Shilpit Bairns, Part i: setting the scene

Dr Shirley Curtis-Summers is a bioarchaeologist, a Trustee for the Tarbat Historic Trust, and a lecturer in Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford. Shirley’s research focuses on reconstructing medieval and early modern diet, health and disease from skeletal and stable isotope analyses, with an interest in the lifeways of Scotland’s past inhabitants. Here, she introduces her research on reconstructing past lifeways of the children of medieval Portmahomack. (No content of this post is to be reproduced without prior permission from the author. Contact for further details.)

In autumn 2019 I gave a talk at Portmahomack entitled ‘Shilpit Bairns and Clashing Swords’, which was based on bioarchaeological analysis of the medieval skeletons excavated from Tarbat Old Church. One question I was asked a few times was what ‘shilpit’ meant, which made me realise this is not as common a word as I first thought. One of the first uses of ‘shilpit’ was in 1658 when Sir Robert Moray wrote to Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, stating: “best to abstain from wine a while for your cough, seeing I guess the best you have is but shilpit [weak] stuff”.(1) Thereafter, this term was used to describe someone who was weak or sickly,(2) yet its usage seems to have been lost in more recent times. Just like Portmahomack’s past people, it is now timely to revive that which was lost. This is where we come on to reconstructing past lifeways of the medieval people from Portmahomack, the focus of this blog.

Archaeology, and by extension, osteoarchaeology, palaeopathology and bioarchaeology (the study of ancient human remains), are popular disciplines; you only need to look at the constant flurry of television shows and news articles on the latest discovery of graves, skeletal analyses, rare finds, and the odd royal under a car park. However, most of these reports tend to be on the past lives of adults, with children receiving little primary focus. This may be partly due to sensitivities when discussing studies on juvenile human remains. People may find coming face-to-face with the skeleton of a child more unnerving than that of an adult. In my experience however, the public are fascinated with the study of past people, including children, and acknowledge their value in contributing to reconstructing past lifeways. Therefore, to help us understand health and society in the past, the study of past childhoods is just as fruitful as that of adults. Moreover, the dearth of studies on children and family life in the medieval Scottish Highlands attests to the need for greater dialogue and research in this area.(3) This is not an easy task considering the lives of children from the lower echelons of society were not deemed important enough to grace the pages of kirk, parish, manorial or court records in any great detail before the early modern period. We therefore need to turn to another resource, their bodies. Skeletons yield a wealth of information on the health, well-being, sometimes even death of an individual, and are therefore of great importance and value.

Death and the Mother_Dance of Death

Death and the Mother, from D.N. Chodowiecki’s ‘Dance of Death’, 1791 (Wellcome Library no. 31263i) (4)

I am sure many of you are familiar with the archaeological investigations at Portmahomack, which under the direction of Professor Martin Carver, yielded a wealth of information on the lives of Pictish monastic and medieval parish church communities.(5) Excavations of the burials revealed that only one child grave was found within the Pictish monastic level (8th to 9th century) and the remaining child graves were from the later medieval levels (12th to 17th century). The highest number of child deaths at Portmahomack was from those who were just a few months old. This was a dangerous age for children in antiquity, especially if they were not being breastfed or had an inadequate quantity or quality of breastmilk, either due to the mother being in poor health or overworked from agricultural duties for example. Children that were exposed to a dangerous concoction of poor nutrition and hygiene would therefore be more susceptible to nutritional deficiencies, infections, and diarrhoea, all which can result in fatal consequences. In general, child mortality rates from medieval Scotland are highly variable, with no clear division between Highland and Lowland, rural and urban, or coastal and inland areas, although more investigation is needed. Preliminary comparisons to data from other studies (6) suggest mortality rates at Portmahomack were nearly twice as higher than lowland sites. This may suggest different influences that resulted in a higher rate of child deaths in the northern Highlands, such as varying economy and subsistence strategies that were affected by harsh climatic episodes; care and midwifery provisions (or lack of), or even cultural and traditional views on childcare and well-being.

Part two of this blog will discuss the evidence from osteological assessments on the children at Portmahomack and present some interesting case studies. In the meantime, try to abstain from shilpit wine!

1. R. Moray, Lett, 1658. Transcripts, circa 1830, of letters, 1657-1674, of Sir Robert Moray to Alexander Bruce, 2nd Earl of Kincardine, National Library of Scotland, NLS MS.5049–50, fol.230.

2. In Shetland, ‘shilpit’ was used to describe something as sour or bitter: [Accessed 2/1/2020].

3. Although some scholars are addressing this lacuna in medieval Scottish childhood studies, e.g. Nugent J. and Ewan E. (eds.), 2015, Children and Youth in Premodern Scotland, Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer.

4. The dance of death: death and the mother. Etching by D.N. Chodowiecki, 1791, after himself. Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0. Source: [Accessed 06/01/2020].

5. Portmahomack on Tarbat Ness, PNAS digital book:

6. Willows, M., 2016, Health status in Lowland Medieval Scotland: a regional analysis of four skeletal populations, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh: [Accessed 17/12/2019].

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