In search of Shetland’s medieval fields
by Dr Mark Gardiner
Stepping off the plane at Sumborough airport, I was immediately back in the North Atlantic landscape. It is a landscape familiar to anyone who has worked on the uplands of northern and north-western Ireland, the Faroes or Iceland. There are no trees, but the land is sharply divided between green fields around the stark crofts and the grey-brown of the heather-covered moors. And then there is the wind and the rain, or, in this early April, driving snow flurries.
I had just finished a paper on the medieval fields in the north of Ireland, and I was in Shetland to look at the field evidence for patterns of cultivation there. The first stop was the main town, Lerwick, to pick up Brian Smith, Shetland’s archivist and the most knowledgeable person on the islands’ history. Throughout the week, we had vigorous debates about what we saw, how to interpret it and the historic management of land in Shetland. Having a strong-minded companion forces you to define what you think and how strong the evidence is for it. We found that none of the preconceptions we brought was sufficient to interpret what we saw. During the week we were to struggle to find new interpretations for the evidence which we began to uncover.
Brian and I were staying in a cottage on the island of Yell, but our work started on the next island to the north, Unst. On the rocky hillsides overlooking the bay at Haroldswick, was a complex system of stone dykes (walls) and scattered between were small patches of better ground. The area had not been cultivated in the mid-nineteenth century when the first detailed Ordnance Survey map was made. It was clear that here was a landscape which had evolved over a long period. It was not a single system, but one which had been changed and extended many times.
Throughout history people have struggled to scrape a living from the soils of the North Atlantic islands. Much of the evidence for earlier phases of cultivation have been lost through the activity of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century when the rising population forced people to work even very poor soils. If we wanted to find traces of later medieval cultivation, it was necessary to seek out places not used in the last two hundred years. This meant looking on the poor hillslopes, areas which might have been worked at the high point of medieval population, around 1300, but not subsequently. Stone dykes, or at least the tumbled remains of them, will survive for indefinite periods. If we could identify and plot these, we could begin to pick out the remains of the medieval fields.
This sort of fieldwork is a complex interplay between close observation on the ground, and the use of aerial photographs to identify and plot less obvious remains. We did not have printouts of the photographs to use in the field, since the discoveries at Haroldswick were so unexpected. But I had my field recording equipment – a handheld GPS, a measuring tape, a camera and a notebook, all in a waterproof rucksack. After years of searching in the uplands for archaeological sites, I have cut down the things I take to the essentials. You carry only what you need if you are walking over many miles of bog and moorland. The most important thing is, however, careful observation.
Examination of possible sites on the islands of Yell and Unst during the following days established where we should be looking. We began to recognize the subtle banks and ditches of old field boundaries where they ran through the heather, and to pick out traces of possible buildings, sometimes in the most improbable places, such as the later, possibly medieval structures set within the remains of the Iron Age brochs (forts) at Gossabrough and Burraness. Learning where to look and learning how to see are the first tasks when working in the field. It is a knowledge which has to be adapted to each landscape. How to interpret the remains was the subject of a continuing discussion between Brian and myself. Historians and archaeologists start with very different assumptions. Finding a common understanding of the evidence was the goal we were working towards.
As the week wore on, the snow flurries ceased and there were longer spells of sun. We cast off our gloves and could enjoy the extraordinary views. Around every corner in Shetland, there were new sights of the dark blue sea contrasting with the greys and browns of the rocks and moors. While this first week of work has not allowed us to reach conclusions, we now have clear idea of how and where we are going to continue work to identify Shetland’s medieval fields.