Environmental History and Human Interactions in Scottish Prehistory: an island perspective from Tiree and Coll, Inner Hebrides

This PhD research proposal represents the palaeoenvironmental aspect of the Inner Hebrides Archaeological Project (IHAP), a multi-faceted archaeological research project established in 2004. The IHAP (directed by Prof. Steve Mithen, Professor of Early Prehistory) aims to identify and investigate Mesolithic settlement on the Inner Hebridean Islands of Tiree, Coll and Mull.
Previous archaeological and environmental studies concerned with the presence and impact of Mesolithic humans in the Hebridean archipelago have tended to demonstrate a geographical bias towards the northern and southern islands, e.g. Rhum (Wickham-Jones & Pollock, 1987; Wickham-Jones, 1990; Hirons & Edwards, 1990), Lewis (Birks & Madsen, 1979; Wilkins, 1984; Bohncke, 1988) and South Uist (Bennett et al., 1990) to the north; Oronsay (Mellars, 1987), Colonsay and Islay (Edwards & Mithen, 1995; Edwards, 2000) in the south. Many of the studies suggest an early Post-glacial date for human occupation within the region. However, our understanding of the nature and impact of that occupation is scant, not least because of the difficulties of site location in areas subjected to obscuring blanket peat formation, encroaching machair, acidic soils and changing shoreline patterns, but also because our currently accepted models of hunter-gatherer woodland clearance by fire cannot assimilate the distinct natural character of woodland structure on these exposed islands (cf. Hirons & Edwards, 1990; Tipping, 1996).
The 2004 IHAP Tiree field season represented the first systematic survey of the island, during which ten sites were identified with deposits potentially rich in palaeoenvironmental evidence. In light of these significant discoveries, it is proposed that further study of the palaeoenvironmental record on Tiree is crucial for the development of working hypotheses for climatically induced environmental change and early post-glacial human agency on a regional scale, which may then be applied to a wider context of mainland and marginal prehistoric occupation in Scotland.

The programme of research will build upon the preliminary results of the palaeoenvironmental survey undertaken by IHAP (Mithen et al., 2004) and will include:

  • 4-6 weeks of fieldwork on Tiree to include further reconnaissance for optimal palaeoenvironmental deposits, with possible excursions to Coll to sample e.g. the Bronze Age peat formation referred to in the RCAHMS (1980: p.12 ).
  • Strategic palaeoenvironmental sampling to include coring and test-pitting for collection of organic-rich sediments, ideally located in deposits with proven archaeological associations e.g. Dun Mor Vaul buried soil and of off-site locations.
  • Pollen and micro-charcoal analysis of suitable deposits to reconstruct the vegetation and burning history on the island. Deposits may be suitable for fine resolution pollen and micro-charcoal analysis thereby providing a high chronological resolution.
  • Analysis of tephra horizons in peat sequences may permit more precise correlation with other Scottish sequences, than that offered by radio C14 dating (cf. Bennett et al. 1992).
  • Plant macro-fossil analysis will form a critical aspect of the research in terms of establishing local floristic content and burning, as opposed to the more regional signal provided by the pollen and micro-charcoal evidence.
  • Mollusc analysis on suitable deposit types e.g. buried land surfaces and peat beds with fragmented shell remains will reinforce the plant macro-fossil evidence in terms of determining local environmental conditions and climatic fluctuations.
  • Sedimentological analysis will include loss-on-ignition measurements, magnetic susceptibility and particle size analysis to characterise the deposits and to provide information on depositional environments and erosion history.
  • An application for a range of radio C14 dates on suitable deposits to establish a timeframe for hunter-gatherer activities and natural climatic events, and to facilitate correlation with other important sites.
  • This PhD will set the research within the wider archaeological and palaeoenvironmental context of Scottish prehistory in marginal environments. Models of human-environment interactions will be developed in a critical fashion to develop an integrated understanding of natural and anthropogenic influenced sedimentary and woodland histories peculiar to dynamic island environments. Particular emphasis will be placed on determining how these factors affect the preservation potential and interpretation of the cultural evidence.


Bennett, K. D., Fossitt, J. A., Sharp, M. J. and Switsur, V. R. 1990. Holocene vegetational and environmental history at Loch Lang, South Uist, Scotland. New Phytologist 114: 281-98.

Bennett, K. D., Boreham, S., Sharp, M. J. & Switsur, V. R. 1992. Holocene history of environment, vegetation and human settlement on Catta Ness, Lannasting, Shetland. Journal of Ecology 80: 241-273.

Birks, H. J. B. & Madsen, B. J. 1979. Flandrian vegetational history of Little Loch Roag, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. Journal of Ecology 67: 825-42.

Bohncke, S. J. P. 1988. Vegetation and habitation history of the Callanish area. In, Birks, H. H., Birks, H. J. B., Kaland, P. E. and Moe, D. (eds.), The Cultural Landscape – Past, Present and Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University: 445-61.

Edwards, K. J. & Mithen, S. 1995. The colonization of the Hebridean islands of western Scotland: evidence from the palynological and archaeological records. World Archaeology 26: 348-65.

Edwards, K. 2000. Vegetation history of the Southern Inner Hebrides during the Mesolithic Period. In
Hunter-gatherer landscape archaeology: The Southern Hebrides Mesolithic Project 1988-98. Vol.
1. (ed. S. Mithen), pp. 115-127. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs.

Hirons, K. R. and Edwards, K. J. 1990. Pollen and related studies at Kinloch, Isle of Rhum, Scotland,
with particular reference to possible early human impacts on vegetation. New Phytologist 116, 715-27.

Mellars, P.A. 1987. Excavations on Oronsay: Prehistoric Human Ecology on a Small Island. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Mithen, S., Astin, T., Guttman, E., Pirie, A., Smith, S. and Wicks, K. 2004. Report No. 2: Tiree evaluation survey. Inner Hebrides Mesolithic Project. University of Reading.

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, Volume 3: Mull, Tiree, Coll
and Northern Argyll. Edinburgh: RCAHMS.

Tipping, R. 1996. Microscopic charcoal records, inferred human activity and climate change in the Mesolithic of northernmost Scotland. In, The Early Prehistory of Scotland (eds. Pollard, T. and Morrison, A.), pp. 39-61. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wickham-Jones, C. R. & Pollock, D. 1987. Excavations at Farm Fields, Kinloch, Rhum 1985-85: a preliminary report. Glasgow Archaeological Journal 12: 19-29.

Wickham-Jones, C. R. 1990. Rhum: Mesolithic and Later Sites at Kinloch, Excavations 1984-1986. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Monograph Series no. 7.

Wilkins, D. A. 1984. The Flandrian woods of Lewis (Scotland). Journal of Ecology 72: 251-8.

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