The first use of the term Mesolithic in a specifically Scottish publication seems to have been Lacaille’s (1930) article on ‘Mesolithic implements from Ayrshire’. Although Lacaille’s paper may have been the first appearance in print in Scotland of the designation ‘Mesolithic’ with reference to Scottish artefacts, many of what are now recognised as key Mesolithic sites and finds in Scotland had already been discovered in the 19th century, and most were mentioned in Lacaille’s influential book The Stone Age in Scotland (1954), which despite its title was principally concerned with the Mesolithic period.
Thus Wilson (1851, 33) referred to the whale skeletons and antler implements from the draining operations in the Carse of Stirling, including the earliest recorded finding of what was probably an antler mattock in 1819 at Airthrey (Bald 1819) and another in 1824 at Blair Drummond (Drummond 1824). The best-known Mesolithic artefact from the carse clays of the upper Forth Valley, the Meiklewood antler-beam mattock, was found near a Rorqual whale skeleton in 1877 (Turner 1889; Clark 1947; Smith 1989). For Wilson the relics from the carse clays were those of the ‘Primaeval or Stone Period’; clearly of considerable antiquity, but not otherwise classifiable at a time when the antiquity of human evolution and cultural development was still generally underappreciated. Turner (1889, 791) supposed the mattocks from the carse clay to be Neolithic, but made a very good guess at their age being at least 5000 to 7000 years ago.
Discoveries of highly important midden deposits in caves and rockshelters at Oban, Argyll, coincided with the expansion of that town at the end of the 19th century – MacArthur Cave was found in 1894 (Anderson 1895, 211) and Druimvargie rockshelter in 1897 (Anderson 1898, 298) – whilst exploration of the famous Oronsay shell middens started in 1881 (Grieve 1883, 480; 1885, 48; Mellars 1987, 117). Barbed points from one of the Oronsay middens were exhibited at an exhibition in London in 1883 (Anderson 1898, 307) and the biserial barbed point from the River Dee at Cumstoun, Kirkcudbrightshire, was discovered in 1895 (Munro 1908, 231). The Campbeltown flint assemblages, which were to become so important for the supposed ‘Larnian’ connection with Ireland, were first noted in the 1890s (Gray 1894).
Gray (1894, 271 and 274) considered his Campbeltown flints to be Palaeolithic, while Anderson perceptively related the Oban and Oronsay finds to:
… a horizon which has not heretofore been observed in Scotland, but corresponding with the intermediate layers in the cavern of Mas d’Azil … described by M. Piette, and which he has seen reason to claim as filling up the hiatus … supposed to exist between the palaeolithic and the neolithic (Anderson 1898, 313).
Although Anderson was spot on in recognizing the true nature of the Oban and Oronsay material, his reference to the Mas d’Azil could be seen as the start of an unfortunate and misleading, but quite long lasting, trend for describing Scottish Mesolithic finds as Azilian (e.g. Macalister 1921, 516), which equated them with what is actually an Epiplaeolithic cultural tradition best known in southern France. The Azilian connection was not fully refuted until the 1950s (Lacaille 1954, 95; Thompson 1954, 206), by which time it had largely been replaced by the arguably equally confusing label of Obanian (Movius 1940; 1942).
Mesolithic lithic tools, in particular the diagnostic microliths, had begun to be observed and recorded in Scotland early in the 20th century. The first illustrations of Scottish microliths may have been those of Scott (1895, plate 2) and Smith (1895, fig. 56), both in the final decade of the 19th century. Scott’s microliths were from Craigsfordmains, Berwickshire, and he described them as ‘flint implements of a peculiar type’, while Smith’s were from Stevenston Sands, Ayrshire, and he similarly was unable to grasp their true significance.
Microlithic implements from the west of Scotland, akin to the ‘so-called “Pygmy Flints” of other countries’ (Anon. 1911, 831), were exhibited in Glasgow in 1911, and Callander (1911, 177) referred to ‘pigmy’ flints from Culbin, Glenluce, and Shewalton Sands. Paterson (1912; 1913) noted examples from near Banchory in the Dee Valley, NE Scotland, illustrating some indisputable microliths with the caption: ‘Scottish pygmy flints of Indian type’ (Paterson 1913, fig.1). Corrie (1916) illustrated and described a collection of ‘pigmy’ flints among his finds from Dryburgh, Berwickshire. He was followed by Callander (1927a), also with finds from Berwickshire, by Lacaille (1930; 1931) with finds from Ayrshire, and by the Masons (1927; 1931) with more Tweed Valley finds.
