Archaeology

The Isle of Arran has a rich archaeological and geological heritage which can be discovered through its striking landscapes.

The island is home to some of the most spectacular standing stones in northern Europe, one of the greatest concentrations of Neolithic monuments in the UK, and an important collection of megalithic tombs. There is also rich evidence for farming going back almost 6,000 years and the island is the source of one of the most enigmatic materials of prehistoric Britain – pitchstone.

A standing stone on the outskirts of Brodick. Image: TuckDB Postcards, CC License.

Foresters, Farmers and Builders

The Neolithic (c 4000 – 2500 BC) was a time of great social and environmental change, when people began to practice farming and created substantial monuments which survive to this day. The ways in which people began to change their landscape, with clearance of woodland and the creation for fields for crops and pasture for livestock, were the origins of the farming practices on Arran today.

The Isle of Arran has significant evidence from the Neolithic including 28 chambered cairns, a cursus monument at Drumadoon and timber circles at Machrie Moor. These monuments were used for ritual and ceremonies, in some cases over hundreds of years.

Machrie Moor Standing Stone. Image: Magnus Hagdorn, CC License.

We don’t properly understand why this concentration of monuments is on the Isle of Arran. While we can see several monuments, such as Giant’s Graves North, had different phases of expansion and re-modelling, we don’t know why this happened. We don’t accurately know the date of when most were built, used, modified and abandoned. Although we can infer a lot from other excavated sites, we don’t confidently know how different monuments on the Isle of Arran were actually used and what happened between them.

There is some evidence at Machrie Moor of possible plough marks, which might relate to early agricultural activities, although we don’t properly understand how or where the people and their animals were living. It would be interesting to know if people on Arran practiced the same economy as was practiced in Ayrshire during the Neolithic; for example, there is evidence from Ayrshire that some groups were keeping goats around 4000 BC, and potentially practicing woodland grazing

Replica Bronze Age Roundhouse in Brodick Country Park. Image: National Trust for Scotland

Big Stories in a Wider World

The Isle of Arran can be seen from much of Kintyre and the Ayrshire coast, yet in this part of Scotland, Arran is unique in having such a marked concentration of Neolithic monuments. Did the island act as a focus for people across the region to congregate and build monuments at which, over the generations, they could undertake shared rituals and ceremonies?

Such concentrations of Neolithic monuments can be found in other parts of Britain and Ireland. Best known are the World Heritage Sites of Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Scotland, and Brú na Bóinne, Ireland. Some of the forms of Neolithic monument found on Arran can be paralleled with those found in Antrim too; for example, Carn Ban and Torran Loigste on Arran are reminiscent of some Irish Court Cairns.

Prehistory and Geology

One Neolithic tomb, at Torrylin on the south coast, has a burial chamber that aligns directly with the iconic island of Ailsa Craig, which likely would have been a place of myth and legend thousands of years ago. The combination of red sandstone and grey-white granite in such monuments led archaeologist Andrew M Jones to argue that the petrology, texture and colour of the stones used to build them were representative of the island itself. He wrote in 1999:

…it may be that white and red … symbolised the land itself, the white of the north and the red of the south.

Arran is often referred to as Scotland in miniature; and so it seems that Machrie Moor is Arran in miniature.

Arran Pitchstone blades and distribution of Pitchstone. Image and map: Torben Bjarke Ballin.

Red and white are not the only hues of Neolithic Arran; there is also green, the colour of a magical rock called pitchstone, found on Arran’s east coast and nowhere else. This was a material so precious that it changed hands and moved across much of Britain and Ireland in prehistory, turning up in many famous sites from Ireland to Orkney. It is deep green in colour, glassy, and when knapped it can produce tools with very sharp cutting edges and of great beauty.

The stone was considered not just a material for making efficient cutting tools; it may also have been a powerful, legendary material that was prized by those who came into possession of it – precisely because the material embodied the island of myth from whence it was sourced.

Thanks to Dr Gavin MacGregor of Northlight Heritage who provided much of the information on this page.

Further information:

Exploring Arran’s Past by Horace Fairhurst, published in 1982, is a good introduction to Arran’s past and there has been no more recent equivalent publication since it was first printed.

PASTMAP from Historic Environment Scotland provides a detailed map-based records system for all of Scotland.

Don’t visit Arran’s hills and wild coastline without an Ordnance Survey map! The whole island fits satisfyingly on to one sheet of an OS Landranger map, buy one here. Or for even more detail purchase an OS Explorer map. Buy using these links to help support local bookshops – Arran Geopark will be given 10% too.

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