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Friday, 15 May 2015

Archaeological Arran

High on the hillside above the campsite, in a place where few people walk these days, a horseshoe of ancient cup marks can be found gouged out of a boulder. Why should such a remote site have warranted this attention? The situation certainly offers spell-binding views over Lochranza right out to the Paps of Jura but the answer is more likely to lie with the nearby water source of the Allt a’ Creamh which tumbles down to Newton Shore. The Ancient Britons worshipped wells and springs.
All over Arran, as in most of the Highlands and Islands, you walk amongst the ruined monuments of prehistory- they are not hidden deep in soil. I am always amused, as I drive into Brodick on bin collection days, to see a blue plastic wheelie bin next to the standing stone near the primary school, looking like it’s staking its own claim to importance. Over time, Arran’s ancient stones and cairns, worn by weather and patterned with coloured lichen, have almost reverted to nature . Only their structures and strange carved symbols, remind us that they represent human prehistory.
You can easily fill a holiday exploring Arran’s Neolithic and Bronze Age sites which date back to 3,500 BC. The profusion of archaeological sites on the island has led some experts, such as Thorbjorn Campbell, author of ‘Arran: A History’, to suggest that Arran must have been a sacred island. But most theories regarding prehistory can never be verified. We do know that early settlement and farming began at this time and hierarchical communities developed which set store by material wealth. We can safely assume that powerful leaders could command the labour necessary to build monuments that would endure through millennnia.  Then four thousand years ago change came with the new technology of casting bronze from tin and copper, driven by a prehistoric arms race to possess the most effective weaponry. In West Scotland, copper was extracted in mid-Argyll and alloyed with tin imported from Cornwall to make bronze. As the trade routes followed the western seaboard it is likely that Arran was an island of strategic importance. It was a golden age of prosperity; its monuments, including the burial cairns of important individuals and families, and the stone circles where communities came together, would survive into our time. But simultaneously farming, tree felling and climate were exhausting the soil and eventually the island would be left infertile. Technological progress and ecological challenges – now what does that remind you of?
A good place to set about discovering Neolithic and Bronze Age Arran for yourself is in the Archaeology Room at the Arran Heritage Museum, Brodick,  where you can see an early Bronze Age grave and pottery vessel, a carved stone ball, a fish vertebrae necklace and many more finds from excavations. Whilst in Brodick you can also pay a visit to the Roundhouse at Brodick Castle where you can do things the way the people of the Bronze Age did, such as making jewellery and pottery. After that, have a look at Historic Scotland’s website to find information about some of these Neolithic and Bronze Age sites on Arran:
·         Auchagallon Stone Circle near Machrie
·         Carn Ban, four miles inland from Kilmory and probably best reached by cycling along forest tracks
·         Giants’ Graves, above Glenashdale Falls at Whiting Bay
·         Kilpatrick Dun near Blackwaterfoot
·         Machrie Moor Stone Circles
·         Torrylin Cairn at Kilmory
The Machrie Moor stone circles are well-known but the smaller sites are well worth visiting too. At all the sites a shortish walk will usually lead you to a location of magnificent views where you can soak up the spirituality of a place long invested with the hopes and fears of different peoples. Walking guidebooks, such as ‘Walking the Isle of Arran’ by Mary Welsh and Christine Isherwood, offer routes that include the prehistoric sites. A particular favourite of mine is Kilpatrick Dun because of its lovely views over the archaeological landscape of Machrie Moor and Shiskine Valley. (Best to catch the bus to this site though as car parking is limited.)
I wonder what will survive of us four thousand years hence? Will our Information Age survive time?  We certainly throw a lot away as a society so could it be layers of plastic bottles?  Or bits and pieces of vehicles which future archaeologists painstakingly piece together? And I wonder what future people will make of who we were based on what we left behind?

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