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Searching for the First Settlers of Orkney

CR Wickham-Jones



The period in which I am interested is known archaeologically as the Mesolithic (Wickham-Jones 1994) and its people were nomadic fishers and hunters who moved around the land to harvest the resources that were on offer (illus 1).

Reconstruction drawn by Alan Braby, taken from Scotland's First Settlers by CR Wickham-Jones 1994. Copyright Historic Scotland , BT Batsford
1. Life in the Mesolithic was highly mobile. Communities travelled from one area to another to make the most of the resources available and this affected their settlements and goods.

Unlike the later Neolithic period that is so well represented in Orkney by sites like Skara Brae (Ritchie 2000; Wickham-Jones 1998), Mesolithic people were not farmers and they did not build stone houses or monuments.

Reconstruction drawn by Alan Braby, taken from Scotland's First Settlers by CR Wickham-Jones 1994. Copyright Historic Scotland, BT Batsford
2. The acid soils of Scotland dissolve away many of the everyday goods of the Mesolithic settlers. The elements drawn in this picture are all based on material discovered in areas of better preservation but they do not, by and large, survive in Scotland .

The study of the Mesolithic is therefore fraught with difficulties as there is very little left for archaeologists to go on (Wickham-Jones 1994).

Life was designed to be mobile and over the years acid soils have dissolved away much of the evidence (illus 2).

Mesolithic sites often comprise only a handful of stone flakes (illus 3) together with some charcoal and a few discolorations in the soil (illus 4).

Only occasionally do richer remains survive.

Mesolithic Orkney

Until recently Orkney was regarded as of little potential for the study of the Mesolithic of Scotland (Ritchie & Ritchie 1981), but this has all changed. The developments are new and thus provide us with a good example of the ways in which studies of the Mesolithic have been affected by the general tides of research.

The Background

3. A typical collection of flaked stone from the Mesolithic site at Kinloch, Rum.

One of the main limiting factors for settlement in Orkney is obviously the environment. When exactly did conditions after the last glaciation improve, and what was the climate like? When was the environment settled enough to support human settlement?

Surprisingly enough, there is still no clear view of de-glaciation here and the gradual development of vegetation and soils, though this is slowly coming. In this respect it is vital for archaeologists to work with those geomorphologists and palaeo-environmentalists who are researching the history of the landscape (see Edwards & Ralston 1997).

5. The low hills of Orkney as seen from the sea. Mesolithic Orkney would have comprised higher hills and larger islands, but the sea was always important.

For Orkney, this work must include research into the under-sea area as a combination of factors means that sea-level at the end of the ice age may have been as much as 30 m below that of the present day (Wickham-Jones & Firth 2000). There is no detailed sea-level information yet for Orkney but it is thought not to have reached present day levels until about 5,000 years ago, and of course it is not stable but probably still rising (illus 5).

At the moment the evidence suggests that Orkney is likely to have been suitable for settlement by some 11,000 years ago. At this time the islands would have been larger - the land that we know today was merely the tops of low hills and the lower areas of settlement currently lie (some, preserved we hope) below sea level. This is an important factor because evidence elsewhere suggests that the resources of the sea were particularly important to the Mesolithic inhabitants in areas such as this (Fischer 1995), and Mesolithic camp-sites were often sited near to the coast. Hopefully, we have not lost everything (Veerhart 1995).

Existing Information

Known Mesolithic remains in Orkney are scarce, but they are here. In the first half of the twentieth century fieldworkers such as Rendall and Lacaille collected and studied stone tools from various sites and characterised them as early (Lacaille 1935).

From the 1950s onwards, however, the Mesolithic of Orkney gradually dropped out of view until it was ignored (Lacaille 1954): largely due to the upsurge in Neolithic archaeology, which went from strength to strength, no doubt based on the phenomenal upstanding remains.

6. The Neolithic site of Barnhouse in Orkney. Interesting remains such as these have deflected attention from Orkney's Mesolithic past.

Archaeologists were seduced by the quality and quantity of Neolithic material here. This was reinforced by the development of social archaeology. The plethora of later remains in Orkney (illus 6) meant that it provided an ideal test bed for social theory starting with Renfrew (1985) and leading up to the present day (Richards 2003).

Oddly enough however, the Mesolithic remains did not disappear simply because they were ignored by archaeologists (Wickham-Jones & Firth 2000). They still exist, and (perhaps because they have been left alone) they offer a great opportunity to bring in some of the most up to date of scientific advances and to bring back some of the importance of evidential based archaeology. This is not to say that social theory is not important, it is - it is a vital part of interpretation. Indeed as current fashions examine individual sites or periods in the widest of contexts Mesolithic Orkney is already a field of study of great relevance to current work on the World Heritage Sites of Neolithic Orkney which followed it (Downes et al forthcoming).

