4.3.1 Palaeolithic Activity

Coastal landscapes with associated archaeological material are well evidenced along the eastern shores of Doggerland in the Upper Palaeolithic, for example in western Sweden, (Schmitt 2018) and one has to assume they would have also existed to the west in the Highlands. This opens up the possibility for human activity in Scotland at this early stage. Indeed there are a number of isolated finds of Ahrensburgian-style points, known as tanged points, which occur at coastal sites around the north and west of Scotland. These are generally used as evidence of human activity (Ballin and Wickham-Jones 2017). These finds, dated approximately to the end of the Younger Dryas – on stylistic rather than scientific grounds – occur on Orkney, Tiree, Islay and in the Highlands at Shieldaig in Wester Ross (MHG7704; Ballin and Saville 2003). Other lithics identified as Late Upper Palaeolithic have been found at An Corran (MHG6497; Saville et 2012; Case Study An Corran) and South Cuidrach, Skye (MHG59071) where work is ongoing. This latter site will also provide information on the interface between the Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (Hardy et al 2020).

Further work is needed at Shieldaig to complement the ongoing work at South Cuidrach. Excavations in the 1970s at Shieldaig showed preserved stratigraphy, sealed under peat. More recent trial trenching (Birch 2013) confirmed the archaeological potential here. This site is, nevertheless, much disturbed by quarrying, a water treatment plant and electricity trenches, and work is recommended before further destruction takes place (Birch 2013, 25). At South Cuidrach the site appears to be extensive, but is threatened by an active track which is causing erosion (Hardy et al 2018; 2020). Both sites are multi-period, and require detailed dating and palaeoenvironmental analysis.

While Shieldaig and South Cuidrach demonstrate the potential for further work to yield more detail of settlement activity, it should not be forgotten that Palaeolithic material is just as likely to be found elsewhere. Furthermore, the re-examination of lithic collections in museums has been identified as a significant source of data (Palaeolithic and Mesolithic research recommendations Theme 1).

landscape photograph showing trees, mountains and water at Sheildaig
Shieldaig, Wester Ross where multiperiod lithics have been found ©Steven Birch

Inland caves are also a potential resource. At Creag nan Uamh (Inchnadamph; MHG11410) in the northwest Highlands animal bones dating to the Upper Palaeolithic have been found, though no human activity can be demonstrated for this period. These caves offer a significant resource for the analysis of Late Upper Palaeolithic Scotland, however, this is only through the study of proxy material such as animal populations and the palaeoenvironment.

New Palaeolithic sites are found to occur with increasingly frequency now that the artefactual evidence is more likely to be recognised. In Islay at Rubha Port an t-Seillach an extensive lithic assemblage has been excavated and the site has undergone rigorous investigation (Mithen et al 2015). Mithen (et al 2015) and his team interpreted this site as indicative of the coastal colonisation of northern Britain. As discussed in section 4.2, it is thought that communities from this period would not have been familiar with highland landscapes. In view of the mountainous nature of the interior of the Highlands and Islands, it is perhaps unsurprising that the team from Rubha Port an t-Seillach have put an emphasis on travel by the sea. This means, that subsequent exploration of the interior might be expected, though the evidence is likely to be scarce. The problems of investigating exploratory and colonising activity where groups travelled lightly and left little footprint, are increasingly recognised.  Indeed, in parts of eastern Scotland finds related to this period are coming to light, particularly along the big river systems (Wickham-Jones et al 2016; forthcoming).

With more sites from the Palaeolithic identified, it will be possible to conduct a more detailed investigation into the precise origins of these early populations. For example, parallels with homelands in Doggerland and links across to northern and north-central Europe could be explored (Ballin and Wickham-Jones 2017). To draw any further conclusions archaeologists need more sites like Rubha Port an t’Seilich in both the Highlands and Scotland.


Case Study: An Corran

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