3.4.4 Settlement Evidence and Timber ‘Square-in-circle’ Structures

Dating to the Early Neolithic, Scotland’s large rectangular timber ‘halls’ are associated with the first few generations of incoming farmers. They may well have served as communal houses for several family groups who had moved into an area, until such time as they felt sufficiently well established to separate into individual farming groups (Sheridan 2013; for a discussion of other interpretations of these structures, see Brophy 2007b). Now located in the Stirling local authority area, the timber hall at Claish near Callander was excavated in 2001 (Barclay et al 2003). It was revealed to be a large rectangular timber building with bowed ends and internal divisions, of a similar scale to Balbridie, Aberdeenshire. It measures c 25m by c 9.5m and Bayesian-modelled radiocarbon dates suggest that it was built and used between around 3700 and 3650 cal BC (Whittle et al 2011, 810, Fig. 14.174). A large assemblage of traditional Carinated Bowl pottery, cereal grains and hearths exhibiting repeating episodes of burning was found. Despite its superficial similarities with the Middle Neolithic mortuary enclosures of Tayside and Fife such as Littleour (MPK6955), Claish was clearly a roofed structure of Early Neolithic date (Barclay et al 2002; Brophy 2007b).

Several other timber hall sites have been identified across Perth and Kinross from the cropmark record, with notable examples at Westerton in Strathearn (MPK6491) and Fortingall in Glen Lyon (MPK459). Like Claish, these rectangular examples appear to have morphological similarities to the excavated, more widely spaced Middle Neolithic post-built mortuary enclosures at Littleour and Carsie Mains (MPK6977). However, excavation will be required to determine whether these sites are roofed timber halls from the Early Neolithic, unroofed structures from the Middle Neolithic or indeed early medieval halls (as discussed in Millican 2009; Brophy 2007b).

Early Neolithic settlement evidence in the form of small rectangular timber buildings is very rare across mainland Scotland (cf Brophy 2016) and no example is currently known in Perth and Kinross. It has been suggested that the structure at Carsie Mains (MPK6977) was a possible house (Toolis 2011). Nonetheless, it is far more likely to be a Middle Neolithic mortuary structure based on the date of 3341–2910 cal BC  and the fact that the arrangement of posts does not represent a configuration capable of supporting a roof (Brophy and Barclay 2004).

It has been argued that pits are an indicator of, or proxy for, Neolithic settlement (Brophy and Noble 2011) and several instances of individual pits and clusters of pits have been recorded in the region. Examples that offer potential in this regard are at Grandtully in Strathtay (MPK6035; Simpson and Coles 1991) which produced pottery of Middle Neolithic type, at Wellhill in Strathearn (MPK7184 & MPK7185; Canmore 84910 & 355298; Wright and Brophy forthcoming) and at Bothy Wood (MPK17919). The latter was excavated in advance of the Logierait Reinforcement pipeline construction in 2009 (Gray and Kirby 2009). Pits were also found during excavations in 2018 as part of A9 Dualling between Luncarty and the Pass of Birnam (EPK1387; Paton and Wilson 2019). Over 400 sherds of Neolithic pottery were found in these pits; they ranged from four sherds from at least two Early Neolithic Carinated Bowls, 12 sherds from two Middle Neolithic Impressed Ware vessels, and the vast majority of Late Neolithic Grooved Ware from at least 23 vessels (Milburn and McLaren 2021). This material offers further proxy evidence for a richly settled Neolithic landscape with the potential for structures surviving and awaiting discovery beyond the limits of the development area. Late Neolithic pits are not common in Perth and Kinross, and so the discovery of several containing Grooved Ware at this site is noteworthy. In 2017 over 40 pits or postholes were excavated in advance of the construction of an agricultural shed at Hallhole Farm (MPK19100), a site situated 700m south of the Cleaven Dyke (MPK6611) which produced 830 sherds of pottery representing around 130 vessels (Fyles 2017). The assemblage included Early Neolithic modified Carinated Bowl pottery, Middle Neolithic Impressed Ware and Late Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery as well as evidence of a knapping floor and some 300 lithics and stone tools (Fyles 2017).

With more evidence emerging through archaeological investigations, the question arises whether a series of Late Neolithic timber ‘square-in-circle’ structures, characterised by a central square setting of four massive timbers surrounded by one or more circle and often associated with Grooved Ware pottery, were places of habitation or solely of ceremony – and indeed whether all, or any, were roofed (cf Greaney et al 2020). As indicated elsewhere in this chapter, opinions differ. Leadketty (MPK5150; MPK1977; Wright and Brophy forthcoming) and Haughs of Pittentian, Crieff (MPK18545; Becket 2014; Becket et al forthcoming) are excavated examples in Perth and Kinross, and other potential examples are evident in the cropmark record for example at Green of Invermay near Forteviot (MPK1948). The Leadketty structure was associated with Grooved Ware and the flat base of a pot that is certain to be Grooved Ware was found at Pittentian. Similar-looking structures have been found elsewhere in Scotland, on Machrie Moor, Arran (Haggarty 1992) where one pre-dated a stone circle and at Greenbogs, Aberdeenshire (Noble et al 2012) where a domestic function was suggested. Examples found elsewhere in Britain and Ireland include one that formed part of a major timber ceremonial complex at Ballynahatty, Co. Down (Hartwell 2002), another located outside the entrance to the Eastern passage tomb at Knowth in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath (Eogan and Roche 1999), and two inside the Durrington Walls ‘mega henge’, Wiltshire (Thomas 2010). A discussion of the nature, significance and distribution of the almost 30 examples known from Britain and Ireland has recently been published by Greaney et al (2020, 228, Fig. 17). Discussing the Durrington Walls examples, Thomas argued that these structures were possibly lineage shrines or cult houses – monumentalised versions of houses (Thomas 2010). This idea of ‘Great Houses’ has also been expressed by others (Noble et al 2012; Brophy 2016) but alternative interpretations as other kinds of ceremonial structure, not necessarily roofed, are equally plausible. Sixteen of these structures have been dated across Britain and Ireland (Greaney et al 2020) and while most appear to date to the second quarter of the third millennium BC, the example from Haughs of Pittentian seems to date to the first quarter of that millennium (Becket et al forthcoming). The example from Machrie Moor, Arran, also dates to around this time, possibly a little earlier (Copper et al 2018). The outward-flaring nature of the postpipes at this site is also of interest, since they are suggestive of a roof or the need to support some other heavy elevated structure (Becket 2014; Becket et al forthcoming). An unroofed, half-scale re-imagining of the structure has been constructed in the grounds of the Strathearn Community Campus.