Scotland’s Blair Atholl Man Was Actually From the West, Says Study
People migrated long distances in early medieval Scotland, concluded a new study on the Blair Atholl Man published in the Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal. The study reveals that he was not from the Scottish village in Perthshire he was named after. This 45-year-old man was buried in the Pictish style (the Picts were descendants of pre-Celtic migrants, who spoke a Celtic language), some 1,600 years ago in the Scottish Highlands. He was discovered in 1986 in the Scottish village of Blair Atholl, and immortalized in a reconstruction in 2017, reports The Daily Mail.
"Not only does this allow us to paint a picture of an individual who lived and died more than 1,500 years ago, but also to gain direct information on the early connections between cultures and communities across Scotland in the first millennium," said study co-researcher Orsolya Czére.
The remains of Blair Atholl Man, which, based on the latest study, have proven he was from somewhere else to the west, maybe even Ireland. (Christopher Rynn and Hayley Fisher / Perth Museum & Art Gallery)
Blair Atholl Man Analysis Told A Different Story
However, after researchers from the University of Aberdeen carried out a detailed chemical isotope analysis on the Blair Atholl Man, it turns out he was only buried there, and wasn’t a local at all. In fact, he was probably originally from western Scotland, maybe from Mull, Iona, or Tiree in the Outer Hebrides, or even Ireland.
Currently, Perthshire, Scotland, where the Blair Atholl Man was found, has been revealed as an early center for Christianity. So there is also the possibility that he could have been one of the earliest missionaries in this part of the world.
"After such an incredible discovery, the local community interest in Blair Atholl Man never waned," added Czére, a teaching and research fellow in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen. She was referring to the 1986 Blair Atholl Man find. At that time, researchers dated his remains to between 400 and 600 AD, which caused feverish excitement in the local community, causing hundreds to flock there every year to view his remains.
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Evidence from two other archaeological sites, Lundin Links and Cramond, on the east coast of Scotland, suggest larger migratory patterns in this era. "These types of movements may have not been uncommon," study co-researcher Kate Britton, professor and head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, told Live Science in an email.
Interestingly, these finds don’t just show men making this migratory movement, but women as well. "What is interesting is that at both those east-coast sites [Lundin Links and Cramond], our west-coasters were females, suggesting that both men and women — and perhaps for a variety of reasons — were making these journeys," Britton said.
Colorful sunset looking over the Cumbrae Isles towards Arran, on the West coast of Scotland. Blair Atholl Man likely came from this side of Scotland or Ireland suggests the latest study. (Iain / Adobe Stock)
How the Researchers Learned More About Blair Atholl Man
Isotope analysis was carried out on Blair Atholl Man’s food intake, in the 5 to 10 years preceding his death. Specifically, collagen, a protein found in human bones, was extracted from his remains. The collagen’s carbon and nitrogen isotopic ratios reveal that the Blair Atholl Man’s diet was similar to many people in early medieval Scotland: pork, freshwater fish, or waterfowl.
Blair Atholl Man’s collagen sulfur isotope ratios pointed to a life on the coast, where sulfur builds up in coastal plants and algae. The researchers found elevated sulfur isotope ratios, indicating that he spent most of his life in a coastal location, and not in the Scottish Highlands where he was buried.
Finally, strontium and oxygen isotopes in his tooth enamel (which forms during childhood), showed that the Blair Atholl Man likely lived in a place with a mild climate, probably the western coast of Scotland or even Ireland.
Was the Blair Atholl Man a Pict? Here we see Picts competing against Romans in modern recreation of an ancient sporting event. (amaldon / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Was Blair Atholl Man a Pict?
Between 270-900 AD, numerous tribes lived in eastern and northern Scotland, during the late Iron Age and early medieval periods, forming a fierce tribal confederate opposing the Britons and the conquering Romans. These northern tribes developed their own language somewhere around 1,700 years ago, along with a sophisticated culture known for its unique art and architecture.
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"What we can say is that Blair Atholl Man was born in a more remote geographical area that was not part of Pictland, yet he moved to this region and was buried according to funerary customs practiced by the Picts," Britton concluded.
Top image: A reconstruction of Blair Atholl Man’s face. Source: Christopher Rynn and Hayley Fisher / Perth Museum & Art Gallery
By Sahir Pandey
Czere, O., Fawcett, J., et al. 2021. Multi-isotope analysis of the human skeletal remains from Blair Atholl, Perth & Kinross, Scotland: insights into the diet and lifetime mobility of an early medieval individual. Tayside and Fife Archaeological Journal. Available at: https://abdn.pure.elsevier.com/en/publications/multi-isotope-analysis-of-the-human-skeletal-remains-from-blair-a
Geggel, L. 2021. Medieval Scot with strong jawbone wasn't a local. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/blair-atholl-man-scotland
Randall, I. 2021. Meet the Blair Atholl Man: Pictish-era male with a 'strong jawline' who was buried in the Scottish Highlands 1,600 years ago was NOT a local - and may have been an Irish missionary, study claims. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-10284099/Archaeology-Man-strong-jawline-buried-Scotland-1-600-years-ago-NOT-local.html