Our tour guide whipped a rope out, pulled it taut and surveyed the crowd.
“What happened in 1745?” he asked, singling me out.
Oh Christ. I was researching Neolithic and Bronze Age history; 1745 was at least 3,000 years later.
“The Jacobite rebellion?” I answered, digging into my memory. I hoped I was right, who knows what he was going to do with that rope if I wasn’t.
He placed my hand on a knot.
“Which empire fell in 539 BC?”
“Babylon,” another tourist answered correctly.
“What happened in Greece in 776 BC?”
“Think of sport,” he offered.
“Oh, the ancient Olympics,” the third victim in our group said.
We hit the Egyptian pyramids and then Stonehenge as our human history line stretched out along the knotted rope.
“Alright, so what happened before all of that in 3,700 BC?”
“Something here!” someone shouted.
“Yes! The oldest monument in the glen, Nether Largie South, was built,” Andy Law, our guide, told us.
All Lined Up
My eyes scanned the landscape. I was standing in Kilmartin Glen, on the west coast of Scotland. I had earmarked it for its Bronze Age sites, but was learning that its history stretched much further.
“If we go back more than 10,000 years, we would have been standing on a glacier. Then the big thaw occurred and totally transformed the area.”
The end of the last Ice Age melted the area’s glaciers into roaring rivers which ripped through the hills creating the valley we were now standing in. Trees would have been in abundance and the river would have meandered much more than it does today.
“Where you’re standing is a place that’s unique. It’s called the Linear Cemetery,” Andy continued.
Six burial cairns from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age formed a roughly straight line stretching over two miles. The Canon of Durham Cathedral excavated the oldest cairn, Nether Largie South, in 1864 but he turned out to be less of a man with integrity than a man with antiquities. He bagged the buried pottery for himself and hoofed it back down to Durham. But thankfully it was recorded that both Neolithic and Beaker, or early Bronze Age pottery had been buried there.
A Great Cover Up
“This is the tomb of someone probably considered either supernatural or extremely important,” Andy said once we had lowered ourselves into a different cairn, Nether Largie North. It had been altered so tourists can go inside, but the original cist still stood in the floor. Its small length struck me. “The person would likely have been buried in a foetal position. But no human bones survived as it was below the water table,” Andy ventured.
“Whoever was inside, they didn’t want them getting out, because on top of the cist were 17 slabs of stone.” Around the cist, axes had been carved into the stone on top of older cup marks, suggesting that they used rocks that had previously had some importance. “And perhaps there was an almighty feast after the burial as an ox bone was found near by,” he added.
Bronze Age Britain lasted from 2,600 BC to 700 BC and within that period, tools and burials began to change. The shape of the tombs often became round (but not always) and it was commonplace for items to be buried with the people. Sky burials (bodies left outside and the bones later buried) and communal graves of the Neolithic period were being swapped for the more commonplace single burials.
In 2005 archaeologists in Kilmartin Glen found the prehistoric grave of a Dutchman, sparking the idea that perhaps he introduced something incredible to the area: metal. A malleable substance to make knives would have made things far easier, yet there’s no evidence that it radically altered life in Britain especially as people still chose to use flint.
Metal wasn’t found everywhere, certain places had particular types below ground. Kilmartin traded with the copper mine from Ross Island, Ireland. Two hundred years later, tin came on the scene from southwest England. Then somewhere a bright spark realised that if you mixed the two together, you could produce a hard, malleable metal which would much later be called bronze.
And so here I was, in one of Britain’s top two locations for Bronze Age and Neolithic finds (the other being Orkney). Over 350 monuments stand within a few miles of Kilmartin. I walked over to Ormaig and Achnabreck to see incredible rock art, the largest slab in Europe standing at the latter. Was it marking a sacred place? A rite of passage? Were they high on hallucinogenic substances or was it Neolithic graffiti? No one knows.
The whole area has been preserved since excavations began in the 1700s, with not so much a love of history in mind, but a love of women. The Malcolm clan wooed women here, parading them round the ancient monuments in horse-drawn coaches. Some of the stones from the cairns were likely used for the road, but beyond that, the Malcolm family did a pretty decent job of keeping things just so.
Three hundred years later and it still proves popular among the ladies, but its magic seems to work on everyone today.
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.