The boundaries of this region have been drawn fairly arbitrarily, since there are many features of ‘the Neolithic’ that link it with areas to the north and south (and indeed, up the Great Glen, to north-east Scotland).
Knowledge of the Neolithic in this region comes mainly from research-based activities, since there has been relatively little developer-funded archaeology (except on Arran). Major contributions to an understanding of this region have been made by Audrey Henshall’s and Jack Scott’s work on the megalithic monuments and pottery of this region (Henshall 1972, Scott 1969a and b; 1977; 1978; 1989); by Graham Ritchie’s (and his RCAHMS’ colleagues’) fieldwork, especially his excavation at Achnacreebeag (J N G Ritchie 1970); by Dorothy Marshall’s excavations in Bute; and by John Barber’s and Alison Haggerty’s excavations on Arran. Most recently, the Discovering Bute Landscape Partnership Scheme, whose archaeological element has been led by Paul Duffy, has been providing an up-to-date statement of the state of knowledge of Bute archaeology (Geddes & Hale 2010).
This region, characterised by its extensive coastline and by large stretches of upland, is very significant as including both strands of the earliest Neolithic – namely the Atlantic façade, Breton Neolithic (as attested at Achnacreebeag) and the ‘Carinated Bowl (CB) Neolithic’ (attested, for example, at Newton, Islay (McCullagh 1991). The earliest Neolithic can be characterised as the arrival of small groups of farming communities – the one having sailed up the Atlantic façade from Brittany at some time between c 4300 and 4000 BC, the other probably arriving as part of a westwards spread of the CB Neolithic, around 3800 BC – and these people would have entered a landscape, parts of which were occupied by Mesolithic groups. However, the population levels may have been so low that the three groups may not have come into contact with each other for some time after the initial appearance of the farming groups. That the two farming groups did meet, however, is revealed in the architecture of megalithic monuments and in pottery. It appears that the farming communities and flourished: Achnacreebeag, for example, stands at the beginning of a complex process of passage tomb development in Scotland.
Early Neolithic settlement evidence is rare – and none has yet been found that relates to the Atlantic façade, Breton Neolithic – but has been found, for example, in the form of pits and an artefact spread at Newton on Islay (McCullagh 1991), and as ‘huts’ at Auchategan, Argyll & Bute (Marshall 1978). The latter, located on a plateau on a hillslope in Glendaruel, suggest that transhumance formed part of the Early Neolithic subsistence strategy. The CB pottery found at Auchategan includes one tulip-shaped vessel that would not be out of place among Michelsberg ‘tulip beakers’ on the Continent. The lithic material found at Auchategan – including Arran pitchstone and Langdale tuff – demonstrates that the inhabitants had already established a network of contacts over which such materials (and probably also people) circulated.
Funerary monuments consist of those in the passage tomb tradition – of which Achnacreebeag, with its closed megalithic chamber and simple passage tomb stands at the beginning, as mentioned above – and those in the CB regional tradition of Clyde cairns. The latter – probably constructed during the 37th century, if not slightly earlier – would have been built by the descendants of the earliest CB settlers, and demonstrate close connections with developments in south-west Scotland. A specific type of pottery – the so-called ‘Achnacree bowl’ – found both in Clyde cairns (including Nether Largie in Kilmartin Glen) and a passage tomb (at Achnacree) – demonstrate close links with north-east Scotland, where an example of this specific pottery type has been dated, at Culduthel, to c 3600/3500 BC (Cook et al. 2010).
A cursus monument at Upper Largie in Kilmartin Glen (ibid.) represents a distant outlier to the overall distribution of this monument type, and demonstrates links with other regions of Scotland, especially the south west. It is a moot point whether at least one timber ‘avenue’ in Kilmartin Glen dates to this period. (See Cook et al. 2010 for a discussion.)
In terms of material culture, the pottery shows a hybridisation of the Breton and CB traditions, and also reveals the adoption of the lugged plain jar from contacts down the Irish Sea. There is plentiful evidence for links with Ireland, not only in the importation of Antrim porcellanite axeheads and flint, but also in the export of Arran pitchstone to Ireland. Pirchstone was exploited from the earliest Neolithic, in a manner different from Mesolithic exploitation (Ballin 2011), and was exchanged over long distances.
Middle Neolithic developments are not well represented, and it is unclear as to whether any passage tombs or Clyde cairns were built in this region after 3500 BC. Much more needs to be discovered about what was happening at this time.
Late Neolithic developments are better represented, with this region showing participation in the southward spread of ideas, practices and traditions from Orkney around 3000 BC – as shown in the timber and stone circles at Temple Wood (Kilmartin Glen) and Machrie Moor, Arran, and in the rare finds of Grooved Ware pottery. It is also clear that rock art was being made in large amounts during the first half of the third millennium in this region.
Key research questions are:
- Much more needs to be understood about the Atlantic façade, Breton strand of the Neolithic: where and how did people live? How extensive was the initial appearance of this phenomenon?
- More needs to be understood about the relative chronology of the stone circles on Machrie Moor.
- The Middle Neolithic remains very poorly known: what was happening during this period?
- How does the rock art phenomenon articulate with the ‘Grooved Ware’ phenomenon?