Prehistoric Scotland: The Real Paleo Diet

Is Scottish food just haggis, whiskey, neeps and tatties, fried Mars bars and Irn Bru? Each month food history enthusiast Sarah Gowanlock will be uncovering the real taste of Scotland by exploring it’s rich food history, from the Stone Age to today.

In a time when the majority of our food is imported, this series will allow you to take a closer look at how earlier Scots fed themselves and discover why oats were so important, what bog butter and guga is, how the food system changed after World War II and much more.


As an immigrant to Scotland, I’ve heard a lot of jokes about how I must not have moved for the food and I’m often asked by curious friends and family back home whether I’ve tried haggis yet (my usual response: it tastes just like meatloaf). But I have a feeling there’s more to Scotland’s food than haggis, and so I’m going on a journey to explore Scotland’s culinary roots. This month, I’m starting at the very beginning: Prehistoric Scotland.


Lascaux cave painting, France c.14,000 BC, featuring aurochsen. Image Source


When exactly was prehistory and how long have humans been in Scotland?

When this Lascaux cave painting was created in France c.14,000 BC, Scotland was still covered in glaciers and the British isles weren’t even islands. A landbridge called Doggerland connected Britain to what is now The Netherlands.

Scotland’s earliest people were hunter-gatherer-fishers, who hunted, harvested and fished for what they needed. The earliest evidence of humans in Scotland are from flint artefacts at Howburn Farm in South Lanarkshire dated to 12,000 BC, immediately after the Main Ice Age and during a period of relative warmth. They must have used this area as a stop on their summer hunting tour. This site is particularly amazing because just 1000 years later, Scotland was again plunged into a cold snap, which would have prevented any human settlement, and that lasted until around 10,000 BC.

When the ice receded, it was soon replaced with wildwood and humans began travelling north again, as evidenced by a human settlement in Cramond around 10,000 BC. Estimates of the population of hunter-gatherer-fishers in Scotland at this time range from 150 to several thousand.


So, what did they eat?

A combination of seasonal, local ingredients which varied significantly by region and populations. For example, on the Hebridean island of Oronsay on a site dating between 5300 and 4300 BC, the humans living there ate an almost exclusively marine diet of fish, seabirds, shellfish, and seals according to bone analysis.

Elsewhere in more mainland areas, diets consisted of deer, wild boar and the ancestor of modern cattle, aurochsen – also pictured in the Lasaux cave painting! Aurochsen used to roam throughout Europe and arrived in Britain via the Doggerland landbridge. Aurochs remains have been found at many sites in Scotland from Berwick to Orkney, mostly from the Neolithic period but some from the Bronze Age and one from the 4th century AD. Measuring 2 metres high at the shoulder, they were significantly larger than the domesticated cattle of today. Sadly,  the last of the aurochs died in Poland in 1627.

It is also worth noting that, unlike common beliefs, women may have joined men on hunting expeditions. In the Severn Estuary, archaeologists found fossilized footprints of hunters and were subsequently able to determine their measurements and that some of the footprints belonged to women. To hunt these larger creatures, such as deer, hunter-gatherer-fishers set traps by digging large pits and placing stakes at the bottom to skewer the animals as they fell in.


What about plant-based diets?

We actually don’t have much evidence about what plants humans were eating at this time because, unlike animal bones, plant food scraps decompose unless desiccated, frozen, or waterlogged and thus preserved. One commonly preserved plant food that has been discovered is hazelnuts.

Hazelnuts are often found at these archaeological sites and appear to have been so abundant in Scotland and in Europe, it’s even been suggested that hazelnuts were the main plant staple in south Britain. Hazelnut shells, which appear to have been considered waste by prehistoric peoples, are often found in roasting pits and therefore are perfect for carbon dating.


In 1995, an extraordinary pit of hazelnuts was found on Colonsay – which included hundreds of thousands of charred hazelnut shells dated to 6700 BC. Nearby this main pit were a series of smaller pits, seemingly to roast the nuts. The process appears to have been simple: dig a pit, fill it with nuts, and light a fire on top.

Rich in monounsaturated fats, hazelnuts were a fantastic food source as they could have been ground into flour to make bread or pressed into oil. But how could there have been so many nuts?


Firstly, Colonsay is an island without squirrels, so prehistoric peoples wouldn’t have had to compete with squirrels for the nut and it also probably encouraged more trees to grow! Secondly, it is possible they managed or cultivated the hazel trees in some way in order to increase production. Oddly, pollen samples from the excavation also indicate that the hunter-gatherer-fishers cut down all the hazel trees after this one harvest. But why?


We tend to think of prehistoric people as being more in tune with nature but evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer-fishers managed land, and often destructively. Hunters would burn out woodland deliberately, probably to drive out game, and create clearings, often near water, to attract deer or the giant cattle aurochs.


Food Economy

Hazelnuts could be easily stored and transported, and therefore may have been valuable trade. Ultimately, the extra effort required to skin hazelnuts probably led to the supremacy of cereal grains.

In northeast Scotland, archaeologists excavated a neolithic wooden hall and storage facility in Balbridie, Aberdeenshire dating from 4000-3500 BC which contained more than 20,000 cereal grains, charred and preserved by the fire that destroyed the structure: emmer wheat, flax, oar grain, bread wheat, and naked barley. Oats were present in Scotland from 8000 BC but not prominent until much later.


Wash it down with whiskey

Archeological sites on Rhum revealed evidence that the early settlers there appeared to have produced and consumed a form of ‘heather ale’ as pollen analysis of pottery indicated possible alcohol residue and royal fern spores were found on the same site. Fern spores were often used as painkillers, and can also be used as a chemical agent to stop fermentation.

Using archaeo-botanical and molecular archaeological research, Kevin Cullen at Discovery World in the U.S. created a Neolithic inspired Highland Heather Ale recipe, provided below, with heather tips, meadowsweet flower, and sweet gale. Heather also continues to be a popular infusion among Scottish brewers today.

Image Source

Are you growing hazelnuts in Scotland, brewing heather ale, or experimenting with heritage grains? Thinking of changing your paleo diet? Hazelnut recipe to share? Comment below with your thoughts about prehistoric Scotland’s food system!


Originally from the States, Sarah first came to Scotland to study mediaeval history and social anthropology at the University of St Andrews. But it wasn’t until she returned to the States and started worked at Brooklyn Botanic Garden that she rediscovered the joy of knowing where food comes from. Now back in Scotland, Sarah is a SFYN Scotland committee member, avid cyclist, and urban explorer. 

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