5.3 Settlement Evidence

Our understanding of the nature, organisation and duration of Neolithic settlement in Highland region is hindered by the paucity of the available information, and its geographical imbalance, with Inverness and the surrounding area producing most of the data. Virtually nothing is known about Neolithic settlement in large parts of Highland Region, including Skye, and until remains are found or searched for, any comments must remain provisional. Table 5.1 lists the sites in the Region that have produced radiocarbon-dated evidence relating to settlement activities.

SiteAreaDating (all cal BC)CommentsHER   and References
LairgSBayesian-modelled dates: earliest cereal cultivation in the area 3630–3410; continued occupation into Late NeolithicAgricultural activityMcCullagh and Tipping 1998; McDonald et al 2021
WilkhouseS3334–3312Charcoal-rich (Scots pine) occupation layerMHG10480; Adamson and Bailey 2019
Kinbeachie, Black IsleER3909–3634 (isolated pit) 3501–3101 3496–3099 3491–3101 3341–2935 3339–2932 3370–3040 3330–2891Possible house, pitsMHG58909; Barclay et al 2001
Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water WorksER3659–3526 3641–3384 3637–3383 3631–3372 3521–3364 3015–2890Pits with pottery, at least two discrete episodes.MHG60674; Fraser 2014; Sheridan 2014a
Ness Gap, FortroseER3700–3530 3700–3520Pit cluster with pottery, flint debitage, charcoal and hazelnut shellsMHG59429; Woodley et al 2020
TarradaleEREarly – Middle NeolithicMidden and layers in multi-period landscapeGrant 2020; http://www.tarradalethroughtime.co.uk/
Culduthel, Inverness (phase 5)I3760–3630 2910–2680Charcoal in roundhouse postholes, on site reused in Iron AgeMHG49950; Hatherley and Murray 2021
Culduthel Housing DevelopmentI3347–3098 2873–2631From hearth and postholeMalone and Young 2019
Culduthel, Inverness, (phase 7 and 8)I3640–3518 3598–3369 3519–3370 3339–3012 2875–2584 2867–2576 and probable funerary activity dated to 2905–2672PitsMHG51630; Sheridan 2010b; Hatherley forthcoming
Near Culduthel Mains Avenue (South West Inverness Flood Relief Channel Phase 3)I3090–2900 3030–2890Pits with potteryMHG55500; Peteranna 2011a; Sheridan 2011a
Lower Slackbuie, InvernessI3520–3360 3501–3112 3366–3102PitsMHG51720; Fyles 2007
Slackbuie Way, Inverness (Knocknagael, South West Inverness Flood Relief Channel)I3960–3770 3770–3630 3640–3500 3530–3360 3530–3360 3250–3100 3240–3100 3130–2920Pits and postholes, some pits with potteryMHG54504; MHG55806; MHG55807; MHG55809; MHG55810; Kilpatrick 2016
Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site)I18 dates, Early to Late NeolithicLarge assemblage Neolithic pottery, especially Grooved Ware, and lithicsEHG3271; Garry nd; Anderson 2012
Castle Hill, InvernessI3505–3103 3363–3025Post hole and pitMHG36899; SUAT 2000
Essich Road, InvernessI4230–3987 (pit); Late Neo (hearth)Heavily truncatedEHG1049; Cameron and Lenfert 2017
Wester TorbreckI3350–3020Pit with burnt hazelnut shellsMHG47842
Milton of LeysI3500–3020 3360–2920 3360–3010 3260–2920Hearth, posthole and pits; probable houseMHG54230; Conolly and MacSween 2003
Stoneyfield / Raigmore cairnI3090‒2909 3090–2907 2877–2490Probable house and pits, several with Grooved Ware, some with calcined human boneMHG54911; Simpson 1996a; Copper et al 2018
FanellanI2898–2677 2886–2633PitsMHG61055; Sneddon forthcoming
Drumnadrochit / LewistonI11 dates, Bayesian-modelled to 3662–3543 cal BCPits, many with potteryWilliamson et al 2019
Morayston, TornagrainI37th–36th century BCPits, hollows and charcoal spreadsEHG5445; McKeggie and Young 2017
Easter GalcantryN3370–3100Charcoal bulk sample from pitMHG6892; Gregory 2001
Lochloy, NairnN2nd half 4th and 1st half 3rd millennium BCHearths, pitsEHG1049; MHG54239; MHG54240; MHG54243; MHG54245; Farrell 2004
Garblies Farm, AuldearnN3330–2870Possible hearthMHG47813
Torr Na H-Ulaidhe, Auchtercairn 3WR3628–3375Platform with hearthMHG59292; www.wedigs.co.uk/
Uamh Mhór, CoveWR3794–3655Charcoal from surface below Chalcolithic or Bronze Age burnt mound. Site with lithicsStephanie Piper pers comm; Piper forthcoming
An CorranSkye2896–2581Date from bone tool. Midden in multi-period rock shelterMHG6497; Saville et al 2012
Armadale PierSkye3340–3020Hearth pre-dating Late Neolithic timber and stone circle and subsequent EBA cemeteryMHG60879; Krus and Peteranna 2016
KinlochRùm4th and early 3rd millennium BCNeolithic occupation traces post-dating Mesolithic activityMHG3987; Wickham-Jones 1990  
Beinn TigheCanna3340–3080Settlement moundMHG5560; Harden 2015; Gannon 2016
Table 5.1 Radiocarbon-dated Neolithic settlement and other occupation sites in Highland Region. For full details of the dates, see Datasheet 2.1