Evidence and Speculation

What is the evidence for the Mesolithic of Orkney?

7. Mixed woodland photographed in Applecross in 2000. This gives an idea of the scrubby woodland that may have been more widespread in Orkney 7000 years ago.

Firstly, human nature: we now know that the Mesolithic settlement of Scotland extended to the N coast (Wickham-Jones & Firth 2000; Pannett forthcoming). The islands of Orkney would have been visible and to skilled sea-farers such as those of the Mesolithic the crossing, while difficult, would not have been impossible.

Once in Orkney the islands offered a rich environment to her early inhabitants. Recent palaeo-environmental work has shown the development of locally mixed woodland vegetation (illus 7) (Bunting 1994) and this suggests the presence of various animals and birds. The local seas and lochs were rich and there were plenty of other resources such as fresh water and stone for tools. It is unthinkable that people did not cross the Pentland Firth to make use of the plentiful resources they would find there.

9. Taking a core to analyse sea-level change, Stronsay 1990.

Secondly, there is hard evidence for the Mesolithic of Orkney and this is provided by artefactual finds: there are Mesolithic-type stone tools. Good sites have been rare, but rapid post-glacial sea level rise means that many are likely to lie below current sea level (Wickham-Jones & Firth 2000), and this is a zone of exploration that has been completely neglected.

At present there is no detailed information on the rates of sea-level change that have affected Orkney, but various methods have been developed to remedy this (illus 9).

Work done by Sue Dawson from Coventry University looks at the remains of small creatures known as diatoms, preserved in the sediments of both sea and loch (Dawson pers.comm.). The diatoms preserve a record that shows both rise and fall of sea level: by taking cores of material from various sites it is possible to examine the changes between fresh water to marine diatoms, and once this is dated it is possible to see when and how sea level has changed (see Bondevik et al 2003 for an example of this).

11. Slap o' Valdigar, Tankerness, one of the locations where Mesoltihic type tools have been found in the past.
13. Archaeologists test pitting for Mesolithic finds at Millfield, Stronsay, 1993.

Combining this information with others we can construct maps of how the land has changed since the end of the Ice Age (Bailey forthcoming).

Recent advances in underwater prospection will then help to look for sites. With the use of Geographical Information Systems it is possible to start to predict the likely locations of Mesolithic remains, by compiling information on known sites from a variety of areas such as Norway and W coast Scotland (Engen 2003). This is something that is currently under development by a team from Newcastle University (Spikins pers. comm.).

The Mesolithic sites that are known in Orkney lie mainly in the lower areas that are farmed today, but this is largely a reflection of the way in which they have been found (Wickham-Jones & Firth 2000).

Many were discovered by farmers as they ploughed the fields (illus 11), especially in the days before mechanisation. Others have been discovered by archaeologists as they walk over the land before the growth of crops or grass.

The discovery of Mesolithic sites in Orkney is inextricably linked to agriculture and this has biased our view of where people lived (illus 13). There are, however, other sites that remind us of this.

14. Yesnaby: there have been recent finds of Mesolithic tools reported by a walker here.

Not long ago Mesolithic type flints were found by a walker at Yesnaby (illus 14) (Orkney Archaeological Trust pers. comm.), and others have come from under excavated sites in areas of coastal erosion such as Knap of Howar in Papa Westray (illus 15 ) (Henshall 1983).

One thing that is certain is that there is a wider picture of Mesolithic settlement waiting to be found.

Thirdly, stone buildings are so far unknown in the Mesolithic of Scotland (Wickham-Jones 2003) and until recently investigation of the Orcadian Mesolithic has been hampered by the lack of survival of evidence for timber remains here.

It has often been assumed that not only was there a general lack of timber for building here throughout prehistory, but even if wood had been found its traces would not have survived. This is now known to be erroneous on two counts. Timber was available, both as drift wood and as local, if scrubby, woodland, and evidence for timber buildings can survive.

15. Knap of Howar, Papa Westray: when the site was excavated Mesolithic type stone tools were reported from the early layers.

Early in 2003 there was the exciting discovery of at least two circular timber buildings with central hearths lying underneath a stone building that dates to the Early Neolithic at Wideford (Denison 2003; Richards pers. comm.)

Radiocarbon determinations have yet to be obtained to date these buildings, and though there are Mesolithic flints from the area, there are also abundant Early Neolithic remains including pottery apparently from within one of the central hearths.

It is not, however, the precise date of these buildings that is important (though it looks as if they are early), rather it is the indication that timber buildings were built in Orkney and can survive. This backs up the information from the palaeo-botanical studies that woodland was once more abundant (Orkney today presents an almost treeless landscape) and there must have been some timber of a size suitable for building.

