Big Fish, Little Fish..Medieval and Post-Medieval Fishing in the Northern Isles


Research conducted by Dr. Jen Harland provides a background to the excavations being undertaken at Swandro on Rousay this month. There are still opportunities to get involved in the dig and workshops by e mailing Sean at

Fish Remains from Quoygrew
Figure 1: Fish remains from Quoygrew, large cod family remains typical of the 11th – 13th centuries.

The ‘fish event horizon’ of c. 1000 AD is well recognised within the zooarchaeological record of the Northern Isles, and is matched by the human isotopic record which indicates marine protein consumption peaked between the 11th-13th centuries. The Late Norse focus on fishing for large cod family fish (Fig. 1) only lasted for a few centuries. This ongoing research explores what happened afterwards, using the fish assemblages from 3 recent excavations at Quoygrew, Skaill and Stacklebrae.

Where are the Herring Bones?

Stackelbrae and Skaill Farm are contemporary with Orkney’s herring industry, yet herring bones are absent. Herring survive well and are found in substantial quantities in other sites, so their absence cannot be attributed to taphonomic patterning. Instead, it would appear that they were either too valuable as an export, or they were simply not liked.

Herring are also absent from Viking Age and Late Norse sites in Orkney (Harland 2006), despite their contemporary popularity in other parts of the Norse North Atlantic. Historical records show the Dutch fishing for herring around Orkney’s waters, as seen in Adriaen Coenen’s Fishbook from 1580. Herring are notoriously difficult to predict and they spoil easily, so it is possible that they were deliberately avoided in Orkney, an avoidance that carried on into the recent past.

Big Cod to Small Saithe

Changing proportion of cod and sitheQuoygrew was the first site to produce a substantial quantity of well-sieved, stratified fish remains from the 15th and 16th centuries in Orkney. Unlike earlier centuries, cod (Gadus morhua) was found in very small quantities; most of the fish bones found were now saithe (Pollachius virens). The remains from Quoygrew showed a considerable shift in fish sizes too: the big fish of >80cm total length no longer dominated. Instead, these saithe were smaller, most being less than 50cm total length. The smaller size and change from cod to saithe indicates a shift in fishing grounds, from deeper, open-water fishing to shallow in-shore or shore-based fishing.

How typical were these deposits? Why had the inhabitants of Quoygrew turned away from the sea? Were there even any big fish left in the sea?

Initial excavations at Skaill Farm, Rousay involved the local community. The excavations continue this week.

Two small-scale excavations provided fish assemblages to help explore these questions. Stackelbrae was initially a high status settlement in the 15th to 17th centuries, before becoming an ordinary farm. The fish from Skaill Farm bring the chronological range into the 19th century. The assemblage from Stackelbrae in the 15th to mid-17th centuries indicated some deeper water fishing for cod was still taking place. This can be directly attributed to status: they had the resources to acquire or undertake targeted fishing for larger cod, but on a much reduced scale. However, from the mid-17th century this fishery had ceased. Cod and Saithe sizes and proportions through time, all sieved to greater than 2mmChanging Saithe sizes through time

The Rise of ‘Sillocks’ and ‘Piltocks’: the Small Saithe Fishery

Fish remains from Stacklbrae.
Figure 2: Fish remains from Stackelbrae, small saithe typical of subsistence diet in the recent past.

By the mid 17th century, saithe dominate assemblages entirely (Figure 2). Caught from small boats in-shore, or from the shore, they were an important part of the diet of ordinary Orcadians until the early 20th century (Fenton 1978). Their value extended beyond food: their livers were rendered down for oil, for lighting and for trade.

Why did the Northern Isles Turn Away from Open Water Sea Fishing?

Intensive fishing for large cod family fish peaked during the 11th -13th centuries AD. By the 15th century, ‘ordinary’ sites no longer had any large cod bones. Vestiges of the large cod family fishery are found at the high status site of Stackelbrae during this time, but by the mid-17th century, almost all fish remains found in Orkney are small saithe. Overfishing was not responsible – historical sources indicate there were plenty of big fish available (Barry 1805). So why do we see these shifts?

