By Richard Oram
The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 88 (2008)
Abstract: Academic study of eleventh to thirteenth century high status residence in Scotland has been largely bypassed by the English debates over origin, function and symbolism. Archaeologists have also been slow to engage with three decades of historical revision of traditional socio-economic, cultural and political models upon which their interpretations of royal and lordly residence have drawn. Scottish castle-studies of the pre-1250 era continue to be framed by a ‘military architecture’ historiographical tradition and a view of the castle as an alien artefact imposed on the land by foreign adventurers and a ‘modernising’ monarchy and native Gaelic nobility.
Knowledge and understanding of pre-twelfth century native high status sites is rudimentary and derived primarily from often inappropriate analogy with English examples. Discussion of native responses to the imported castle-building culture is founded upon retrospective projection of inappropriate later medieval social and economic models and anachronistic perceptions of military colonialism. Cultural and socio-economic difference is rarely recognised in archaeological modelling and cultural determinism has distorted perceptions of structural form, social status and material values. A programme of interdisciplinary studies focused on specific sites is necessary to provide a corrective to this current situation.
One of the central themes in the traditional historiography of medieval Scotland is that in parallel with the emergence from the late 1000s of an identifiable noble stratum comparable to the aristocratic hierarchies of Norman England and Frankish Europe there was an attendant development of new forms in the physical expression of lordship. The exercise of lordly power was, it is argued, reinforced through the formalising of lord-dependent relations in a suitable “arena where social relations are negotiated”. What the formalising of lordship relations meant in physical terms, however, remains largely a matter of conjecture, for, powerfully presented though the argument has been, current knowledge of the character and composition of centres of secular power in ninth- to twelfth-century Scotland, when a novel expression of lordly power – the castle – was apparently imported as part of the cultural baggage of colonists from England and Frankish Europe, remains too fragmentary to provide substantive support to sustain it. For the period after c.1100, furthermore, the focus has fixed primarily upon the emergence of the castle as the principal architectural manifestation of lordly power to the neglect of possible continuity in indigenous traditions in some areas. In large part, this imbalance has resulted from the dearth of easily datable architectural remains from the period 1050-1150 from which to establish the character of native high status residences, and the paucity of archaeological excavation at all but some of the highest status Early Historic period sites.