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A History of the Parish of Neilston
Chapter I. — Early History


As in the earliest history of an ancient country or race the beginnings are lost in the mists and uncertainties of the past, so it is with the earliest history of any particular community; and it is not until long after the dawn is passed and the people have emerged from their primitive and aboriginal surroundings, when to some extent they have begun to assert themselves, that history comes to deal with them recognising their doings and recording their relations according as they interact upon themselves and affect their neighbours.

In this respect the history of the parish, and of the town from which it takes its name, is no exception to the general law.

The Parish of Neilston, like the county of which it is an integral part, was originally included in the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde; “a kingdom formed by the Britons during the inter-tribal battles and strife that followed upon the withdrawal of the Romans from Britain in 407 a.d.” These Britons were, as their name indicates, a Celtic people. They entered the British Isles from the Continent at a very early but uncertain period.

The River-drift and Cave-men were the earliest human inhabitants of the British Isles, and they are only traceable by their relics. They are also known as the Paleolithic men, or men of the Ancient Stone Age. Judged by their skeletal remains, they appear to have been a short, sturdy people, with long, narrow heads, depressed or low at the crown, strong ridgy eye-brows, prominent muzzle-like mouths, and very little chin.

They had no domestic animals, not even the dog, that almost constant companion of savage man. They wandered hither and thither as chance of food impelled them, sheltering under overhanging rocks or in the mouths of caves, or camping in the open air.

It is a matter of conjecture with anthropologists whether this people, like the animals thev hunted and lived on, became extinct, or whether they were to some extent absorbed by the race that followed them. They do not appear to have had canoes or any means of crossing streams or water, and probably reached this country while there was yet a land connection with the Continent, and therefore before the Channel, the “silver strand" that separates these islands from the Continent, was formed.

The Iberians, another very ancient race, were, it is believed, the successors to these primitive peoples in our islands. At one period they appear to have spread all over the West and South-west of Europe, and even to Berber in North Africa, whence they are sometimes spoken of as the Berber race. They were non-Aryan and spoke a non-Aryan tongue—traces of which, philologists say, are still discoverable in the British language. They were taller than their predecessors, having an average height of about 5 ft. 5 in. Their heads were oval-shaped, their eyes very dark, their skin swarthy, and their hair black. Slim and agile in body, they were alert and active hunters. They had some knowledge of the earlier rudiments of civilization, could weave a kind of cloth, and make a coarse kind of pottery, the ornamentation of which, simple, wavy, dotted or zig-zag lines, indicates the beginnings of art. The later members of this people, however, as evidenced by some of their relics, exercised a much higher degree of art. They were already in possession of the more common cereals, and practised a rude kind of agriculture, and had domesticated animals. They possessed, however, no knowledge of metals, and therefore, of all their implements, the stone axe, in making which they evinced great dexterity, was perhaps the most important. They made dug-out canoes from the trunks of trees, by the aid of which they probably had reached our shores from the continent of Europe. Their system of sepulture was to bury their dead in a crouching or sitting position in chambers, a very interesting series of which may be seen just across the border of the parish at Cuff Hill in the parish of Beith. They are part of a cairn (originally a long barrow and as such probably unique, second in interest only to the Cave Cairn on Strawarren in Ballantrae district) that exists near the south-east base of Cuff’ Hill. In 1810, when the parish road was being formed near it, it was considered a convenient quarry for road metal, and as it was being removed, two rows of stone Cists, with human remains, were laid bare. Public curiosity was excited, and a stop was put to its demolition. At the same time the rest of the Cairn was partly explored, with the result that three Cromlechs or Cistvaen, and other features of interest, were found. These ancient graves having been left open, can still be examined. Two of the Cromlechs have still got their table stones in position, whence the popular mind has come to associate them with caves. Both of them are 3 feet wide, and one of them is at least 3 feet deep. The other Cromlech has had the top stone removed, for there are two massive stones beside it, that may have covered it. One of the massive cheek-slabs, a lime-stone one, of this Cromlech, is over 8 feet long. This Cist is 3 feet 6 inches wide at one end, and 1 foot 9 inches at the other, the depth being 3 feet 9 inches. The original size of the Cairn was 153 feet by 59 feet by 13 feet high. About thirty yards of it still remain.” 

