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18 Jan 2022

A high pollen count

Written by Derek Alexander, Head of Archaeology
A view looking across a loch from a hillside to another steep hillside. An area on the far side of the loch has been marked by a super-imposed large red arrow.
View looking north-west across Lochan na Lairige to the coring site (marked with red arrow) | Photo: Andrew Warwick
Our Head of Archaeology describes how analysing the pollen preserved in soil samples can tell us a lot about the historical vegetation cover on Ben Lawers and how this land was used many centuries ago.

New research has been recently published in a book relating to upland settlement in Scotland and across Europe, which focuses on the use of areas of seasonal grazings. Seasonal Settlement in Medieval and Early Modern Countryside [1] includes quite a few papers relating to Scotland, including one on recent analyses of a pollen core sample taken from the Ben Lawers property.

The work at Ben Lawers was carried out by Richard Tipping and Angus McEwen from the University of Stirling. It was based on taking a core sample through a small area of peat on the eastern end of the Tarmachan ridge, just above the dam of Lochan na Lairige, at a height of 540m. The peat was 84cm deep, and 10cm from the bottom was dated to between 1220–1390 – from the reign of Alexander II up to Robert II in Scotland. A turf-built house above Kiltyrie, on the lower slopes of Ben Lawers, was excavated in 2003 and dated to the 13th century.

A group of people are at work at an archaeological dig site on a hillside. A square of earth has been dug out, with people kneeling in that recently exposed area. In the background are some ruined stone walls.
Digging the 13th-century turf house at Kiltyrie, Ben Lawers in 2004

Thin slices were taken from the peat at 5cm intervals. The pollen preserved within these was then examined under a microscope to build up a picture of what sorts of plants were growing within 100m of the core site. Just down slope from the point where the peat was sampled are the remains of around six small shieling huts. These were small temporary shelters built of turf and stone that were most likely occupied on a seasonal basis. Between the end of May and the start of September, animals were taken up the hill to make use of the grass there and to keep them away from ripening crops around the townships lower down.

Heather grew on the site from 1220 and there were trees in the vicinity until about 1530. These trees were mostly birch, with some hazel, rowan and hawthorn. There are few herbs from disturbed ground, which would suggest there were no crops being grown close by.

We can see a marked decline in tree pollen from around 1530, and between 1585–1630 we notice a rise in certain herb types (Plantago lanceolata), which suggests that grazing animals were eating the tree seedlings. From the types of pollen present in the core samples, it appears that prior to 1800 the grazing animals were most likely cattle, whereas by 1860 this appears to have changed mostly to sheep. The excavated shieling hut high up at Meall Greigh on Ben Lawers was shown by radiocarbon dating to have been in use from the 15th through to the 18th century.

A small group of people are working on some recently exposed stone walls at an archaeological dig on a hillside. The weather is wet, and they are all wearing waterproofs.
Digging one of the shieling huts at Meall Greigh on Ben Lawers in 2003. The site dated from the 15th–18th century.

During the earlier period, it is possible that low levels of grazing allowed animals and trees to co-exist and this area may have been used as wood pasture. Although the climatic decline of the ‘little ice age’ (in the late 1500s) does not seem to have had a direct impact on vegetation cover, it is possible that stretched resources elsewhere led to increased numbers of grazing animals.

The recently published work by Tipping and Theune shows just how much information can be gathered on very local catchments in the Scottish uplands, and emphasises once again the importance of protecting our peat deposits.

[1] A full version of this research can be read in: P Dixon & C Theune (eds), Seasonal Settlement in the Medieval and Early Modern Countryside, Sidestone Press Academics, 2021, pp. 159–68

This is available as an Open Source publication.

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