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Research themes

These Research Themes and Questions have been compiled by the Historic Rural Settlement Group using suggestions from academics and archaeologists across the country. They are varied in nature because they represent the views of individuals, but collectively they represent some of the key concerns and issues facing Scottish Rural Settlement studies. We would like to invite volunteers work these ideas into their SRP projects, or use them as inspiration to develop a new project or piece of research.

How did people live with and respond to the significant environmental change over the past millennium?

Can we find distinctive chemical signatures in the soil which reflect different sorts of activities that once took place there?

Can we link the physical evidence of historic rural settlement with the historical and oral sources, to produce new landscape biographies?
What are the values of historic rural settlement? Social, economic, scientific, cultural.

What forms of remote sensing can be used in what circumstances to detect recent rural activities?

How can finds be better used to illuminate the daily lives of our predecessors?

What were the origins and development of small rural townships/burghs in the medieval period ie 1100 - 1400

Where is the early medieval settlement (400AD-1100AD)

How adaptive or responsive to environmental change were people in the past?

Were the 18th-19th Century 'Improvements' necessary? Was the rural economy really failing before the 'Improvements' or are we influenced too much by the post-colonial writings of the Improvers? What went wrong except unbridled population growth? Was the economy ecologically unsustainable or only economically intolerable to some people? What knowledge of how to do things did we lose in the Agricultural Improvements? What can we put back in a 21st century context?

Why can't we see anything archaeological dated earlier than c. 1600AD? Where is the Medieval archaeological landscape?

Regionality and frontiers in northern Scotland: a study of the rural archaeology to investigate what impacts and influences have been brought about by different contending groups/cultures e.g. Anglo-Norman, Gaelic/Irish, Norse, even Pictish, but particularly the first two.

Industrial landscapes in rural settings: the production, for example, of illicit whisky and comparing and contrasting the construction of the still bothies.

How should land managers and land owners be looking after their HRS sites? A programme of research to establish the agencies of change (natural degeneration) of sites and the parameters by which the effects of these agencies can be measured. The outcome would be a set of blueprints for land managers and owners, setting out best practice for the long term sustainable management of different types of HRS sites.
Volunteer groups like NOSAS and bodies like the RCHAMS are establishing excellent working relationships with land owners and managers in the course of their field work. Owners and managers are delighted to discover information about sites in their care, but then what? Do we all walk away? Why bother going to the trouble of collecting all this data if we then do nothing? We really ought to be in a position to advise on how newly discovered sites should be maintained long term. There have to be excellent opportunities for trialling different maintenance regimes with owners and managers, when volunteers could play a vital role in carrying out initial works to sites, periodic maintenance thereafter and long term monitoring once the parameters have been set.

When is a lazy bed not a lazy bed? So little is known about this class of cultivation remains, so important to understanding subsistence economies in the Highlands. I am proposing a full programme of research into hand dug cultivation remains. Do lazy beds start with the introduction of the potato, or do they predate the potato? Were lazy beds on steep slopes repeatedly cultivated or were many 'one offs'? What tools were used? Was the cash chrom ever usable on a steep slope? There is so much subjective speculation around on this subject and so little known.

Who built the platforms? This is the title of Elizabeth Rennie's booklet of course, published by her privately in the late 1990s. Recessed platforms date within the medieval period and are of great interest in the West Highlands. They are an utterly intriguing type of monument about which argument continues. A fuller understanding of them could only help to better understand that period around 1,000 years ago. I think the group of platforms I discovered in the Great Glen above Loch Oich is the most northerly yet recorded, and like other researchers I am convinced there are many more still to be discovered. Could soil analysis on these sites tell us more about them? Where could research go on this topic?

Story-making: linking people to their landscapes by recreating the stories of their predecessors;

Landscape valuation using FESP, HLA and other tools; and

Regional variations - when and why?

The nature and form of sub-highland upland settlement and land-use systems. I feel that over the last two decades there has been an overwhelming focus on the Highlands and in particular on the upland districts within them, to the neglect of not just the Lowlands but also of those communities that fringe the Highlands proper or which occur in the upland districts of the Lowlands. Here, I mean areas like the Sidlaws, Ochils, Fintry and Gargunnock Hills, west Renfrew hills etc rather than the Lammermuirs, Cheviots etc., or moorland districts like east Kyle or NE Lanarkshire. These are all areas with good physical remains and good documentary records, but have fallen through the net when it comes to research.

The understanding of how estates developed and functioned. There has been no detailed examination of a single estate over the last 1000 years, no thought given to what it contains, how that was assembled, and how it adjusted to respond to changing social, cultural and economic pressures. Lordship, of course, became unfashionable in an age of research that wanted to focus on the 'ordinary' man-in-the-field, but such a study would allow us to consider how individual components functioned as part of a larger entity. Alasdair Ross has done excellent work on the davochs, but we need to see them in the context of the next tier of organisation up and consider how they contributed to a larger system of land-management and exploitation. It would be good to look at an estate that offers a transect from maritime to montane (something like the earldom of Angus, the Strathmore lordship, or the Ogilvy estates in Angus would be ideal), examining how that entity managed the different resources contained within it, regulated behaviour in its tenants, adapted to climatic/environmental change, supply crises etc, and reshaped itself as new types of resource became available to it.

