The Early History Of North East Scotland

The present landscape of the North East of Scotland has been formed by the activities of several hundred generations of people. Traces of many of their physical remains such as houses, farms, fortifications, religious sites, and burial monuments survive beside more recent features such as castles, industrial sites, kirks and military installations from the last war.

Hunter Gatherers – Nomadic Beginnings (13,000 BC – 4,000 BC)

As the ice sheets finally retreat from Aberdeenshire the earliest evidence for human activity in the region starts with finds of flint tools. NE Scotland was still physically connected to continental Europe via Doggerland at this time, dry land where the North Sea is today. Sea levels rose gradually and by 6,500 BC the land bridge was gone.

The earliest flint tools date to circa 13,000 BC from the Lower Upper Palaeolithic period. These stone tools would have been used by small roving groups of people hunting and gathering resources as they went, while exploring the new areas now free of ice. Gradually more advanced techniques of tool making developed, leading to the Mesolithic period. The first basic structures are built, temporary shelters used for a very limited time.

They fished for salmon in the rivers, gathered nuts and berries from the bushes in the forest and hunted deer, elk and boar in the woods. These hunting bands would have been small and moved in seasonal cycles over very wide territories.

Farming – The Arrival of Agriculture (4,000 BC – 2,500 BC)

The hunter gatherer lifestyle contrasted sharply with the arrival of agriculture in the Neolithic, brought to the area by immigrants coming from across the sea from North West Europe. Gradually sedentary agricultural communities took over the landscape, clearing large swathes of trees with the new technology of the stone axe. Their descendants mined the flint deposits near the coast at Boddam, south of Peterhead, to make more of their tools.

These farmers grew wheat and barley and raised sheep and cattle. They were also responsible for the earliest surviving architecture we see in the landscape, their massive burial longcairns and barrows. There followed the erecting of standing stones and stone-circles. These first farmers were also responsible for introducing pottery, and creating the enigmatic carved stone balls, the majority of which have been found in central Aberdeenshire.

Bronze – The Introduction of A New Technology (2,500 BC – 800 BC)

Beaker pottery arrives in the NE from areas in Europe such as the Netherlands, along with the people who had the knowledge of how to make bronze.

By this time the Garioch, around Inverurie, was a major focus for settlement as reflected by the four ritual centres or henges which were erected at this time of social change. A new type of stone circle, the recumbent, was built, marking a change in religious beliefs. Distinctive graves were dug containing Beaker pottery and single bodies laid in different orientations according to their sex. Beaker pottery was also placed on sites representative of the older social order such as earlier stone circles or tombs.

From c1200 BC there is a gradual and irregular decline in the climate. This may have been exacerbated by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla in 1159 BC. Coupled with this deterioration in the climate the archaeological record also changes, with more evidence of concentrated settlement in the form of round houses, agricultural plots and clearance cairns. Evidence of warfare also appears, represented by bronze swords and shields, some buried in bogs as offerings.

Iron – The Development of Local Power Centres (800 BC – AD 83)

With the wetter weather society appears to have become more hierarchical with little change for the next 1,500 years. Hillforts are built, massive undertakings by large numbers of people. Some of the most dramatic forts are those with stone walls built high and narrower as a result of baulks of timber across their core. Their destruction by fire caused them to vitrify.

From about 500 BC, iron technology was adopted, but bronze continued in use for prestige goods. By the end of the first millennium BC, some evidence of more controlled settlement and agriculture, particularly in the concentration of souterrains - underground storage rooms for agricultural and dairy products – can be found.

More evidence of warfare, or at least display, can be found at the turn of the millennia, in the form of the bronze and enamelled war trumpet (Carnyx) from Deskford. This was the product of a warrior aristocracy similar to other Celtic peoples in language, religion and rituals.

Invaders – The Coming of the Romans (AD 83 – AD 400)

The Romans only had a long-term presence south of Strathcathro. Beyond that they campaigned on at least two occasions into the NE during AD 83-84 (Agricola) and the early third century AD (Severus). They left behind remains of the legions' temporary marching camps up to the Moray Firth, evidence of payments in coin hoards to local chieftains, and the possible site of the great battle of Mons Graupius, which may have taken place in AD 83, just to the north of Bennachie.

The Picts – The Rise of New Tribal Kingdoms (AD 200 – AD 900)

The tribal society of the early and mid-first millennium AD that we know as Pictish developed apparently seamlessly from the preceding millennium.

Organised by potentates, kings, sub kings and chiefs it formed a dynamic network of kingdoms which imported goods from as far away as the Mediterranean. Often reusing the earlier hillforts and building new defensive enclosures, the Picts have left us with very little written record and are best known through their spectacular art. Christianity came late, appearing in the 7th Century AD near Aberdour on the coast and at Tullich on Deeside, and leading to changes in that art form.

By the ninth century Pictland was being attacked or pressured to the north, west and south by Viking and other raiders. Several of the promontory forts such as Dunnottar were attacked but no permanent Viking settlement was established, owing perhaps to the density of Pictish settlement and the ease, in the open terrain, of deploying reinforcements to any landing site. By the late tenth century or early eleventh century, the tribal Pictish kingdoms of the North East had been transformed under Scottish kings from Dalriada in Argyll into areas administered by governors and mormaers, the latter possibly from the families of the former chiefs.

A fully medieval society developed during the eleventh century under the Canmore dynasty which in the next two centuries took on Anglo Norman practices.