Prehistoric settlers in Scotland similar to first peoples of North America or Australia, new book reveals

| 04 April 2015

Andy Heald and John Barber, the authors of a new book on archaeology in north-east Scotland, on cattle, cairns and settlers

A photo of stones on a hill
Camster Round with Camster Long in the background© Andy Heald / John Barber
“One can scarcely go a quarter of a mile in any direction among the Yarrows Landscape hills without meeting with ancient structural remains of one kind or another.

Situated on the eastern coast of the county, the Yarrows and Watenan area is one of the richest concentrations of well-preserved historical and archaeological remains of all periods in northern mainland Britain.

The absence of industrial-scale agriculture in the area has ensured the survival of important archaeological and historical monuments together with the spaces – now fossil landscapes – in which they were built.

In 1985, a survey of the area recorded 240 sites. Over the last few years, evidence for Mesolithic activity has been uncovered on the Thrumster Estate by Islay MacLeod.

Islay is a central figure in Caithness’ archaeology. Aside from her particular interest in the Yarrows landscape, she is very passionate about the county’s heritage.

This is not only one of the key landscapes in Caithness archaeology but for hundreds of years has been home to, and a magnet for, people who are passionate about the area’s heritage. Islay both continues and develops this long tradition.

Islay discovered Mesolithic flint. The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age lasted from about 8000 to 4000 BC in Scotland and was characterised by hunter-gatherers who would catch fish, hunt sea and land mammals and collect plant food and shellfish.

They fashioned tiny chipped flints which were used singly or set in rows to form arrowheads and knives.

Excavated evidence for them has been found at Oliclett. Mesolithic people appear to have built relatively slight structures in wood, a material which of course decays completely and therefore does not leave any monumental evidence – remains that are visible to the unaided eye at ground level.

We speak of Mesolithic ‘sites’, not Mesolithic ‘monuments’. The absence of monumental remains does not diminish the importance of Mesolithic sites; after all, these people were our earliest ancestors.

The Neolithic period is characterised by the introduction of farming at, or soon after, 4000 BC. Neolithic people lived in Caithness in lightly wooded landscapes with far less bogland than currently exists and in a climate that was warmer by about two degrees centigrade.

Theirs was a mixed economy, with arable and pasture in their domesticated landscapes and a reliance on hunting and gathering in the wildscapes beyond their settlements.

Archaeological remains indicate that they kept cattle and pigs and grew barley and wheat. They built complex stone monuments – the chambered cairns. Some of these may have been intended to contain human remains, whilst others could have been built as temples – but all reverted to burial sites once abandoned, like many medieval Christian churches.

Mesolithic settlers in Caithness had lifestyles comparable with the first peoples of North America or Australia and probably burned off areas of woodland to provide improved grazing grounds, into which the larger land mammals would concentrate and could be hunted more efficiently.

With so little direct evidence available, the Mesolithic period provides an intellectual challenge for cultural archaeologists. Much ink has been spilled on the precise nature of Mesolithic people’s social arrangements.

In general, it is believed that their population numbers were small, that they lived in small communities – possibly made up of extended families – and that the communities occupied relatively large territories around which they moved seasonally to exploit the diffuse food resources of Scotland.

There is a similarly extensive, and at times intemperate, literature on the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. Opinions range from the extermination and replacement of Mesolithic populations by Neolithic farmers to their peaceful assimilation into the new regime.

For some archaeologists there was a more or less instant transition from Meso to Neo, while for others the transition occurred over a protracted period with complex interactions between the both periods and their peoples.

These discussions, or arguments, also depend on the vehicle for the introduction of the Neolithic: was it a wave of new settlers or did the knowledge of farming arrive with only a few new people – or did it evolve spontaneously?”

  • You can find out more by buying Caithness Archaeology, Aspects of Prehistory, which will be published by in May 2015.

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