Reconstructing the landscape inherited at around 2500 BC requires one to imagine the landscape of Scotland after the principal period of blanket peat formation, with river flood plains of wildly different appearance with braided river courses and large areas of indeterminate drainage and a mosaic of tracts of grassland interdigitated with blocks of woodland some of which may have been carefully controlled. Arable plots might have been visible near settlements (it remains difficult to estimate the importance of cereals and other crops in Neolithic farming). In areas of enhanced drainage, sheep may have seen to graze while cattle were most likely more closely husbanded near to settlement foci. Pigs would have ranged for pannage in the woodland areas not reserved for timber supply. What remains is the same degree of heterogeneity with a landscape variably defined by exposure to or shadowed from westerly airstreams, by summer and winter temperature variations, by upland and lowland locations and littoral, loch-side, riparine, inland and ruderal locations. It was then as now a mosaic of natural vegetation and human landuse impacts; a mosaic of land-use potentials.
From the work of humans over the previous two millennia, people at the start of the Bronze Age inherited a working knowledge of the management of substantial wood and stone building projects, a similar knowledge of construction of domestic, and storage spaces, a deep familiarity with the surface geology, with soils, and with the inherent properties of vegetation and timbers that clad their surface. They would have been intimately familiar with the breeding requirement, behaviour and performance of various domesticated plants and animals. They would have been well versed in the requirements of winter survival, water transport, and the handling and manipulation of great weights, whether live in the form of a half tonne bull or dead in the form of timber to be split or rocks to be cleared. All of this would have been conducted and managed in the constant realisation of a detailed but probably diverse relationship with the divine.
From a pattern of warm long summers and short intense winters, with latitudinal ameliorations or intensifications, there was a slow change to cooler summers and longer, wetter winters. In the last ten years, a series of abrupt climatic “flips” have been identified and these comprise short, intensely dry phases alternating with similarly short, cold and wet phases and are recognised in pollen diagrams across the UK as marked changes in the nature and extent of woodland, heath and bog. There ought to be recognisable impacts from such changes in the landscape of settlement and landuse.
However, the image that is constructed from archaeological evidence is of a seemingly inexorable spread of managed pasture and arable at the expense of woodland in the early centuries of the Bronze Age followed by a gradual retreat in the face of expanding acidification and peat cover. There is considerable credible evidence suggesting that humans resisted such changes and so a time-lag, sometimes of centuries in duration, occurred between the on-set of deterioration and the abandonment response.