Until recently, no finds earlier than the Mesolithic
had been found in Scotland, including Ayrshire. It was
accepted that although there may have been humans in
Scotland in the Palaeolithic period, any traces would
have been removed by glaciation and rising sea levels.
Recent work on a site near Biggar by the Biggar
Archaeology Group has interpreted the lithic artifacts
found there as belonging to the Upper Palaeolithic.
The finds have close affinities with flints in north
Germany and Denmark and may date from 14,000 years ago.
It is thought that the site represents a hunting
camp of people who had followed herds of reindeer across
what is now the North Sea - the map of "Doggerland"
gives an impression of what was dry land at this time
although at some point the land-bridge was further north.
Although we cannot be certain that this group or
groups of people ever made their way into Ayrshire,
it does raise it as a possibility, especially as the
site is only 20 miles or so from Ayrshire. It is also
interesting to see that the lower sea levels must have
affected what is now the Clyde estuary, with the implication
that any routes followed by primitive hunters are irretreviably
With the gradual rising of the sea level, the plain
eventually became the North Sea sometime in the Mesolithic
period though as this whole area of research is so recent,
many details have still to be determined. In the context
of Ayrshire, one of these is the extent to which it
facilitated the spread of Mesolithic people into southern
The earliest traces of
human settlement in Ayrshire date from the Mesolithic
period (c. 8000 BC - 4000 BC). As noted above, it is
not impossible that Upper Palaeolithic hunters may have
entered Ayrshire from the east around 14,000 years ago
after having crossed "Doggerland", although
definite proof of this is needed.
the ending of the ice age, in particular the Loch Lomond
Re-advance, climatic conditions improved sufficiently
to encourage incursions by small groups of hunters.
By the time they arrived the tundra-like conditions
had given way to extensive woodland with areas of shrubland
and more open areas, especially on the high ground.
In Ayrshire there would have been extensive areas of
marsh surrounding numerous lochs, hinted at nowadays
by the flat areas where they have been drained.
mesolithic people were hunter/gatherers and would have
been on the move for long periods of time with hunting
camps in the summer in inland areas and winter camps
on the coast. These environments provided them with
everything they needed for tools, shelter and food.
The following of game trails was undoubtedly very important.
Christopher Taylor in Roads and Tracks of Britain refers
to work that suggests that wild cattle regularly migrated
from the uplands of southern Scotland to the Solway
Firth area. (1)
the mesolithic people have left evidence of their presence
in the form of lithic scatter sites where numerous stone
chippings were left as they made tools and hunting weapons,
as well as remains of camps. The finds are sufficiently
numerous to give a fairly good idea of their movements
as they entered the area. While much of this movement
would have been on foot, dug-out canoes and skin-covered
craft would also have been used, as witness the canoe
found at Loch Doon.
a regional context, mesolithic finds have been made
along the Solway and Ayrshire coasts with significant
clusters in the Loch Doon and Carsphairn areas as well
as near Muirkirk and around Biggar in Lanarkshire. Papers
by Morrison and Hughes (2)
and Morrison and Hendry (3)
give an overview of Ayrshire at this time. There are
also large numbers of sites on the coast of Antrim,
along the River Bann and around Loch Carlingford.
the Solway coast, there are clusters of finds near Southerness,
south of Dumfries; near Whithorn and Port William; and
at the north end of Glenluce Bay and the eastern coast
of the Mull of Galloway. There have also been isolated
finds near the River Annan for some 15 miles of its
there are sites at Loch Grannoch and the Clatteringshaws
Loch area and a large number of sites on the shores
of Loch Doon. Further east, there have been large numbers
of finds along the Water of Ken from near St John's
Town of Dalry up towards Craignegilian Bridge.
Ayrshire itself, there are sites near Girvan, then regularly
spaced finds along the coast with clusters near Prestwick,
Troon and Shewalton (near Irvine), and some near Hunterston.
finds invite speculation as to routes the early Mesolithic
settlers might have followed in their incursions into
Scotland but as Wickham-Jones (4) shows,
there are considerable difficulties in reaching firm
conclusions about this. Having said that, one is on
firm enough ground to postulate more localised movements.