  • Orkney and Shetland were no longer preferred suppliers of preserved cod – the Newfoundland markets took over (Barrett et al. 2011)
  • Orkney became part of Scotland in 1468 and turned away from the Nordic maritime-oriented societies of the North Atlantic (Thomson 2001)
  • Environmental decline associated with the end of the medieval climate anomaly made the seas more stormy and fishing more risky (Oram 2014)
  • The Black Death ‘ravaged’ the islands in 1349 (Thomson 2001)
  • Shetland’s haf fishery for large cod and ling developed in the 18th century (Goodlad 1971) and similar fisheries developed in Orkney in the 19th century, but these early commercial fisheries are not yet recognised archaeologically and may be of limited local dietary impact.

Acknowledgements: ORCA excavated Stackelbrae and provided unpublished information; Historic Scotland funded the fish analysis. Excavations at Skaill Farm on Rousay were funded by Orkney Islands Council Archaeology fund, The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute and the British Academy.


Barrett, JH, D Orton, C Johnstone, J Harland et al. 2011. ‘Interpreting the expansion of sea fishing in medieval Europe using stable isotope analysis of archaeological cod bones’, J. of Arch. Sci. 38: 1516-1524

Barry, G. 1805. The History of the Orkney Islands. Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Company

Fenton, A. 1978. The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. Phantassie (East Linton): Tuckwell Press

Goodlad, C.A. 1971. Shetland Fishing Saga. Lerwick: Shetland Times Limited

Harland, JF. 2006. ‘Zooarchaeology in the Viking Age to Medieval Northern Isles, Scotland: An investigation of spatial and temporal patterning’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of York

Harland, JF and JH Barrett. 2012. ‘The Maritime Economy: Fish Bone’ in Barrett, J. (ed.) Being an Islander. Production and Identity at Quoygrew, Orkney, AD 900-1600. Cambridge: MacDonald, 115-138 Thomson, WPL. 2001. The New History of Orkney. Edinburgh: Mercat Press Oram, R. 2014. “The worst disaster suffered by the people of Scotland in recorded history’: climate change, dearth and pathogens in the long 14th century’. Proc. Soc. Ants. Scot.144: 223-244

Archaeomagnetic Dating for the Scottish Neolithic


Developing Archaeomagnetic Dating for the Scottish Neolithic. Call for samples. Sam Harris, School of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford.

Supervisors: Dr Catherine Batt & Prof. Ian Armit, School of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford. Nick Card, University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, Orkney.

Guest blogger, Sam Harris writes…..The investigation of archaeological material for dating using magnetic methods is usually referred to as archaeomagnetism. Archaeomagnetism has been utilised as a method for dating fired and heated archaeological material successfully for a number of decades. However, in order for this method to work, the spatial behaviour of the Earth’s geomagnetic field must be understood for the archaeological period in question. Currently, our definition of the local geomagnetic field for the British Isles is characterised by a Secular Variation Curve (SVC) for the past 4,000 years (Zananiri et al. 2007)

I am part of the newest wave of researchers trying to improve our knowledge of the past geomagnetic field and how it can be utilised to assist in answering archaeological questions. More specifically I am looking at ” Developing Archaeomagnetic Dating for the Scottish Neolithic” (PhD title).

By sampling fired material from independently dated archaeological material we can begin to build a picture of the past geomagnetic field behaviour. The Ness of Brodgar is offering the perfect opportunity to sample a plethora of formal hearth features (figures 1-3 above)

In addition to the Ness of Brodgar, I am looking for additional archaeological sites to augment my data. This means I require as many possible samples as I can physically get my hands on, and it costs the archaeologists nothing!

From the 24th July I will be in Orkney for a number of weeks sampling at the Ness of Brodgar. I will be available to visit any prehistoric archaeological sites from across Orkney. So please get in touch.

Additionally, if anyone is excavating any Neolithic sites across Scotland, I would be very interested to hear from you. Any questions please contact me using the contact form below or details below. Further information is available at

Sam Harris details


Map Orkney Month: New Paper Published

Map Orkney Month: Imagining archaeological mappings has just been published in a new open access online journal Livingmaps Review (Vol. 1, No. 1).

