taken of museum collections to see what early medieval skeletal material still survives in storage. These should then be sampled and submitted to specialists for radiometric, bio-cultural and isotopic analysis. These data would ideally be synthesised on a regional or chronological basis, including targeted studies of age and gender correlated with burial type (long cist, dug grave, barrow, cairn, etc)
  2. Any future excavation of human remains will need to operate to a set standard devised with the advice of osteologists and other specialists. Funding should be provided for box-excavation of entire grave fills, especially on sites where bone preservation is low. Dedicated studies of trace elements and biometric markers should be commissioned with a view to comparing sites across regions and time periods.


4.4.3 Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland

Pilgrimage and the cults of saints were as popular with the Pictish, Irish, Norse and Scots peoples of Scotland as with any others in Christendom, with major shrines at the heart of important reliquary churches at Tain, Iona, Kirkwall, Whithorn, Glasgow, Dunkeld, Dunfermline and St Andrews. Most of these shrines are now monuments in the care of Historic Scotland. Scotland had more than its fair share of patron saints, ranging from an apostle of Christ, through national, indigenous saints such as Ninian, Columba and Kentigern, to a multiplicity of lesser holy men and martyrs. From the earliest times Scots were recognised on the pilgrimage roads of Europe by their characteristic clothing, which included the tying of their shoes around their neck to make the journey even harder! The archaeology of pilgrimage can illustrate an aspect of medieval life which can still be readily understood and even replicated, providing a rare ‘shiver of contact’. Much can still be seen of the paths, churches and shrines, as experienced by our medieval forebears. By revisiting these, armed with an understanding of the remains, it is possible to reconnect with their lives, reaching a better understanding of the personal faith and devotion of these people who, during the first 1000 years of Christianity, shaped the land and national identity which has been inherited by people today. The Reformation in 1559-60 attempted to remove all traces of the shrines, although a surprisingly large body of evidence has survived. A review of the hagiographic accounts of early Christian pilgrimage suggest, in addition to a strong emphasis on place (the shrine), and the saint’s relics, a prominent role for natural objects and substances such as holy water (but not oil as in other areas of Christendom), bread, salt, natural pebbles and specifically white stones. The extent to which this is solely a product of a few documentary sources, or whether it reflects more general Scottish phenomena, and how different it is to other parts of early Christendom would all repay closer scrutiny.

Pilgrimage in Scotland is as old as Christianity itself, when the Church positively encouraged the development of the cults of saints to help bolster the faith of newly converted peoples. Many of the early missionaries were elected saints, with some, like Columba of Iona (died 597) regarded as saints even during their own lifetime. Their places of burial became renowned as the source of miracles, quickly attracting the attention of far-flung communities. Possibly the oldest shrine of all was the tomb of St Ninian at Whithorn in Galloway. He is believed to have been the leader of Romanised Christians here in the 5th century, and recent excavations around his hilltop shrine have revealed intensive phases of church-building from then up to the Reformation. Devotion to Ninian remained constant throughout a period of more than 1000 years, transcending numerous shifts in power within the region. The other important early cult was that of Kentigern, also known as Mungo, who is believed to have died around 612, and whose burial place inspired the creation of Glasgow Cathedral. This is the most complete, large medieval reliquary church to survive in Scotland, enabling the modern visitor to easily replicate the experience of the medieval pilgrims.

What was the motivation for pilgrimage? Pilgrims’ motivation was to attain the greatest prize of all - salvation of their immortal souls. The Church taught them that they were destined for the fiery pit, unless they took positive action to remove their sin. Pilgrimage can therefore be seen as a metaphor for medieval life - a journey to achieve salvation, with pilgrimage acting as a bridge between this world and the next. The shrines containing the bones of saints played a crucial role in the forgiveness of sin, in the expiation of a crime (even manslaughter), and in the witnessing of vows and contracts. The effectiveness of the pilgrimage was multiplied if the penitent was present during an auspicious festival such as Easter, or the feast day of an individual saint. Not all would have lived up to the pious ideal; for some pilgrimage represented an excuse for travel and fun, which would otherwise have been impossible within a society where most were bound by rigid ties to land, family and service.

Figure 39: St Thomas Becket pilgrimage ampulla

St Thomas Becket pilgrimage ampulla. This is one of two Becket ampulla recovered from excavations on the Perth High Street. It is a pivotal piece for shedding light on religion and belief (the cult of saints, the Scots on pilgrimage and the use of pilgrimage souvenirs as amulets about the home and work place) and politics (the crowns of Scotland and England contested for the holy support of the martyred Becket), © Perth Museum & Art Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland.

