There has been a long history of antiquarian and archaeological research within Argyll, a history that remains to be fully documented and understood. While some of this research was explicitly related to what we now refer to as the Mesolithic, notably the shell middens on Oronsay, other research explored prehistoric archaeology in general, discovering Mesolithic, and potentially Palaeolithic, remains during its course. The antiquarian studies of Neolithic archaeology were centred on the explorations of the chambered cairns. While this brief review covers some aspects of the history of Neolithic research, readers are referred to Sheridan’s chapter on the Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age in Simpson and Webb (eds) 2017 Regional Archaeological Research Framework for Argyll for further information regarding that period.
The best known of the antiquarian studies are those undertaken by William Galloway and Symington Grieve on Oronsay between 1881 and 1884, and then by A. Henderson Bishop and Mungo Buchanan on the same island between 1910 and 1913, their work being summarised by Mellars (1987, 117-32). The end of the 19th century also saw the discovery of midden deposits in caves and rockshelters at Oban by Anderson, notably MacArthur Ca in 1894 and Druimvargie Cave rockshelter in 1897 (Saville 2004a). Finds that we would now designate as Mesolithic were also being made on the mainland, such as at Campletown where Gray (1894) attributed flints below a Bronze Age urn to be ‘Palaeolithic’. These and other antiquarians also worked elsewhere in Argyll, generating important artefactual collections that are likely to contain Mesolithic material, and perhaps that of earlier periods of human activity. In 1903, for instance, Erskine Beveridge (1903) undertook the first systematic description of standing monuments and artefact scatters on Tiree.
The beginning of the 20th century also saw the explorations of the chambered cairns on Arran, Bute and Islay by Professor Thomas Bryce (1902, 1904). Bryce was particularly interested in craniometry, which was popular science at the time, but also made plans of the monuments and described both finds and the architecture in some detail. It is unfortunate from the scientific point of view of today that much of the human bone he collected has been lost.
Henderson Bishop made several visits to Tiree between 1905 and 1913, undertaking the excavation of a hut structure at Balevullin in 1912, this being managed by Mungo Buchannan and later published by Mackie (1964a), who was predominantly concerned with the Iron Age hut and the associated material culture. Bishop’s collection of chipped stone artefacts from Balevullin and other nearby sand dune sites was recently analysed by Anne Pirie, noting probable multi-period nature of the assemblage including those labelled by either Bishop or Buchanan as coming from the ‘Neolithic workshop’ (Mithen et al. in prep). The inhumation burials discovered during the excavations in 1912 were attributed to the Iron Age, but are now known to be Neolithic including a radiocarbon dated skeleton with the earliest case of rickets in Britain (Armit et al. 2015; 5310-5030 cal BP, 3360-3080 cal BC).
Ludovic Mann made visits to Coll and Tiree every July from 1904-1907, and in 1912 to Tiree alone. He undertook excavations at Cornaig in 1905 (Mann 1906, and see MacKie 1964 for comments) and made subsequent visits to this site in 1907, as well as working at Balevullin alongside Bishop (MacKie 1964a). The archaeological careers of Mann, Bishop and Buchanan often intertwined and Mann’s is particularly well presented by Graham Ritchie (2002), revealing his passion for public archaeology. Unfortunately, not all of Mann’s explorations have made it to print, including his excavation in c 1930 at Ardachearanbeg chambered cairn in Cowal (RCAHMS 1988).
With regard to antiquarian/archaeological studies between the wars, we should note John de Vere Loder’s (1935) book Colonsay and Oronsay in the Isle of Argyll. This made a concise description and insightful interpretation of the Oronsay shell middens while also collating evidence from Colonsay that could potentially be Azilian – the term being used prior to the adoption of Mesolithic. Further evidence was accumulating from throughout Argyll, including collections of Mesolithic artefacts from Campbeltown (Saville 2004a). George Holleyman collected artefacts while on Tiree while being stationed there as an RAF Corporal during World War II. His collections of metal, pottery and chipped stone artefacts from dune areas at Balevullin and Balephuil, which are in the care of An Iodhlann, Tiree’s historical centre – and include material likely to be Mesolithic in date.