The paper is based on Dan Lee’s (Lifelong Learning and Outreach Archaeologist)  contribution to the wider Public Archaeology 2015 project, in which 6 archaeologists and 6 non-archaeologists each had a month long project throughout the year.

Map drawn by volunteer
Participant mapping of Stromness

Map Orkney Month proposed new forms of creative mapping for archaeology. When volunteers were asked to map their world for a day, the idea was to create a new collaborative map of the Orkney archipelago based on everyday journeys and places; a kind of countywide archaeological walkover survey with a twist. In the process, the project challenged traditional archaeological power structures, destabilised the way archaeological knowledge is produced by using non-specialists, and experimented with new modes of archaeological mapping. In the end, each contribution became its own map without the need for traditional archaeological cartography. In particular, the role of imagination in both traditional and experimental mappings became an important theme. Above all, mappers were challenged to think about archaeology in a new way, and in the process contributed something new to the discipline.

After a month of collaborative mapping a new map of Orkney has been created. By thinking big, Map Orkney Month seems to have captured people’s imagination. Our map looks like Orkney, however it is far removed from the Ordnance Survey and the tourist trail of Neolithic World Heritage Sites, brochs and bird watching. Our map is an unfamiliar Orkney, revealed through the experience and creativity of its inhabitants.

The emphasis was on everyday journeys, less familiar places, and recording individual stories and memories of place. The only loose instructions were to record journeys for a single day within March using a handheld GPS or smart phone, and record one site of significance.

You can access the article free here (just register):

A new research paper: “Imagining Archaeological Mapping” has just been published by Dan Lee (Lifelong Learning and…

Posted by Archaeology Institute UHI on Thursday, 17 March 2016

Do Orcadian Tombs Align with Solar Events ?


Research conducted by Andrea Boyar BA, Post Graduate student at The Archaeology Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, Orkney.


Orkney forms one of the most intensively studied regions in Britain, providing a ‘core area’ for research (Barclay 2004: 34-37). The aim of this study was to establish to what extent Neolithic cairns in this region align with solar events

Research Objectives

  • Determine the orientation of the entrance passages of the Orcadian chambered cairns.
  • Establish trends within the range of orientations.
  • Analyse the extent of alignments that fall into the range of orientations.

Background Context

The funerary monuments of Neolithic Orkney are characterised by stone-built burial mounds situated near water, perhaps indicative of the importance of sea migration (Phillips 2003: 384). These cairns contained inhumations and cremations reflective of collective burial practices, in addition to an assortment of animal bones, stone tools, pottery, and other grave goods (Davidson and Henshall 1989: 52-59). The monuments appear to have been in use for a few hundred years, and there is a “strong possibility” that many were re-used before being deliberately decommissioned (Lee 2011: 43).

Types of Neolithic Cairns in Orkney

Orkney Carin types

Case Study: Rousay

Rousay orientation.png
Distribution map of the Rousay chambered cairns, showing orientation of entrance passages acording to azimuths measurements

The island of Rousay was selected for a case study due to a high concentration of well-preserved burial architecture. The primary fieldwork aim was to record cairn azimuths in order to measure deviation from solar alignments. Key to this analysis was Stellarium, an open source planetarium used to establish the Sun’s position in the Neolithic period in Britain. By utilising precise measurements, rather than relying upon cardinal point orientations, this approach allowed for a more temporal conclusion to be reached on the relationship between solar alignment and mortuary architecture in the Neolithic.

Project Results

Azimuth results
Azimuth of Rousay Cairns

Orkney-Cromarty cairns were predominantly orientated towards the southeast, with an avoidance of northern orientations

Maes Howe cairns were more variable; there appears to be a shift from the southeast to the southwest, with a complete avoidance of the north

Hybrid cairns were the most random, containing northern orientations within examples of atypical subterranean architecture

Project results

Research Findings

  • Early Neolithic cairns placed an importance on the Midwinter sunrise, while late Neolithic cairns exhibited a shift towards the Midwinter sunset
  • An avoidance of a northern orientation, which would theoretically place a tomb in a state of perpetual darkness
  • The outlier cairns orientated to the north demonstrated atypical subterranean architecture, perhaps indicative that these specific tombs were built to intentionally keep light out of the interior
  • Azimuths provided a temporal range for illumination periods – an area of further research

Further Research

Considering how this study has evidenced seasonal intervals beyond the solstices as significant, it would be worthwhile to look at how times of illumination may relate to periods when Neolithic Orcadians would visit a tomb, inter their dead, and manipulate the remains. Applying the methods utilised in the Rousay case study to the rest of the region may reveal further insight relating to the temporal function of astronomy in Neolithic Orkney.