In this respect, it is important to remember that up to now most archaeological excavation in Orkney has been looking for stone structures so that excavation strategies may themselves have biased the evidence.

Fourthly, we can turn further afield for information on Mesolithic Orkney.

Reconstruction drawn by Alan Braby, taken from Scotland's First Settlers by CR Wickham-Jones 1994. Copyright Historic Scotland , BT Batsford
16. An artist's reconstruction of the importance of coastal resources in the Mesolithic.

There is increasing interest in the early settlement of coastal areas at high latitudes. Research workers from as far afield as Norway, Tierra del Fuego and Alaska have been comparing information, and Orkney fits well into the picture.

These areas provide a combination of factors that work together to encourage settlement: indented fjord-like coastlines and island archipelagos; providential currents and rich marine resources; safely accessible coasts and waters (Bjerck 1995).

It is no coincidence that areas such as this have seen flourishing coastal societies ( illus 16 ), often very early, and there is no reason why Orkney should be different.

Finally, conceptual evidence for the Mesolithic lies in the nature of the Neolithic of Orkney. Archaeologists are agreed upon the amazing sophistication of the Neolithic culture that flourished here (Ritchie (ed) 2000). So much so that a range of Neolithic monuments (from settlement to burial and ritual sites) have been identified as of World Heritage status (Foster & Linge 2002).

17. The magnificent stone circle at Brodgar.

The stone circles, burial mounds and stone built villages (with their stone furnishings) of Neolithic Orkney are indeed amazing, but it is most unlikely that they developed suddenly and out of nothing. Evidence for the Early Neolithic of Orkney is scanty (Ritchie 1985) but increasing (Richards 2003).

It too comprises stone built structures, though we know as yet little about the precise way in which these early farmers set up their way of life.

How much of it was new (the introduction of domestic animals and crops, for example, must have taken place with boats) and how much of it developed out of the pre-existing ways of the indigenous population? It is highly unlikely that monuments such as those of the later Neolithic could have arisen in a rootless society (illus 17).

This is not just a question of physical ability: the building and organisation of the monuments; it is also a question of thought and feelings, of people's identification with the land.

Why, for example, was the area of the Ness of Brodgar so important to the local community? The great monuments that stride along the narrow isthmus here indicate a society that had a deep and long-lived identification with the land. It is most likely that this identification goes well back into the pre-Neolithic, Mesolithic, times.

18. The Watch Stone stands right at the meeting point of the Lochs of Stenness and Harray

Evidence elsewhere increasingly emphasises the continuities between the Mesolithic and Neolithic in Scotland (Telford 2002; Finlayson1999) and Orkney is unlikely to have been different. Indeed the floruit of Neolithic society here is such that it must have been based on a solid indigenous foundation: otherwise known as the Mesolithic.

The significance of the Brodgar isthmus for a hunter-gatherer society is something that has yet to be explored, but we know already that it offers a remarkable combination of resources due to the meeting point of a rich fresh water loch (Harray) with a tidal saltwater loch (Stenness) (illus 18). Mesolithic type flints have been found in the locality at Seatter and Wideford (Wickham-Jones & Firth 2000), but this has not been examined in detail.


We know that the Mesolithic settlers of Orkney inhabited a very different land to that of today.

Primary differences lay in the lower sea levels and increased woodland, but these would have had knock on effects for other aspects of life. This was a time of great environmental change too, perhaps not unlike today.

19. The coastline of Orkney offers rich resources
20. View to Hoy across the Harray Loch

Sea levels rose rapidly (illus 19) and life would no doubt have become more arduous as the waters got higher and familiar settlement sites and harvesting areas were flooded (illus 20).

One knock-on result of this may well have been that the Mesolithic inhabitants of Orkney were particularly receptive to change. As the traditional way of life became more difficult, so the introduction of new ways was not received with antipathy (as human nature might dictate), but rather welcomed. The introduction of farming may indeed have been an event of considerable significance to the local population and this would no doubt have contributed to their feelings about the land and their own place within it.

Orkney offered a unique combination of instability within a rich environment which would act to catalyse the development of society. There are clear signs however that aspects of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle did not all disappear with the coming of the Neolithic. Indeed, some Mesolithic features acquired increased significance as the focus of everyday life shifted to a reliance on farming and domestication. So, for example, red deer came to be regarded as of such importance that whole animals were buried in multiple deposits at the Neolithic settlement site of Links of Noltland (Sharples 2000).

The Noltland deposits are also associated with the remains of fish, another Mesolithic staple that also turns up on other Neolithic sites, sometimes in large quantity (Clarke 1976a; Ritchie 1983).

