4.3.2 Mesolithic Activity

Various models have been proposed for settlement in the Mesolithic period.

Wicks and Mithen (2014) identified:

  1. The arrival of one or more hunter-gatherer (Mesolithic) groups into the area around 8500 BC
  2. A general increase in population until about 6200 BC
  3. A significant drop in population by about 90% by 5500 BC
  4. Low density settlement until about 4800 BC
  5. Rising population until around 4300 BC
  6. Declining population levels until about 3800 BC, at which point some Neolithic activity is observed
  7. The disappearance of Mesolithic communities by around 3400 BC

Elsewhere Mithen (2017) has proposed five stages:

  1. Exploration and pioneering settlement, prior to 7,400 BC
  2. Residential settlement, 7400–5800 BC
  3. Population decline, 5800–5000 BC
  4. Re-colonisation, 5000–3800 BC
  5. Transition to Farming, 4200–3200 BC

Waddington and Wicks (2017) have undertaken similar analysis for the east of Scotland and northeast England, and they identify a familiar pattern:

  1. Initial colonisation around 8500–8300 BC;
  2. Population spread from 8000 BC, moving into the interior around 7770 BC;
  3. Fluctuating Population, 7350–6600 BC
  4. Population reduction, 6600–7600 BC
  5. Population rise, 5600–5400 BC
  6. Decline, 5400–4800 BC
  7. Transition, 4800–4000 BC

The precise details and fluctuations vary across these models, which is only to be expected given the differing nature of the separate areas and the detail available, though the overall trends hold well. While this analysis is useful for ordering our thoughts, it is worth noting that the density of Mesolithic sites across the Highlands is significantly less than elsewhere in Scotland. This means that models like the ones above cannot simply be lifted into the Highlands. They do help to provide a nice narrative, but archaeologists have to be careful because we often do not have the precise evidence on which to confirm these narratives. It is important to make sure that researchers do not bend the evidence to confirm pre-existing paradigms drawn from elsewhere; rather they need to make use of their own sites to identify trends pertinent to the Highlands first.

Waddington’s work (2015) also addresses the impact of the loss of the Doggerland landmass. His work has implications for possible interpretations of Mesolithic settlement in the Highlands in that he suggests that land loss on this scale led to social instability. This is evidenced by the arrival of new groups with narrow blade microliths and the construction of large round structures such as those excavated at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland (Woodman 1985) and South Echline near Edinburgh (Robertson et al 2013). While his models have been much discussed and are at present controversial, they once again provide provocative research statements that could be used to direct future investigation.

