Case Study: Archaeologies of Plantation - the Early Modern Irish/Scottish border

By the late 16th century, the Highlands and Islands had become established as a problem region in the eyes of the Scottish Crown – a part of the kingdom which exercised too much autonomy of action in the eyes of a centralising government.  James VI, first as King of Scotland and, from 1603, as King of both Scotland and England, embarked on a series of projects to bring this problem region to heel.  Amongst these was a programme of Plantation. 

Aerial view of Campbeltown. Archibald, Early of Argyll, choose this as the location for a new settlement – a Plantation of ‘Lowland men and trafficking burgesses’ (McKerral 1948, 24) – developed at the head of the loch from 1609 onwards. The Plantation town centred on a new castle and was part of a programme of initiatives designed to bring to heel this part of Argyll, traditionally associated with MacDonalds and other kindreds who, in the eyes of the Crown, had been acting a little too independently. The creation of Campbeltown and the wider Plantation of Kintyre should be understood in the context of wider efforts by the Scottish and, after 1603, combined British authorities to pacify and control Scotland’s western seaboard and those parts of Ireland to which it was intimately linked.

Earlier in the 16th century, the English Crown had turned to Plantation as a strategy through which it might expand and consolidate its authority over Ireland.  Towards the end of century, Scotland began to consider Plantation as a means of expanding its control of the western Highlands and Islands: in 1597, Parliament approved the creation of Plantations in Kintyre, Lochaber and Lewis.  The idea was to grant these areas to loyal subjects who would transplant loyal tenants from other parts of Scotland and tie the interests of the western seaboard more closely to those of the wider kingdom by commercialising the local economy, thus making the local population dependant on a stable relationship with wider markets.  Although the Scottish plantations were authorised in 1597, it took several decades for them to become a reality and, after 1603, the project was more emphatically pursued as an attempt to take a joined-up approach to the Highland and Irish problems: the Plantation of Ulster from the early 17th century and the contemporary plantations of Kintyre, Lochaber and Lewis represent a concerted effort to control a resistant North Channel and Atlantic border zone.  

On the Scottish side, sporadic efforts to plant Lewis, particularly by Lowlanders from Fife, met with local resistance and a general lack of support from the kindreds of the west coast and the islands.  The plantation town of Stornaway finally appeared in 1628.  In Lochaber, the small town of Gordonsburgh was created in 1618  – tand later re-named Fort William.  In Kintyre, the burgh of Lochhead  - now Campbeltown - was created by the Crown undertaker in the region, the Campbell earl of Argyll.  Kintyre in particular also saw significant rural plantation, involving the granting of land to Lowland landowners and to members of the Campbell kindred, and the settlement of non-local farming tenants.  The main phase of this Lowland plantation seems to have begun around 1650. 

Understanding of the Ulster Plantation, and the other Irish plantations, has benefitted in recent years from a significant amount of archaeological research. This work has done much to enhance knowledge of the empirical details of plantation and to interpret the Irish plantations in terms of their material implementation and their meaning for the lives of those involved (Scottish, English, Gaelic Irish, Anglo-Irish or otherwise).  This archaeological work has done much to reveal the complexities of the social, cultural, political and economic relationships characterising Plantation-era Ireland.  And it indicates the potential for analysis of the plantations on the Scottish side of the North Channel, on which there has, so far, been little archaeological work (but see Archaeological investigation of these west coast plantations could do much to elucidate the material and practical means by which the Scottish and British states worked to extend their authority and to pacify and stabilise their borders in the Early Modern era.  The archaeology of the Scottish plantations could also do much to develop our understanding of relationships between state and people on the ground, in different localities, and to explore the similarities, differences and connections between plantations in different parts of Scotland and on both sides of the North Channel.

Return to Section 5.2 Constructing the state: defining borders


Case Study: Archaeologies of tax evasion - illicit whisky distilling

The archaeological remains of an illicit whisky still, nestled next to a burn on a hillside. Water was necessary for the distilling process and this, in part, appears to determine the landscape location of such stills. However, their location was also conditioned by the need to be within reach of the settled area of the landscape but also hidden from the gaze of the authorities. Distilling sites like this would have been a matter of local knowledge, forming part of a landscape of meaning as well as one of production. © RCAHMS

According to the authorities and to the intellectuals who wrote our sources for the 18th and 19th centuries, the Scottish state was to be a well-ordered and fully-controlled exemplar of Improvement and Enlightenment.  The experience of the people in the towns and townships was, of course, very different.  How did they negotiate attempts to transform their lives and identities?  What about ‘everyday resistance’ – those minor acts of pilfering, sabotage and tax evasion by which people affirm their own agency and power in the face of authority? (Scott 1990)

Archaeology’s concern with ordinary daily practices across the social spectrum, and its unique ability to access them, provides a real opportunity to address these issues.  Caches of alcohol bottles in a prison, hand querns where tenants were obliged to use the estate’s water mill, smugglers’ secret paths and brandy holes – all of these speak not just to personal economic benefit but the negotiation of new identities and the maintenance of pride and self-respect.

A particularly striking example of this is illicit whisky distilling.  With progressive rises in taxes and duties across the 18th century, illicit whisky became cheaper to produce and pleasanter to drink than the legal variety.  It also provided the distillers with the necessary means to pay their rents, now that commercially-mindedlandlords were demanding cash in place of rent in kind.  By the 1820s, the quantities of illicit whisky being distilled were colossal: some 4,000 stills were being confiscated each year in Aberdeenshire alone (Devine 1994, 119-126).

The archaeology of illicit whisky distilling is still in its infancy but, even so, the work which has been done has made it clear that the distillers were creating a social landscape that emphasised sense of community, continuities with past rhythms of daily life, and their own agency and power (Given 2004, 138-166). To the people who used them, the material aspects of distilling – jugs and condensing worms, bothies and kilns, platforms and paths – were intensely important for their sense of self and community.

Contrary to later romantic stereotypes, the stills were not in remote and lonely locations, but typically 20–30 minutes’ walk from the nearest settlement.  They were served by well-used paths and regular patterns of movements between lowland and upland that preserved the daily and seasonal habits of the pre-Improvement landscape.  Their hidden locations in ravines, under outcrops or on islands created a landscape of local knowledge, where community members could tell (often in Gaelic) stories mocking those ignorant outsiders, the gaugers who knew neither landscape nor language.

Return to Section 5.3 Constructing the state: pacification and defence