Scotland in Pre History

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The Beginning of the World

Scotland's history stretches back to the beginning of the Earth itself. It contains some of the oldest, most varied and most interesting rocks on the planet, and its astonishing geological history can still be seen all around us today. Man came late, but when he arrived, he quickly captured the land for himself, learning to grow crops and building sophisticated settlements for security and defence

EVER since the dawn of time, Scotland has been separate from the rest of the UK. It has drifted around the planet since the world was formed - but only relatively recently has it become physically linked to England.

For billions of years, the two countries have been separated from each other by thousands of miles. It is only in the last 400 million years or so that Scotland and England have become a single geographical unit.

In the early days of the planet, what is now Scotland was joined with present-day North America in a huge prehistoric landmass called Laurentia.

Parts of the Western Isles, the Highlands, Iona, Coll and Tiree are made up of a rock called Lewisian gneiss, which is one of the oldest forms of rock in the world.

As the world gradually formed over hundreds of millions of years, Scotland roamed around the planet, finally joining up with what would become England some 410 million years ago.

Over the course of its long history, Scotland has found itself exposed to a massive variety of different climates. It has been a tropical swamp, a barren desert, and a hot, equatorial land surrounded by beautiful coral seas.

Unfortunately for us, it eventually moved northwards, settling at the north west fringe of what would eventually become Europe on the edge of what we would come to call the Atlantic Ocean. It is this position which gives us the cool and wet climate we have today.

There is plenty of evidence that Scotland was home to a rich variety of prehistoric creatures - including, of course, dinosaurs.

The Isle of Skye in particular has proved to be a rich hunting ground for fossilised remains of creatures from this era. No less than five sets of dinosaur remains have been found, all of them hugely important to geologists.

The famous Bearsden Shark - discovered by the fossil hunter Stan Wood near Glasgow in 1982 - is the world's most perfectly preserved shark of its kind and dates back 330 million years, providing us with a valuable insight into life on Earth at that time.

During these periods, Scotland was a warm place - certainly much warmer than it is today. But during its history, it has also been through periods of intense cold. In the last million years or so, for instance, it has been through an ice age about six times.

Each time, the landscape would have been covered in ice hundreds of feet thick - so thick, in fact, that only the highest mountains would have stuck through the top of it.

This process, which lasted until about 10,000 years ago, helped to shape the Scotland we see around us today. The freezing and melting of the ice cut channels in the rock and deposited silt and rock, forming areas such as the terraces around Inverness, the low-lying land around Glasgow, and the bleak expanse of present-day Rannoch Moor.

Yet as all this happened, the shape of the land itself was continuing to change. By now Scotland was firmly joined to England, but the whole was still attached to the Continent. As the land masses continued to shift, Britain only became an island around 6000BC.

Perhaps 2000 years before then, however, another remarkable event had occurred - people had arrived for the first time. We obviously know very little about these first Scots, though they would have been primitive hunter-gatherers, probably originating from the Mediterranean.

There would have been plenty of food to eat - meat and fish as well as fruits, vegetables and nuts - but life would have been extremely harsh and tough. For a start, they would have had to compete for food and existence with creatures which do not exist here today, such as the bear and the wolf.

We have firm evidence of human settlement as far back as 8000BC from an ancient refuse pit discovered near Biggar in Lanarkshire. It's thought that these first Scots would have lived together in tiny colonies of perhaps just a few people to start with, although we believe that the population of the nation as a whole grew after 5000BC.

Around 1000 years after that, there is evidence that cereal started to be grown here. By then, a primitive system of barter had also probably been established.

Most of the land was very different to the way we see it today. With the exception of the highest mountains, it would have been covered with forest - not the best sort of landscape for crop cultivation.

For the first time, man started to manage his environment, clearing the woodland by burning it down and then planting crops. He also continued to hunt and fish, of course, but this new type of cultivation proved to be highly successful, helping the population to grow further.

As the years passed, so societies became more sophisticated and complex. Settlements such as Skara Brae on Orkney - the next preserved Neolithic village in northern Europe - were populated for hundreds of years up until about 2500BC.

They consisted of small, squat but solid houses made of stone. Inside was a constantly burning fire, box beds and a dresser containing ornaments which indicated a family's importance. |t certainly appears that people lived in family groups rather than communally.

The residents would probably have eaten well - beef, venison, lamb and perhaps pork or boar as well as cereals such as barley and a variety of fish. They may have used oil from stranded whales for fuel as well as driftwood.

As Scotland's people evolved, so they started to ascribe to a new set of beliefs, erecting mysterious stone circles, earthworks and burial mounds. They also started to carve strange cup and ring symbols on rocks which we can still see today.

We don't understand the meaning of these symbols, though the sites chosen appear to be sacred and may well have strong links with some form of pre-Christian religion.

Scotland's stone circles in particular are some of Britain's most impressive ancient structures, with Callanish on Lewis in particular rivalling Stonehenge in terms of size and impact.

As circles such as Callanish are precisely aligned to the sun, moon and stars, we can speculate that they were used for some form of exact astronomical calculation - though what, of course, remains a baffling mystery.

However, these early Scots didn't just make their mark on land - they did so on the water, too, building lake dwelling settlements known as crannogs on lochs in places such as Perthshire, the Highlands and the Western Isles.

Why should they go to the trouble of doing this? Probably because they felt under threat - perhaps from other tribal groups - and living on water gave them a feeling of defence and security.

Certainly these complex wooden structures, which date from around 500BC, were formidable and would have been difficult to attack. A rebuilt example of a crannog is now in existence at Kenmore in Perthshire, where it can be visited during summer months.

Another type of building dating from this period was the broch - large round wood or stone Iron Age towers apparently used as farmhouses.

During this period, no-one thought of Scotland as a separate country. It was principally a peaceful, highly evolved farming nation where people's main concern was looking after their families and surviving as best they could.

And that was the way it was to remain - at least, until the Romans arrived.

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