The most obvious is movement along the coast although
it has to be noted that sites are of two types: an early
phase where the sea level was higher and sites are found
on the old cliff tops (good examples of these cliffs
can be seen near Girvan); and a later phase, often in
sand dunes, after the sea level had fallen.
is noteworthy that there is only one site south of Girvan,
at Ballantrae, which probably reflects the nature of
the coastline here. Near Girvan the cluster of finds
indicates the varied habitats that could be exploited
by them in this area which may also be true of the Prestwick/Troon/Shewalton
spacing of the inland sites in the Galloway Hills has
led Edwards et al in an article on mesolithic sites
in the southwest (5)
to suggest the use of the NW/SE trending river systems
for travel between the Solway coast and Ayrshire. One
route would have run from Kirkcudbright Bay northwards
along the River Dee past Castle Douglas and then the
Water of Ken which goes up to New Galloway and St John's
Town of Dalry. Six miles north of Dalry it would have
followed the Water of Deugh and Carsphairn Lane to Loch
route would be along the Big Water of Fleet to Loch
Grannoch then up through the area of Clatteringshaws
Loch (a modern hydro-electric development) where it
would have travelled west for a few miles on the course
of the Black Water of Dee and then north to Cooran Lane
and Gala Lane and so to Loch Doon. From Loch Doon there
could have been a relatively easy link to the Ayrshire
coast by the River Doon or a more difficult course by
the Water of Girvan.
authors note that further evidence may suggest other
routes from the Solway to the interior by major rivers
like the Cree, Urr and Nith and that transverse routes
between the above two routes would have been possible.
The cluster of finds on the headwaters of the Water
of Ken (south-east of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn) could
suggest an easy route to the Nith Valley but there is
no evidence to confirm this.
finds between Muirkirk and Strathaven may imply movement
from the coast and perhaps towards the Biggar area but
this is not certain.
This period extends from about 4000 BC to 2500
BC. It is characterised by increasingly permanent settlements
where the land had been cleared for farming and for
keeping domesticated livestock. New forms of flint and
stone tools appeared, as did pottery. In addition, new
types of tombs were built, and henges and stone circles
appeared for the first time.
is generally thought that neolithic people were newcomers,
although where they came from and if they were of the
same origins as the mesolithic people is still to be
determined. Both groups seem to have co-existed peacefully.
Some hunter-gatherer groups continued to exist but were
gradually assimilated into the new life style.
the development of settled communities, the conditions
for definite trackways were established. Unfortunately,
as far as Ayrshire is concerned we are not certain where
these settlements were. However, there must be a presumption
that they were linked to the chambered cairns of which
eight are known from Ayrshire. These are at Largs, Beith,
Galston, Baing Loch near Straiton, Barr (2) and Ballantrae
(2). These major funerary monuments were communal graves
and are thought to have been situated on the periphery
of their territory. It is noticeable how many are on
high ground and in remote areas. No doubt to them there
was a numinous quality to these graves and it could
well be that being in the realm of the Dead, journeys
to them were undertaken only when someone had died and
that the area beyond was avoided. If this was the case
then the settlements were likely to have been in the
low lying areas of Ayrshire with each chambered cairn
associated with a distinct group. In the settled areas
there would have been short paths to cultivated land
and livestock as well as to neighbouring settlements.
In addition, there must have been tracks to burial sites
and to henges and circles.
Campbell has suggested that groups of neolithic cairns
may indicate tribal territories.
(6) There is a clear group of
this sort to the east of Ballantrae and running south
into Glenapp. Other groups are near Dalmellington and
Muirkirk. With the exception of Muirkirk these conform
quite well with the locations of chambered tombs.
these seem to have been peacable times, there may have
been long-distance routes. Certainly the presence of
axe-heads from Northern Ireland and from the Lake District
indicates trading links with these centres.
Around 2500 BC, there was an influx of people
who were culturally different from the neolithic population.
These are known as the Beaker People from their distinctive
pottery, and the age is known as the Bronze Age because
they were capable of working this metal.
They seem to have co-existed peacefully with those already
settled in the area, establishing themselves on the
periphery of existing settlement zones. From about 2000
BC, the climate gradually deteriorated and farming became
more difficult. Around 1200 BC, there was a marked decline
in population, possibly associated with the eruptions
of Hekla in Iceland in 1159 BC which are thought to
have had a severe effect on the climate. After this
time weapons were more in evidence and were of a more
sophisticated type. With peat encroaching on formerly
cultivated land there may have been an emphasis on raising
livestock and perhaps raids on herds.
routes to Ireland and Cornwall can be inferred, as Irish
copper was used extensively, and Cornwall was the only
source of tin - both metals being needed for the production
of bronze. It was also a feature of their society that
itinerant metalworkers travelled from place to place
and made items on the spot. A find at Peel Farm near
Drumclog in the upper Avon valley appears to be metal
prepared for resmelting.
Two separate studies by Morrison show bronze age finds.
There are a large number of sites near the coast
from the Irvine area up to Largs, and given the geography
it is easy to imagine a route up the coast. There are
also a fair number of sites around Muirkirk suggesting
significant local movement. The same would apply to
clusters in the Cumnock/Ochiltree area and that near
Waterhead Farm halfway between New Cumnock and Dalmellington.
