Kinloch Mesolithic site, Rum
Archaeological excavations at Kinloch on the island of Rum have provided the earliest evidence of human settlement in the whole of Scotland.
Thousands of years ago humans were travelling to Rum, off the west coast, to gather bloodstone to make tools. Bloodstone artefacts from Rum have been found at Mesolithic sites on Eigg, Canna and Skye and at sites over 70 km from the island.
Radiocarbon dating of evidence gathered at Kinloch showed human activity as far back as c 6600 BC. Burnt hazelnuts and tens of thousands of stone flakes from tool making were found at the site. Evidence of stake-holes may show the position of wind breaks, parts of skin-and-stake huts or shelters where Mesolithic people stayed when they visited the island.
Staosnaig hazelnuts, Colonsay
In 1995, archaeologists found evidence of very large-scale nut-processing, radio-carbon dated to c 9000 years ago, on the Hebridean island of Colonsay. Hundreds of thousands of burnt hazelnut shells were found in a shallow pit or midden (rubbish heap) at Staosnaig, on the east coast of this small island.
The scale and location of the activity is unusual, suggesting that the island community was trading processed hazelnuts with other island and mainland communities.
On a smaller scale than Staosnaig, there are similar hazelnut middens at Kinloch, on Rhum. Here too are stone artefacts which include sharp cutting stones and arrowheads known as microliths. These are made from bloodstone, a very hard local stone. A shell-midden has also been found on Rhum, at Papadil.
Midden heaps may not sound very exciting or appealing but archaeologists learn a lot about the lives of prehistoric people by studying the things they threw away on their middens.
This period of prehistory lasted from c 4000-2000 BC. Neolithic means ‘New Stone Age’.
During the Neolithic period nomadic hunter-gatherers were living alongside the more permanent dwellings of the first farmers.
Before they could plant their crops, the farmers first had to deforest areas of land. On the cleared areas they started to grow cereals and breed cows and sheep; but they also hunted and fished.
Then, after the larger trees had all been exhausted for building, they started to make simple stone buildings. Other livestock, including goats, pigs and horses, were introduced from mainland Europe.
Around 4,500 BC, far-reaching changes in lifestyle gradually began to take place. Agricultural practices - the raising of sheep and cattle and the growing of crops, especially early forms of wheat and barley - were added to the existing means of sustenance. A more settled way of life meant that permanent settlements could be envisaged, and new material technologies were developed. This included the development of ceramics, and a new range of stone tools, typified by the polished stone axe head.
It is unknown whether these changes were initiated by the immigration of new peoples, perhaps from Ireland or further south, or whether it represents a process of adaptation by the resident hunters and gatherers. However, during the Neolithic period, or New Stone Age, which lasted until about 2,500 BC, the climate reached its optimum, a few degrees warmer than recent times, and these favourable conditions allowed the early farming communities to spread successfully throughout the Outer Hebrides. Evidence for their houses and particularly their monuments are visible everywhere. Domestic sites have been identified at Allt Easdal in Barra, Langais and Eilean Domhnuill, Loch Olabhat in North Uist, and Taobh Tuath (Northton) in Harris.
The dominant interpretation of the Neolithic period in Britain over the last decade or so has been one that suggests that the Neolithic population did not practice fully developed, formal agriculture. Instead, the Neolithic is said to be a period when Mesolithic people adopted some of the material symbols and the ideas of the Neolithic without fully embracing an agricultural lifestyle. They cultivated some plants, perhaps, but they did not 'settle' - instead operating most of the year out of mobile camps (ba, July 1996).
The major transition to a farming economy is said to occur at a much later date, during the middle Bronze Age around 1500 BC. Consequently, houses, cereals and field systems are rare in the Neolithic as these are an integral part of a developed agricultural lifestyle, which was not present in Britain until thousands of years after the beginnings of the Neolithic period.
Early Agriculture - A' Chiad Àitachas
The ways in which land has been both held and utilised in the Outer Hebrides throughout the centuries is both complex and intriguing. In recent years people have looked back in our history to pre-crofting times - and even to pre-runrig times. Previously it had been assumed that runrig went far back into antiquity but it is now thought that runrig replaced an earlier system of enclosure which could have ‘embodied a different system of landholding and not just a different way of farming the land’. Recent studies also suggest that the earlier pattern of settlement was on a more individual, differentialed basis, pre-dating the constellated form of the baile. Field research of ruined settlements and of the remains of enclosure boundary walls is contributing to these more recent ideas. Plentiful evidence of runrig land use is available throughout the whole of the Western Isles. The Old Statistical Account (OSA) of 1794 gives the oft-quoted description of runrig as ’a little commonwealth of villagers, whose houses or huts are huddled close together with little regard to form, order, or cleanliness, and whose lands are yearly divided by lot for tillage, while their cattle graze on the pastures in common.’ A more recent description speaks of, ‘small, open-field townships organised around runrig and practising a communal system of farming based on in-field and out-field cropping.’
