5.3.6 Appearance of the Neolithic

At some point between 6300 cal BP and 5800 cal BP a wholly novel lifestyle based on agro-pastoral farming, and featuring a new technology (pottery) and many other novelties in material culture, belief and practices, appeared in Argyll. Sheridan (2010) interprets the evidence as the arrival of small groups of farmers ultimately from continental Europe. She argues that the alternative interpretation – that indigenous hunter-gatherers adopted a Neolithic lifestyle as a result of long-standing, long-distance and regular contacts with the Continent (eg Thomas 2013) – lacks any credible supporting evidence.

According to Sheridan (2010), Argyll has evidence for two strands of Neolithisation The first relates to a northward movement up the Atlantic façade of small groups of settlers from the Morbihan region of Brittany, as attested by the Morbihan-style closed megalithic chamber and simple passage tomb, with Morbihan-style pottery (including a Late Castellic bowl), at Achnacreebeag (Figure 49; Ritchie 1970; Sheridan 2010). Similar monuments are known elsewhere in western Scotland, such as the north-west chamber at Greadal Fhinn in Ardnamurchan (Ritchie 1970, 37), at the north-west and south-west tips of Wales, and around the northern half of Ireland, these always being in coastal (or near-coastal) locations. No settlements or other evidence relating to the builders of these monuments have yet been found in Britain and Ireland. Similarly, there is no radiocarbon date for the construction of the Achnacreebeag monument (and no chance of obtaining such a date), while radiocarbon dates obtained for similar monuments at Carrowmore in County Sligo, Ireland, have been subject to trenchant (and justified) critique (Bergh and Hensey 2013). At present their dating, and that of Late Castellic pottery, is based on dates from Brittany and Normandy, where they fall between 6300 BP and c 5900 BP. The British and Irish monuments and pottery are also likely to fall within this date bracket, and could lie towards its end.

The second strand of Neolithisation in Argyll is argued to derive from a different northward movement, again of small numbers of immigrant farmers, this time from the Nord-Pas de Calais; this has been named the ‘Carinated Bowl [or ‘CB’] Neolithic’ (Sheridan 2007). Its appearance in Argyll – extending as far north as Islay and the Cowal peninsula, as excavations at Newton and Port Charlotte on Islay, and at Auchategan, Glendaruel make clear (McCullagh 1989; Harrington and Pierpoint 1980; Marshall 1978, and see Sheridan 2012 on the ‘CB Neolithic’ presence in Kilmartin Glen; Figure 26) – is likely to relate to a rapid south-westerly spread of settlers from eastern Scotland, moving along major river valleys and the Great Glen, rather than to direct movement from northern France. More is known about these people than the first Neolithic arrivals. In addition to their distinctive pottery style (Carinated Bowl pottery – one of several variants of Chasseo-Michelsberg pottery that developed around the end of the fifth millennium in northern France and Belgium), we know that:

  • In some parts of Scotland the first arrivals built large rectangular communal timber houses (halls), staying there until people felt sufficiently well established to ‘bud off’ into individual households;
  • They initially used non-megalithic communal funerary monuments, usually involving rectangular timber mortuary structures that were usually burnt down and covered by long or round mounds; importantly, however, we know that they also buried their dead in the cave at Raschoille near Oban (Connock 1986 ; Bonsall et al. 2012), and elsewhere in Scotland (and Ireland) they also cremated people on open pyres, covering them with round mounds (as at Boghead, Aberdeenshire: Sheridan 2010);
  • They brought with them their sacred and ancient axeheads made of jadeitite and other Alpine rocks, as precious and talismanic heirlooms (rather than as workaday axeheads);
  • They introduced to Scotland the practice of using ground stone axeheads – necessary for clearing the forest and working timber for their houses, tools and monuments – and they sought out good sources of stone for making them;
  • They also introduced new styles of small lithic artefact (eg leaf-shaped arrowheads) and a new style of knapping flint (Warren 2005), and they also sought good-quality flint and other types of stone; furthermore, they introduced technology relating to the processing of cereals (i.e. saddle querns and rubbers);
  • They rapidly established networks of contact over which they exchanged objects (such as pitchstone artefacts and stone axeheads), ideas and probably people;
  • They grew cereals (wheat and barley) and flax in small plots on good agricultural land that they had sought out, and kept domesticated cattle, sheep/goats and pigs. They also hunted wild animals (as is clear from the yew bow found at Rotten Bottom, Dumfries and Galloway: Sheridan 2007) but they did not consume marine foods (Schulting and Richards 2002). The site at Auchategan (Marshall 1978) suggests that they practised transhumance, this being a probable summer camp.

The date of the arrival of the CB Neolithic in Argyll is likely to fall within the first two centuries of the sixth millennium cal BP (see Sheridan 2012b for a critique of Whittle et al.’s (2011) Bayesian-modelled dates for its appearance in different parts of Scotland). It may therefore have been roughly contemporary with the Breton strand of Neolithisation, or may have post-dated it by several generations.