SiteAreaDatingSMLSCommentsSource
OliclettC6th millennium BC or earlier xsealed by peatMHG29867; Tipping et al 2007a
Berriedale BraesCAwaiting results xAlso stakeholes, pits and hearthsPeteranna & Williamson 2018
DalmoreER4331–4056 BC
4938–4726 BC
Fill of linear feature and a hearth of a roundhouseEHG5164; SUERC-68318; SUERC-68314; Higgins & Farrell 2016
Fortrose & Rosemarkie WWWER7034–6700 BC  Charcoal (birch) from lower fill of pit which was reused in the Bronze AgeMHG60875; Fraser 2014: Case Study: Fortrose and Rosemarkie Waste Water Works
SUERC-51493
TarradaleERAwaiting results; includes 7th millennium BCxxShell middens, on top and base of raised beach, with good preservation. Dating of artefacts and charcoalPeteranna & Brich 2017c; Tarradale Through Time website; Case Study: Tarradale Through Time
Castle St, InvernessI7025–6462 BC 6604–5712 BC xOld datesMHG3673; Wordsworth 1985
GU-1377, GU-1376
Essich Rd, InvernessI4230–3987 BC  Charcoal at base of plough truncated pitEHG4990
Culduthel Farm Rd, InvernessI4900–4710 BC  Burnt animal bone in pitMHG48627
SUERC-2401
Slackbuie Way, InvernessI6530–6390 BC  Charcoal from lower fill of pitMHG55808; Kilpatrick 2016
SUERC-3497
Muirtown, InvernessI4651–4345 BCx Shell midden, dated by oak charcoalMHG3741
GU-1473
Torbreck Farm, InvernessI4850–4530 BC  Burnt animal bone in fill of part natural depression and part cutMHG46296
GU-11135
Balmakeith, NairnN5980–5750 BC  Oak charcoal in pit. No other Mesolithic artefactsMHG54960; McNichol 2011
SUERC-34177
SandWRA number of dates spanning 8th to 6th centuries millennium BCxxRock shelter and midden, with good preservation. Important excavationMHG29196; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009 (SFS 4); Case Study Sand
Camas DaraichSkyeFour dates, 7th millennium BC   xLithic scatter on a raised beach, including objects of Rum bloodstone and narrow blade microliths.MHG29196; Wickham-Jones and Hardy 2004; Case Study: Scotland’s First Settlers
An Corran (Site A)SkyeEight dates 7th to early 4th millennium BCxxAnimal bone, and lithic and bone tools in shell midden which has multi-period activity. Other nearby sites also with lithic scatters (Sites C (SFS 30), E (SFS 101) and F (SFS 193)MHG6497; Saville et al 2012; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, Case Study An Corran
Staffin BaySkyeEarly 7th millennium BC xLimited excavation; charred hazelnuts and bones, and lithicsLee 2016
Loch a Sguirr 1Skye6640–6420 BC 6222–6020 BCxxMulti-period rock shelter and midden Test pitting.MHG58707; Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009 (SFS 8)
OxA-9305, OxA-9255
Clachan Harbour, RaasaySkye7598–7542 BC 7353–7084 BC  Lithics in and beneath peat in now intertidal zone. Additional dates show sea level change datingMHG52892; Ballin et al 2010; Cressey et al 2010
GU-17165; GU-17166
Loch Doilean SunartL5465–5224 BC 4596–4456 BC 4356–4235 BC xBurnt hazelnut shells from recessed platform and raised terrace. Small scale lithic working.MHG552; Ellis 2016; Ballin 2016
Risga, Loch SunartL5250–4600 BC 4910–4550 BCxxExcavated in 1920s, and 1990s. Good preservation.MHG148; Pollard 2000b; Ashmore 2004a
OxA-2023; OxA-3737
KinlochRumA number of dates, spanning all Mesolithic xLithic working site, pits, stake holes. Multi-period activity. Further evidence nearby – see EHG5330MHG3987; Wickham-Jones 1990; Birch 2018a; Case Study Kinloch Rum
Table 4.2 Radiocarbon dated Mesolithic sites 
All dates cal at 95.4% probability. For full details of dates, see Datasheet 2.1
Key: SM: shell midden; LS: Lithic scatter 
Excluded from Table 4.2 are sites which have yielded Mesolithic radiocarbon dates in soil horizons which cannot be attributed to human activity, or where the Mesolithic period is considered residual. These include Balnuaran of Clava (MHG3013; MHG4366),; Stoneyfield (Raigmore) cairn (MHG45834; MHG54911; see Ashmore 2004a, 115),; Lochloy, Nairn (MHG54243),; Comar Wood Dun (MHG55867), and Lairg, Sutherland (though possibly representing woodland clearance; McCullach and Tipping 1998). 