Pygmy (or pigmy) flint was a widely accepted early designation for a microlith, still current in the 1920s (Callander 1927a; 1927b; Burkitt 1925, 19; Macalister 1921, 535; Paterson 1929). Lacaille referred both to ‘pygmies’ and microliths in 1930, but microlith is the preferred usage by the time of his 1937 overview of ‘The microlithic industries of Scotland’ and ‘pygmies’ do not feature in his 1954 book. Lacaille (1935; 1942) also took a lead in Scotland by realizing the significance of the microburin as a diagnostic Mesolithic waste product from microlith production, presumably following Clark (1932, 97–103; see also Childe 1942).
Most publications of these ‘pygmy’ flints referred to them as Tardenoisian, a term derived from the finds from the French locality of Fère-en-Tardenois, which was applied very loosely to designate all microlithic industries, though especially those with evidence for use of microburin technique. The term was widely used in general works (e.g. Burkitt 1921; Macalister 1921; Childe 1925), so that Callander (1927a) was able to feature Tardenoisian in the title of his article without explaining its origin or significance, though this appears to be the first specifically Scottish usage. It became the common term for microlithic industries in Scotland in the 1930s (e.g. Childe 1935, 20; Edgar 1939; Lacaille 1931) and 1940s (Childe 1946; Movius 1942; Simpson 1943) and was extensively employed by Lacaille in his 1954 book.
The Tardenoisian equation in Britain was reviewed by Clark in 1955, who recommended the replacement of Tardenoisian by Sauveterrian (after the finds from the French locality of Sauveterre-la-Lémance), since it had become obvious that the most diagnostic element of true Tardenoisian assemblages in France, the microlithic trapeze, was absent from British Mesolithic industries altogether. Affinities with the Sauveterrian microlithic industries (which were pre-Tardenoisian in France) were seen as far more appropriate for the British material, without necessarily implying non-indigenous origin. Although Clark (1955, 20) specifically reclassified the Banchory and Dryburgh finds as Sauveterrian, this appellation never really caught on in Scotland, other than being discussed by Mulholland (1970, 103–10) with reference to the Tweed Valley assemblages and by Mercer (1968; 1970) in the first two publications of his Jura finds.
One of the other dominant trends during the mid-20th century in Scottish Mesolithic studies was to hypothesize links with Ireland. In his chapter on ‘Man with Mesolithic culture arrives in Scotland’, Lacaille (1954) proposed that the earliest Mesolithic in Scotland was a version of the Irish Larnian. Both Lacaille and Movius (1942), whose lead Lacaille followed, seem to have envisaged actual settlement taking place from NE Ireland to SW Scotland, as indeed became the generally accepted explanation for the Mesolithic in SW Scotland (e.g. Childe 1946). This proposition hinges on the significance attached to lithic finds in association with raised beach deposits at Campbeltown, first reported by Gray (1894). These finds were seized upon by the Abbé Breuil when he visited Edinburgh in 1921 as one of the few potentially pre-Neolithic lithic assemblages in the National Museum which was more ‘Magdalenian’ than ‘Tardenoisian’ (Breuil 1922), though other scholars were more cautious (Garrod 1926, 176).
A new Campbeltown location was investigated in 1935 by McCallien, and McCallien and Lacaille (1941, 88) equated the Campbeltown material with Movius’s newly defined Early Larnian. Although Lacaille (1954, 311) persisted with the view that the Campbeltown material demonstrated that the Mesolithic was introduced into SW Scotland from Antrim by Early Larnian immigrants, Movius (1953, 87–9) became more cautious on this point, but it was left to Coles (1963, 92), who reassessed both the Campbeltown and Antrim material, to demonstrate conclusively the fallacy of the Larnian link and to cast doubt on any Mesolithic contact between Ireland and Scotland. Virtually no subsequent evidence for contact or even parallelism between Ireland and Scotland before the Neolithic has come to light, the very few examples of potential linkages seeming to be the exceptions to prove the rule (Saville 2003; 2009).
