Case Study: An Corran, Skye

Susan Kruse with contributions from Caroline Wickham-Jones

The rock shelter at An Corran in Skye (MHG35899), facing towards Staffin Island, has been used for millennia. In the 1990s a rescue excavation was mounted in advance of road working. A limited investigation was undertaken, under less than ideal conditions.

General view of the rock shelter at An Corran from the east after the start of the excavation in 1993 showing the configuration of the rock-ledges above. ©Roger Miket

Even the limited work showed the importance of the site, which was occupied from the Late Upper Palaeolithic into at least the Iron Age. The midden had some degree of mixing, but stratigraphic sequences were discerned, although radiocarbon dates within contexts sometimes spanned millennia. The earliest radiocarbon dates are from the mid-7th millennium BC, but some of the artefactual evidence suggests a possible earlier date in undated lowest layers (Saville et al 2012, 81). It is worth noting that the publication of An Corran reflects archaeological understanding at the time of its investigation; more recent understanding of the earliest, Late Upper Palaeolithic, settlement of Scotland would include the earliest levels at An Corran as a possible Late Upper Palaeolithic site. Preservation was good, providing a rich assemblage of lithics, animal bones, tools and shellfish.

The site is located near to an outcrop of baked mudstone, which is found in a number of Mesolithic lithic scatters in the area on Skye and the mainland. At An Corran baked mudstone accounted for well over half the assemblage. Five bloodstone flakes, chips and a core were recovered, which would have come from the island of Rum to the south of Skye. Of the tools recovered, microliths and microburins were most common.

Flakes and blades of baked mudstone. ©National Museums Scotland

Large blades of baked mudstone. ©National Museums Scotland

Important evidence of Mesolithic exploitation of food resources was recovered, including mammals, birds (dominated by puffins), fish and shellfish. These provide evidence of seasonal exploitation. The most common mammal, red deer, was killed away from the site as none of the bones show primary butchery. Limpets and periwinkles dominate the shellfish, but small numbers of other species are also represented.

In the early Neolithic period, burials were inserted into the midden or placed on the ledge. Use of caves for Neolithic burials is not unknown in Scotland, though not common in the Highlands. There is also evidence of early Bronze Age burials, again not common in the Highlands. Isotopic analysis of the human remains showed a predominantly terrestrial diet, but a greater use of marine protein than is found in some other Neolithic bodies. A copper alloy pin dating to the Iron Age shows some activity at the site, although little other evidence for this period was recovered. There was no evidence of medieval occupation as was found in a number of other rock shelters/caves investigated by the Scotland’s First Settlers project. However, the upper layers had evidence of hearths whose dating is unclear. The excavated area was only a fraction of the whole, resulting in an incomplete picture.

Macrofossil evidence was undertaken on some samples, showing birch, hazel and willow growing nearby. Three other sites nearby were selected for coring as part of the Scotland’s First Settlers project. They showed a transition in lake sediments from minerogenic silts and clays to more organic material at the beginning of Mesolithic, indicating a typical pollen succession of grasses, crowberry, juniper, birch and hazel-type plants, with variations between sites. Again, typically birch and hazel dominated, but with differences between sites (Green and Edwards 2009).

Other lithic scatter sites in the area were recorded by the Scotland’s First Settlers project (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009; MHG35899). Some of these also show multi-period use. The sites as a whole continue to show erosion and would also repay further attention.

The results of the excavation led to recognition of the site’s importance and the surviving ledge, now covered by rock fall, was then scheduled, one of the few Palaeolithic/Mesolithic sites in Highland to have legal protection, albeit after much of the site was destroyed; the idiosyncratic method of preservation, under rockfall, has reduced the site’s significance as a possible future source of information. The excavations at An Corran show the potential for rock shelters, and the need to ensure they are protected.

Further information

Saville, A; Hardy, K; Miket, R; and Ballin, T B 2012 ‘An Corran, Staffin, Skye: a rockshelter with Mesolithic and later occupation’, Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 51. Specialist reports within this include:

Hardy, Karen; Saville, Alan; and Ballin, Torben Bjarke ‘The lithic artefacts

Saville, Alan; Hallén, Ywonne; and Bartosiewicz, László ‘Bone and antler artefacts

Cowie, Trevor ‘The copper alloy pin

Brown, Margaret and Kerr, N W ‘Human bone

Bartosiewicz, László ‘Vertebrate remains

Pickard, Catriona and Bonsall, Clive ‘The marine molluscs

Holden, Timothy G; Carter, Stephen; and Miller, Jennifer ‘Flotation samples

Saville, Alan and Hardy, Karen ‘Radiocarabon dates

Milner, Nicky and Craig, Oliver ‘Isotope analyses

Hardy, Karen and Wickham-Jones, Caroline (eds) 2009 ‘Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland: the work of the Scotland’s First Settlers project 1998-2004’, Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 31.