This way of life was very labour-intensive and relied largely on hand tools, especially the spade and the cas-chrom, these being used to cultivate the lazy-beds which formed the basis of runrig. Lazy-beds were cultivation ridges where the soil between the ridges was ‘turned’ on to the ridges. The OSA of Harris speaks of the lazy-beds being built in a ‘straight, circular, serpentine, or zig-zag direction, round the intervening rocks, pools, or bogs.’ The introduction of the plough into land use in the Hebrides is, in itself, worthy of study. The earliest forms seem to be the small wooden version (crann nan gad) and the ristle (an crann Turcach) for cutting through rough ground. (See the book by Hogg).
The barley grain was processed by small scale technology which was well adapted to the scale of cultivation being practised. There were different methods used for drying the grain before it was milled. The simplest of these was to set the sheaf on fire and then to smother it; this is described by numerous writers and is known as ‘graddening’. But kilns have existed in the runrig townships and the remains of these can be seen in many of the old townships (seann bhaile), situated usually along the coastline. The design of the kiln differs slighty among the different islands and their form remained, in relatively unaltered form, up into the earlier decades of this century.
Three mains methods were used for grinding the grain after it had been dried. The shoulder quern ( a’ chrotag) is the basic mortar and pestle where the grain was placed in the recepticle in the lower stone and pounded by a hand-stone. The circular quern ( a’ bhra) was also used for small-scale processing. An upper and lower stone was used, with the upper stone being turned by hand and the grain was fed into the throat of this upper stone and ground into meal between the two stones. Both the shoulder quern and the circular quern was used at home where small amounts of grain could quickly be processed. At township level, small and ingenious horizontal mills were built along the neighbouring streams. These are known as click mills, black mills or Norse mills. Recent research shows that such mills were in use in Ireland long before the Norse era, but the name is unlikely to change nevertheless. Such mills are still in use in many countries throughout Europe and Asia - from China to India and Iran, Turkey, Greece and Morocco. It is likely that this type of mill arrived in the Hebrides via Ireland. Over 300 sites of Norse mill have been found in Lewis and it is likely that many sites have been denuded.
For centuries in the Small Isles there was a pattern of land settlement, unchanged for generations until crofting was introduced, and the arrival of large-scale sheep farms following the Clearances.
The pattern of agriculture was that of the runrig system. People lived in clustered settlements known as “clachan” or township surroundered by arable land – the infield - with pasture land on the higher or rougher ground - the outfield. All that land was held in common, and each year people would cast lots for the arable, so that everyone would have an equal share of good and bad land. People would also share the seaweed cast by the sea which they used to manure their fields and share rights to the cliffs for seabirds and sea-birds eggs.
The land was cultivated intensively by means of the foot plough, an implement which would allow 5 or 6 men working side by side to turn a whole hillside into a series of 3 ft wide rigs or lazy beds where oats would be planted on beds fertilised by sea-weed.
Typically, the land was allocated to tenant farmers who kept herds of small black cattle raised for profitable export to the southern markets and a number of small livestock, goats or sheep. Each year, at the end of May, in a system of transhumance akin to the one still in use in the Swiss Alps, the herds and the flocks were taken to upland pasture at the shieling – airidh – where they remained until the end of August, allowing oats crops to mature out of reach of the animals on the infield. Shieling time was courting time for the young people as they were out of sight of their elders, and many Gaelic love songs have the shieling as their setting.
Access to pasture and cultivable land was a function of kinship and the obligation of clansmen to share access to clan land amongst clan members. Unrelated families could also acquire access to the land through marriage or through patronage of a powerful individual clansman. Such arrangements were overseen by the clan chief and his immediate subordinates, the tacksmen,who held the farms or tacks. Together they extracted tribute from the clachans (land produce, oats and or sheep and hens), displayed generosity to the clansmen and hospitality to the clan guests, whilst also organising the defence of the clan land and herds as well as mounting raids on the herds of other clans.
The clan system started to fall apart with the introduction of a money economy in the late 17thcentury and its demise was speeded up by the failure of the 1745 rebellion, a last stand for the traditional relationship between chief and followers.
As the clan chiefs turned from patriarchal leaders to commercially minded landowners, the islanders’ world changed and many chose to leave the Small Isles. Religious tolerance was a strong factor, as in Rum when Presbyteriansim was enforced, causing many islanders to leave, some for nearby Eigg, like the MacQuarrie family whose descendant was to become the great piper of Eigg.
Many on Eigg followed MacDonald of Glenalladale to Prince Edwards Island in Canada, or organised their passage to Nova Scotia and Ontario with emigration agent such as the famous Spanish John from Knoydart