Background: The Mesolithic in western Scotland

The first people to live in western Scotland arrived after the end of the last ice age at about 10,500 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers who favoured living in coastal regions and rapidly colonised the Hebridean islands. Archaeologists refer to their period of occupation as the Mesolithic. For almost four thousand years these hunter-gatherers exploited the rich marine, coastal and terrestrial resources of western Scotland, living a mobile lifestyle and leaving a sparse archaeological record. They had few possessions, most of which were made from wood, bone and antler - materials which are rarely preserved. They did, however, rely on making arrow-points, knife blades and other tools from flint pebbles which can produce razor sharp blades and flakes when 'knapped' with the requisite skill. Such tool parts and the waste from their manufacture are often the only traces that remain of Mesolithic activity, usually buried below blown sand or thick deposits of peat. The Mesolithic hunter-gatherers manufactured their stone tools in a distinctive manner, using what archaeologists call a platform core technology and producing microliths - small blades that are delicately chipped into distinctive forms.

During the Mesolithic period western Scotland was covered in woodland and the sea level was generally lower than today. Reconstructing that past environment is critical to understanding the Mesolithic period and why it came to an end. Soon after 6000 years ago a new lifestyle appeared in western Scotland: Neolithic communities with domesticated sheep and cattle. They made pottery, constructed burial monuments and cleared the woodland for farming. It remains unclear whether the original Mesolithic inhabitants had adopted the Neolithic lifestyle via cultural contact with Neolithic people elsewhere in Scotland (or further afield) or whether a new people had arrived in western Scotland, pushing the Mesolithic people into the marginal areas and then to extinction. Islay has a particularly important archaeological record for the Mesolithic and early Neolithic. Rod McCullagh excavated the first known Mesolithic site on Islay at Newton in 19854. Between 1987 and 1995 Steven Mithen undertook a major fieldwork project on the island, locating and excavating several Mesolithic sites primarily in the western Rinns peninsular - notably at Bolsay, Gleann Mor, Rockside, Aoradh and Coulererach. He also undertook fieldwork on Colonsay, finding and excavating the site of Staosnaig. Mithen sought to develop a regional picture of Mesolithic settlement by also drawing on the previous research by John Mercer on Jura, who excavated a series of artefact scatters, and Paul Mellars on Oronsay, who excavated Mesolithic shell middens - waste heaps of shell, bones and artefacts from coastal foraging. Since 2004 Mithen has extended his research programme by locating and excavating Mesolithic sites on Tiree, Coll and Mull. Research across such an extensive region is vital because the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were highly mobile, using log canoes or skin-boats to move between the islands and mainland. It is likely that just one or two communities exploited the whole of the Hebridean chain of islands from Lewis to Arran.

It is within the context of this research that the two new sites discovered on Islay by Donald James McPhee and Susan Campbell are of particular interest. Steven Mithen was unable to locate any Mesolithic sites in north-east Islay despite walking all of the available ploughed fields and inspecting all erosion scars during his field campaign between 1992 and 1995 on the island. Also, none of the sites elsewhere in Islay have produced animal bones and hence all interpretations have been based on stone artefacts and charred plant remains alone. As such, Storakaig and Rubha Port an t-Seilich are important discoveries which required archaeological evaluation.

Main Sections of the East Islay Mesolithic Project

Islay History | Standing Stones | Finlaggan | Islay Carved Stones | The Campbells | John Francis Campbell | Islay Clearances | Leaving Islay | Islay Genealogy | Islay in 1703 | 1869 Baptist Letter | Islay Shipwrecks | Exmouth Tragedy | Troopship Tuscania | Otranto and Tuscania | Dougie MacDougall | Ferry History | Cultoon and Ballinaby | Sunderland Flying Boat Tragedy | Kilchoman Bards


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