Two Medieval Padlocks Suggest Thriving Agriculture in Scotland 500 Years Ago
Fri, December 3, 2021

Two Medieval Padlocks Suggest Thriving Agriculture in Scotland 500 Years Ago

Lair, an upland in Glenshee, Scotland, was previously believed to house the remains of low-status Picts. The Picts were a people of northern Scotland, who first appeared in the Late British Iron Age and spoke the Celtic language / Photo by: Golux via Wikimedia Commons


Lair, an upland in Glenshee, Scotland, was previously believed to house the remains of low-status Picts. The Picts were a people of northern Scotland, who first appeared in the Late British Iron Age and spoke the Celtic language. They were thought of as a group that struggled to make ends meet. Yet, the two medieval padlocks excavated in the archeological site of Lair hint that the ancient community was prosperous and their farmers thrived on grain crops and livestock for about 500 years ago.

The Picts Had Enough Wealth

The study led by Scottish charity Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust’s Director David Strachan and published by science and nature platform Smithsonian Magazine details that the upland farmers of Lair had a class hierarchy and enough wealth that some of its members in the community thought of the possibility that their valuables being stolen, thus, the existence of medieval padlocks.

The Medieval Padlocks Discovered in the Archeological Site

Strachan said that the team only recovered the partial portion of the bar-spring padlocks from the Pictish settlement. However, the padlocks would likely be in three components when discovered whole. These components include the case, key, and a U-shaped bolt that is attached to the case using barbed springs. It was during the Iron Age when the barb-spring locks were first used in Britain and it took centuries before the medieval padlocks went out of fashion, particularly in the 16th century. The locks were not always built as ironclad and even one of the medieval padlocks discovered from Lair was just a bolt.

Purpose of the Padlocks

According to Strachan and colleagues, it remains a mystery to them what the locks were restraining or protecting. However, if they will base their theory on the other artifacts gathered from the archeological site, it would suggest a prosperous settlement. Among the other artifacts collected are green glass beads and a spinning whorl.

AOC Archeology Group, an experienced heritage company in Britain and a registered archeological organization, was a part of the conservation and post-excavation analysis of the medieval padlocks discovered in Scotland. They shared that they have studied several turf-built structures in the hills of Perth and Kinross, a council area of Scotland.

Dawn McLaren, an artifacts specialist of AOC, was tasked to examine the iron objects found in the excavations. Various tools, such as dress accessories and household fittings, were also discovered that offered them a glimpse into the activities and everyday lives of people in early medieval times. McLaren, who was previously a part of the National Museums Scotland where she developed her expertise in determining, cataloging, reporting, and recording prehistoric to post-medieval artifacts, shared that some pieces were incomplete or too corroded to analyze with confidence. Those that were easily recognizable are the objects in their complete forms, including buckles and pins and knife blades.

The Use of X-radiography for Archeological Metalwork

The excavation team likewise used x-radiography to analyze the iron barb padlock. The investigative technique is often a part of the post-excavation procedure to help in the interpretation and identification of the finds. X-radiography is important for archeological metalwork because it is cost-effective, quick, and non-destructive to the object found. The structure and form of the object can be clarified even beneath the burial accretions and corrosion layers without physical intervention to the actual object.

Other Great Archeological Finds in Scotland

Aside from the recent medieval padlocks, there are other great archeological finds in Scotland, according to the Scottish newspaper The Scotsman. Among the list is the Pictish stone designed with what was interpreted as a big-nosed warrior. The image holds a club and a spear. The object is thought to be around 1,500-years old and hints at the presence of Pictish nobility.

The “lost” kingdom of Rheged was also found after the excavation work by the Gatehouse of Fleet. A pre-historic dwelling that is older than the Callanish Stones was found in September 2017 in East Ayrshire. Archeologists behind the find believe that the dwelling is already 6,000 years old and was inhabited by the first farmer who lived in the landscape.

In the archipelago of Orkney, butterfly carvings were also found by chance. It would not have been discovered if the early morning sunlight had not illuminated a section of the stone. It is believed that the carvings were intentionally made to catch the sunlight. Lastly, a place where the medieval Norse parliament meeting took place was also discovered in Caithness after a geographical survey.

People Employed in Agriculture

Meanwhile, scientific online publication Our World in Data shares the total number of individuals in agricultural employment across the UK, where Scotland is located. In 1801, 1.143 million people were employed in the agriculture sector and it increased in 1851 to 1.54 million. In 1861, it reached 3.52 million and went down again in 1911 to 2.40 million. The decline continued in 1938 with only 1.27 million people working in the agriculture industry and, in 2010, only 548,459.58 individuals were in agricultural employment. This shows that as countries develop, the number of people working in the agricultural sector declines.

Scotland’s National Farmers Union shared that some 80% of their country’s landmass is now under agricultural production. This makes the industry the biggest determinant of land that they see around them. Nowadays, Scotland’s growers, crofters, and farmers produce an output growth worth around £2.9 billion annually. Only 67,000 people in Scotland are directly employed in agriculture today, which represents about 8% of the country’s rural workforce.

The average farm business in Scotland increased in 2018 to £26,400, indicating that the industry has already recovered from its 2011 decline. Its government shared a statistic, showing the Scottish farm income statistics by farm type. Top in the list is general cropping (£47,080) followed by cattle and sheep (LFA) (£35,284), dairy (£34,696), and all farm types (£26,402). The figures show an increase in the incomes earned by Scottish farmers in commercial farms.

Just like how farmers are thought to have thrived 500 years ago in Lair, those in the agricultural industry of Scotland may still be among the wealthiest people in their country today.