Preparation for pilgrimage: This might have been the only occasion when poor peasants were permitted to travel far distant from their parish. Written permission had to be granted by the parish priest, and warm clothing obtained, forming the universally recognised pilgrim’s garb. This consisted of a rough tunic and a heavy cloak, along with a broad-brimmed hat, a wooden staff, a water bottle, and a small satchel for food, known as a scrip. Safe-conducts were obtained from the English Crown for foreign pilgrimages, especially during the long centuries of conflict between the two countries from the later 13th century on. These safe-conducts could be for periods of years, especially for pilgrimages to Rome or the Holy Land, and there was a good likelihood that the individual might never return, haven fallen prey to misadventure along the way. The property and estates of pilgrims, especially lordly ones, was placed under the protection of the King, and no legal claims against the pilgrims could be settled until his or her safe return. The night before departure, the pilgrim’s staff and scrip were placed on the high altar to absorb the protection of the Holy Spirit. In 1427 James I issued a general safe conduct for the benefit of pilgrims from England and the Isle of Man coming to St Ninian’s shrine at Whithorn, specifying the conditions of their visa:-

‘they are to come by sea or land and to return by the same route, to bear themselves as pilgrims, and to remain in Scotland for no more than 15 days; they are to wear openly one (pilgrim’s) badge as they came, and another (to be received from the prior of Whithorn) on their return journey.’

A complex network of ferries, roads, bridges, fords, chapels, hospitals, and inns, were created and maintained to ease the way for pilgrims, the support of this infrastructure being a recognised act of piety. Travel was slow, arduous and often dangerous, and it was generally believed that the harder the journey, the greater the benefit to the soul. This was an integral part of the pilgrimage, as illustrated by the encounter on the way to Whithorn in July 1504 between James IV and some ‘puir folk from Tain passand to Whithern’. James himself was a devout pilgrim, well acquainted with Tain in Easter Ross from his annual visits to the great shrine of St Duthac. This shows that it was not sufficient for the folk of Tain to attend their own shrine, but instead they chose to journey hundreds of miles across the spine of Scotland to another famous shrine in Galloway. Pilgrims’ ferries were provided on the two crossings of the Forth for bona fide pilgrims to the shrine of the Apostle at St Andrews, who qualified for free passage by displaying the appropriate demeanour, garb, and pilgrim’s badge. The most famous was the western crossing known to this day as the Queen’s Ferry, endowed by St Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, in the later 11th century. Her biographer, writing shortly after her death in 1093, recorded that she not only provided ships for the crossing, but also established hostels on either side of the Forth provided with staff who were instructed to ‘wait upon the pilgrims with great care’.

Scots pilgrims badges provide reliable evidence of the movement of people, of real and arduous journeys, while also underlining the tangible devotion to individual saints. There is also a significant body of pilgrimage artefacts which illustrate Scots’ pilgrimage abroad, to shrines in England, Europe and the Holy Land.

Pilgrimage helps the dicispline to understand the design and function of many of the great churches and cathedrals of medieval Scotland, not only their use in the sometimes exclusive worship of monks or clergy, but also their role in popular religion. Great reliquary churches were built as a housing for the relics of the saint, thus making them accessible to the faithful, while at the same time providing security for the relics themselves, along with the enormous wealth represented by the precious metals and jewels gifted as offerings to adorn the shrines by successive generations. A pilgrim to St Andrews in the 15th century would have been drawn towards the Cathedral by the distant view of tall spires and towers. Having passed through the burgh gates they would have mingled with the crowds who came not just for the religious services, but also for the secular festivities and markets. Their sense of anticipation would be further heightened as they entered the sacred space of the Cathedral through the north door, and joined the shuffling throng following the well-worn one-way route towards the great shrine. As they moved east around the side of the high altar, their senses were assaulted by the concentration of rich decoration glinting with golden candlelight, of statues, wall-hangings, tomb effigies, and incense, proclaiming their long-awaited arrival at the shrine chapel - in great contrast to the stark ruins which confront the visitor to St Andrews today. The pilgrims then found themselves in the presence of the relics of the first chosen Apostle of Christ, housed in a great jewelled box called a chasse, raised up for security and visibility. The psychological effect of this experience - the huge scale of the building, coupled with the spiritual impact and the crush of unwashed humanity - would have been overwhelming for many of the ordinary country folk. And thus the stage was set for miracles of healing.