Another major error in Lacaille’s approach was to regard much of the best lithic evidence for the Mesolithic in Scotland as post-Mesolithic in date, assuming a culture / time-lag only credible in an era before radiocarbon dating (Saville 1996). Since the publication of Lacaille’s major work on the Mesolithic, the Scottish database for this period has, slowly but surely, continued to expand, albeit very unevenly across the whole country. One particular early survey, of surface scatter sites in the Tweed Valley, was important in demonstrating the value of detailed research in specific topographic zones and in revealing the density of the evidence (Mulholland 1970). In view of this it was a major disappointment that the work of the Council for British Archaeology’s Mesolithic Sub-Committee did not come to fruition in Scotland (Saville 1998b), so that the resulting gazetteer covered only England and Wales (Wymer 1977). A more recent attempt to get to grips with surface lithic scatters of all periods in Scotland has been only partially successful, and does not readily allow for the extraction of Mesolithic data (Barrowman and Stuart 1998).
Excavations of Mesolithic sites after the Second World War were low-key affairs in general, as at Low Clone and Barsalloch in the south-west (Cormack 1970; Cormack and Coles 1968), but a more ambitious approach by Coles at Morton in Fife in 1969–70 led to a seminal paper for Scottish Mesolithic studies in which a wide range of artefactual, environmental, structural, and chronological data was presented (Coles 1971). Also in the 1960s a remarkable campaign of excavation to study the Mesolithic began on the Isle of Jura. Starting with the excavations at Lealt Bay in 1966 (Mercer 1968), this research by the Mercers and Searight continued for 16 years until John Mercer’s premature death in 1982 (Searight 1984). Another concerted campaign began in 1970, with Mellars’s project to reinvestigate the Oronsay Mesolithic shell-middens, and continued until 1979 (Mellars 1987). At the same time, excavations at a mainly Bronze Age site at Kilellan on the island of Islay were incidentally uncovering an underlying flint assemblage, which first indicated the potential of this island for Mesolithic research (Burgess 1976; Saville 2005). The 1970s, in retrospect a busy decade for Mesolithic excavations in Scotland – for example Walker’s work at Shieldaig, Wester Ross (Ballin and Saville 2003; Walker 1973) – finished with a major fieldwork campaign in 1978–1980 at Nethermills Farm, Crathes, on the north bank of the River Dee in Aberdeenshire (Kenworthy 1981).
The end of the 1970s also saw the start of a campaign to investigate the enigmatic shell middens (comprised predominantly of oyster shells) of the Forth Valley, focusing particularly on the midden at Nether Kinneil (Sloan 1982; 1983). There are some 20 or so of these middens, mostly along the southern shore between Falkirk and Bo’ness, but with a few on the north side in Fife and Clackmannanshire (Ashmore and Hall 1996; Sloan 1989; 1993). The size of some of the middens is extraordinary. The best known are those at Inveravon (Grieve 1872; MacKie 1972), at least 27m and probably much longer; Mumrills (Bailey 1992), 43m long; Polmonthill (Stevenson 1946), possibly 155m long; and Nether Kinneil (Sloan 1982), over 150m long. There are two major problems, apart from their size, with these middens – their origin and their date – both of which have been the cause for considerable debate. Grieve (1872) was adamant they were not natural, though perhaps not much earlier than Roman in date. Support for their artificial nature has included reports of lenses of burning at Polmonthill (Stevenson 1946) and the stone-built hearths and banks and so on at Nether Kinneil (Sloan 1982). Their anthropogenic origin has continued to be suspected, however, on the basis that the traces of human activity may relate to later re-use of naturally accumulated shell banks (Jardine 1984, 4–5; Kinnes 1985, 20). The radiocarbon dates from Nether Kinneil, which has anyway produced pottery and bones of domesticated animals, lie in the 5th millennium BP (5-4000 cal BC), but there are earlier dates in the 6th millennium BP (6-5000 cal BC) from the middens at Mumrills, Inveravon, Cadger’s Brae, and Braehead (Ashmore 2004b). Thus a Mesolithic date for some appears probable, though it is still the case that no Mesolithic artefacts have been recovered from any of the Forth middens.
