Executive Summary

Why research Medieval Scotland?

Scotland’s medieval archaeology is extremely rich. Through its improved understanding, study and conservation fascinating and critical aspects of the past can be explored, such as the development of towns, the arrival and integration of new peoples, how people farmed the land, and the development of political and religious systems. These multi-dimensional stories are played out at various levels: local, regional, national and international (principally but not solely European). Some of the issues and challenges faced by people then are equally familiar today, some will seem strange and exotic, and they fuse together in an intricate story that is the root from which modern Scotland has grown.

In order to investigate these topics, there are a range of strategies to call upon, from survey and excavation, to artefact and environmental analysis and documentary history. Combining these approaches reveal the richness of the past, and the complexity and breadth of life in medieval Scotland.

Panel Task and Remit

The Medieval Panel was tasked to critically review the current state of knowledge regarding Medieval Scotland, and to consider how that knowledge could be added to, re-evaluated and accessed. The key aim was to develop a template for maintaining a relevant, responsive and inclusive research framework.  The Medieval period is treated as a whole, rather than divided into unrelated Early and Late episodes. This allows the exploration of topics over a millennium and more, allowing themes from the origins of the post-Roman kingdoms and the arrival of Christianity to the Union of the Crowns and the impact of the Reformation (approximately 600 – 1600 AD), to be traced.

The result is this report, outlining the different areas of research into Medieval life and highlighting the research topics to be aspired to. The report is structured by theme: From Northern Britain to the idea of Scotland - Tribes, Kingdoms, States?; Lifestyles and living spaces; Mentalities - Ethnicity, Identity, Gender and Spirituality; Empowerment; and Parameters. Each theme comprises a critical review of current understanding and sets out a short section of future areas of research. The document is reinforced by material on-line which provides further detail and resources. The Medieval Scottish Archaeological Research Framework is intended as a resource to be utilised by all, and built upon and kept updated both by those it may help to inspire and inform, and, it is hoped, by those who are brought to identify any of the errors and omissions that it may reveal.

Future Research

The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarised under five key headings. Underpinning all five areas is the recognition that human narratives remain crucial for ensuring the widest access to our shared past. There is no wish to see political and economic narratives abandoned but the need is recognised for there to be an expansion to more social narratives to fully explore the potential of the diverse evidence base. The questions that can be asked are here framed in a national context but they need to be supported and improved a) by the development of regional research frameworks, and b) by an enhanced study of Scotland’s international context through time.

  1. From North Britain to the Idea of Scotland: Understanding why, where and how ‘Scotland’ emerges provides a focal point of research. Investigating state formation requires work from a variety of sources, exploring the relationships between centres of consumption - royal, ecclesiastical and urban - and their hinterlands. Working from site-specific work to regional analysis, researchers can explore how what would become ‘Scotland’ came to be and whence sprang its inspiration.
  1. Lifestyles and Living Spaces: Holistic approaches to exploring medieval settlement should be promoted, combining landscape studies with artefactual, environmental, and documentary work. Understanding the role of individual sites within wider local, regional and national settlement systems should be promoted, and chronological frameworks developed to chart the changing nature of Medieval settlement.
  1. Mentalities: The holistic understanding of medieval belief (particularly, but not exclusively, in its early medieval or early historic phase) needs to broaden its contextual understanding with reference to prehistoric or inherited belief systems and frames of reference. Collaborative approaches should draw on international parallels and analogues in pursuit of defining and contrasting local or regional belief systems through integrated studies of portable material culture, monumentality and landscape.
  1. Empowerment: Revisiting museum collections and renewing the study of newly retrieved artefacts is vital to a broader understanding of the dynamics of writing within society. Text needs to be seen less as a metaphor and more as a technological and social innovation in material culture which will help the understanding of it as an experienced, imaginatively rich reality of life. In archaeological terms, the study of the relatively neglected cultural areas of sensory perception, memory, learning and play needs to be promoted to enrich the understanding of past social behaviours.
  1. Parameters: Multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and cross-sector approaches should be encouraged in order to release the research potential of all sectors of archaeology. Creative solutions should be sought to the challenges of transmitting the importance of archaeological work and conserving the resource for current and future research.


