Show Navigation

Description of Region

The Neolithic

The Neolithic or New Stone Age covers the period from around 4000 BC to 2300 BC. During the Neolithic the hunting and gathering life style was replaced with one based on subsistence farming. Barley and wheat were grown and a range of domesticated animals including goats, sheep, cattle and pig were kept. The adoption of farming led to permanent settlements and a developing sense of territoriality, land ownership and social hierarchy. Agricultural surplus encouraged contact and exchange between groups and by the end of the Neolithic there were extensive trading networks across much of the British Isles.

In south-west Scotland there is little evidence for the permanent farming settlements found in other parts of the country. The local economy may have been essentialy pastoral with family groups following their animals from winter to summer pastures. Marine resources - fish, shell fish, seals - continued to be an important part of the local diet.

The best known sites from this period are the massive stone cairns where these first farming communities buried their dead. These were communal tombs used over hundred years for the burial of family groups. They were also memorials to a family's ancestors and a place where the living and dead could come together for religious ceremonies.

There are various types of tombs across our region. In Dumfriesshire and eastern Kirkcudbrightshire the most common tomb type was the unchamberd long cairn; one of these has been excavated at Lochill near Castle Douglas and dated to the early years of the 4th millennium BC. Around Newton Stewart and the Cree Valley the preference was for a round cairn covering one or more burial chambers with simple entrance passages; a good example to visit is the White Cairn, Glentrool. .Elsewhere in Galloway, on Arran and in Ayshire huge wedge-shaped cairns, known to archaeologists as Clyde cairns, were built. A burial chamber was set into the broad end of the tomb and the area in front was often marked by a wall of large stone slabs. Some of the best examples of Clyde cairns are at Cairnholy near Newton Stewart and the Giant's Grave, Whiting Bay, Arran. The Clyde cairns are very similar in style and use to chambered tombs in northern Ireland, south Wales and south-west England and show that tomb building in this part of Scotland was belonged to a much wider tradition.

Towards the end of the Neolithic, around 2500 Bc, local groups were joining together to build huge ceremonial monuments. One of the most dramatic was at Dunragit near Stranraer where three enormous timber circles were built one with another. The largest circle was over 100m in diameter, five times the size of Stonehenge. Excavation has revealed evidence within the timber circles of feasting, human cremation and the ritual burial of stone axes and exotic pottery. Dunragit was a huge ceremonial centre, the prehistoric equivalent of a modern cathedral. It would have been used by communities from across south-west Scotland.

Rock art is another aspect of the later Neolithic. Enigmatic, abstract designs - mainly concentric circles and curving lines - were deliberately carved onto rock outcrops throughout the region. Two of the most dramatic examples are at Balochmyle near Cumnock and at Drumtroddan in the Wigtownshire Machars. No one knows the meaning of these strange stone symbols. Some archaeologists think they were landscape markers, dividing the land of the living from the shadow world of the ancestors and the dead.

A range of distinctive objects were made and used in the Neolithic. Pots, normally round bottomed baggy-shaped bowls made from local clay, appear for the first time. Local flint was used to make a range of large heavy knives, multipurpose scrapers and leaf-shaped arrowheads. There is also evidence for long distance trade in high quality tools. Axes and knives made from a beautiful grey flint were imported into the region from the Yorkshire Wolds and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of polished stone axes were traded across the Solway from quarries and workshops high in the Cumbrian fells. Polished stone axes were also being made at Cushendall and Rathlin in County Antrim but, despite the relatively short sea crossing, very few of these Irish axes have been found in south-west Scotland.