Work on the Mesolithic in the 1980s was dominated by the important excavations at Kinloch, Isle of Rúm, from 1984 to 1986 (Wickham-Jones 1990), which demonstrated a Mesolithic presence in the country both at an earlier date and further north than was thought at the time as well as rekindling wider academic and public interest in the archaeology of the period. Much was also happening elsewhere and numerous new Mesolithic locations were reported from the SW (Edwards et al. 1983). Rescue excavation at Newton on Islay produced a large flint assemblage in association with possible structures (McCullagh 1989) and two newly recognized rockshelter shell-midden sites at Carding Mill Bay I and Raschoille Cave, Oban, were salvaged (Connock 1985; Connock et al. 1992).
Tom Affleck excavated at several sites in the SW and on Arran (Affleck et al. 1988; Edwards 1996b) while a project to record and selectively to excavate caves and rockshelters in Mid Argyll ran from 1985–1991 (Tolan-Smith 2001) and excavations which still continue were started at Ulva Cave on the small island of Ulva, west of Mull, in 1987 (Bonsall et al. 1991; 1992; Russell et al. 1995). A major campaign – The Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project – of survey and excavation on Colonsay and Islay, was launched in 1988, continued for a decade and was rapidly published in full (Mithen 2000), as was another west coast project – Scotland’s First Settlers – which ran from 1998 to 2004 and looked at the area around the east coast of Skye and the facing mainland (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009). Other west coast sites have been excavated at Camas Daraich and An Corran, on Skye (Birch et al. 2000; Wickham-Jones and Hardy 2004; Saville and Miket 1994 a and b; Saville et al. forthcoming) and at Kilmore near Oban (Bonsall et al. 2009). New projects are in progress, one – the Inner Hebrides Archaeological Project – looking at the early prehistory of Mull, Coll and Tiree (Mithen and Wicks 2008) and another intended to publish in more detail aspects of past excavations at Risga in Loch Sunart (Pollard 2000; Pollard et al.1996) and the material culture evidence from excavations on Oronsay (Mellars 1987), and further work on Islay as the East Islay Mesolithic Project (Mithen and Wicks 2009).
Commercial archaeology has already made a big impact on Mesolithic studies. Significant new finds have already been made in the south-west (MacGregor and Donnelly 2001; Pollard 1993; RCAHMS 1997, 96) and at Fife Ness in the East Neuk (Wickham-Jones and Dalland 1998). Shortly after the startling results of excavation at Howick on the Northumberland coast (Waddington 2007), rescue excavations by AOC Archaeology Group in advance of quarrying at East Barns, near Dunbar in East Lothian revealed another Mesolithic ‘house’ (Gooder 2007; Gooder and Hatherley 2003). This was a substantial sub-circular timber structure with associated features and deposits containing masses of lithic debris and organic residues, including carbonized hazelnut seeds which were used to furnish the 14C dates of 8300–7650 cal BC. Final details of further possible further timber structures at a site excavated by CFA Ltd at Elgin are awaited (Suddaby 2007), and an unexpected series of large pits have been uncovered at a National Trust for Scotland site at Crathes in Aberdeenshire (Murray et al. 2009).
On the other hand amateur archaeology continues to lead to new and important Mesolithic discoveries, often by accident during the exploration of sites of later periods, but in that respect it is no different from the fortuitous nature of commercial work. At Cramond, the Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society uncovered a small feature which was subsequently excavated by the Edinburgh City archaeologists and has yielded the earliest radiocarbon dates so far for the Scottish Mesolithic (Saville 2008). Important new sites have been located and excavated around Daer Reservoir in the Lowther Hills by the Biggar Archaeology Group (Ward 1995; 1997; 2000a; 2010), which has also investigated many other Mesolithic lithic scatters in South Lanarkshire. Edinburgh Archaeological Field Society has test-pitted another potential site at Dalmeny (Jones 2006) and local fieldwalking has revealed a widespread scatter of material relating to Mesolithic activity in the fields around the excavation site at Nethermills in Aberdeenshire.
