Scotland the Ancient

Friday, August 13, 2010

There have been people in Europe for at least 50,000 years, and it seems likely that in earlier Palaeolithic periods when the climate was kind (prior to c. 25000 BC) nomadic bands from the sparse population may have moved about northern Britain. However, all traces of humanity were obliterated by the Ice Age that ended in Scotland roughly 10,000 years ago. Glaciation helped resettlement because, in a reversal of global warming, water became ice and sea levels dropped dramatically, creating causeways between Britain and the Continent and between Scotland and Ireland. Climate continued to improve in this Mesolithic period (up to c. 4000 BC) and trees, animals, and eventually people moved northwards.

Scotland may once again have had some human inhabitants as early as 8000 BC, but the earliest recorded settlement is of a group of hunters on the Isle of Rum dating to c. 7000 BC. Extensive settlement did not take place until after c. 6000 BC, however the colonists were clearly accomplished sailors as many archaeological remains are found in the Western Isles. By this stage, the relative simplicity of early hunters had given way to hunter-gatherers’ extensive exploitation of environmental resources on land, river, and sea. Yet these were still nomads who moved seasonally and left limited archaeological remains, their few artefacts suggesting that settlers came less from England than from Ireland and the North Sea basin. The land divided and the sea united, as it was to do for thousands of years.

From c. 4000 BC, hunter-gatherers became more or less permanently settled farmers who cultivated crops, domesticated animals, developed new technologies (including pottery), and left evidence of sophisticated communal cultures and belief systems. This Neolithic age (up to c. 2500 BC) overlapped with the Mesolithic and for thousands of years, thanks partly to the abundance of resources, people adapted more or less peacefully to migrations and to changes in climate and technologies and the lifestyles they brought.

Dark Age Scotland may not have been as poor as it later became. Treasure troves found by archaeologists, and the fact that both southern kings and Scandinavians thought it worth plundering, suggest otherwise. The same is true of the late Middle Ages and, except when decimated by disease or warfare (as in the early 14th century), population remained steady until demographic increase and bad weather created widespread famines in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Pre-modern economies were just as fragile as modern capitalism. The 1640s and 1650s were economically disastrous for Scotland as war disrupted trade, bad harvests created misery, and plague purged populations. Black-market lenders charged interest rates of 15–20% unprecedented until the 1970s. The late 1690s saw starvation, population displacement, and mortality from disease.


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