Neolithic Orcadians were an agrarian society, and as such, the changing seasons would have played an integral role to the sustainability of their way of life. For reasons unknown, solar alignments were incorporated into burial architecture; with a focus on the Solstice period, a time when one cycle ends and another begins. It is possible that sunlight was simply useful for physically seeing inside the chamber itself, however, it appears that these alignments reflect an underlying cosmology indicative of the cultural importance of the sun to an agricultural community. Cairns are mortuary structures, thus the alignments evident within them may reflect pivotal periods in the year associated with ancestral rebirth or renewal




Research Paper Published : Toiling with Teeth.

An integrated dental analysis of sheep and cattle in Iron Age and Viking -Late Norse Orkney. First author: Dr. Ingrid Mainland


  • The potential is demonstrated for zooarchaeology of integrated dental analyses
  • Regional redistribution and control of pastoral resources is identified in Late Iron Age Orkney
  • Herding systems in Norse Orkney indicate a pre 12th Century AD development of manorial estates


A key goal for archaeozoology is to define and characterise pastoral farming strategies – how did people in the Middle Iron Age / Viking Late Norse period organise their farming ?

In the last decade, some of the most innovative approaches for addressing these questions have centred on the mammalian dentition, including sampling of stable isotopes, dental microwear analysis and the study of dental disease. It is when these techniques are integrated and combined with more traditional approaches, such as tooth eruption and wear, however, that their full potential is realised. In this article we demonstrate how such an integrated dental analysis combining isotopes, microwear, dental development, dental pathologies, tooth eruption and wear can be used to elucidate changing pastoral practices and their impacts on the landscape from the Iron Age and Viking-Late Norse periods in the North Atlantic islands, a period of significant socio-economic and cultural change in this region.

Analysis focuses on two case study sites, Mine Howe, dating to the Atlantic Middle Iron Age and the Earl’s Bu, one of the residences of the Orkney Earl’s from the 10th to 13/14th centuries AD. Each of the techniques applied to the sheep/goat and cattle dentition identifies clear differences between the two sites, in diet, in culling season, herd health and stress levels, all of which point to potential differences in underlying husbandry practices. These are related to wider socio-economic developments in Orkney at these periods, specifically increasing control of pastoral resources and economic production by North Atlantic elites in the Middle Iron Age and the emergence of manorial estates in Late Norse/Early Medieval Scandinavia.

For the full paper click Toiling with Teeth



What did Bronze Age people hear ?

Cave plan
Fig 1. Sculptors Cave in Moray North East Scotland

One of the questions that has intrigued archaeologists over the years is,” What did Bronze Age people hear ?”

Archaeoacoustics is a relatively new and emerging multidiscipline that studies the behaviour of sound within ancient sites and structures. Previous research undertaken by (SBRG, 2007; PEAR, 1996) found that Neolithic temples and hypogea in Europe had interesting and significant resonance properties and within six different Neolithic temples in England and Ireland, an acoustic resonance around 110Hz was discovered.

Michelle Walker, a graduate of the The Univeristy of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, is therefore proposing research that will attempt to identify the impact of drumming on thoughts and feelings of human participants in a Late Bronze Age cave in Moray.

One may postulate that the acoustic resonance properties within prehistoric sites in Scotland may have had an impact on the emotional state of human beings during ceremonies and rituals. It may be plausible to suggest that resonant acoustic properties exist within prehistoric sites in Scotland and this may be the reasoning behind the structural similarities of sites as to assist with the ceremony, ritual and deposition of human remains of both adults and children in prehistoric times.

