Prehistoric Scotland: Neolithic Era

Prehistoric Scotland: Neolithic Era

Neolithic Scotland

4000bc - 2500bc

Although there was no abrupt transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic, it is likely that there was a gradual adoption of the Neolithic technologies rather than an incoming people which caused the changes which occured. The Neolithic is an archaeological construct which means the moving away from a hunter gatherer way of life to a settled farming one. Other changes are important too, permanent settlements, new religious beliefs resulting in tombs and 'temples' being constructed, new forms of flint and stone tools, and the introduction of pottery. Taken together, this was a total change in the way of life of the people who lived in what is now Scotland.


It is during this period that nomadic society transforms into permanent agricultural settlements. This change is one of the most important advancements of Man since his arrival in Britain. He developed from a hunter-gather, virtually dependent of his environment, into a creature able to adapt to the world to suit his needs, and for the first time, distinct people can be recognized.

We know that farming was being practiced in the western Mediterranean and there are several theories about how it came to Britain. The original view, now not as accepted, was that there was a large migration westwards of people skilled in agriculture. But this idea has great technical and logistical problems associated with it and has largely been discarded. The second theory is that small numbers (instead of full-scale) migrations of farmers crossed the Channel, bringing their livestock and seeds with them, established themselves close to the shorelines and their new practices were soon adopted by the indigenous population (a process known as acculturation). Yet a third explanation suggests that Mesolithic Man was more inventive than has been accepted. It is likely that fisherman or sea-traders learned about agriculture from the continent and brought his new knowledge home to Britain. Even more plausible is that it was a combination of all three. What we do know, regardless of how it arrived, farming was introduced to Scotland about 4000 BCE.

In some areas, the clearing of forests, a process needed for large-scale agriculture began then as well. But that is not to imply that they simply stopped being hunter-gathers and all became farmers. Hunting animals for food continued as a main lifestyle in the island of Jura and many farmers continued to supplement their crop diet with meat and fish.

To begin with there would have been few farmers and it would have taken centuries for any changes to become noticeable in the landscape. Areas of woodland would have to be cleared, and for this reason axes were very important to the Neolithic farmer. These axes were produced locally at sites such as Creag na Caillich north of Killin in Perthshire as well as at Tayside and Grampian, and were also imported from Great Langdale in Cumbria and Tievebulliagh in Antrim. After the trees were removed the soil was broken with simple hoe-type or ard implements. Slash-and-burn evidence is widely spread across the country but most of the evidence for Neolithic settlement comes from tombs rather than the settlements themselves.

The thick forests, which had covered the land during the hottest eras, had given way to broad mixed woodlands of pine, oak, willow, birch and adler. One theory suggests the North of Scotland was already treeless by 3000 BCE. The climate, in Lowland Scotland, was similar to those temperatures now experienced in southern Britain, making the region ripe for colonisation.

Although there is no archaeological record of wooden Neolithic fencing, surely this must have been employed to enclose cattle and other livestock, and to protect arable fields from large predators.

In Skara Brae (more on this later), land was cultivated by the whole village working together, thereby using the lands resources to their fullest potential.

Farms and Villages and Settlements

[Knapp of Howar]
Scotland's oldest homestead, on the Knap of Howar, Orkney, (right) originally stood well inland beside fertile farmland, as opposed to their present exposed location close to Papa Westray's rocky shoreline. Years of erosion have made the ancient settlements close to the sea, when in fact they were inland of it.

Of settlement sites less is known, the most famous being Skara Brae in Orkney. Skara Brae (more on this later) survived virtually intact due to being covered for many centuries and also the fact that stone was used extensively in the construction rather than wood, which would have been the normal construction material on the heavily forested mainland. Other stone settlements to survive include Knap of Howar and Scord of Brouster. At Knap of Howar the individual houses are separate while at Skara Brae they are clustered together and linked with passages. The individual houses had a central hearth and alcoves in the walls for storage. A Skara Brae type house has also been discovered at Rinyo. On mainland Scotland Neolithic longhouses have been discovered at Balbridie in northern Kincardineshire and at Crathes and Monboddo, these last two have not been excavated, however, and their dating is less certain.

