The datasheet of stone axeheads found in the Highland Region (Datasheet 5.1; Map 5.1; Case Study Neolithic Axeheads) compiled by Susan Kruse, with additions from Alison Sheridan and Steven Birch, contains records of 204 stone and flint axeheads, or parts thereof. There are bound to be further examples in private ownership, in museum collections in addition to those listed, and in excavation assemblages that have not yet been fully published. While much work needs to be undertaken on the systematic petrological identification and sourcing of the rock types and the further documentation of the axeheads, Datasheet 5.1 makes a good foundation for a study of this artefact type.
Click on the data point for more information about the find and a link to the HER record. This map is based on the information in Datasheet 5.1 (please note that some finds in this datasheet may be missing from the map, for example where there are no co-ordinates for antiquarian finds, so please view the datasheet for the further information).
The overall distribution pattern broadly corresponds to the distribution of chambered cairns, except for on Skye, where axeheads are more broadly distributed than the funerary monuments (Map 5.5). While it is suspected that most will have been made using locally available stone, certain axeheads stand out as being made of non-local stone, namely:
- those of jadeitite from the Alps;
- those of tuff from around the Langdale Pikes in Cumbria, which have been allocated the title ‘Group VI rock’ by the Implement Petrology Committee (Clough and Cummins 1988);
- those of porcellanite from Tievebulliagh and/or Brockley on Rathlin Island, County Antrim (Group IX);
- those of calc-silicate hornfels from Creag na Caillich above Killin, Perth and Kinross (Group XXIV);
- two of riebeckite-felsite, from Shetland (Gp XXII), and;
- some, if not most, of those made of flint.
Six axeheads of Alpine jadeitite or other Alpine stone have been found in Highland Region:
- Daviot (MHG2888)
- On the bank of the Spean River near Fort William (MHG4288)
- Inverness Railway Stores (MHG3831)
- In the Dunrobin area (MHG61792)
- Berriedale (MHG61416), and
- At an unknown location, probably somewhere in Caithness (MHG51891)
The last two are relatively small (64 and 94 mm long respectively), while the others are, or were, when complete, well over 135 mm long. The example from the Dunrobin area is 231 mm long. A seventh small axehead of Alpine jadeitite may well come from the Highlands as well); it comes from the Maclean Collection, but has no findspot information.
These axeheads have been studied and the material sourced, by Projet JADE, a French-led international project examining the use of Alpine stone across Europe and beyond during the Neolithic (Sheridan and Pailler 2012; Pétrequin et al 2017b). The source of the material for these objects came from the Monte Viso massif in the north Italian Alps, although in the case of the two small axeheads, the Monte Beigua massif is an alternative possible source.
These would have been very special axeheads, not destined for everyday use in chopping down trees or woodworking, and though their arrival is not due to exchange activities with continental Europe. Rather, as argued elsewhere (Sheridan and Pailler 2012), these items would have been brought over by immigrant farmers from northern France as treasured community heirlooms. Some will have been centuries old by the time they reached Scotland, around or shortly before c 3800 BC. In common with continental practices, their deposition can be seen as a way of returning these sacred and numinous objects to the world of the gods. The example found on the bank of the River Spean, for example, accords with a widespread pattern of Alpine axehead deposition in or near water, while the deliberate breakage of the examples from Daviot and Inverness Railway Stores, and the deliberate burning of the latter, may have been a way of ritually ‘killing’ these axeheads.
The presence of axeheads of Langdale tuff, or Group VI stone, in the Highlands is part of a broader pattern of extensive movement of axeheads from Cumbria, which was taking place as early as c 3800 BC (Edmonds 2012; Edinborough et al 2019). The objects would have travelled through the networks of contacts that the early farming communities established soon after their arrival. Many thousands of axeheads were produced on and around the Langdale Pikes, and many have distinctive faceted sides. Both utilitarian and special axeheads of Group VI stone were manufactured, and examples of the latter, so-called ‘Cumbrian clubs’, were found at Blar na Ceann, Strathpeffer, Easter Ross (MHG7898) and at Castle Stuart, Inverness-shire (MHG3016)
The decision to exploit greenish rock from mountains may well have been inspired by the legends surrounding Alpine axeheads that probably existed. It may have been believed that mountains were associated with the world of the gods, and that stone taken from mountains possessed divine power. Whether or not that was the case, axeheads of high quality Langdale tuff were much sought after, and indeed flakes from such axeheads were sometimes reused, as is the case of a worked flake from Golspie, Littleferry (MHG11651). Most of the Scottish Group VI axeheads have been found in southern Scotland; the eight definite and five possible examples from Highland Region listed in Datasheet 5.1 constitute scattered northern outliers, mostly located on or near the coast. One was found outside High Pasture Cave, as residual material in an Iron Age context (Steven Birch pers comm).
