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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
A BRIEF ACCOUNT OF THE HISTORY OF DOMESTIC ANIMALS IN CAITHNESS AND ORKNEY
Dr. B. Nodol
The North East Coast of Caithness and the Island of Orkney form one of the better agricultural areas of Scotland, despite their northerly situation. Their farming potentialities, particularly those of Orkney, were exploited from very early times, and the undisturbed remains of many periods have attracted many archaeologists. The nature of the soil is such that bone is very well preserved on all the lowland sites, and so there is a remarkable and almost continual record of domestic livestock available to the archaeozoologist. It has been my good fortune to work on the material from several excavations, and I wish to present here a brief interim account of my as yet incomplete findings.
The excavations are as follows: Knapp of Howar, Papa Westray, excavated by Dr. Anna Ritchie, Skara Brae, originally excavated by Professor Childe with a bone report by Professor Watson and partially re-excavated by Dr. David Clarke of Edinburgh, both of which date from the Neolithic era; Buckquoy, Birsay, also excavated by Dr. Ritchie, and Bay of Skaill, Deerness, still being excavated by Mr. Gelling of Birmingham University, both of which span the Pictish and Norse periods; the Bishop's Palace, Scrabster excavated by Mr. Talbot, mainly 16th century, the Newark Bay which runs from the Norse Period to the 18th century excavated by Dr. Brothwell. All these sites have been fully written up with the exception of Skara Brae and Skaill. I am also indebted to Miss Macarthy of Glasgow University for permission to refer to her as yet incomplete report on the Crosskirk Broch. These excavations span the agricultural occupation of the area from earliest times to the written records of George Low and the 19th century agricultural writers who give such a good account of the native livestock at that time.
The first process carried out on any collection of archaeological animal bones is of course to identify them, and this gives the relative proportions of bone fragments for the different species. This in turn reflects the suitability of the area for that species. Only a sophisticated and rich urban market induces agricultural production of difficult and expensive crops and livestock. Thus the towns of Roman Britain had a higher beef consumption than the Roman-British villages. In Orkney the species proportions are fairly consistent through whole period being investigated, except that pig is very scanty in the Neolithic period and cattle are particularly high at Skaill pre-Norse. Horse also does not occur in the Neolithic period. The proportions for the three major species, cattle, sheep and pig are set out in Table 1.
Numbers of Bone Fragments from the Principal Food Animals Expressed as %
A very useful, though to some extent artificial concept is the minimum number of individual animals represented in a bone group. This is derived from the maximum number of each anatomical element involved, together with its measurement when possible. Thus five left tibiae must come from five different animals, and if none of the right tibiae can be paired with these, then there are further individuals. Having decided upon one's minimum number, it is often possible to assign an age group to them. This is based upon the maturity of the bone, that is to say whether growth has ceased and the epiphyses have closed, and on the maturity of the dentition, whether temporary or permanent teeth are present and to some extent how worn they are. It is unwise to give precise chronological ages based on this data; though it seems quite likely that the ages at which teeth erupt has not changed very much through the ages, the age at which bones mature certainly has, for there has been an appreciable drop in the last 20 years, with improved standards of winter feeding. Therefore the ages are put into groups, juvenile, which would be under 18 months by modern standards, immature, from 18 months to about four years, and probably not including breeding stock, and mature animals older than this. When this exercise is carried out the following figures are obtained. In these tables, the % are based on rather small numbers for the excavations other than Buckquoy and Knapp of Howar.
Age Ranges of Cattle Bones
Age Range of Sheep Bones
A considerable amount of economic information can be derived from this data. If a mature animal is killed, the return from it is not only its carcass and hide, but also any offspring it has produced, perhaps several clips of wool in the case of sheep, possible dairy production and also labour in the case of working cattle. A juvenile animal will have given none of this extra return, and an immature animal very little. On the other hand, if meat production is the main object of keeping the animal, it might be expected that an immature animal would give the best carcass. The question of availability of winter fodder also arises, which might necessitate the killing of the animal in its first autumn, but it is probable that too much weight has been given to this factor in the past.
When the above tables are examined from this point of view, it is at once obvious that the majority of animals were killed at a very young stage in the Neolithic era, and that the main use of the animals, both cattle and sheep, would seem to be the production of meat and hides. The sheep was probably of too primitive a type to be wool-bearing. Watson in his 1931 report on the animal bones from Childe's excavations at Skara Brae found a majority of juvenile animals, and he assumed the shortage of winter fodder as a cause. However, in a community which lacked other materials for clothing, it is possible that calf skin might be a very desirable item. One can also postulate that the primitive breed of cattle did not breed every year if the cows were allowed to rear their calves, for a number of the calves seem to have been slaughtered almost as soon as they were born, though this proportion was not so high with the sheep. In any case it would appear that the odd 20% of mature animals must be capable of bearing five lambs or calves in their lifetimes on average, if numbers were to be maintained.