The Gauls, a Celtic people, so named by Caesar, would appear to have been the next people, in the order of racial succession, to invade our shores. Their original home is said to have extended over a great part of Central Europe. They are supposed to have reached our country in the ninth century before Christ. They were altogether a superior people to any of their predecessors, and brought with them a knowledge of metals. They used bronze weapons instead of stone, which no doubt greatly aided them in their conflicts with their Iberian predecessors. They seem to have been a comparatively tall people, their average height being about 5 feet 9 inches. They had broad heads, capacious skulls, white skin, fair hair, and blue eyes, with large and strong limbs. They belonged to the great Aryan family of nations, and spoke an Aryan language, which at a later period we shall find their descendants bringing back from Ireland into Scotland, on the establishment of the Dalriadic colony. Their language, according to some, became also the tongue of Pictland. They are sometimes spoken of as the “Men of the Bronze Age,” from the fact that they were the first to introduce a knowledge of bronze into the country. To them also we owe the cranogs and lake-dwellings, and possibly many other prehistoric structures.

The Britons or Brvthons. another branch of the Celtic stock, appeared on our shores four or live centuries before the present era, in succession to the Gauls. Spreading from the south-east part of our island, where thev probably first landed, they had become, by the time of Cresar’s invasion, a "great multitude.” They seem to have extended northward and westward, possessing the country as they advanced. Like the Gauls, they spoke a dialect of the Celtic tongue, which at a later period developed into Welsh. More advanced in knowledge than any of their predecessors, they possessed weapons of iron, and had a practical understanding of agriculture and of growing of cereals, which we are told they continued to exercise, their predecessors, whom they certainly did not entirely destroy, maintaining themselves for the most part bv pasturing their herds and flocks. It was probably during the predominance of this people, and from them, that our country obtained the name of Britain. They, with their predecessors, the Gauls, are sometimes spoken of as the Megalithic race, from the gigantic structures they are supposed to have left in the several countries they inhabited; the great circle of Avesbury in Wiltshire, stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, and the many smaller circles, pillar stones, or maenhirs and trilithons to be found among the hills of our own country under the name of Druid Circles and Altars. The religion of the Britons was the Druid system, and no idolatrous worship ever attained such ascendancy over its followers. Our country at this period was covered with dense forest, in the groves and secret recesses of which their priests practised their occult rites and ceremonies. War was more or less the constant occupation of the different tribes, and as human sacrifice was part of their system of offerings, the captives taken in war as well as slaves were frequently devoted as sacrifices to their gods.

The Picts were divided into the northern and southern Picts. The former dwelt in the Lowlands north of the Forth. The others are said to have occupied the country immediately to the north-east of the Forth, but were probably confined to Galloway and certain districts between the walls built by the Romans. According to Skene, they were of Celtic origin, and spoke the Goidelic dialect. According to Professor Rhys, they were the descendants of the old Iberian race, who had adopted the Goidelic dialect, and were ultimately merged into the Celtic population. The name Picts—Pictus—a painted man, was applied by the Romans to such of the tribes as painted and tattoed their bodies with woad and other pigments.

The Scots came from Ireland, and landed on the west coast of Scotland about the beginning of the fifth century. They founded the kingdom of Dalriada in Argyllshire, and thence spread over a number of the western isles and along the shores of Ayrshire, and probably to the Solway. After much fighting, their king, Kenneth II., in 843, subdued the Picts. In 1018, under Malcolm II., they conquered the Angles of Bernicia, made the Tweed their southern boundary, and gave to the whole of the country the name of Scotland.

Mere lust of conquest may, to some extent, have prompted the aggressive inroads of these savage peoples, but the necessity for expansion may have been the result of some economic law. The Aryan stock were a prolific people; the land in the east had already been exploited by the Asiatic, and consequently the south and west alone remained into which they could overflow. What probably took place at these several incursions upon our shores would be something like what Caesar tells us he experienced when he landed in South Britain. The people in possession would offer the most strenuous resistance in their power to each aggressor, but superior weapons and discipline, better generalship and leading, would ultimately prevail. The natives, forced to give way, would for a time fall back into the forests and mountain fastnesses of the land, and doubtless many would fall in battle. But the necessity is not implied, as is too readily assumed, that the native people were hunted down, and annihilated root and branch. On the contrary, there is sufficient reason for believing that the older people, slowly emerging from their places of retreat, made friends with their new masters, and through various ways and expedients, became gradually absorbed by them. The conquered would, in process of time, be admitted to the protection of the chief or headman of the tribe, for body service, thirled as a serf or bondsman, possibly to work out his liberty or freedom, and ultimately, no doubt, closer unions would be formed through the medium of inter-marriage. Some such solution as this of the question of racial survival is almost predicted by daily experience, as, excepting possibly the river-drift and Cave men, representatives of the various other peoples are to be met with among the inhabitants of the different parts of our country at the present day. The persistence of the Jewish type, through the ages, shows us that racial characteristics are not readily lost.


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