Like the Langdale tuff axeheads, the 11 axeheads of visually distinctive, speckled or veined Antrim porcellanite (Group IX stone) have also mostly been found on or near the coast. They are part of a broader scatter of Group IX axehead finds in Scotland that attests to links with the north of Ireland (Sheridan 1986). The examples found on the west coast and on Skye and Eigg form part of a pattern of evidence for north-south seaborne travel to and from Ireland during the Neolithic. The ones found in the eastern part of Highland Region may have travelled up the Great Glen over a network of contacts linking the far northeast of Scotland with south-west Scotland and Ireland. The mountain Tievebulliagh is one of the County Antrim porcellanite sources; its exploitation is consistent with the practice of targeting mountainous sources of rock for making axeheads. As for the date of the Highland examples, in theory they could be as early as c 3700 BC or as late as c 3100 to 3000 BC.
Creag na Caillich – Calc-silicate hornfels
There are only five possible examples in the Highland Region of axe- or adze-heads originating from a mountain source in Scotland, Creag na Caillich above Killin in Perth and Kinross (Edmonds et al 1992). All require validation through petrological examination, so the identifications can only be regarded as tentative. One axehead was found at Shennach, Strathspey (MHG6798); another at Cantraywood, Inverness-shire (MHG14559); and at Tarradale, Easter Ross, one adze-head and two flakes, probably from two different axeheads, were found (Ballin forthcoming, 1626, 1634–5). The calc-silicate hornfels that was exploited on Creag na Caillich is a greenish colour, usually with lighter bands; it is sometimes confused with Langdale tuff as the colour range overlaps, but the latter lacks the banding. Many fewer axeheads were produced at Creag na Caillich than at Langdale and at the porcellanite sources, and the distribution map of these Group XXIV axeheads is thin. Excavations of the extraction site by Mark Edmonds (et al 1992) concluded that exploitation probably began during the late 4th millennium BC and was sporadic and small-scale in nature.
The two axeheads of Shetland riebeckite-felsite (NMS X.AF 40 and 41) were reportedly found in a cairn between Lochs Drumashie and Duntelchaig, Dores Parish, Strathnairn around or before 1865 (MHG3615). They are particularly interesting as finds of axeheads made from this distinctive rock are extremely rare outside Shetland. Ritchie’s (1992) discussion of Group XXII artefacts mentions one thin-sectioned Group XXII axehead found at Nisbet Farm, East Lothian (NMS X.AF 1031, illustrated in Markham nd a and b) and around ten further axeheads, mostly found in Moray and Aberdeenshire but including one from Oban and one from Dumfriesshire, that may be of this rock. Of these, two, one from Aberdeenshire and one from Barndenoch, Dumfriesshire, have been thin-sectioned and confirmed to be Shetland riebeckite-felsite.
This evidence for the presence of axeheads from Shetland stone in the Highland Region is highly significant; it is clear that the rock cannot have reached this area through natural glacial transportation (Andy Moffatt pers comm). Thanks to the work of the North Roe Felsite Project led by Gabriel Cooney (University College Dublin) and Will Megarry (Queen’s University Belfast) archaeologists now know that this rock type was exploited for making axeheads and Shetland knives in Shetland from possibly as early as c 3500 BC (Cooney et al 2019, 61). Neolithic society in remote Shetland was markedly insular (Sheridan 2014b), and virtually all the 500 plus known axeheads made of Shetland riebeckite-felsite have been found in Shetland, so any evidence for contact with elsewhere during this period is noteworthy.