Nor has all this work focused entirely on sites and artefacts, as shown by the review of early Postglacial vegetational history by Edwards and Ralston (1984) and by many other palaeoenvironment-oriented contributions by Edwards (e.g. 1989) and others, raising issues which are still subject to lively debate (Edwards 1996a; 2004; Kitchener et al. 2004; Tipping 1996; 2004; 2007).
Since Lacaille’s book (1954) various overviews or summaries of the Mesolithic in Scotland, in varying degrees of detail and styles of approach, have been published – Piggott and Henderson (1958), Atkinson (1962), Woodman (1978, 196–8), Mountain (1979), Ritchie and Ritchie (1981), Morrison (1980; 1986), Smith (1992), Wickham-Jones (1994), Finlayson and Edwards (1997), Finlayson (1998), Mithen (2000a), Saville (2004), and Warren (2005). Some regional summaries have also appeared (e.g. Bonsall 1997; Coles 1963; Kenworthy 1975; Ritchie and Ritchie 1972; Mercer 1979; Saville 2000; Scott 1966; Wickham-Jones and Firth 2000), of which those of the south-west by Morrison (1981; 1982) have been the most substantial. The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland has also included several useful summaries of the Mesolithic evidence in some of its survey volumes, in particular the surveys of Stirlingshire (RCAHMS 1963, 18–20), the southern Inner Hebrides (RCAHMS 1984, 2–5), and eastern Dumfriesshire (RCAHMS 1997, 94–6).
Direct precursors of the present framework exercise were the reviews by Peter Woodman (1989), written at the invitation of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and that by Noel Fojut (2006) of Historic Scotland. In subtitling his article ‘a plea for normality’, Woodman was referring to the past tendency to regard the Mesolithic in Scotland as marginal, late, obscure, and somehow irregular in comparison with the rest of mainland Britain. This criticism was justified to a degree, especially following the major influence Lacaille’s work had on perceptions of the Scottish Mesolithic, but perhaps overstated the case by concentrating too much on the ‘Obanian’ question. Nevertheless, and partly in response to Woodman’s comments on the priority which should attach to the Oban area, detailed survey work was undertaken (Macklin et al. 1992; 2000), another newly located rockshelter (Carding Mill Bay II) has been salvaged (Bonsall pers. comm.), and open-air Mesolithic locations have been located and sampled (Bonsall and Robinson 1992; Bonsall et al. 1993). Since then research projects focused on the east of Scotland (Finlayson and Warren 2000; Warren 1998; 2001; 2007) and Caithness and Orkney (Pannett 2001 and 2002; Pannett 2007; Pannett and Baines 2002; Wickham-Jones and Firth 2000; Woodward 2007 and 2008) have been mounted to counter the western bias in the Mesolithic database.
Fojut’s (2006) review was prepared for an international symposium on early prehistoric archaeology and heritage management held in the Netherlands in 2002, but not published until 2006, and makes no mention of the advances in Mesolithic research covered by the publication of the Society’s own international conference on the Mesolithic (Saville 2004a), or indeed of Woodman’s (1989) review. Nevertheless, like Woodman’s, this overview of trends in Mesolithic research in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s and it’s prospects contained some useful insights and alluded to many of the topics covered by the present ScARF report.
Apart from the ‘Obanian’, the other oft-quoted bias in Scottish Mesolithic studies towards coastal sites is being countered by numerous discoveries of inland and upland sites, as at Ben Lawers in Perthshire (Denison 2001a), Chest of Dee, Aberdeenshire (Fraser 2003), Loch Garten, Highland (Saville 2007), and the aforementioned sites around the Daer Reservoir in South Lanarkshire (Ward 1995; 1997; 2000a; 2010). And the true extent of Mesolithic inhabitation throughout the entire country is finally being resolved by new fieldwork and research in Orkney (e.g. Lee and Woodward 2009; Wickham-Jones and Downes 2007; Woodward 2007; 2008), Shetland (Melton 2005; 2008; Melton and Nicholson 2007), and the Western Isles (Edwards 2009; Edwards and Mithen 1995; Edwards and Sugden 2003; Gregory et al. 2005; Simpson et al. 2006). It may be only St Kilda that eluded people in the Mesolithic!
