As the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, early people ventured further north.
At Kinloch, on the island of Rum, there is the first evidence of a settlement in Scotland, established some 9,000 years ago. Archaeology at this Mesolithic site has discovered tools made of local Rum Bloodstone. There are only a small number of known Neolithic settlements and evidence of human activity comes mainly from funerary and ritual monuments. Archaeological remains of these burial chambers can be seen at Kilchoan on Ardnamurchan.
Although the early inhabitants did not make large-scale changes to the landscape, they did reduce some of the forest cover before settled agriculture developed in the Bronze Age about 4,000 years ago. An exceptional find of 19 axe heads and four dagger blades by the River Lochy, north of Fort William, has shed new light on the earliest use of bronze in the British Isles.
Hut circles and field patterns show us that there were widespread farming settlements at much higher altitudes than are possible today. Large areas of the ‘Great Forest of Caledon’ were cleared by these early agriculturalists.
During the iron age, large fortified circular towers called brochs were constructed, along with walled, often vitrified strongholds on rocky hilltops or headlands known as duns – such as Dun Deardail overlooking Glen Nevis. Crannogs, artificial islands made of wood and rocks, dot the shallower parts of some of Lochaber’s lochs, and remain as small, tree-crested islands.
There are examples of crannogs on the island of Eigg and on the mainland at Loch Lochy and Loch Treig.
The traditional cultural images of Highland Scotland have developed over many centuries and from many sources. From the southwest, waves of Celts came initially from Iberia then later from Ireland. From the north and east came the Picts. From the northern and western seas came the Vikings. Eventually, Scotland was unified under one king but it was not until the late 15th century that Lochaber and the Lordship of the Isles forfeited control to the Scottish crown.
The exploitation of Lochaber’s woodland continued slowly but surely throughout the Medieval period, into the 17th century and beyond. It was cut for domestic fuel and to remove shelter for wolves and outlaws, and also to produce charcoal as a fuel for iron smelting.