The evidence for activity over this long period comes from caves, rock shelters, middens, and surface scatters. While diagnostic artefacts evidence activity, they do not provide evidence for the nature of the activity. Settlements were rarely permanent and varied greatly, from larger multi-activity locations to short-lived specialist sites which may only have been used for as little as a day or a matter of hours. Archaeological evidence is sparse (see 4.4), and to date no permanent settlements have been suggested for the Highlands, though evidence elsewhere in Scotland is beginning to be recognised (Robertson et al 2013). While some sites may have been visited on a regular or seasonal basis, others may have been occupied more frequently and some very rarely. The archaeological record is lacking in detail and relies heavily on ethnographic parallels for interpretation.
Lithic scatters are the most visible sites, due to the durable nature of the artefacts. But all lithic scatters represent archaeology that has been disturbed (Wickham-Jones 2020b), and few have been comprehensively investigated. They are often an indication of locations that have been used for millennia, as well as into later periods, so that detailed interpretation is difficult. The scatter at Oliclett, Caithness (MHG29867), is a welcome exception where the site was sealed by peat, and archaeological investigation was aided by detailed environmental investigation which helped to fine tune the interpretation of activity (Pannett and Baines 2006; Tipping et al 2007a).
Shell middens have received much attention, in part due to their preservation and visibility, but in fact they are relatively rare in the Scottish Mesolithic (Wickham-Jones 2009b). They vary in size, and while most are coastal they can occasionally be found inland. Many are in locations that show long periods of use, even into Neolithic or Bronze Age. There is much variation in midden types: some contain internal structures, they are often dominated by different types of shellfish, some include significant amounts of animal bone, a few have microliths, for example at Sand, Wester Ross (Case Study Sand), and some, like Risga, Lochaber (MHG148) contain significant quantities of knapping debris from the manufacture of tools. As excavations at Sand showed, it is important to investigate the site away from the midden in order to gain a fuller picture of activity (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009; ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 4.2.2).
4.3.1 Palaeolithic Settlement
4.3.2 Mesolithic Settlement
The scarcity of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites in Highland Region is one of the main reasons there are research gaps which need to be filled. Most proposed Mesolithic sites are unexcavated. The number of excavated and dated sites is still very small (see Table 4.2) and the scarcity of well-dated sites hinders the ability of archaeologists to interpret these communities. Research such as that from the Scotland’s First Settlers Project (Case Study Scotland’s First Settlers Project; Hardy & Wickham Jones 2009), which provided a landscape – or seascape – focus over an area with varied topography and geology, provides a hint of the rewards of wider studies. Even for this project, however, few sites were investigated in detail.