These discoveries late 19th and early 20th century discoveries were drawn upon in the first synthesis of the Stone Age in Scotland, Lacaille’s 1954 book of that name which was, however, primarily focussed on the Mesolithic. While applauding Lacaille’s volume as a useful compendium for all of the Mesolithic evidence up until the 1950s, Saville (2004a) notes several shortcomings of Lacaille’s treatment of the Mesolithic. These include his view that the earliest Mesolithic material in Scotland was a version of the Irish so-called Larnian material and the manner in which it perpetuated the idea that late Mesolithic traditions persisted in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods – although that idea remains of interest.
Post-Lacaille (1954), Mesolithic evidence continued to accumulate within Argyll via the work of both professional archaeologists and amateur collectors, the latter making an especially important contribution, as they continue to do so today. On Islay, for instance, Frank Newall collected Mesolithic artefacts from several locations in the late 1950s and early ’60s, reporting these in Discovery and Excavation Scotland (eg Newall 1959, 1962). John Crawford began fieldwork on Coll in 1975 and visited the island nearly every year for a quarter of a century, collecting c. 12,000 artefacts, including some 4000 pieces of chipped stone, primarily from ‘sandhill’ sites on the northwest coast of the island. Crawford donated his collection to the National Museum of Scotland. A selection of his work was published in 1997, with Finlayson commenting on the chipped stone and any Mesolithic affinities (Crawford 1997).
In more recent times, Argyll has benefitted from a relatively substantial amount of Mesolithic research compared to other regions of Scotland: the campaign of excavations by Tom Affleck on Arran (eg Affleck et al. 1988), John Mercer (eg 1968, 1970a, 1970b, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1980) on Jura, the excavations by Paul Mellars (1987) of the Oronsay middens, McCullagh’s (1989) excavation of Newton , Islay, Clive Bonsall’s work in Ulva Cave (Bonsall et al. 1991, 1992), Mull and Tony Pollard’s excavation at Risga (Pollard 2000; Pollard et al. 1996). Although formally outside of Argyll, we should also note Caroline Wickham-Jones’s (1990) excavations at Kinloch Fields, Rum, and work with Hardy and colleagues in the Inner Sound forming the First Settlers Project (Hardy and Wickham-Jones 2009). Between 1988-1998 The Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project (SHMP) examined Mesolithic settlement on Islay and Colonsay (Mithen 2000). Mesolithic sites have also been found in the course of projects exploring later prehistoric and historic settlement, notable at Kilellan Farm, Islay (Ritchie 2005), while a shell midden most likely contemporary with those on Oronsay was discovered at Port Lobh, Colonsay in 2007. Between 2004 and 2014, Mithen and Wicks undertook survey for and excavations of Mesolithic sites on Coll (Mithen et al. 2007a; Wicks and Mithen forthcoming), Tiree (Mithen et al. 2007b) and NW Mull (Mithen and Wicks 2010c). In 2010 they began further work on Islay (Mithen and Wicks 2010a,b; 2011a,b; Wicks et al. 2014), which remains on-going at the time of writing. The public engagement associated with this recent fieldwork on Islay, Colonsay, Coll and Mull has resulted in a network of local collectors with a significant increase in the number of potential Mesolithic sites located within this region.
Such archaeological work has often been closely involved with palaeoenvironmental studies, reconstructing changes in sea level and vegetation history (eg Dawson and Dawson 2000; Edwards 2000; Sugden and Edwards 2000). Such studies have provided vital evidence for the chronology of human settlement and its impact on the landscape (Tipping 2012), in some instances where archaeological evidence is either scarce, ambiguous or entirely lacking (eg Gregory et al. 2005). Laboratory-based studies, such as on the isotopic composition of human and animal bones (Schulting and Richards 2002; Richards and Mellars 1998; Richards et al. 2003), have also made a key contribution to what has become one of the best studied Mesolithic records in Britain.