5.3 Settlement

Our understanding of the nature, organisation and duration of Neolithic settlement in the Highland Region is hindered by the paucity of the available information and its geographical imbalance, with Inverness and the surrounding area having produced most of the data. Virtually nothing is known about Neolithic settlement in large parts of the 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; ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project
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; Case Study Kinbeachie Neolithic Settlement
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; Case Study Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works
Ness Gap, FortroseER3700–3530, 3700–3520Pit cluster with pottery, flint debitage, charcoal and hazelnut shellsMHG59429; Woodley et al 2020
TarradaleEREarly to 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, 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 all Early to Late NeolithicLarge assemblage Neolithic pottery, especially Grooved Ware, and lithicsEHG3271; Garry nd; Anderson 2012; Case Study Lower Slackbuie
Castle Hill, InvernessI3505–3103, 3363–3025Post hole and pitMHG36899; SUAT 2000
Essich Road, InvernessI4230–3987 (pit); Late Neolithic (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; Case Study Raigmore (Stoneyfield) Cairn
FanellanI2898–2677, 2886–2633PitsMHG61055; Sneddon forthcoming
Drumnadrochit / LewistonI11 dates, Bayesian-modelled to 3662–3543 cal BCPits, many with potteryWilliamson et al 2019
Morayston, TornagrainI3700–3501 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 the 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 if 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 the Highland Region. These timber halls would have been extraordinarily large houses that would have been occupied communally by pioneering farming groups when they first arrived in an area (Sheridan 2013). Canmore and the Highland HER however record ‘timber halls’ identified from aerial photographs at Balmachree, Inverness-shire (Canmore 14239 and 14241; MHG3023, MHG2944). It would be worth undertaking exploratory excavation to determine whether these may be of Neolithic date, rather than dating to the 1st millennium AD as is generally assumed. Note, however, that one rectangular structure at Balmachree (MHG2944) is identified from aerial photographs as having signs of ‘4 or 5 rectangular structures with sunken floors’. If these are genuinely sunken-floored structures, then this does 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 would have been an island during the fourth millennium, needs to be investigated. Bradley (et al 2017) has argued that Littleferry, with its extraordinary concentration of Neolithic artefactual finds (mostly lithics), may have served as a coastal haven where those travelling at sea would meet (Case Study Littleferry Links). This arguement however, still leaves open the question of whether people were living seasonally or year-round at these coastal locations, or were simply visiting them. As for whether any shell middens in the Highland Region were exploited during the Neolithic period, and whether 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; these finds 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; Case Study Scotland’s First Settlers Project) 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 (see Ballin forthcoming). Elsewhere, only small areas of sites have been investigated, and more extensive excavations are required to obtain a clearer sense of the nature of activities. At Uamh Mhór, Cove, 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 (Piper et al 2019; Piper forthcoming). This evidence suggests 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 the current understanding of the landscapes favoured by Neolithic farmers elsewhere in Scotland (see Dingwall et al 2019 for ‘fertile’ 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 (Shennan 2018) has been robustly critiqued by Bishop (2015) and it finds no support in the Highland Region where, ironically, most of the surviving evidence for houses dates to the Middle and Late Neolithic.

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