I wrote a short introductory essay on the Neolithic of the Firth of Clyde island of Arran for the handbook to accompany the Neolithic Studies Group fieldtrip there in May 2023. While this is not an urban prehistory topic, I thought there might be some value in reproducing this short essay here on my blog. I have made a few minor amendments to re-focus the text as a standalone essay where necessary.
The island of Arran is often known as ‘Scotland in miniature’, and this makes sense with respect for the rich Neolithic traces across the island. An intriguing mixture of different monument styles, decent evidence for farming and settlement, an important lithic source, and a key position within the Clyde Estuary, combine to make Arran one of the most significant Neolithic centres in Britain. However, it remains in the shadow of more famous Neolithic islands, and more supposedly ‘luminous centres’.
A few years ago, Gavin MacGregor and I tried to start a campaign to rebrand Arran the prehistoric island:
There is an island off the coast of Scotland which contains some of the most spectacular standing stones in northern Europe, a fine collection of megalithic tombs and rich evidence for farming going back almost 6,000 years. It is the source of one of the most magical materials of prehistoric Britain and, for the past few years, it has even had its own fire festival. But this island is not in Orkney, Shetland, nor any of the Hebrides (Brophy & MacGregor 2018).
Arran’s rich Neolithic legacy has made it an attractive place to research and work from time to time, and so it has a deep history of antiquarian study; they documented, as recent Masters research by University of Glasgow student Paul Burns has shown, even more megaliths than can be found on the island nowadays, since removed in the name of progress. A recurring theme of the history of the prehistoric remains on the island of Arran is an entanglement with farmers, ancient and modern, something evident in rewilding initiatives on the island such as at Drumadoon, whose Neolithic will come up later.
The island became part of the fabric of the development of theoretical approaches to the period with its inclusion in Renfrew’s Before Civilization (1973). My copy of the book falls open at the page that shows a map of the island, its topography overlain with dots representing chambered cairns, and lines drawn (awkwardly in some cases) between these dots representing notional tribal territories. Or at Renfrew captioned it, ‘the distribution of megalithic tombs in relation to modern farming land’: that farming relationship again.
Here we have 18 megalithic chambered tombs (inventoried of course by Audrey Henshall) apparently arranged in such a way as to indicate a farming society split into small communities, with an overall island population of no more than 1,200 people according to Lord Colin. The chambered cairns are one of the defining monument types on the island, conspicuously distributed only around the south of the island. This is another recurring theme – the geology and the landscape both constraining and inspiring people in prehistory. Andy Jones (1999) has written about the close relationship between stone used to build chambered cairns, a combination of sandstone from the south and granite from the north. In this sense, sites like Machrie Moor and the Giant’s Graves are Arran in miniature.
Machrie Moor is a natural place to go next. This remarkable landscape – almost WHS quality – dominates tourist literature for the island and adorns whisky and beer bottles.
At least six stone circles in a loose line east-west across a moorland beguile visitors, and it is true that the iconic sandstone monoliths of Machrie Moors 2 and 3 make them amongst the finest monuments of its type in Europe. Yet there is much hidden depth to this landscape stretching from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age, with cairns, cists, roundhouses, field boundaries, and clearance cairns across a rather raised island in what was a waterlogged Shiskine valley in prehistory.
Perhaps most intriguing of all are the complex timber settings that preceded Machrie Moor 1 and 11, explored by Aubrey Burl and then fully excavated by Alison Haggerty (1991) in the mid-1980s. Concentric rings of timber posts, and a four-post or square in circle Grooved Ware building, connect this site to broader timber monument traditions of lowland mainland Scotland and beyond.
The hidden timber Neolithic of this island has been reinforced by the recent (as yet unpublished) discovery of a 100m diameter circle of timber posts ahead of a housing development in Blackwaterfoot by Rathmell Archaeology. This large enclosure, near the harbour, probably dates to the late Neolithic and was associated with Grooved Ware pits (https://canmore.org.uk/site/348596/arran-blackwaterfoot-doonhill).
Machrie Moor 1 and 11 also revealed a complex and dense arrangement of ard marks, the land being broken and ploughed between the timber and stone circle phases here. Arran has the distinction of having more evidence for probable Neolithic ard marks than anywhere else in northern Britain (Brophy & Wright 2021), with other examples found during (unpublished) GUARD Archaeology Ltd excavations along the String Road (the road that connects Brodick with Blackwaterfoot eg Baker 1999). The huge potential for finding and researching Neolithic farming landscapes, soils and associated features is only now being realised. Environmental studies and excavations at Torbeg, Tormore and Machrie North in the 1980s (see Barber 1997; Ray and Chamberlain 1985) are now being followed up by work on the Drumadoon landscape; all are within easy walk of Machrie Moor.
The potential for Neolithic settlement is also clear, from a possible house structure on the aforementioned String Road work, to Neolithic settlement traces found since 2018 in advance of the expansion of Kilbride Chapel cemetery in Lamlash (Hunter Blair 2021).
Monuments, farming, living on the land – all connected. The probable cursus monument at Drumadoon, found by HES lidar survey, and excavated at a very modest scale in 2021-22, is a huge earthwork that would have required the clearing of extensive zones of topsoil, turf and rock to construct, and almost certainly seals a Neolithic land surface. The cursus offers another connection to broader monument traditions across Britain, being one of only a few such earthwork enclosures in western Scotland, and the only island cursus known in Britain. It is a weird place for a cursus.