There is another cluster between Maybole and the coast
with some sites just south in the valley of the Girvan.
large number of finds gives the impression of a fairly
well populated countryside with implied movement, but
we have to be cautious as the Bronze Age covers a period
of about 1500 years. We also have to be careful not
to assume that areas where there are no finds were not
populated. Finds are more frequent in present day urban
and farming areas because of building excavations and
is perhaps worth remembering that people in the late
Neolithic and Bronze ages may have seen roads very differently
from us. No doubt there were tracks originating in the
hunting and farming activities of these people but some
may have had a ritual significance which is now lost
The Iron Age and the Celts
languages fall into two major classes, known as P-Celtic
and Q-Celtic. This is based on their treatment of the
early Indo-European qu sound, one group retaining it,
the other changing it to a p. (9)
Examples of P-Celtic languages are Gaulish, Old British
or Brythonic (now Welsh), Cornish and Breton. The Q
group is represented by Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic.
The distinction affords an easy way of talking about
the arrival and spread of the Celts in the British Isles.
The traditional view was that there were two major phases
of invasion: the first was of Q-speaking Celts about
1000-900 BC, displacing or assimilating the Bronze Age
peoples; the second of P-Celtic speakers around 400
BC, who themselves displaced Q-Celts over to Ireland.
variant of the theory suggests that there were remnants
of Q-Celts on the western edges of Britain who adopted
the later P-Celtic Brythonic language. Rhys
(10) suggests this may have been the
case with the Damnonii (who we know from Ptolemy were
in Ayrshire); i.e. that they were Q-Celts who remained
in Ayrshire rather than move to Ireland but changed
their language to P-Celtic Brythonic. Moreover, he suggests
that the Novantae and Selgovae (to the south and east
of Ayrshire respectively) may have been the remnants
of Bronze Age peoples. Certainly there are hints of
the distinctiveness of the Novantae - they may have
been the Attecotti of Roman times, a name meaning old
or ancient; and Bede refers to them as the Niduarian
Picts, an indication itself that they were not Brythons.
As an aside, there is an interesting theory that suggests
that the Damnonii were the same as the Dumnonii of SW
England and that there was a mass emigration to this
area. If correct, this would entail coastal landings
and movement inland, perhaps just prior to the Agricolan
campaign if they were fleeing from Roman advances in
other theory is that the Bronze Age people were early
Celts, speaking Q-Celtic and that there were no further
immigrations until the P-Celts or Brythons arrived about
400 BC. One reason is that the Beaker people had characteristics
of a warrior society similar to the Celts. Another is
that the urnfields, of which there are examples in Ayrshire,
are equated by many archaeologists with the Celts. Finally,
seeing the use of iron as a technological development
within the one society dissolves the traditional association
of the Bronze Age with the Beaker people and the Iron
Age with the Celts.
none of these theories is of much help in deciding what
routes there were in the period beyond saying that they
no doubt used existing Bronze Age trackways and developed
is Ptolemy of much help, pointing at most to one or
two possible routes. His map of c.140 AD shows the Damnonii
in the north and central parts of Ayrshire as well as
further north and the Novantae in Galloway and perhaps
Carrick. The Selgovae were to the east. His map is thought
to incorporate intelligence gathered during the Agricolan
campaign of 79-83 AD. His placing of Vindogara as a
tribal centre - Ptolemy lists six for the Damnonii -
is important as it would give a focal point for routes.
It is generally thought to be near Irvine but Watson
(11) places it nearer Girvan. The
Irvine location is attractive because it was clearly
well-populated at the time and through Dundonald had
connections with Aeron of the Dark Ages. Another plausible
theory is that Walls Hill, a large fort in the Beith
Hills, was a tribal centre. It is worth noting that
Damnonian territory stretched from Ayrshire well into
present day Dumbartonshire. Later evidence suggests
that there was a route in the Dark Ages and in mediaeval
times from Ayrshire up to Dunbarton Rock. It is quite
possible that it developed in this period.
The Novantian centres were Rerigonium and Lucopibia,
thought to be Stranraer and Glenlochar, just above Castle
Douglas. If we assume contact with the Damnonii, these
two places are on important later routes to the north,
viz. the coastal route and the route up the Glenkens
to Dalmellington and beyond.
only other evidence is archaeological. A recent study
by Hendry (12) provides
an overview of research undertaken since the pioneering
work of John Smith. He also lists and maps sites of
known or possible iron age occupation in three categories:
58 fortified sites of which 30 are forts, 18 are duns,
and 10 are crannogs; 44 unfortified sites, mostly hut
circles and homesteads; and 129 sites with limited fortification,
mostly enclosures. Forts are fairly large, a typical
dimension would be 80 metres at its longest and 40 metres
at its widest. Duns are smaller, perhaps 20 -30 metres
across and often circular. Crannogs were built on wooden
piles sunk into the bed of a loch on which an artificial
island and dwelling would be built. The single broch,
at Craigie, is one of only a few in the south of Scotland
in contrast to the north where there are hundreds. Although
hardly to be seen today its distinctive cooling tower
shape, 30 or 40 feet in height, must have been an impressive
sight at the time.