After the Neolithic period, a higher proportion of adult animals was maintained, which would indicate that additional economic use was made of them. In this respect the figures for Buckquoy are probably more reliable than the others, since larger numbers were involved. The difference in numbers of mature sheep between the two periods at Buckquoy is then rather striking, and it is possible that the introduction or evolution of wool bearing sheep took place. Cattle do not seem to have been widely used for traction according to the written record; Low writing about 1780 comments upon this, and says that oxen seldom lived beyond their third year. He also states that the sheep, though poorly cared for were prolific, often bearing twins, a factor which is difficult to deduce from osteological findings.
The other main source of information to be derived from bones is their size, and thus the size of the animal. However, the relationship of these two has by no means been fully worked out and thus comparative measurements on different bones, even when there are sufficient to give a good average figure, may give contradictory results. In the comparative tables that follow, relevant measurements are also given from the wild forms, aurex, the wild ox, now extinct, mouflon, the semi-wild sheep maintained by the Zoological Society of London at Whipsnade Park, and the primitive native sheep of North Ronaldsay.
Table of Measurements
The most obvious fact, when these tables are examined, is the considerable changes that occur between the Neolithic and succeeding periods, though there is probably a gap of about two thousand years between these sites and the others. Though the Neolithic cattle are very much smaller than the Danish post glacial auroxen whose measurements are quoted from Grigson 1969, they are the same type of animal, and the skull excavated in 1973 and those illustrated by Watson (1931) bear some resemblance to the wild form, whereas the few Neolithic domestic cattle adequately described from English sites are smaller and with shorter horns. The Pre Norse and later cattle are of the short-horned type illustrated by Platt (1933-1954). This short-horned type changed little in the succeeding periods, until the C19 when it seems to have increased in size a little, either because of more adequate nutrition or by cross breeding. Sinclair, writing in 1814 still recognises a distinct Orkney breed differing little from that of Caithness, although superior beasts were being bred at Dunrobin. The colours were many and various, but the animal showed considerable potential as a dual purpose animal, being an economical milk producer as opposed to the voracious Ayrshire, provided it received slightly better husbandry than it usually got. Crossing with the West Highland was also practised. By 1874 Pringle writes that extensive crossing with the shorthorn was taking place. Nowadays the breed is extinct, but the Orcadians remain addicted to cross breeding, and there are probably more breeding bulls of different beef breeds now in Orkney than any other country in the British Isles.
The sheep tell a slightly different story. The Neolithic sheep differ little in proportions, though they are slightly smaller than specimens from the Mouflon flock maintained at Whipsnade Park; this has been maintained under zoo conditions for many generations and must be considered a semi-domestic form, being unlike truly wild specimens obtained from the near and middle East. The animals grow smaller and the bones more robust with the passage of time, apparently more rapidly in Deerness than the Birsay area, though the numbers from Deerness are too few to make too definite statements. The earlier sheep of Caithness were probably a different type and rather smaller than those of Orkney, and the average figure obtained for the Scrabster phalanges includes two minute specimens.
Perhaps the native sheep of Mainland Orkney was always a little larger than that of North Ronaldsay. If not, the diminution in size to the present day North Ronaldsay took place relatively late in time, perhaps after it was confined without the sea wall, in the 19th century. The primitive sheep of Caithness is thought to have been a different variety from the Orkney, and according to the literature had a dun face and possibly four horns. However, a possible four horned specimen was found at Buckquoy. The early type of Caithness is however, quite gone, though it may have contributed to the Cheviot breed.
As with the cattle, the sheep of Orkney were subjected to cross- breeding. In 1814 Sinclair described some apparently successful Merino crosses, using animals derived from George III's famous flock, but even then crossing with the Cheviot had started, and by 1874 Cheviots were the rule. In some parts of Orkney the native sheep had come to be regarded as a pest to be deliberately exterminated. However, besides the well known North Ronaldsay variety, it survives on some of the smaller islands and skerries. There is one such flock on the Holm of Papa Westray, which, although it is known to have been crossed with both the Cheviot and the Shetland is in some respects more like the Neolithic sheep of Knapp of Howar than the North Ronaldsay. Bones of this and other flocks would certainly repay further study.
Though little metrical data is available from pig bones derived from these excavations, the former pig of N.E. Scotland certainly merits a mention. Low and the other authors state that Southerners would hardly recognise it as a pig at all, though medieval southerners certainly would. The Neolithic and Crosskirk pigs were not particularly small, but the one at Scrabster, where there was a perfect skull preserved, certainly was minute. Pigs were black or red in colour in the 18th century, with a woolly coat which was a marketable commodity, independent and active in disposition to the point of ferocity (the Shetland variety were notorious lamb killers). It lived a free and roving life unconfined to any sty and apparently made very good eating. Alas, like the cattle, it is long since extinct.
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