SiteAreaSMLSCommentsSource
FreswickC xMicroliths and other early lithics reputedly found in multi-period links area. Re-analysis neededMHG1669; Lacaille 1954
PullyhourC x75 lithics including scalene micro-triangles, microliths and microburins under Bronze Age henge. Mainly flintMHG59814; Lamdin-Whymark and Bradley 2011; Case Study: Pullyhour
Battle MossC xDiscovered during excavations relating to investigation of stone rows. Publication awaitedMHG61689
BadanlochS xGreat quantities of flint artefacts reported in 19th century. Finds said to be Mesolithic – needs examiningMHG10584
Baile Mhargait, InvernaverS xSurface scatter of flaked artefacts, including one narrow blade microlithMHG11392
LittleferrySxxMidden and lithics from Mesolithic onwards. Prolific siteMHG11663; Bradley et al 2017; Case Study: Littleferry Links
Milton of CullodenIxxTest trench. Site much disturbedMHG18470
Lower Slackbuie (ASDA site)I xMainly Neolithic site, but Late Mesolithic artefacts, some with signs of heatingEHG3271; Garry nd; Case Study Lower Slackbuie
Kingsteps QuarryN xImplements and flakes reputedly MesolithicMHG6947
Culbin SandsNxxLarge site overlapping into Moray, with multi-period findsCanmore 15941
Loch GartenB&S xLithic scatter, well inlandMHG51764; Saville 2007
Dunachton / Loch InshB&S ?Various lithics associated with layer of charcoal. Possible lithic scatterMHG4451; Wordsworth and Harden 1986; report attached to MHG4451
Glen ShieldaigWR xExcavated in 1970s. Large collection including one Palaeolithic point and microliths, as well as later period lithicsMHG7704; Ballin & Saville 2003; Birch 2013
RedpointWR xLarge lithic scatter eroding from dunes over a large areaMHG7639; Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009, site SFS 9
Applecross ManseWR xSurface collection and shovel pitting. No later material recoveredMHG37293; Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009, site SFS 75
FearnmoreWR x6 test pits recovered large assemblage of lithics, including 3 microliths. Quartz predominated.MHG37316; Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009, site SFS 104
Lub Dubh Aird, Loch TorridonWR xLithic scatter in intertidal zone. One possible Mesolithic scraper, the rest undiagnosticMHG54901; Hardy et al 2015
South CuidrachSkye xPalaeolithic and Mesolithic lithics. Surface collection and testpitting, with more work planned 2020MHG59071; Hardy et al 2018; 2020
OrbostSkye xSurface collection and trial trenchMHG35171
ScalpaySkye xTest pitting and surface collection at various sites by SFS project, with 5 sites producing Mesolithic lithics (Scalpay 3, 6a, 6b, 7 and 8), all but Scalpay 8 are lithic scattersMHG37347, MHG54191MHG58711, MHG58712, MHG38713; Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009, SFS 33, 198, 195, 196, 197
Acharn FarmL xCollected from extensively ploughed field. Large percentage are flint. Includes microliths and microburinsMHG497; Gray 1975
Barr River, MorvernL xTest pitting in 1970s in area disturbed by forestry work recovered Mesolithic lithicsMHG489; Mercer 1979
North Barr River, MorvernL xSurface collection and limited excavation in 2010 on disturbed site. Mesolithic and laterMHG53627; MacGregor 2019; Finlay 2019
KinlochalineL ?Possibly Mesolithic lithicsMHG462
Sanna Bay, ArdnamurchanLx?Multiperiod dune site found early 20th century. Includes ‘shell heaps’, various lithic artefacts including coresMHG14370
Cul na Croise / Drynan Bay, ArdnamurchanL xMultiperiod dune site, heavily disturbed by WWII shelling. Mesolithic artefacts include flintMHG356; Engl and Peteranna in prep
Bruach Na Maorach, Kentra Bay, ArdnamurchanL?xSmall number of flint and quartz artefacts found under peat pre 1950s. Placename means Shellfish BankMHG75
Allt Lochan na Ceardaich, ArdnamurchanL xSurface collection in 1980s after forestry ploughingMHG39319; Ballin 2016
Dahl House, ArdnamurchanL xUnstratified finds discovered when digging drains. Late Mesolithic and laterMHG301; Ballin 2016
Rubh’an Achaidh MhoirL?xQuartz and flint artefacts found pre 1950s. Also ‘shell-refuse and bones’MHG4157
RaonapollRum xLithic scatter, disturbed by roadworksMHG58342
Laga BhollaMuck xMultiperiod lithic scatters identified through test pitting, finds include a bloodstone microlithStephanie Piper pers comm
Table 4.3 Shell middens and lithic scatters containing Mesolithic lithics, but without radiocarbon dating

The relatively small numbers of sites mean that it is misleading to map sites and to single out significant, or interesting sites; we are merely looking at locations where recent archaeologists and communities have led to deeper research. Nevertheless, it is useful to see where activity has taken place, if only to highlight the gaps and to suggest areas for further work (Map 4.1).  