Raw material studies have benefitted from two recent directions of study. Detailed consideration of the occurrence of pitchstone artefacts throughout Scotland has concluded that during the Mesolithic, in contrast to the Neolithic period, the exploitation and use of this raw material was largely restricted to its immediate locality of origin on the Isle of Arran and surrounding margins (Ballin 2009);. This type of restricted regional distribution seems to be typical of the Scottish Mesolithic in terms of the usage of other raw materials such as bloodstone, mudstone, and quartz (Ballin 2008; Clarke and Griffiths 1990; Saville 2003; Wickham-Jones 1986). The other advance has been in the understanding of the acquisition of radiolarian chert in southern Scotland (Ward 2007; Warren 2007). It now appears that there was widespread small-scale quarrying to exploit seams of chert, making this Mesolithic enterprise the earliest evidence for extractive industry in Scotland.
The transition to Neolithic economy and culture in Scotland has been of particular fascination to researchers, because of the apparent evidence for Obanian persistence and the relative absence of early Neolithic activity. One view has seen the west coast evidence as reflecting the emergence of social complexity among Mesolithic people, who undergo gradual indigenous economic and social transformation (Neolithicization) whilst retaining many aspects of their Mesolithic economy and settlement mobility (Armit and Finlayson 1992; 1996; Finlayson 1995; Mithen 2000b). The evidence for any emerging complexity has, however, also been disputed (Murray 2000). Other work, exploiting the results from analyses of isotopic data from the small number of Mesolithic and early Neolithic human bones available from western Scotland has indicated a sharp contrast in dietary habits between the largely marine diet of the Mesolithic ‘fish-eaters’ and the almost wholly terrestrial diet of the Neolithic ‘meat-eaters’. This has been taken along with other strands of evidence to suggest the alternative possibility of a complete cultural break at the end of the Mesolithic, with Neolithic culture introduced by new colonists (Schulting and Richards 2002). Another perspective on this has been taken by those suggesting that a widespread change to drier climatic conditions starting at c.4100 Cal BC was the catalyst for the adoption of agriculture by indigenes (Bonsall et al 2002, 14).
Already by the time of Woodman’s (1989) review the situation as regards the chronology of the Scottish Mesolithic was changing markedly, particularly with the sequence of radiocarbon dates from Kinloch, Rúm, and these were followed by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) determinations on bone and antler artefacts (Ashmore 2004a; 2004b; Bonsall and Smith 1990; Bonsall et al. 1995; Saville 2004). A significant effect of these radiocarbon dates, and all the others coming on stream (see the downloadable date list here), has been to demonstrate more clearly that there is a considerable time-depth to the Mesolithic in Scotland, but has not as yet helped to clarify the earliest and latest stages of the period.
The artificial divide between the Lateglacial hunters of the Late Upper Palaeolithic and those of the Early Mesolithic is provided by the climatic transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene epochs, now conventionally dated to around 11.7 ka cal BP (9,700 cal BC). In other words, the Early Mesolithic represents the cultural stage of hunting peoples at the beginning of the current interglacial episode in which humans live today. As indicated in the previous section, it is now considered highly probable that people were present in Scotland during the terminal phases of the Pleistocene, and therefore a relatively seamless transition between the Late Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic could be envisaged, albeit with innovative responses to the changes taking place in the environment and biotope and the probable growth in population numbers, although these would never have been large. However, a continuing problem with the Scottish Mesolithic has been the difficulty of identifying Early Mesolithic sites.
The distinction between Early and Later Mesolithic in England was defined on the basis of artefact typology in the 1970s, when an alternative nomenclature to the previous ‘Maglemosian’ and ‘Sauveterrian’ was deemed necessary. The separation date between ‘Early’ and ‘Later’ was adopted as during the first half of the 9th millennium BP (c.6750 cal BC), and the defining characteristics were, essentially, that ‘Early’ lithic industries had mainly simple, relatively large microlith types (especially obliquely blunted points and isosceles triangles) made on ‘broad’ blades, while ‘Later’ industries had more elaborately retouched ‘narrow-blade’ microliths, including small ‘geometric’ and other edge-blunted forms (jacobi 1973; 1976; 1978; Mellars 1974). It remains an issue of contention whether or not this distinction is applicable across Scotland.