5.6.4 Ritual and Special Places

Under this heading come monuments and special places in the landscape where ceremonies and/or rituals were carried out. Funerary monuments, and the use of caves and of the An Corran rock shelter for human burial, have already been covered in 5.6.1, and the significance of rivers as locations for the deposition of Alpine axeheads has been remarked upon in and 5.6.3. The deposition of some carved stone balls in or near rivers or streams (eg Stoer, northwest Sutherland), or in high places (on top of Beinn Thrarsuinn (Ben Tharson); on Tomnahurich (Tom-na-Hurich); on Ben-a-Chielt), has been noted in and 5.6.3.

As for other monuments, there are no definite examples in Highland Region of an Early Neolithic cursus monument or bank barrow, the distribution of which is mostly around Tayside and Fife and Dumfriesshire (Brophy 2015), although there is a possible ploughed-out bank barrow or cursus not far away in Moray, at Muirton (Moray HER: NJ26NW0053). There is a possible candidate for a cursus monument at Culduthel (Phase 9): a truncated long sub-rectangular ditch, 10 m wide and extending at least 24 m, with a rounded end, a possible entrance, and a line of postholes and pits in its interior (Fig. 5.73; Van Wessel 2012). There were no artefactual finds and since the final report on this excavation has not yet been published, it is unclear whether it has been radiocarbon-dated.

Figure 5.73: Roughly rectangular monument, possibly a cursus or else a mortuary enclosure, at Culduthel (Phase 9). From Van Wessel 2012; ©Headland Archaeology (UK) Ltd

There do not appear to be any large Late Neolithic enclosures, for large gatherings, of the kind seen at Forteviot, Dunragit or Meldon Bridge (Brophy and Noble 2020) in Highland Region; nor is there an unequivocal example of a Neolithic timber circle. Kirsty Millican’s review of Scottish Neolithic timber circles lists eight cropmark sites featuring circles of pits, clustering around the coastal fringe of the Moray Firth (Millican 2007, table 1, illus 7; see also Millican 2016), but these could easily be roundhouses of Bronze or Iron Age date and indeed the example from Lower Slackbuie (MHG3775) has been reclassified as a roundhouse following a review of the aerial photographs. Investigation of the other candidate sites is recommended to check whether any are in fact roundhouses.

As noted in Chapter 6, the distinctive Clava ring cairns and passage tombs, with their associated stone circles, have been found (thanks to excavations by Richard Bradley) not to date to the Neolithic period, but instead to the Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age, during the late third millennium BC. Similarly, sites resembling small henges such as the examples at Pullyhour, Caithness, and Lairg (Achinduich Farm), Sutherland have been shown to be to be of Bronze Age, not Neolitihic, date (Bradley 2011).

There is only one example of a stone circle that is likely to be of Neolithic date in Highland Region, and this is a largely dismantled circle found at Armadale on Skye (MHG60879; Peteranna 2011b). The stones were set in a ring-ditch, and there was evidence that the stone circle had been preceded by a circle of timber posts. A pit just beside it, containing cremated human remains, has been dated to 2880–2570 cal BC (Krus and Peteranna 2016; see section 5.6.1 for details) and it is likely that the pit is either contemporary with, or slightly post-dates, the stone circle. Otherwise, most of the Region’s stone circles are definitely or probably associated with Clava cairns, and are thus of Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age date. That said, there are several stone circles found outside of the distribution area of Clava Cairns (eg The Mound on the Golspie-Lairg road, MHG11621, and a possible example at Kilmuir on Skye, MHG5737), and these would repay investigation to check whether any may be of Neolithic, as opposed to Bronze Age, date.

As for the numerous individual standing stones listed in the Highland HER, some – such as Mains of Clava North West (MHG3010) and Balnaroid (MHG6993) – may be the last remaining orthostats of a stone circle associated with a Clava cairn; one (Windhill, MHG9110) might have a second stone adjacent; and several are fallen, moved or lost. Some may be the last survivors of a Neolithic chamber tomb. There is no evidence that any individual standing stone was erected during the Neolithic period but, as with stone circles, every opportunity should be taken to investigate them to see whether any could have been erected during the Neolilthic period.

It remains an open question as to how much of the ‘rock art’ in Highland Region was created during the Neolithic period, as opposed to later. Rock art is found on outcrops, boulders, standing stones and stones built into structures such as Clava cairns. Thanks to Tertia Barnett’s major research and community archaeology project, Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP, www.rockart.scot), we can say that there are 178 confirmed examples of rock art in Highland Region (Map 5.6; this and statistical information supplied by Joana Valdez-Tullett), with the confirmation work having mostly been carried out as a community-based initiative by NOSAS for the ScRAP project. (A few other claimed examples remain to be validated, and there are a few cases where, upon checking by the ScRAP team, claimed examples of cupmarks have been dismissed as natural features, such as solution hollows in sandstone.)

The findspots tend to cluster around the Cromarty and Beauly Firths, and in the latter area there is a clear association with Clava cairns, with rock art having been found at 25 such monuments (Scott 2004). Regarding the nature of the rock art in Highland Region, there is an overwhelming predominance of simple cupmarks (Fig. 5.74.1), which constitute some 86.6% of the 3100 individual motifs on the 178 panels. Just 2.3% of the motifs are of the classic ‘cup and ring’ type (Figs 5.74.2), in contrast to Perth and Kinross, Stirling, Argyll and Dumfries and Galloway – areas with numerous rock art panels – where the cup-and-ring motif is commoner.