The proposed research project aims to collect primary qualitative data from between 5 and 10 participants after listening to drumming between frequencies of 90 and 120Hz for two minutes in a late Bronze Age cave in Morayshire. Each frequency of 90, 100, 110, and 120Hz will be drummed at two beats per second for two minutes. After each frequency has been played the participant will be asked to complete a questionnaire with 10 questions pertaining to their thoughts and feelings during the two minute drumming period. See fig.1 for the position of drummer (D) and participants (P).

Sculptors Cave.jpg
Sculptors Cave

The drummer is positioned in that area as in the 1928 and 1979 excavations mandibles and skull fragments of were recovered from this 10ft square area of the cave. If the human remains were deposited here then it may be postulated that ceremonial or ritualistic behaviours occurred in this area of the cave that involved sound.


The aim of the research project is to investigate the impact of drumming for two minutes on the thoughts and feelings of human participants at frequencies of 90, 100, 110 and 120Hz in a Late Bronze Age cave in Moray. The qualitative data collected by means of questionnaires from participants, will be analysed for any commonality and recurring thoughts and/or feelings amongst participants whilst listening to drumming at the afore mentioned frequencies.

For more information go to Michelle Walker website

Research Paper Published


Ingrid Mainland (second author) has had a paper published enitled : Calving Seasonality at Pool, Orkney during the first millennium AD : An investigation using intra tooth isotope ratio analysis of cattle molar enamel.

Abstract : The identification of dairying is essential if we are to understand economies of the past, particularly in northwest Europe, where a high degree of lactose tolerance suggests that fresh milk has long been asignificant food product. This paper explores a possible link between economic focus and seasonality of calving. Although cattle can breed throughout the year, animals living in termperate regions with minimal or no human management tend to breed seasonally, their breeding behaviour being strongly influenced by the availability of food. In order to achieve a year-round supply of fresh milk in the past, it is likely that multiple-season calving was necessary, which would have required additional husbandry effort.

Alternatively, for meat-focussed economies or those based on storable dairy products, a strategy of single-season calving in spring may have been favoured to maximise the utilisation of spring and summer vegetation. Cattle birth seasonality is invetigated through isotope ratio analysis of tooth enamel. Results for cattle from Pool, Orkney dating to the latter part of the first millennium AD suggest that calving occurred during at least three seasons implying that the continuous provision of fresh milk was of economic importance.

The full paper can be accessed below :

Ingrid Mainland Calving Seasonality at Pool

New Book edited by Sarah Jane

SJ bookA new book co-edited by Sarah Jane Gibbon (lecturer in Archaeology at the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute) has just gone on sale. The book draws on Sarah Jane Gibbon’s and James Barrett’s considerable knowledge of the Viking and Medieval world and focuses on the Baltic, North and Irish Seas in the Viking and the early Middle Ages. Individual chapters introduce maritime worlds ranging from the Isle of Man to Gotland. It is mainly an archaeological project, but also refers to historical archaeology, history and literature. The book explores the complex relationships between long range interconnections and regional identities that are characteristic of maritime societies. The volume seeks to understand communities that were brought into being by their relationship with the sea and who set waves in motion that altered distant shores.

It can be bought from Oxbow Books :

And should be available from Amazon soon.

3 D Modelling Dissertation Survey

3D modelling is now an accepted part of archaeological analysis and interpretation. However, up until now very few people have studied how these images are used. James Bright, one of our students studying at The University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute, identified this issue and is in the process of gathering information for his dissertation – “The value of 3D models and their use in the archaeology and heritage sector”  

James writes, “The first part of research for the dissertation was spent making some 3D models of items at the Buckie and District Fishing Heritage Centre, using photogrammetry techniques and Agisoft Photoscan. This was to investigate how much time and skill was needed to make good quality models. I had got some very good advice on what does and doesn’t work from Hugo Anderson-Whymark, who makes some excellent models in Orkney. The second part of research was to design some surveys asking different groups their thoughts on the 3D models – did they learn anything from them, did they think they were of value, did they even load on their devices ! ”

 “Once I have enough results from the surveys, I can discuss the value of making the models, is it worth it and are people really learning from these models or just interested in the ‘wow’ factor of the model itself, being a relatively new technology. I want to see if this technology really brings anything to the table in terms of education and dissemination and I’d like to look at any problems or issues people may have had using this technology.”

If you want to help James in his survey then please go through to his website