Case Study 11: Bàrr Mór, Kilmartin

Bàrr Mór, Kilmartin

Heather James

 

A small group of drystone, oval-shaped structures in Argyll was partially excavated in 2003 and proved to be a rare example of a late medieval rural settlement (Figure 109). The site lay in Kilmartin parish, 1km from the sea (grid reference NM 81397 00656) and about 600m to the E of the steading of Old Poltalloch. The site was initially identified by the Forestry Commission and, at the time, sat within a mature forest plantation. It was not depicted on the 1st edition OS map and the name of the site is uncertain. During an initial visit to the site a sherd of unusual brown-glazed pottery was found on the surface about 10m E of the site.

Figure 109: Bàrr Mór, Kilmartin Topographic Survey © Heather James

 

Clearance of thick moss from the stones revealed four roughly-oval shaped structures and two enclosures forming a tight group. The walls were built of angular rubble about 0.9m thick and were up to 1.5m high with a slight batter. Structures A and B were partially excavated. A possible byre drain was seen within Structure G, but Structures D, F and G were not investigated further. Structures C and E were interpreted as unroofed stock enclosures and lambing pens had been built within Structures C and D (James 2010).

Structure A was filled with rubble, had two internal walls, and at one end there was a clay floor and an informal hearth of burnt turves (Figure 110). The S wall had two blocked doorways and two alcove-like features within the short W wall, which may have been bases for sloping timbers for a hip-ended roof. The finds consisted of small amounts of slag, an unidentifiable mammal bone, a single piece of undiagnostic flint and three iron objects. The walls of Structure B were up to 0.7m high and there was a single, low, roughly-built dividing wall. A single 'alcove' was seen in the N corner and an informal hearth deposit was sealed by a layer of rough cobble stones. The finds included a fragment of medieval green glazed jug handle and a sherd of brown glazed pottery which joined with the sherd discovered earlier. The presence of the hearths in Structures A and B indicated that they were used at least partly as dwellings. These are small for dwellings, but are of similar size to the peripheral structures seen at Finlaggan in the 16th century.

Hearth deposits from Structures A and B produced four radiocarbon dates which were consistently mid-15th to mid-17th century AD (at 2 sigma), indicating that occupation took place in the late-medieval period. A fifth, Iron Age, date from the hearth of Structure B was interpreted as the result of residual charcoal which could have come from a prehistoric hut platform that was suggested by a circular flat area just to the east of Structure B.

The two sherds of thin walled, brown-glazed pottery were identified as being of French origin and dated to the 16th or 17th centuries (pers. comm. George Haggerty). The only other sherds of this fabric found in Scotland have come from excavations in Glasgow. The other pottery sherd, a green glazed jug handle, was of a similar date. The presence of slag was indicative of some small scale, metal working taking place on site which would be consistent with a self-sufficient settlement. A fragment of an iron hook was thought to resemble part of a rabbit trap (Rosemary Campbell, pers. comm.)

The botanical evidence indicated that the site functioned as a small mixed farm which cultivated hulled barley, oats and flax. It is thought that these crops were processed on site within both Structures A and B with heather charcoal being used in the drying process. The occupants were making use of both the moorland and woodland resources available. Hazelnut shells were being broken into small pieces, which is consistent with consumption rather than for its use as tinder and a single context contained small amounts of seaweed which is usually associated with fertilisation of soil or burning for potash.

Figure 110: Bàrr Mór Structure A © Heather James

Pont's manuscript map of the late 16th century depicts the place-name 'Barghirgaig' in this vicinity and this property (along with Poltalloch and others) forms part of the inheritance of Niall Campbell of Duntroon in the 17th century. It is possible that this site at Bàrr Mór is 'Barghirgaig'. Rent was being paid for 'Barghirgaig' in the early 19th century, but subsequent references have not been found. The presence of the lambing pens in Structures A and D and the blocked doors in Structure A would be consistent with occasional occupation by a shepherd. The absence of any Post-medieval material, such as clay pipes, glass or pottery, suggests that the human presence here at that time was extremely limited.

A self sufficient farmstead at Bàrr Mór would fit broadly into the processes of colonisation of forests, moors and moss that has been observed in Scotland between the 15th and 16th centuries (Whyte 2000). However, the stone walled structures would not fit the model of settlement development suggested by previous research, which said that the replacement of turf-walled structures by stone, did not take place until the 18th or 19th centuries. Here at Bàrr Mór the radiocarbon dates indicate that these stone-built, hip-roofed, thatched, windowless structures were built between the mid-15th and mid-17th centuries.

Bibliography

  • James, H F 2009 Medieval Rural Settlement: A Study of Mid-Argyll, Scotland. Unpublished PhD from the University of Glasgow.
  • Whyte, I 2000 'Historical geographical dimensions of Medieval or later rural settlement in Scotland', in Atkinson, J A, Banks, I and MacGregor, G (eds) 2000 Townships to Farmsteads: Rural Settlement Studies in Scotland England and Wales, 145-149, BAR British Series 293, Oxford.