There are two Neolithic sites at the Knap of Howar [reference: Prehistoric Scotland, MacSween and Sharp], each built about 3400 BCE. Curiously, the settlers there sunk their houses deep in an existing midden (a refuse pile), so they almost appear to be underground burrows, or almost prehistoric defensive shelters. Previously they did live next to the middens in the Mesolithic Age, but no one is quite certain why (at Knap of Howar, and others) they built their homes deep in this unhygienic condition.

One theory follows as such: "the ancients were pretty wise about how to manipulate nature to their advantage, and it has been suggested that the slow decay from the middens literally surrounding these house-burrows, provided a natural 'heating' process as the refuse decayed. It probably also attracted animals following the scent making for easy hunting". [Simpson, DDA, Economy and Settlement in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and Europe, ed, rv].

Whist it seems offensive by today's standards, method would ensure all-season warmth, creeping into the lowest stone levels of the burrows. Fires sometimes could not be built inside these stone burrows (and indeed wood at the Knap of Howar was probably scarce).

In contrast, at Jarlshof (Shetland), the earliest remains comprise several oval houses, built 2400 BCE. Although similar to those of the Knapp of Howar, Jarlshof's designs was of a number of cells leading from a roughly circular central area.

Great timber halls have been unearthed in the Grampians and at Townhead on the Isle of Bute. This suggests that communal living or gathering places were more common in the Highlands and Islands than ever expected.

Other Neolithic monuments in Scotland include henges and stone circles. Henges are widely spread across the country including Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian, Balfarg in Fife and two in Orkney - the Ring of Brogar and the Stones of Stenness. A henge is a banked and ditched enclosure, there is a central platform enclosed by a deep ditch, the ditch material is then thrown onto the outer edge to form a bank around the whole. At Stenness it has been estimated that over 20,000 man hours of work was required to build the henge. The interior of the henge occasionally includes a stone circle but rectangular and wooden structures have also been identified. The use(s) to which henges were put is a much debated topic with the full spectrum from settlement to religious being put forward, it is likely that they were put to various uses at diffrent periods.

Skara Brae

[Skara Brae]Undoubtedly the finest prehistoric monument in ancient Scotland. If it were located in a more accessible and southerly position, this fine Neolithic village would probably rival Stonehenge in popularity. It really wasn't discovered until 1850 AD during a great winter storm which swept over Orkney and Shetland, whipping the seas and throwing great clouds of sand away from the shoreline. What is revealed was a number of ancient stone buildings, which were protruding from the dunes on the Bay of Skaill in Orkney. Initially, (and for quite some time), they were thought to be remnants of a Viking settlement. Over time, the true meaning was comprehended: Skara Brae was nothing less than a Neolithic village, which had flourished for 600 years, teeming with activity and life, from 3100-2500 BCE. But then it went unnoticed for a further 4000 years before that winter storm brought it back from the past.

It was larger than the site of Knap of Howar, similar in size to the early Jarlshof site. The method of housing construction was similar, but much larger comprising eight buildings all uniform in design like a 'housing estate' for Neolithic Orcadians.

Artifacts from the Neolithic Age

Artefacts (British variant of artifact) in Scotland from this era include clothing fasteners; bone pins; whalebone mallets and a variety of utensils. Tools for woodworking (evidence of carpentry) also have been discovered. By far the most common tool was the stone axe. An 'ax-factory' from 2500 BCE has been unearthed at Killin, Perthshire. Also found were attractive jadeite stones and items imported from the Alps - proofs that sea-trade were very common.

The People

From recent archaeological finds (Isbister and others), we know the people were shorter of stature, men and women appeared much as they do today. Life span was no more than 30 years by which time the harsh conditions caused bodies to be wracked with pain from poorly healed fracture (some didn't even survive breaks), advanced arthritis and abscesses. Infections that the body couldn't heal often led to death. It was rare (and revered) if individuals lived to the ripe age of 40 or 50.