1.1 In the beginning was the framework

In fairy stories it is both necessary and straightforward to start at the beginning. In archaeology and history it is rarely so easy, for beginnings (or origins) are generally the most elusive and the most impenetrably mist-enshrouded area of any subject of enquiry. To provide a framework for the continued, evolving understanding of Scottish archaeology might, superficially considered, seem to originate in a contemporary desire to guide that understanding and the wise expenditure of limited resources in order to achieve it. In this light it would simply become the latest in a series of UK-wide regional research frameworks and primarily fed by the impetus given to such frameworks by English Heritage from the late 1980s.

However, this would be to belie the richer context from which this initiative stems. It is no accident that it is being led by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Founded in 1780, the Society is Scotland’s oldest learned archaeological society and one which has long recognised the need to promote such continued understanding as the framework would seek (Bell 1981). The Society was founded in the Enlightenment spirit of enquiry that fuelled similar if less long-lived organisations. Shortly after the founding of the Society, for example, the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society (hereafter PLAS) was born in 1784 and like the Society of Antiquaries, was also fuelled by the cultural politics of the 11th Earl of Buchan (Allan 2003 and specifically on the Society’s library Allan 2002). One of the first actions of the PLAS was to issue a Preliminary Discourse (PLAS 1784) and a list of Subjects for Illustration: areas of research to which the membership (all male) were encouraged to direct their thinking, clearly with some of the anxiety that is felt today about limiting thought, for it is at pains to point out that the selection of subjects ‘is by no means intended to circumscribe members in their choice, but merely to furnish hints to those who may have the opportunity of throwing light upon the ancient history of this Country’ (McComie 1787, 1). The notion of deliberately directed research is often thought of as a recent phenomenon, but clearly it is not and can be seen to make an appearance in the mid 20th century. Grounding his argument in both medieval charters and prehistoric flints Marc Bloch in his posthumously published The Historian’s Craft (1954) makes the case for directed research in the following terms:

‘Every historical research supposes that the inquiry has a direction at the very first step. Mere passive observation, even supposing that such a thing were possible, has never contributed anything productive to any science.’

Describing the importance of cross-examining evidence he continues with remarks that might easily describe the nature of a successful research framework in that it should be:

‘Very elastic so that it may change its direction or improvise freely for any contingency, yet be able, from the outset, to act as a magnet drawing findings out of the document’ (we might say site or landscape or artefact [note 1]) ‘Even when he has settled his itinerary the explorer is well aware that he will not follow it exactly. Without it however he would risk wandering perpetually at random.’

More recently still, the widely recognised need for research and research frameworks or agendas has been strongly advocated across the profession and academia. Focussing on a broader chronological context, Andrews and Barrett (1999) stress the need for a new research agenda for archaeology as a whole, to facilitate effective, efficient and valuable enquiry. They build upon the idea that the value of archaeology is directly related to its contribution to understanding the past, as elucidated by Carver (1996; and his earlier 1993 which emphasised its importance in the context of early medieval towns). Crucially Andrews and Barrett emphasise the need for research frameworks to base their principles in 'understanding … how humans inhabited the material conditions which archaeologists recover' (1999, 40).

To return briefly to the Perth Literary and Antiquarian Society's seminal Subjects for Illustration ; the subjects encompass antiquities, onomastics, philosophy and fine arts and of 39 areas listed at least 25 are entirely or in part concerned with Scotland's medieval past. Many are at the root of current, more archaeologically focused, enquiry and demonstrate the pivotal place of medieval life and culture in the on-going making of Scotland and in our understanding of that process.

Note 1: In his call for a closer unity between archaeology and history Professor Lord Smail reminds us that the word ‘document’ has as one of its meanings ‘that which teaches’ (2009, 22). Though the implication, certainly in medieval Latin, is one of a written text, still, landscapes, sites and artefacts (and not just the archaeological texts written about them) can be legitimately defined as documents.