As for other motifs, some 3.7% consist of straight or wavy lines, connecting other motifs or independent of them. The cup-and-ring and slightly more complex designs fall within the category of ‘Atlantic rock art’ (Valdez-Tullett 2019), which is found elsewhere in Britain and Ireland and also in north-west Iberia. The strength of the similarities between this ‘complex’ rock art in different parts of Atlantic western Europe suggests that there were connections along the Atlantic façade, although whether the makers of this ‘art’ in Highland Region participated in long-distance seaborne journeys themselves, or were simply part of an extensive network of contacts that shared the practice of creating rock art, is unclear.

Figure 5.74: Examples of rock art in Highland Region. 1. Simple cupmarks, Laggan Hill, Cromdale, Strathspey; 2. Cup-and-ring design, Lochan Hakel, Sutherland (screenshot from 3D model). ©Scotland’s Rock Art Project

The question of the dating of Highland Region rock art is both important and hard to resolve. Elsewhere in Scotland (and in northern Britain more generally), a reasonable – albeit not watertight – case can be made for most Atlantic rock art being created during the first half of the third millennium BC; at the very least, its clear re-use in several Early Bronze Age cist graves and other structures offers a minimum terminus ante quem of c. 2200 BC. The re-use of slabs bearing rock art (including a few cup-and-ring motifs) in the construction of some of the Clava cairns (at Balnuaran of Clava: Bradley 2000, 45–6) indicates that those particular slabs were embellished with rock art prior to c. 2300/2200 BC.

However, there are other rock art motifs – simple cupmarks – on some slabs of the Clava cairns that are likely to have been created after the monuments were constructed. Research by Douglas Scott (eg Scott 2004) has concluded that these (and the positioning of some of the re-used slabs) indicated significant archaeoastronomical locations, with most indicating where the midsummer full moon would rise and set during its maximum standstill every 18.6 years.

Similarly, to the east of Highland Region, in and around Aberdeenshire, the cupmarks found on Recumbent Stone Circles are highly likely to have been created when the monuments were constructed, again during the late Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age (Bradley 2005; Welfare 2011). The question arises: if some simple cupmark designs were created during the late Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age at these monuments, then how many of the other simple cupmark designs in Highland Scotland (especially those in the vicinity of Clava cairns) were created at that time, rather than any earlier? The dating of simple cupmark designs is difficult, since the available evidence indicates that some were being created as early as the early fourth millennium BC (at Dalladies long barrow, in the old county of Kincardineshire: Piggott 1972). One of the outstanding research questions regarding rock art in Highland Region (and more widely) is: When was it created? More specifically, how much of it in the Region pre-dates the construction of the Clava cairns, during the late third millennium?

Finally, there are two completely different kinds of decorated stone, which are highly likely to date to the Late Neolithic. One is from Arisaig (MHG56817), on the Rhu peninsula (Fig. 5.75.1). Here, a slab with a faint incised design featuring a row of lozenge-like motifs that closely resembles the designs found in Late Neolithic sites in Orkney such as Ness of Brodgar (Thomas 2016) was found in 2013, built into the wall of a ruined building (Bowker 2014). Along the western side of Scotland, as well as along the eastern side, there are several indications of the adoption of ideas, designs and practices from Orkney around 3000 BC–2800 BC; these include the construction of stone circles resembling the Stones of Stenness at Calanais on Lewis, Temple Wood in the Kilmartin Glen, Argyll and Bute, and Machrie Moor on Arran. The rapid southward spread of the use of Grooved Ware pottery is another indication of this phenomenon. While the Arisaig stone has no associated Late Neolithic material, and nothing is known about how the decorated slab was originally deployed, its location is consistent with this coastal pattern of adoption of Orcadian fashions, and it is one more reminder of the inter-connectedness of Neolithic communities.

The second stone (Fig. 5.75.2) also speaks of these Late Neolithic connections. It was found, re-used as a Chalcolithic or Early Bronze Age cist slab at Lewiston, Drumnadrochit (Williamson et al 2019, cist 4; EHG5558). It has an incised design of running nested lozenges framed within horizontal lines, with a row of simple lozenges below. While these designs have their ultimate inspiration in the passage tomb art of Ireland, it seems more likely that the proximate source of inspiration was Orkney, where this design can be seen both on early Grooved Ware pottery and on some stones. The suggestion in the DSR, that the Drumnadrochit slab may derive from a nearby decorated passage tomb (McLaren 2019) can be challenged since i) the only decorated passage tombs in Scotland are in Orkney and ii) no passage tomb was built as late as c. 3000 BC in Highland Region. (The much later Clava passage tombs are irrelevant to this discussion.)

Figure 5.75: 1. Slab with incised design resembling Orcadian designs, found built into a structure at Arisaig, Rhu peninsula. 2. Slab with incised nested lozenges, found at Drumnadrochit. (1) ©Historic Environment Scotland; (2) ©AOC Archaeology Ltd. As for the cist slab with a highly unusual design found in an Early Bronze Age cist at Balblair (MHG29161; Dutton et al 2007), a Neolithic date can be ruled out. This appears to be a rare example of a design created during the Early Bronze Age.

Leave a Reply