4.7 Transport and Movement

Lifestyles in both the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic revolved around mobility within a wide territory. This makes the archaeology of the period almost by definition a study of movement, the movement of people through the landscape and the movement of resources. However, mobility can be difficult to demonstrate archaeologically (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 1.3).


The first groups to settle in the Highland region towards the end of the last Ice Age moved in from outside of the Highlands. Lower relative sea-levels and a dynamic coastline as the world recovered from the impact of the ice sheets mean that the origins of these communities has to be sought further afield, though precise evidence is, so far, lacking across Scotland. The ability for people to move around the northern shores of Doggerland as the coastline became ice free is one possible explanation for how groups travelled to settle in the Highlands, as is movement across the interior of Doggerland. At sites like Howburn, South Lanarkshire, and some of the Deeside sites, there are early stone tools made of non-local flint that may well have been imported from Doggerland (Ballin et al 2018). Exploratory and colonising groups were moving into unknown territory, and they tended to carry carefully curated raw materials in order to ensure survival. As communities settled down and learnt the lay of the land there is more evidence for the use of local stone and other raw materials; this evidence is found on slightly later sites.

With regard to the Mesolithic, the evidence for new populations is at present unclear. While population levels certainly grew and the lifestyle changed, this may have had more to do with ameliorating conditions and developments in technology rather than the influx of new communities. Further evidence is needed. In the Highland region there is still very little evidence for the earliest Mesolithic groups, or indeed for the Late Upper Palaeolithic populations compared to that found in the east or south. No doubt more will emerge in decades to come.

The lack of human remains from the Highlands means there has been no possibility for isotopic analysis or aDNA (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 5.2.3) both of which can shed light on mobility and origins. Nevertheless, the possibility of using animal bone from archaeological sites as a proxy is now being developed. While this lack of evidence also impacts on the understanding of the Mesolithic-Neolithic interface in the Highlands, the advent of farmers into the region is likely to follow the general pattern set up elsewhere across the country. The migration, in various episodes, of farming groups from the Continent is now generally accepted and supported by both artefactual and genetic evidence (see Chapter 5).

Territory and Mobility

Ethnographic parallels have been used to estimate the size of the range of hunter-gatherer-fishers in the landscape. While these help to expand our interpretations, there are local issues of topography, environment, resources, and group preferences that need to be taken into account when applying these studies to any particular region. It is also important to remember that the peoples of the recent past, or present, can never be used as direct analogies for the people of the more distant past. Linking the nature of movement to archaeological remains is also difficult. While many possible types of sites have been recognised (eg base camps, kill sites, butchery areas, overnight stops, preparation sites) it is hard to be certain as to their identification on the ground. Is it possible to distinguish a base camp from which people foraged over a period of some weeks, from a site made up of many different one night stop offs over a number of years (ScARF Palaeolithic and Mesolithic section 6.1)? On occasion, the finds offer some clue, such as when a specific animal resource provides hints about seasonality. At Sand seasonality evidenced by the bird bones suggested a particular period of focus to at least some of the activity (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 9.4.9). Further studies on well-preserved sites are needed. 

The long period in question also means that changes to well-established patterns of movement are likely, especially when the known fluctuations in climate are factored in. This highlights the need for regional studies with good dating.

Movement of raw materials

A greyscale map with black dots showing the distribution of bloodstone lithics found in the Western Highlands
A map of known bloodstone sites in the Western Highlands. ©Torben Ballin credit Fiona Jackson

Given the limited nature of some raw material sources, in particular stone, these artefacts provide some of the best evidence for mobility across the Highland region in the Mesolithic. It is not currently possible to determine whether raw material was obtained directly or transported and passed on to other groups via indirect exchange networks. There is limited evidence for long distance exchange at this time although for the Highlands, the evidence of Rùm bloodstone is particularly interesting. While the source is localised to Rùm, artefacts of bloodstone occur up to 80 km from the source on the island with a few outliers (Ballin 2016, 35; 2018) and there is evidence that it was knapped on site.  A similar picture is emerging for the baked mudstones and tuffs from Skye (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009, 9.6.3). This pattern of mobility within a limited area is interesting; it perhaps defines some sort of territorial familiarity and makes the occurrence of occasional outliers even more noteworthy. Further work to identify the movement of specific lithic materials across the region, and any changes with over time, would be particularly rewarding.

Means of Transport

Evidence elsewhere suggests that the Late Upper Palaeolithic groups who moved into Scotland are likely to have travelled overland; they were certainly able to cross major rivers and made use of coastal resources. By the time of the Mesolithic there is plentiful evidence from around northwest Europe that communities were not only travelling by sea, but also that some groups were highly specialised in the exploration of marine and coastal landscapes. While no evidence of transport survives, the presence of numerous Mesolithic sites on Scottish islands, shows that boats must have been common. Without evidence, it is not possible to determine the nature of these boats. Logboats, crafts made of bark, or framed boats covered with hides are all possible options for Mesolithic travel and a glimpse of the sort of craft that may have existed can be seen in some of the (only slightly later) Scandinavian rock art (Palaeolithic and Mesolithic panel, 6.1). These different types of boat are also not mutually exclusive. While logboats and small coracle type vessels would have been better on inland waters, hide or bark covered vessels might have been more useful at sea.

Illustration of Mesolithic life at Tarradale for Tarradale Through Time by Pat Haynes. ©Pat Haynes

Transport across land was often not as easy away from the watercourses, especially in forested areas. Routeways, though well-known, may well not have been easily visible to prehistoric people in this early period. Some sort of travois or sled would have been useful across open ground, though in most cases material goods would have been carried by hand. The lack of archaeological evidence for such an important aspect of life is frustrating for researchers.