distribution of fortified sites shows that high ground
was often favoured with clusters in the Carrick Hills
and on the south side of the Water of Girvan; the Craigie
Hills and the hills just west of Dundonald; and the
hills running north from Ardrossan and Saltcoats. There
are however more low-lying clusters near the Doon as
it approaches the coast, and near the coast north west
of Kilwinning. There are hardly any sites of this type
south of the Water of Girvan and between the rivers
Doon and Ayr.
location of the unfortified sites corresponds quite
well with the first category north of the Irvine with
a number of sites and also between the Doon and Ayr
in that there are no sites. There are, however, hardly
any sites between the Ayr and Irvine whereas there were
fortified sites on the hills near Craigie and Dundonald.
are no sites in the Carrick Hills unlike the first category
but numerous sites near Girvan, Ballantrae and Barrhill
where there were no fortified sites.
sites with limited fortification correspond well with
the first two types north of Kilwinning but with a distict
cluster to the east of Kilwinning, north of the River
Irvine. Between the Irvine and Ayr there are a number
of sites near the fortified sites of the hills near
Craigie and Dundonald but with more sites extending
eastward unlike the other two categories. There is a
small cluster near Muirkirk.
the Ayr and the Doon there are a scatter of sites including
a cluster east of Cumnock, wereas there were no sites
in this area in the other categories.
of the Doon there are a number of sites inland from
the mouth of the Doon and in the Carrick Hills, like
the fortified sites and unlike the unfortified sites.
Near Girvan there are sites, like the other two categories.
Like the unfortified category there are sites near Ballantrae
and Barrhill with a significant number in the Stinchar
will be seen that there are considerable difficulties
in using the above sources of evidence to identify trackways
in this period. One problem is that without detailed
dating evidence we cannot assume all these sites are
contemporaneous - the Iron Age as a period covers at
least 1000 years. Again, depending on which theory about
the Celts you choose, some forts could have been, for
example, strongholds of the Bronze Age peoples defending
against Celts, or of Q-Celts defending against invading
P-Celts. Were the forts intended for defence against
raids by groupings within the same tribal group or against
raids by another group? Was the boundary between the
Novantae and Damnonii at the River Doon or the River
Irvine - the sites near the mouth of the Doon and at
Craigie Hill and Dundonald could fit either.
questions mean that until further research throws light
on the matter, we can only postulate one or two long
distance routes and indicate areas where there would
have been local tracks.
summary then, there could have been a Damnonian route
up to the centre of their territory, perhaps at Dumbarton;
and Novantian routes by the coast and up the Glenkens.The
distribution of sites, as identified by Hendry, suggests
a considerable network in almost all parts of Ayrshire
although less extensive in the east of the area and
the area between the Doon and the Ayr. On this basis,
local tracks can be postulated for the following areas,
with a remaining uncertainty as to more long distance
- Noddsdale Water
- West Kilbride
- Loudoun Hill
- Guelt Water
- Carrick Hills
- Stinchar Valley
the Iron Age continued beyond the arrival of the Romans,
it is traditional to treat this as a separate period.
When the Romans invaded the west of Scotland they no
doubt travelled by existing tracks and it is just possible,
as was certainly the case in other parts of Britain,
that they were incorporated into the Roman road network.
That, however, is by no means certain, as we shall see
in the next chapter.
Christopher Taylor in Roads and Tracks of Britain, Orion,
London, 1994, page 2
A Morrison and I Hughes, The Stone Ages in Ayrshire,
Papers by A Morrison and Alastair Hendry in John Smith
of Dalry, Ayrshire Monographs No.17, AANHS, 1996
C.R.Wickham-Jones, Scotland's First Settlers, Batsford/Historic
Scotland, London, 1994, chapter 5
Edwards et al, New Mesolithic Sites in South West Scotland,
Thorbjorn Campbell, Ayrshire, A Historical Guide, Birlinn,
Edinburgh, 2003, chap. 1
A Morrison, The Bronze Age in Ayrshire, AANHS, 1978
A Morrison, John Smith and the Earlier Prehistory of
Ayrshire in John Smith of Dalry, Ayrshire Monographs
No.17, AANHS, 1996
9. W.J.Watson, The
History of the Celtic Placenames of Scotland, Birlinn,
Edinburgh 1993, page 2
Rhys, Celtic Britain, Random House, London 1996
11. W.J. Watson,
op.cit., page 32
Alastair Hendry, The Iron Age in Ayrshire (c.500 BD
- 500 AD): An Update, in John Smith of Dalry, Ayrshire
Monographs No.17, AANHS, 1996
(The Roman Period)