Most of our information on Neolithic settlement comes from developer-funded excavations, and in most cases it relates to pits and occasional post-holes, which constitute the final surviving remains when the Neolithic ground surface has been ploughed away. There are precious few structures that can be described as houses; these are discussed in 5.3.3.

There is no excavated example of an early Neolithic timber ‘hall’ in Highland Region – ie an extraordinarily large house that would have been occupied communally by pioneering farming groups when they first arrived in an area (Sheridan 2013) – although Canmore and Highland HER record ‘timber halls’, identified from aerial photographs, at Balmachree, Inverness-shire (Canmore 14239 and 14241; MHG3023, MHG2944), and it would be worth undertaking exploratory excavation to determine whether these may be of Neolithic, rather than 1st millennium AD date as is generally assumed. (Note, however, that Highland HER MHG2944, which must relate to one or both of the Canmore entries, lists aerial photographic signs of ‘4 or 5 rectangular structures with sunken floors’ and remarks: ‘Probing of an isolated member of the group [by Gordon Maxwell] suggested that it measured c 13m by 8m; and some of the others, which were not accessible for examination on the ground, may be half as large again’. If these are genuinely sunken-floored structures, then this suggests a 1st millennium AD, rather than an Early Neolithic date, for this ensemble of structures.

The nature of the occupation of sandhills sites such as Littleferry (which will have been an island during the fourth millennium) needs to be investigated; Richard Bradley has argued that Littleferry, with its extraordinary concentration of Neolithic artefactual finds (mostly lithics), may have served as a coastal haven where travellers by sea would meet (Bradley et al 2017), but that still leaves open the question of whether people were also living seasonally or year-round at these coastal locations, or were simply visiting them. As for whether any shell middens in Highland Region were exploited during the Neolithic period, and how they relate to settlement patterns, this is another question that deserves attention.

Isolated lithic scatters and other ‘stray’ finds of Neolithic artefacts such as axeheads are another potential indicator of settlement, and they tend to reinforce and extend the distribution pattern shown by funerary monuments and excavated sites. In order to determine whether lithic scatters constitute evidence for permanent, seasonal or temporary occupation, targeted excavation would be necessary. In many cases – as with the finds from the Scotland’s First Settlers project in the west (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009) and from the Tarradale fieldwork project (Ballin forthcoming), lithic scatters tend to be palimpsests relating to activities undertaken at various periods in prehistory, and they require careful chronological disentangling (as Torben Ballin has been doing for the Tarradale finds; Ballin forthcoming). Elsewhere, as at Uamh Mhór, Cove (Piper et al 2019; Piper forthcoming), only a small area has been investigated, and more extensive excavations are required to obtain a clearer sense of the nature of activities. At Uamh Mhór – a site that probably lay on a Neolithic beach, and may have been a short-term camp site – a small assemblage of flaked local quartz and a hammerstone and pounder of quartzite were found in a deposit of sandy silt with charcoal lenses, suggesting that activities may have included cooking; a sample of alder charcoal has produced a radiocarbon date of 3794–3655 cal BC (Stephanie Piper pers comm). This deposit lay underneath a Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age burnt mound.

Predictive modelling of likely settlement areas, based on our current understanding of the landscapes favoured by Neolithic farmers elsewhere in Scotland (ie fertile areas – cf. Dingwall et al 2019 for such areas in Aberdeenshire) and targeting areas of colluvium that could be concealing well-preserved remains, will go some way to redressing the enormous gaps in our knowledge. Chance finds will, however, still be important in alerting attention to less obvious areas where people lived.

While some commentators on Neolithic Britain (eg Stevens and Fuller 2012) have argued for a shift from an Early Neolithic pattern of sedentary, year-round settlement to nomadic pastoralism some time around 3500 BC, associated with a putative collapse in cereal agriculture, this ’boom and bust’ model (cf. Shennan 2018) has been robustly critiqued by Rosie Bishop (eg Bishop 2015) and it finds no support in Highland Region where, ironically, most of the surviving evidence for houses dates to the Middle and Late Neolithic.

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