Excavations at Drumadoon have recovered a nice assemblage of worked pitchstone, and it is for this lithic material that the island is also known. Pitchstone is essentially a Scottish equivalent of obsidian, “a glassy, usually silica rich, igneous rock with a characteristic lustre resembling that of broken pitch” (Ballin & Faithful 2009, 5). Pitchstone outcrops and sources are found across the island although not as much work has been done on sourcing and quarries as one might expect. (Same goes for the Machrie Moor standing stones.) Nonetheless, we know that this material – which makes fine tools with sharp cutting edges – was found across much of Scotland in the Neolithic, with evidence for Mesolithic use too. Tools made from pitchstone have been found in Ireland, England and Orkney. As Gabriel Cooney noted two decades ago, Arran is a well-connected island (200, 226).
The Neolithic of Arran is desperately in need of a review and some serious investment of time, labour and intellect. It is ill-served by in-depth synthesis, with the only book on the subject that one can purchase today being Horace Fairhurst’s charming and locally published 1981 book Exploring Arran’s Past. It was outdated even as it was published, but it offers a pseudo-antiquarian description of Arran’s first settlers and farmers, through to ‘the recent past’. Its attractive mix of excitable description and simple line drawings by Jean Forbes make it a great place to start in terms of getting to grips with Arran’s past, but no equivalent or better publication has appeared since its first edition was published. Contemporary Neolithic thinking has largely passed the island by too, like the Ardrossan to Campbeltown Ferry – aside from fleeting mentions in syntheses, and work by Andy Jones. A fascinating consideration of metaphor, performance and bodily engagement with the island’s Clyde Cairns written by Shannon Fraser (2004) has never received the attention it deserves.
The combination of megalithic and timber traditions, the potential for valuable insights into Neolithic farming practice, the pivotal location on journeys from Ireland to the heart of Scotland, and the source of pitchstone, all indicate the significance of this island in the Neolithic. Yet I am torn as to how we might think about this place in prehistory. Was Arran a magical, mystical island, dominated by the magic mountain of Goat Fell, a place where people collected dark glassy stones during pilgrimages? Or was it a bustling trading and meeting placed, densely occupied and farmed? Perhaps it was both. I am pleased to report that during the NSG fieldtrip conversations were had on how we might conceptualise this prehistoric island.
Acknowledgements and further reading: I would like to thank Angela Gannon and Gavin MacGregor for helping organise and lead the NSG fieldtrip to Arran, and Paul Burns for giving a talk on the opening evening. Thanks also to Corinna at the Brodick Rangers Centre, and the team at Arran Heritage Museum. I would also like to acknowledge the support of David Bennett in allowing access to Drumadoon cursus, Tom Rees for info about the Blackwaterfoot discovery, Warren Bailie for a heads up about the Lamlash site and my colleague Nicki Whitehouse for expanding my horizons of what we might be able to say about Arran’s Neolithic environment. Finally, many thanks to everyone who came along on the fieldtrip, all of whom expanded my thinking on Arran.
Here’s some essential reading and the sources used in writing the essay:
Barnatt, J and Pierpoint, SJ 1981 Field monuments on Machrie Moor, Arran, Glasgow Archaeological Journal 8, 29-31.
Ballin, T.B. 2009 Archaeological pitchstone in northern Britain: characterization and interpretation of an important prehistoric source. BAR British 476. Archaeopress, Oxford.
Ballin, T.B. & Faithfull, J. 2009 Gazetteer of Arran Pitchstone Sources. Presentation of exposed pitchstone dykes and sills across the Isle of Arran, and discussion of the possible archaeological relevance of these outcrops. Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports Vol. 38
Barber, J 1997 The archaeological investigation of a prehistoric landscape: excavations on Arran 1978-1981. Edinburgh: Star Monograph.
Bradley, R 1988 The significance of monuments. London: Routledge.
Brophy, K & MacGregor, G 2018 Prehistoric Island – let’s rebrand Arran! https://voiceforarran.com/issue-86/prehistoric-island-lets-rebrand-arran/
Brophy, K., & Wright, D. 2021 Possible Neolithic ard marks and field boundaries at Wellhill and Cranberry, Perth and Kinross, and an evaluation of current physical evidence for Neolithic farming in Scotland. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 150, 23-47.
Bryce, J 1863 Account of excavations within the stone circle of Arran. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 4, 499-524.
Bryce, TH 1903 On the cairns of Arran: a record of further explorations during the season of 1902, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 37, 36-67.
Cooney, G 2000 Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland. London: Routledge.
Fairhurst, H 1981 Exploring Arran’s Past. Kilbrannan Publishing Ltd.
Fraser, SM 2004 Metaphorical journeys: landscape, monuments and the body in a Scottish Neolithic, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 70, 129–52.
Haggarty, A et al 1991, Machrie Moor, Arran: recent excavations at two stone circles. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 121, 51-94.
Henshall, AS 1972 The chambered tombs of Scotland. EUP: Edinburgh.
Hunter Blair, A 2021 Lamlash Cemetery, Arran, Monitored topsoil strip and excavation, Discovery and Excavation in Scotland New Series 21, 95.
Jones, A 1999 Local colour: megalithic architecture and colour symbolism in Neolithic Arran. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 18.4, 339-50.
McArthur, J. 1861 Antiquities of Arran
McLellan, R 1977 Ancient monuments of Arran: official guide. HMSO.
Ray, K & Chamberlain, A 1985 Peat depth variability at Machrie North, Arran, and its implications for archaeological survey and conservation in British uplands. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 75-87.
Renfrew, C 1973 Before Civilization. Penguin.
Williams-Thorpe, O. & Thorpe, R.S. 1984, The distribution and sources of archaeological pitchstone in Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science, 11(1): 1-34.