Causal factors in social restructuring of lordship and society in the west Highlands and Islands, exemplified by the emergence of the Macdonald lordship of the Isles and the increasing militarization of society (formation of the clan system as we would later see it). This shift has been interpreted traditionally in political (and occasionally social) terms, but I suspect that there is an underlying economic determinant driven by environmental pressures. My research suggests that the cattle-based culture of the region came under intense pressure in the early 1300s due to a significant decrease in fodder availability occasioned by a cooling and wettening of the climate at the time. I am, unfortunately, almost wholly dependent on proxy data drawn chiefly from Iceland and Greenland to support (or refute) the hypothesis. I think you can probably guess what I would like to see in terms of palynology and palaeoecology for the region, coupled with more detailed reading of the documentary record.

Was the rural settlement pattern established well before the development of significant export markets for grain, cattle etc?

What was the impact of the 'export of soil fertility' on the established ecology of settlement?

How did the viability of the HRS way of life vary though time; is there evidence for significant abandonments, and what was their cause?

How much 'continuity' do archaeological features represent? What is the evidence for time depth etc?

What is the role of structures in the landscape, and how do they relate in time and space to each other, if they do at all?

Can we use the evidence of ancillary structures (kilns, barns, plots etc) in understanding, classifying, even dating, rural settlements?

Ideally we would want to know a) what language a place-name has been coined in b) what it means c) what its original referent was and d) when it was coined. Only in ideal circumstances can all 4 questions be answered fully, but that does not mean that we should not attempt a complete answer. It is clear that even a partial answer can throw valuable light on various aspects of rural settlement, from land-use to vegetation and from land-assessment to social organisation.

For some decades, the 'fermtoun' has been assumed to be the fundamental unit of rural settlement. Would the barony, officiary or other larger unit, based around shared resources (mill, peat banks etc) be more illuminating.

Can we more accurately describe the extent and nature of the resources necessary to support these communities (officiaries, baronies) given the nature of the exchanges which must have occurred within them? For example, we can consider soils, availability of sea-wrack or woodland, fishing or specialised industries. This is a question about sustainability, with direct relevance for the modern world and also probes issues about tiny, diverse localised mosaics of settlement so apparent from the documentary evidence and about how some communities adapted to new challenges and others gave up.

Can we use documentary sources to provide clues to the locations of early (late medieval) settlements and to investigate if and how settlement patterns changes in later centuries? [Underlying that question is one about what caused the change e.g. technologies, economics or environmental factors].

Medieval cultural landscapes/the social geography of settlement and lordship. The social make up and physical layout of farmsteads and their place in amongst fields, ecclesiastical and pastoral administration, lordly accommodation and the social discourses this generated and reflected. This differs from area to area and over time but is little understood as a coherent whole - each element often studied - as an entity separated from the other elements. A first base could be a mapping and characterisation programme?

Pastoral influences: there is a tendency to treat anything small and/or beyond an eighteenth century head dyke as a shieling and, by association, secondary and unimportant. We need wider understanding of landuse beyond the head dyke but also need to fully consider that stuff beyond the head dyke may be earlier (medieval) and may reflect the general settlement pattern and economy of that period.

Regional variation and time depth. Wide regional trends in vernacular architecture and landuse have been sort of discussed in the past, and significantly more localised variations have been noted in some cases. Also there may be variations in how settlements developed, with traces of earlier buildings reflecting differing patterns. However, these patterns have not been demonstrated, dated or their significance analysed. The data generated by the SRP would seem to allow such a study to take place.

Is there sufficient stratigraphy and preservation in MoLRS sites to adequately investigate patterns of settlement change? i.e. to what extent can the archaeology alone help us understand former settlement and land-use, with implications for establishing most appropriate research methods for investigating responses to climatic, economic or demographic change.

What were the dynamics between land-use shielings and farms, between upland/rural and lowland/urban centres? Implications for understanding dynamics of whole pre-improvement land-use system, including soil fertility/ecological impacts, resource management and decision-making in rural communities.

Are there examples of new settlements during this period? Palynological data and much of the fragmentary archaeological evidence seem to point to earlier use of many sites (continuous or otherwise). Are there implications here for supposed drivers of settlement change?

For the period from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, what connections are there to be drawn between rural landscape and social change in Scotland and the engagement of Scots in Scottish and British overseas colonies?

How did the emergence of the modern estate and the commercialisation of the rural economy relate to developments in architecture, settlement, landscape and daily life in the Early Modern era (i.e. before the classic agricultural improvements of c.1750 onwards)?

© Historic Environment Scotland - Scottish Charity No. SC045925.