Map 4.1 Mesolithic finds in the Highlands

Use your mouse or touchpad to zoom in and out of the map. 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 4.1  (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).

Although many sites manifest as lithic scatters (see Tables 4.2 and 4.3) there is a need to improve how we record and deal with scatter sites (Wickham-Jones 2020a). Curiously, though lithic scatter sites comprise a significant archaeological resource (the Highland HER records over 70 lithic scatter sites), they are often poorly understood and poorly managed. There are, for example, few scheduled lithic scatter sites in Scotland. Single finds also present problems as many of these may well not be in primary locations, spread by later manuring or other activities. 

The current distribution of material is very coastal, and likely influenced by modern bias (Palaeolithic and Mesolithic panel 6.1). We need to examine the interior of the country, including not just the montane areas, but also the gentler topography of glens and access routes. There are exceptions, for example at Loch Garten, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG51764), and elsewhere in Scotland inland sites have also been identified (Warren et al 2018; Ward 2010; 2017; Wickham-Jones et al 2020).  Finally, of course, we need to consider how relative sea-level change may have skewed the picture. Intertidal sites such as Lub Dubh Aird (MHG5490; Hardy et al 2015), and Clachan Harbour (MHG52892; Ballin et al. 2010) act as a reminder that the sites we find on land do not reflect the original archaeological resource. Examination of forestry planting may provide insights, as has been demonstrated by the Biggar Archaeology Group in South Lanarkshire (Ward 2017), and should be encouraged, especially in areas destined for new planting. 

The major investigations in Highlands have been very much centred on the more southerly areas of the west coast, but increasingly there has been more attention to the east with fieldwalking finds from Caithness, Easter Ross and Inverness and the Tarradale through Time project. Excavation evidence around Inverness is almost all from developer-funded studies which carry their own limitations, and at present can only suggest generalised activity. Exceptions are a shell midden at Muirtown (MHG3741) and lithic working at Castle Street (MHG3673; Wordsworth 1985). It is likely that development has destroyed much of the evidence near the Inverness shore. 

Structures 

There is relatively little evidence for Mesolithic structures throughout Scotland (see Wickham-Jones 2004; Palaeolithic and Mesolithic panel 4.1.2; Robertson 2013). While in the last decades more substantial evidence of hut-like structures has been found in southern Scotland (Mithen and Wicks 2018), only from Camas Daraich (MHG29196; Hardy and Estevez 2014), Kinloch, Rum (MHG3987; Wickham-Jones 1990) and Berriedale Braes, Caithness (Peteranna & Williamson 2018) have structures been proposed for the Highlands.  

The use of caves and rockshelters is well documented in the Highlands on the west coast, (eg by the Scotland’s First Settlers Project; Case study Scotland’s First Settlers Project; Hardy and Wickhayesm-Jones 2009), and there are hints of early activity at Smoo Caves in northwest Sutherland (Pollard 2005, 8). Caves hold great potential for preserving Mesolithic activity. No evidence survives of east coast use of caves, but deglaciation and sea level changes are likely to have resulted in some preservation under water, as is the case to the west. However, the SFS project showed that in their study area most Mesolithic and early Prehistoric sites were not generally large rockshelters, but rather open air scatters or undiagnostic sites. This has implications on how we should prospect for sites in the future (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 9.3). 


 

Case Study: An Corran

Case Study: Scotland’s First Settlers Project

Case Study: Sand

Case Study: Tarradale through Time

Case Study: Kinloch Rum

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