The archaeological record

The earliest dated activity event in Argyll is that of Rubha Port an t-Seilich, Isle of Islay, represented by a collection of chipped flint artefacts dated by association with tephra indicating c. 12,000 cal BP (Mithen et al. 2015) and hence formally within the Palaeolithic. That date, falling in GS-1 (Younger Dryas), is compatible with the technological and typological characteristics of the stone artefacts, which suggest affinities to the Ahrensburgian culture, which is primarily known from north central Europe. Interestingly, an isolated and un-provenanced artefact find from Tiree has also been categorised as an Ahrensburgian point, as have artefacts from outside of Argyll at Shieldig and Links House on Orkney (Ballin and Saville 2003; Woodward 2008), Figure 35.

Figure 35: Artefacts with Ahrensburgian affinities from Rubha Port an t-Seilich and Tiree © copyright

Whether or not designation as Ahrensburgian is either correct and/or useful, the Rubha Port an t-Seilich artefacts indicate a Late Glacial activity event, the first in Scotland that is documented and dated in a stratified context with the potential for further excavation. During the GS-1 period, Britain remained attached to continental Europe by the low-lying landscape of Doggerland. One possible scenario is that Late Glacial hunter-gatherers with specialist skills and technology for the exploitation of coastal and marine resources (travelled from what is now southern Scandinavia along the northern edge of Doggerland and around the northwest of Scotland to reach Rubha Port an t-Seilich. For that they would have required substantial boats; the umiaks used by recent sea-faring foragers in the polar region providing a possible analogy (Fair 2005). In this scenario we would envisage the Late Glacial hunter-gatherers exploring the far northwest fringes of their world, presumably during the warmer summer months. Alternative scenarios are of course possible, such as reaching Argyll by travelling overland from either the south or east, or by sea-faring along the west coast of Britain.

While Rubha Port an t-Seilich is the only directly dated late glacial activity event in Argyll, the possibility for earlier events certainly exists. A chipped stone assemblage from Kilmefort cave has been attributed to the Federmessergruppen culture, which would place it in GI-1c/b (Allerød) of the Late Glacial Interstadial, perhaps c. 13,000 BP, but no absolute dates are available (Saville and Ballin 2009).

Archaeological line drawings of a selection of flint backed piece, showing cross sections, edges and dimensions
Figure 36: Stone artefacts from Kilmefort cave attributed to the Late Glacial Federmessergruppen culture © Marion O’Neil

Until excavation has been undertaken at Rubha Port an t-Seilich, it is impossible to know whether the artefacts present represent a single short term visit or are part of a palimpsest showing a longer-term presence in the region – and even with excavation that might remain unclear. The current assumption is that this was a short-term exploratory visit to the region that did not lead to the establishment of a permanent population with the region.

There is an elapse of almost 2000 years prior to the next known activity event in Argyll, or indeed western Scotland in general. This is located at Creit Dhu in NW Mull at c. 10,230 cal BP, represented by two statistically consistent radiocarbon dates both from charred hazelnut shell fragments excavated from adjacent and heavily truncated pits (Wicks and Mithen, forthcoming). It is not possible to associate specific artefacts with this activity event at Creit Dubh, but the assemblage at the site is entirely narrow blade in technology and hence we assume this was in use at Creit Dubh at 10,230 cal BP. This activity event is one of the earliest in Scotland, statistically equivalent to that of Daer 1, but c. 200 years younger than Cramond, near Edinburgh. The route by which the west coast was reached remains entirely unknown: perhaps across the interior of Scotland, by boat around the north or from the south?

The event at Creit Dubh is followed after a further c. 800 years by an event at Kinloch on the Isle of Rum. Both Creit Dubh and Kinloch are notable for having extensive Mesolithic deposits that primarily accumulated several hundred years after these first and presumably exploratory visits. Creit Dubh was visited again in the time period 9400-9000 cal BP, as were at least four other locations within Argyll: Staosnaig (Isle of Colonsay), Fiskary (Isle of Coll), Rubha Port an t-Seilich (Isle of Islay) and Druimvargie Cave (Oban). These earliest activity events in Argyll, especially those at Rubha Port an t-Seilich and Creit Dubh raises one of the perennial questions about colonisation: why do people explore? Even more pertinent is why do people make journeys into the unknown to visit small islands that would have involved substantial effort and risk? One answer is that, on the first visit at least, they would not have known that the land sighted on the horizon across the sea was necessarily an island – it may have been the edge of a new landmass. Another answer is that of human curiosity: even since the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa around 70,000 years ago, our species appears to have had an unquenchable thirst to explore all corners of the world at the first opportunity, including those presenting hostile conditions.

Whether or not these exploratory visits were undertaken by members of a single population-line and hence resulted in the gradual accumulation of geographical knowledge about the region is, of course, unclear. But as they increased in frequency after 9400 cal BP and led to a resident population within the region, such geographical knowledge – that about the topography, resource availability, climate and weather – would have developed and been passed from generation to generation, no doubt largely by stories and song. The dilemma, of course, was that the environment was in a state of dramatic flux, with rising sea level, changes in tidal range and colonisation followed by succession of flora and fauna. As such the hunter-gatherers were constantly required to revise their knowledge and expectations about the region.