As with all old finds, however, a note of caution should be expressed regarding the reliability of the provenance information. The discovery of axeheads in a cairn is a very unusual occurrence. Archaeologists need to find out more about the artefact collecting activities of the rich English businessman, Fountaine Walker of Foyers, who presented the axeheads and an associated ‘hammer-stone or pounder, to check whether he genuinely acquired these objects from the stated findspot, or whether he collected items from far and wide, ie beyond Highland, and possibly even in Shetland. Nevertheless, the possibility that these axeheads are indeed a genuine Highland Region discovery, attesting to contact with distant Shetland (however achieved – directly or indirectly) is exciting.
Flint axeheads are rare in Scotland, with fewer than 150 known, but the Highland region has been the findspot of five examples of a distinctive type known as All-Over-Polished flint axeheads, which have faceted sides. A further two were found together not far from the eastern border of the Region at Smerrick, Banffshire. See Sheridan (1992) and Saville (1999a) for a discussion of this type of axehead. These are all finely made, mostly using striking variegated flint; most examples have been polished to a glassy sheen. The five Highland examples have been found at Brora (MHG10210), Dunrobin (MHG10861), Altnagar (MHG14153) and Invershin (MHG12885) in Sutherland and at Craggie, Nairn (MHG14362). Of these, the Altnagar example is relatively small and lacks the glassy sheen.
Strikingly their overall distribution in Scotland and elsewhere down the eastern side of Britain is strikingly coastal, and clearly the flint is not local to the Highland Region. There has been much discussion of the possible source of the flint. The superficial similarity to Danish thin-butted flint axeheads dating to the early 4th millennium has led some to suggest that the Scottish flint axeheads are imports from Denmark. However, no exact match is known from Scandinavia. The Danish examples have broader facets and generally lack the glassy polish of the British examples. The same vein of distinctive flint runs under the North Sea and can be found on the east coast of England around Lincolnshire, so it is possible that they were made in England. These are clearly special and highly valued axeheads, not intended for everyday utilitarian use, although the Craggie example has some ancient chipping to the blade suggestive of use or damage. The glassy polish resembles that found on jadeitite axeheads. Although Scotland can be ruled out the place of manufacture remains a mystery. None of these aceheads has been found in a datable context, but clearly these symbols of power were being acquired through long distance maritime contacts.
Four other flint axeheads have been found in Highland Region. They are from near Beauly (MHG3335); Moy Hall Estate (MHG2843); the Inverness area (MHG29581); and Tulloch Hill, Easter Ross (MHG61227). They are all smaller, and their surfaces have been left mostly flaked, with just the blade area ground; they vary in the quality of the flint and the regularity of their shape. The ‘Inverness area’ one was found in a consignment of topsoil delivered to Holm Mills, and is unlikely to have been moved very far. The Tulloch Hill axehead is from the William Maclean collection, and while it was stated in an exhibition about that collection in 2010 that it may be a Danish axehead acquired from a dealer, its cross-section shape is not that of a Danish axehead, and there is no reason to doubt that it was found on Tulloch Hill.
Flint does not occur in any significant amounts in Highland Scotland, and arguably it does not occur in cobbles or nodules large enough to be used to make axeheads, so it is likely that these are all imports from elsewhere. Blade-ground flint axeheads with thin, broad butts, similar to the example from Tulloch Hill, are known from Yorkshire (Manby 1979, fig. 2.3) and it is quite possible that the Tulloch Hill axehead is an import from there. Blade-ground flint axeheads are also known from Northern Ireland and from the hoard of Antrim flint artefacts, including axeheads, found at Auchenhoan near Campbeltown, Argyll and Bute (Saville 1999b), but these tend to have narrower butts than the Yorkshire axeheads. Further research would be necessary to determine whether the source of the flint axeheads can be determined. Closer examination of the range of forms made in Yorkshire would be necessary, as would a systematic survey of sources of erratic flint in the Highland Region, to double-check whether any cobble or nodule sufficiently large to make any of the Highland flint axeheads could have existed in the Region.
Finally, at Tarradale, Easter Ross, a flake and a double scraper, both from polished flint axeheads, were found (Ballin forthcoming, Cat 794 and 1100). It is not possible to tell whether the parent axeheads had been All-Over-Polished examples.