Case Study: Environmental Investigations at the Garbh Allt catchment, Little Rogart, near Golspie

Susan Kruse

At Loch Farlary (MHG13310) near Golspie in Sutherland eleven Bronze Age pine stumps with cut marks made by metal axes were found. Further work in the area with a number of cores provided a landscape context for this find, and identification of a number of short-lived events, probably the result of regional climate shifts and human activity (Tipping et al 2007b; Tipping et al 2008a; Tipping et al 2008b; Tipping 2008). Radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology and tephra analysis all helped to provide a detailed chronology for this region. In this upland area, blanket peat formed and spread rapidly in the early Mesolithic period. An open woodland of birch, willow, hazel, rowan and juniper grew on this blanket peat and nearby mineral soil. After much drier conditions in the middle Mesolithic, pine began growing on the peat around 5950–5650 BC but after a series of short-lived climatic events, pine became rare in the late Mesolithic. Neolithic farming communities briefly disturbed the woodland from around 3150 BC for grazing and cultivation, with pine recolonising in some numbers on the dry peat around this time or shortly after. The pine trees gradually declined in the early Bronze Age, becoming extinct by 1300 BC, the evidence suggests not from climatic deterioration but perhaps sustained grazing. They continued to grow at Farlary when evidence elsewhere in northern Scotland suggests few after around 2050 BC.

Figure 1: The location of Loch Farlary, the catchment of the loch, the current extent of blanket peat and the distribution of archaeological monuments. (Tipping et al 2007: 158)

All the trees that Bronze Age people cut were therefore old, all but one large stump dating to the late Neolithic, but most dying between 3000 and 2650 BC. Detailed analysis of the cut marks showed that two types of axe were used, and the evidence suggests cutting at different periods, some in the Middle-Late Bronze Age, perhaps coinciding with increased agricultural activity, and others at the beginning of the Iron Age. The reasons behind cutting can only be guessed at, but may have involved obtaining wood for fuel or perhaps more likely to clear when getting peat for fuel.

Drawing of a stump with the different sawn surfaces marked.
Figure 2: Drawing of Stump 2 by Robert Sands showing the location of cutting activity (Tipping et al 2007: 161)

This sequence is important, showing two pine colonisations and declines, with the second not a sudden event. Elsewhere the decline around 2050 BC has been linked to climatic factors, but the Loch Farlary evidence does not suggest a direct link (Tipping et al 2007b; 2008a).

In addition to this upland site, a lowland site in the same glen was investigated at Reidchalmai (Tipping and McCullagh 2003; Tipping et al 2008b). This allowed the question to be looked at whether people retreated from the upland area in the climatic deterioration of the Late Bronze Age. Both areas show initial cultivation and human activity at the end of the Neolithic period. Cultivation appears at both in the Bronze Age, but appears to cease at Loch Farlary in the Late Bronze Age. However, this did not suggest abandonment but probably increased grazing, as has been demonstrated at other sites such as West Glen Affric and Lairg. Woodland was rare by then at Farlary, but the area around Reidchalmai suggests woodland management, with specific trees selected for clear felling at different times. The evidence suggests increased agricultural activity at Reidchalmai in the Early Iron Age, unlike at Farlary, and at the expense of some woodland. It may have resulted from increased population. Some people may have come from the uplands, but activity did not cease around Farlary, merely moved to more grazing as at Lairg. This pattern of change is different from some other areas in the Highlands, again reinforcing the need to have detailed local studies (Tipping et al 2008b).

These studies show the great value of having well dated cores alongside multi-foci analysis of pollen, macrofossil and tephra analyses to reconstruct the local environment, aiding in the interpretation of whether climatic or human activity was responsible for changes. The study is also of interest in showing that even in northern Scotland, the survival or decline of pine can be quite different in different locations.

Further information

Tipping, Richard, Ashmore, Patrick, Davies, Althea L, Haggart, B Andrew, Moir, Andrew, Newton, Anthony, Sands, Robert, Skinner, Theo and Tisdall, Eileen 2007b ‘Peat, pine stumps & people: interactions behind climate, vegetation change & human activity in wetland archaeology at Loch Farlary, northern Scotland’, in Barber J et al. (eds) Archaeology from the wetlands: recent perspectives, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland: Edinburgh, 157–164.

Tipping, Richard 2008 ‘Blanket peat in the Scottish Highlands: timing, cause, spread and the myth of environmental determinism’, Biodivers Conserv  17, 2097–2113

Tipping, Richard, Ashmore, Patrick, Davies, Althea L, Haggart, B Andrew, Moir, Andrew, Newton, Anthony, Sands, Robert, Skinner, Theo and Tisdall, Eileen 2008a. ‘Prehistoric Pinus woodland dynamics in an upland landscape in northern Scotland: the roles of climate change and human impact’, Vegetation History & Archaeobotany 17, 251–267

Tipping, R, Davies, A, McCullagh, R and Tisdall, E 2008b ‘Response to late Bronze Age climate change of farming communities in north east Scotland’, Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 2379–2386.