2.2 Beginnings

The appearance of the novelties outlined above needs to be seen within the broader context of the overall, long-term spread of farming across Europe from its origins in the Near East. Within this scenario, Scotland – and the rest of Britain and Ireland – lie at the end of, and at the geographical periphery of, this process. By the time the first signs of ‘the Neolithic’ appeared in Scotland, at some time between 4300 BC and 4000/3900 BC, communities over most of the north-west European mainland had been practising farming for over a millennium and this fact must inform any understanding of the capabilities and perspectives of Scotland’s first farmers. Furthermore, we can only understand the Neolithisation of Scotland (and the rest of Britain and Ireland) by understanding the broader dynamics of social and economic change in northern France: in other words, ‘the Neolithic’ came with baggage of its own. And the ‘shock of the new’ should not be underestimated: the novelties outlined above represent a radically different set of practices, traditions and beliefs from those which had obtained over the previous four millennia in Scotland.

The diversity in the material culture and structural evidence relating to Scotland’s earliest ‘Neolithic’ indicates that research is not dealing with a single process of Neolithisation, but rather with two strands of a complex, multi-strand process that has been identified for Britain and Ireland, as summarised in the figure on the right (and see Sheridan 2010a for details). As will be argued below, these strands originated in different parts of northern France and were brought to Scotland by small groups of immigrant farmers.

A set of maps showing different models for the mesolithic to neolithic transition period in Ireland and Briatin

Strands of Neolithisation in Britain and Ireland; Nos 2 and 3 pertain to Scotland (From Sheridan 2010a)

It should be noted, however, that the model presented here represents one of at least four models that have been proposed to account for the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in Britain and Ireland. The other three can be summarised as follows:

  1. Adoption of traits by indigenous Mesolithic communities – i.e. hunter-gatherer-fishers as the prime movers for this change. This view has been championed by Julian Thomas (e.g. Thomas 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008), with Clive Bonsall arguing that climate change played a role in this (Bonsall et al. 2002).
  2. Immigration of small farming groups from the far north of France to south-east England around 4100-4000 BC, and subsequent spread northwards and westwards, picking up momentum around 3800 BC (Whittle et al. 2011).
  3. Immigration of small farming groups from northern France to central Southern England, and then to Scotland, and expansion from these areas (Collard et al. 2010).

A detailed critique of these other models has been presented elsewhere (Sheridan 2010a; 2012) and need not be repeated here, other than to highlight the following principal objections:

  1. The ‘Mesolithic communities as prime movers’ model is predicated on a model of acculturation borrowed from southern Scandinavia, where fisher-hunter-gatherer communities came into contact with their farming neighbours – with whom they shared the same landmass – and selectively adopted (and adapted) traits of their lifestyle. In Britain and Ireland, by contrast, there is not a shred of evidence for the existence of interaction between Mesolithic communities and their farming ‘neighbours’ across the sea prior to the appearance of the Neolithic ‘package’ – and attempts to unpick this ‘package’ (Thomas 2003) have been robustly rebutted (e.g. by Rowley-Conwy 2004 and Schulting 2004). Furthermore, the evidence used to support the idea of selective acculturation – e.g. the fact that hunting continued after the appearance of farming (Cummings and Harris 2011), or that some Neolithic sites coincide spatially with Mesolithic sites – is weak: farming communities in northern France hunted wild animals as well as herding domesticates, and in cases where Neolithic material immediately overlies Mesolithic material – as at Glecknabae chamber tomb, or Warren Field, Crathes – radiocarbon dating has demonstrated that the activity is separated by millennia. And finally, the characterisation of the ‘colonisation’ model in tems of a ‘massive, co-ordinated seaborne invasion’ (Thomas 2008, 65) is actually a caricature, which misunderstands and misrepresents the scale and dynamics of the process.
  2. The Whittle et al. and Collard et al. models place too much reliance on radiocarbon dating and fail to account adequately for the observed variability in material culture and monuments across Britain and Ireland. Furthermore, Whittle et al.‘s attempted negation of the Breton strand of Neolithisation (see below) betrays a misunderstanding of the sequence of pottery and monument building in Scotland, failing to grasp that the Achnacreebeag monument and its pottery lies at the very beginning of a long and complex sequence of developments, in both passage tomb building and in pottery.

Having carefully considered the matter for over a quarter of a century, it is the firm opinion of this theme’s author that the ‘multi-strand colonisation followed by acculturation’ model offers the best fit with the evidence currently available; irrespective of whether the reader agrees, the text below will provide the evidential basis for understanding the nature of Scotland’s earliest Neolithics.

The two strands of Neolithisation to affect Scotland can be characterised as follows (and see Sheridan 2010a a for further details):

2.2.1 The Atlantic, ‘Breton’ Neolithic

2.2.2. The ‘Carinated Bowl’ (CB) Neolithic

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