Early human groups were in southern Britain 700,000 years ago. It is quite possible that similar groups were in Scotland at the same time but any evidence for occupation will have been destroyed by the glaciers which scoured the country during later ice ages. In fact the earliest evidence for human occupation in Scotland comes at the very end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago.
The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age covers the four thousand years between the end of the last Ice Age and the arrival into our region of the first farming communities. Archaeology can give us only a few glimpses of how people lived in that distant period.
The region's first settlers, probably living in small communities made up of a few extended families,lived in a very different landscape from the one we know today. Much of the country was covered with a mixed woodland of oak, alder, elm and pine which was home to a range of wild animals including wolf, deer, elk, boar and beaver. The coast line was also different. Lower sea levels in the early part of the Mesolithic meant that much of theSolway Firthwas open marsh and scrubland. Sea levels began to rise during the later part of the Mesolithic and by 5,000 BC the shore line was almost 10 m higher than it is today. Cliff lines and raised beaches which formed when the sea was at its maximum height can still be seen along parts of the Wigtownshire coast. Sea levels began to fall again during the fifth millennium BC.
Mesolithic people lived by hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. During much of the year they stayed in camp sites close to the coast where they fished and hunted and foraged in the surrounding woods for the seasonal harvest of nuts and berries. During the summer months hunting parties moved up into the Galloway hills following red deer and wild cattle.
Their camp sites were simple, consisting of little more than a few animal hide tents and wind-breaks. The earliest known site in Dumfries and Galloway is at Redkirk Point, Annan, where an excavated hearth has been dated to 6900 BC. The hearth was covered by marine clay which indicates that this camp was in use before the waters of the Solway reached their maximum height.
Mesolithic camp sites are particularly common at the southern end of Loch Ryan and on the eastern shore of Luce Bay where they occupy sheltered positions set back from the shore line. Excavations at Barsalloch and Low Clone in Wigtownshire have revealed traces of hearths and clusters of stake and post holes - the remains of simple shelters and tents - plus hundreds of flint flakes, the debris from stone tool making. Barsalloch has been dated to around 4,000 BC, right at the end of the Mesolithic, and many of the other Wigtownshire coastal sites are probably of a similar age. Earlier camps may now lie below the waters of LuceBay.
A number of Mesolithic sites have been found alongside some of the region's rivers. Excavations atIrish Street,Dumfriesuncovered a camp used by people fishing the lower reaches of the river Nith and similar sites have been found close to the Tarf Water in Wigtownshire and on the banks of the Annan at Kirkhill in eastern Dumfriesshire.
Similar sites have also been discovered in the uplands of Dumfries and Galloway. Mesolithic stone tools were found during forestry operations at Twiglees, Dumfriesshire in the 1950s and other sites have been discovered on the shores of some of the lochs and reservoirs in the Galloway hills. Excavations at Starr Cottage, Loch Doon revealed a camp site dated to 4,300 BC and a similar date has been obtained from another campsite at Smittons near Carsphairn. Some of these upland camps may have been set up next to woodland clearings where the open grazing attracted wild animals. There is even some evidence from pollen cores taken in the Galloway hills that Mesolithic hunters were deliberately burning woodland to create grazing areas.
Mesolithic people used bone, wood, bark and stone for their tools and weapons but generally it is only the stone implements which have survived. A rare exception is a carved antler harpoon head from the Dee at Cumstoun, Kirkcudbrightshire which has been dated to 4800 BC. Similar bone harpoons have been found in Ayrshire, the Firth of Forth and at cave sites near Oban. They were probably used in seal hunting.
Flintcobbles can sometimes be found on local beaches. This type of flint is particularly common in Wigtownshire. It is a poor quality stone but could be worked or knapped to create a range of simple blades and scrapers, useful for cutting and cleaning animal hides. In Dumfriesshire chert was often used instead of flint for stone tool making. Chert has similar properties to flint and is found throughout the Southern Uplands. Tools made from quartz and amethyst have also been found at some Mesolithic sites in Dumfriesshire
Mesolithic people in Dumfries and Galloway produced a range of distinctive stone tools. These include:
Microliths. These are small, narrow blades which have been blunted along one edge and often at one end. They were attached in series to a wooden haft or handle to create a range of composite cutting tools. They were also mounted as blades on arrow shafts. See:Luce Bay; Blairbuy for examples in the Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service collection.
Narrow blade cores. Blocks of flint from which one or more blades have been detached. The small size of the cores and the narrow scars left behind by blade removal are typically Mesolithic. See: Low Clone for examples in theDumfriesand Galloway Museums Service collection.
Scrapers. Small flakes, worked along one edge and used for cleaning skins and fish. See: Low Clone; Kilfillan for examples in theDumfriesand Galloway Museums Service collection.
Bevel-ended tools. Long, water rolled stone cobbles with signs of wear or hammering at one end. Sometimes called limpet hammers and thought to have been used in shell fish collecting. They may also have been used for softening hides and skins and in flint working. See: Chippermore for examples in the Dumfries and Galloway Museums Service collection.