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Pre-History and Beyond

Although Scotland is a small country it has had a complex history of relative sea-level change since the end of the last Ice Age.  This means that in some places there has been considerable submergence of land during this time.  The results are complex and wide reaching.  Areas that once were land now lie underwater. It is therefore impossible to understand the early settlement of Scotland properly without considering the potential of these areas for habitation and use. Interestingly, there is little evidence for Mesolithic settlement in the two main affected regions, the Northern and the Western Isles.  Whereas in the past this has been taken as evidence that the islands may have been settled late, we now realise that we need to look elsewhere, on the seabed, for further insight.  It will be necessary to collect data by taking core samples and build a curve to illustrate how the relative sea-level has changed over the last 10,000 years.  At the same time examination of the potential of sea-bed features may illustrate the past topography of the islands and using information from early settlement elsewhere to build a model of likely areas of settlement, and likely areas of site survival.

Scotland's History

Following the uplift and erosion of the Caledonian mountains, Old Red Sandstone was deposited west of Kingswells - source of the Denburn, near the present coast line. This sandstone is occasionally encountered in major excavations and can be seen on the south bank of the River Don between the old bridge at Balgownie and Brig o’ DonOf the events following, there is very little record. It is certain, however, that, prior to the Ice Age, there were numerous fluctuations in sea level which was sometimes higher, sometimes lower, than its present level. During the Pleistocene Ice Age, the entire area was subjected to glacial abrasion and littered with boulder clay and meltwater sands and gravels. The present valley of the Denburn functioned at some stages in these proceedings as a meltwater channel along which vast quantities of water from extensive ice sheets to the west travelled towards Aberdeen. Thus, in its earliest stages especially, the present burn is an insignificant misfit in a valley that would not disgrace a major river. When the valley last served as an outlay for meltwater, sea level stood 100 feet higher than today. At some earlier stage, however, one suspects that a major flow of water scoured the present outlet of the Denburn. When it did, the main construction work for Aberdeen Harbour was complete. Thus from prehistoric times the estuary of the Denburn has been navigable. The stage was set for the discovery of Aberdeen or Devenha.

Archaeological excavation in the Green revealed a flint working area where people prepared implements for fishing and hunting at least 8000 years ago. From the medieval period archaeological and historical evidence combine to show a picture of progressive urban expansion shaped by religion, trade and Aberdeen’s topography.  The story of the Green goes back to the earliest period of human activity in the north-east of Scotland.

Remains of a Mesolithic flint-knapping area were discovered by archaeologists during excavations in 1976. Tiny blades made from local honey-coloured Buchan flint, along with waste flakes and nodules, on top of the gravel subsoil, demonstrated that a flint craftsman had worked there about 8000 years ago, making tools for fishing and hunting.  Later excavation in the area revealed features and artefacts indicating a later flint industry continuing into the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods.

According to Fenton Wyness, 1965, the first inhabitants of Aberdeen were the Reindeer Folk, who appeared about 5000 BC: “a tribe of wanderers who, as the Ice Age tempered, had followed the reindeer north into Scotland”.  They settled around the estuary of the Denburn, now Aberdeen Harbour; perhaps they followed the stream to its source. Evidence there is, however, that the Stone Age Folk did know this valley and owned it for a space of years. “They were a more settled people, who tilled the soil, domesticated animals, and raised great cairns.” They lived here around 3000 BC. Of their presence in Aberdeenshire there remains axe-heads, forts, stone circles, e.g. the Dyce standing stones, and in Kingswells, the Long Cairn.

Although the estuary of the Denburn would have provided a safe harbour when Pytheas of Massilia or Marseilles made his major voyage of discovery about 330 BC, we do not know whether he took advantage of it. Similarly we do not know whether the Phoenicians of Sidon, who had certainly visited South-west England before this date, ever reached the area. Devanha appears on Ptolemy’s map of Scotland (circa 146 AD) but the source of Plotemy’s information is not known and the details of the voyage of Pytheas were not recorded by Strabo till about 300 years after the event.  The Picts appear to be the next people to have owned Aberdeen and its hinterland, judging from the Pictish symbols found (cf Diack’s “Inscriptions of Pictland”). The nearest are probably on the end wall of the roofless Dyce church, St. Mary’s of Parkhill, where two Pictish stones, probably 8th, 9th or 10th century, are preserved under the National Trust. The Romans described the inhabitants of Devenha and there are remains of a Roman Camp at Culter, a mile or two away. The Picts are described as a fierce warlike people, who painted their faces with woad, a purple dye.


Ptomely's Map of the World


Next came the Celts from Ireland in 565 AD when Columba landed on Iona and founded his famous monastery there. He and his companions travelled to Inverness to see Bude, King of the Picts. The gates flew open of their own accord, or so says the legend, and Bude became a Christian because of this miracle.  A little later, St. Machar was sent to found a religious settlement on the Don where it takes the shape of a pastoral staff’. In the 12th century this became the site of the Cathedral of St Machar (founded by King David, “the sair sanct”), which became the religious centre for this district till 1666, when a new religious centre was opened in the Newhills Church and the parish of Newhills came into being.

The Celts have left many evidences of their ownership, especially in place names. “Kingswells, Kingsford, Kingshill ...’All these names might represent ceann-head; wells is the source of the Denburn, but wells might represent Bhaile - baile - as. - town.’” (of Celtic place names)  According to the early territorial history (Cruickshank and Gunn, 1929), the nucleus of Aberdeen was the dwelling houses, around which lay the crofts and the Inner Marches. Outside lay the common, devoted to the provision of pasturage and fuel, and these Freedom Lands included the Stocket, a forest south of the King’s Highway or the Inverurie Road. This Stocket provided the citizens of Aberdeen with pasturage for “nowt and Kye”; also peat and wood: it was originally part of a huge forest stretching as far as Braemar - the Caledonian Forest. The margins of the Freedom Lands and Stocket became known as the Outer Marches of the city of Aberdeen.  The Kings of Scotland hunted through the Stocket Forest. From 1165 - 1214, King William the Lion owned it and hunted in it; from 1214 - 1249, his son, Alexander II, hunted there often. Then Alexander III found relaxation in it from affairs of state. There was game aplenty: the deer, the bison, the fox, the hare, the wild boar and the wild cat, the lynx and the otter, with salmon and trout to be found in the Dee and the Don. 

In the fight for freedom, Bruce had been greatly aided by the Citizens of Aberdeen, so he gave them a gift that he greatly prized, namely the Stocket Forest, for a small annual payment of £213; 6 ; 8 (Scots), which is about £17 sterling. He reserved for himself “only the green growth of the great trees and the game”. The citizens were granted permission to till and cultivate the soil and make what use it they could. A copy of the charter, dated 1319, is in the archives of the Townhouse.  To understand what happened next, it is advisable to read “The Freedom Lands, 1319 - 1929”. “The citizens appreciated their gift. In 1398, arrangements were made for the maintenance of their right in the forest. Foresters were appointed to guard it, the marches or boundaries were fixed by a series of large stones, called March Stones, and in order to make sure their boundaries were intact the custom of “perambulating the Marches”, or going round the boundary stones.  To make money from it now certain tacks were rented out to leading burgesses and the rent from these tacks went into a common pool, which was called the “Common Good”. The Freedom Lands were owned like this for the next 200 years.

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Last modified: 01/09/2013