Shellfish are another Neolithic find: many of the contents of the Neolithic shell middens of Orkney would be more at home amongst the Mesolithic were they to have been found elsewhere in Scotland. Likewise, there is evidence for the harvesting of birds: not only for food: bird bones were also used in the manufacture of Neolithic jewellery (Clarke 1976b).

These wild resources are all brought together in one interpretation of Neolithic society which sees each local community as operating under its own totem. Collections of specific animal bones from various chambered tombs have been used to suggest the use of totemic spirits such as sea eagles (at the tomb of Isbister, Hedges 1983) or dogs (at Cuween, Wickham-Jones 1998).

The Way Forward

Study of Mesolithic Orkney may be just beginning, but perhaps the delay has been fortunate. Archaeology now offers a range of sophisticated techniques with which to make the most of the evidence. Not only do we have improved techniques of prospection and excavation, but we can now do more with what we find.

Human bone, for example, is notably lacking from the Scottish Mesolithic. Skeletal material, however, is not uncommon in Neolithic Orkney (one estimate suggests over 600 individuals from 80 chambered tombs, Barber 2000) and could contribute to the Mesolithic picture.

There has been considerable work on origins, using not only mitochondrial DNA (Renfrew & Boyle 2000), but also study of elements such as features of the teeth (eg: shovel incisors) and facial reconstruction (Schwartz 1995).

Isotope analysis can highlight individual migration through a study of the geological makeup of the tooth enamel which will reflect the local geology where an individual has lived (Chenery 2003). All of these can point to the contributions of incoming populations v local populations and they are, of course, of particular interest when one is dealing with a confined island setting.

Similarly, blood group analysis, even of 21st century individuals can point towards possible early contributions to a population (Bothwell et al 1986). In Orkney this has specifically been used to suggest that Orkney remain "an outpost of an ancient population" (Roberts 1986), and this was taken up more recently in connection with possible Viking ancestry in the islands (Thomas 2001).

Other exciting developments of skeletal studies include work using isotopes to identify dietary preferences: this is of great current interest as a reflection of the apparent abandonment of marine resources at the start of the Neolithic in Scotland in favour of inland, meat, products (Schulting & Richards 2002).

So far little recent work has been done on the Neolithic skeletal material from Orkney, though there is an unusually rich data base from tombs such as Isbister and Quanterness (Hedges 1983; Renfrew 1979).

Another path of interest includes the analysis of illness and trauma with its associated information on general lifestyles. The presence of squatting facets on ankle bones, worn teeth from hide processing, and possible depressions in the skull due to load bearing are all good examples of the personal detail that has been picked up among the population of Neolithic Orkney (Chesterman 1983) and it would be most interesting to compare these with life in the Mesolithic were relevant skeletal material to be found.

Other finds can also be analysed in more detail. Stone tools are commonplace and microwear analysis of tools of stone, as well as bone, shell, and antler, is once more under development leading to increased information on individual tasks (eg Hardy 2003).

This can be supplemented by residue analysis to identify precise remains. There is now a wealth of techniques such as isotope analysis, scanning electron microscopy and chemical fingerprinting available to bring to bear on this (Fullagar et al 1996).

Of interest here would be the comparison of information between tools from Mesolithic and Neolithic sites. Other finds of interest include haematite (Isbister 2000) and pumice (Newton 2003). Similarly, the recovery of information from plant remains (Dickson & Dickson 2000) and other ecofacts, such as shell fish (Bailey & Milner 2002), can be used to look at harvesting techniques and potential uses as well as local environmental conditions.


Even this brief survey demonstrates quite clearly the wealth of potential data that exists for the Mesolithic of Orkney and the suite of sophisticated techniques available to make the most of it.

Archaeology is increasingly a profession of individual specialisation and this is particularly obvious here. Only by being aware of the work of others and pulling together can we hope to unravel the picture of the Mesolithic.

Whether we are dealing with Mesolithic Orkney or Mesolithic Scotland there is still much interesting work to do and hopefully the lessons that we have learnt and are learning can act as a source of inspiration for all who are interested in these sort of questions.


This paper was first developed as a case study to be presented as part of a contribution to the 51st International Congress of Americanists in Santiago de Chile, July, 2003.

I am particularly grateful to Howie Firth for catalysing my ideas and to all of my colleagues who are always so free with ideas and information. I would like to thank the British Academy, the Prehistoric Society and the Quaternary Research Association all of whom contributed towards my travel costs to the conference in Chile, as well as the organisors of the Orkney Science Festival for the invitation to speak and develop my ideas on the Mesolithic Orkney.

All that remains is to find a research grant suitable to cover further work and put the ideas to the test!


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