Scotland's First Settlers Project

A recent archaeological survey has found that after the Ice Age, there were many people living in the north west of Scotland as part of a complicated network exchanging goods and raw materials across a wide area.

The first inhabitants of Scotland (the Mesolithic) arrived after the end of the Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. These people were nomads, and they moved their camps from season to season and lived by hunting, fishing and gathering.  Seas and waterways were particularly important to the early settlers, not only because they travelled by boat, but also as a source of food and raw materials.


Because they did not build permanent stone houses or monuments, their remains are sparse and hard to find.  A handful of stone flakes together with a few burnt stones is often all that survives of a Mesolithic site.  Sometimes, however, richer remains incorporating shell midden dumps have been preserved which may contain surprising detail of Mesolithic life such as bone and antler tools and shell jewellery.  Midden sites are often preserved in, or near caves and rockshelters.

In the year 2000, work carried out by Scotland's First Settlers Project (of Edinburgh University) concentrated in and around the Applecross peninsula and in particular, the rockshelter site at Sand.

The aims of the Sand excavation were to open and assess an area of midden and to study the surrounding area, a large grassy slope in front of the rockshelter.  For this reason, two trenches were opened, across and down the site, each measuring 26m long by 2m wide.  The shell midden lies at the top of the terrace just outside the rockshelter.  It lies only a few centimetres below the surface turf and extends for approximately 4x5m.

tools tusk

The midden is made up mainly of dry limpet shells, but closer inspection reveals other shellfish, and some fish bones as well as animal and bird bones.

There are also tools of bone, stone and antler, together with the waste from tool manufacture.  There is also evidence of fine shell beads and other items that may have been used for jewellery such as a boar's tusk.

The unconsolidated nature of the midden and the absence of any interruptions or stabilisation layers suggest that it had accumulated over a short, possibly continuous, space of time.  It may be that the occupants of the rockshelter had selected this as a sheltered spot to pass a particularly bad winter.  At the time of occupation some 8000 years ago sea levels were higher and there would have been a brackish salt marsh some 30m from the site.  The abundance of shells in the midden shows that they had chosen their spot well for there were plentiful local food resources even if larger animals were scarce in the harsh winter conditions.

The inhabitants of Sand were part of a Mesolithic network that operated across the Inner Sound and further afield.  They got stone for their tools from Rum (30km to the S, a source of bloodstone), and Staffin on Skye (10km to the W, a source of baked mudstone and siliceous chalcedony).  In addition they also used local stones - cherts, quartz, and agates.

Further details are available at the Applecross Heritage Centre.

Images courtesy of Scotland's First Settlers Project.