Cairns and Charnel Houses

Cairnpapple Hill
Of the many Neolithic tombs in Scotland, cairns, barely identified as the work of humans, are the most common. Some are very impressive dedications to an age past; often they are now simple piles of loose stones that look as if they've been dumped by recent constructions.

There were varying tomb-building traditions in different parts of the country as well as changing traditions through time. In large parts of the east, including the Moray Firth, the long or round barrow was popular (these are called cairns if stones were used in the construction instead of earth). On the west coast chambered tombs were the preferred monument for the dead. The most widely known tomb, however, is the megalithic monument. These are the most intensively studied of the Scottish monuments and this has shown that there are clearly definable regional traditions in the building of these monuments.

Death is often associated with cairns, either as (1) grave markers or as (2) long ago monuments of the ancients. Stone monument cairns are very difficult to date as carbon is often lacking in the stone. Some are indeed tombs and some of these tombs consist of stone chambers reached by the outside by narrow, low tunnels, with the whole construction hidden beneath a cairn of stones. There are different types of cairns as evidenced by those in Maes Howe (Rousay on Orkney). Maes Howe comprises a hugh cairn on the top of a flattened knoll surrounded by a ditch and a bank. It represents thousands of man-hours of labour, testifying to the significance it held for the Neolithic people of Scotland.

Other notable sites I'll briefly mention can be found in Galloway [Cairnholy I and II); Clyde Cairn in western Scotland; Nether Largie South in Argyll; Clava Cairns near Inverness and an impressive pair of burial mounds (cairns) known as the "Grey Cairns of Camster" in Caithness.

Significance of Ancient Monuments

Most of these large-scale tombs were not for single individuals, (although these do exist), but for many people over hundreds of years - a Neolithic mausoleums, if you will. It was sometimes necessary for them to clear old bones from a charnel house to make room for new ones to be entombed.

Tomb contents (including skeletal remains)

[Tomb Remains, Orkney]By examining over 150 skeletal remains found in at the Orcadian chambered tomb of Quanterness, scientists have discovered that excarnation was practised. This is process of leaving the dead bodies until all of the flesh had fallen away from the bones before all or some of the bones were deposited in the graves. This was accomplished in one of two ways: by the gruesome act of primitive undertakers removing the flesh and soft tissue or by simply leaving the exposed corpse to be cleaned by natural depredation. This could explain why so many incomplete skeletons have been found in these tombs. In some cases, cremation was also used. Fragments of charred bones were uncovered in shallow pits on Lothian's towering Cairnpapple Hill.

Bones were not all that was found in the tombs. Many are broken and very old and identification is difficult, nevertheless, pieces of pottery, (as those found in Unstan - giving its name to Unstan Ware), primitive jewelry of bone and stone, jadeite, and even various animals such as dogs, deer, fish and sea-eagles. The latter thought to represent a religious "totem" meaning. The items were probably offerings and/or gifts to an exalted one.

The Unstan pottery is typified by round bottom bowls with a pronounced shoulder and a decorated collar. It has been found in the Hebrides and northern Scotland as well as on Orkney. At Knap of Howar both utilitarian ware and much finer pottery was found and it is thought they were all manufactured on the site itself. At Skara Brae a different type of pottery was used, this is known as 'Grooved Ware', a heavy-looking pottery made from a course and gritty clay. The decoration used on Grooved Ware included zones of grooved, cut or applied raised decoration which was usually of geometric style. The jars could have a diameter of up to 0.6m and were flat-based and often heavily decorated.

Between around c.2500 BC and c.2000 BC metalwork started to make its way into Scotland and thus began the Bronze Age. (More on this and the rest of Scottish history in the ONLINE Book - The Story of Scotland". - early Scotland.

Primary Sources:
[Alrock, L., Britain: History and Archaeology]
[Anderson, A.O., Early Sources of Scottish History, Vol1]
[Burl, A., Prehistoric Stone Circles]
[Renfrew, C., British Prehistory]
[Gunn, R.M., Scottish Origins]
[Stewart R., Prehistoric Scotland]
[Feacham, R.W., Guide to Prehistoric Scotland]

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