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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 4 - The Stone Age


Let us come closer to these British aborigines. They have no knowledge of letters. They had set out from their original homes before the invention of the alphabet. They have brought with them the implements of the shepherd and of the hunter, and in the foresight of danger they have provided themselves with some rude weapons of defense such as the club and the stone hatchet, but they are wholly ignorant of the art of conversing with posterity, and of communicating to the ages to come a knowledge of what they were, and what they did. This parts them from our ken even more completely than the wild sea around their island sundered them from their contemporaries, and it may seem bootless, therefore, to pursue them into the thick darkness into which they have passed. And yet the labour of such inquiry will not be altogether thrown away. These ancient men have left behind them traces which enable us to reproduce, in outline, the manner of life which they led, much as the Arab of the desert can tell from the footprints of the traveller on the sand to what tribe he belonged, whether he carried a burden and the days or weeks that have elapsed since he passed that way. The characters which we are not to essay to read are inscribed on no page of book, they are written on the soil of the country; nevertheless, they bear sure testimony regarding the men to whom they belong, and the study of them will disclose to us something, at least, of what went on in our dark land before history arrived with her torch to dispel its night.

We begin with the stone age. We know not when this age opened or when it closed, and it is bootless to inquire. Viewing the matter generally, the stone age was coeval with man. All around him were the stones of the field. They were his natural weapons, especially of attack, and he must have continued to make use of them till he came into possession of a better material for the fabrication of his implements and tools. This was not till the arrival of bronze, a date which it is impossible to fix. These great discoveries were made before history had begun to note the steps of human progress, and therefore we are here able to speak not of time but of sequences. We are not, however, to conclude that all nations began their career with the stone age. There was one family of mankind which retained the traditional knowledge of the metals, but the colateral branches of that family, when they wandered away from their original seat, lost the art of extracting and smelting the ore, and had to begin their upward career on the low level of the stone age. Let us hear what archeology has to say of our country on this head.

On yonder moor is a cairn. It was there at the dawn of history; how long before we do not know. It has seen, probably, as many centuries as have passed over the pyramids. Its simplicity of structure has fitted it even better to withstand the tear and wear of the elements than those mountainous masses which still rear their hoar forms in the valley of the Nile; and it has more sacredly guarded the treasures committed to its keeping than have the proud mansolea of the Pharaohs. Let us open it, and see whether it does not contain some record of a long forgotten past. We dig down into it, and light upon a stone coffin. We open the lid of the rude sarcophagus. There, resting in the same grave in which weeping warriors laid him four thousand or more years ago, is the skeleton of one who was, doubtless, of note and rank in his day. We can imagine the blows that great arm-bone would deal when it was clothes with sinew and flesh, and the fate that would await the luckless antagonist who should encounter its owner on the battlefield. This ancient sleeper, whom we have so rudely disturbed in his dark chamber, may have surpassed in stature and strength the average Caledonian of his day, 1 but even granting this, he enables us to guess the physical endowments of a race which could send forth such stalwart, if exceptional, specimens to assist in clearing the forest or subduing the rugged glebe, or fighting the battles of clan or of country.

We open this coffin as we would a book, and we scan its contents with the same engrossing interest with which we devour the printed volume which tells of some newly discovered and far-off country. But we have not yet read all that is written in this ancient tome. We turn to its next page. The weapons of the warrior have been interred in the same rude cist with himself. Here, lying by his side, is his stone battle-axe. Its once tough wooden handle is now only a bit of rotten timber. On its stone head, however, time has been able to effect no change: it is compact and hard as when last carried into battle. This stone axe is a silent but significant witness touching the age in which its owner lived. No one would have gone into battle armed only with an implement of stone if he could have provided himself with a weapon of iron, or other metal. But weapon of iron the occupant of this cist had none. He fought as best he could with such weapons as his age supplied him with, making strength of arm, doubtless, compensate for what was lacking in his weapon. The inference is clear. There was an age when iron was unknown in Scotland, and when implements of all kinds were made of stone.

There is a close resemblance betwixt the battle-axes dug out of the cairns and tumuli of our country and those fabricated by the savages of the South Sea Islands not longer ago than a little prior to the last age. It is not necessary that we should suppose that the latter worked upon the models furnished by our ancestors of savage times. The constructive powers of man in a savage state are always found working in the same rugged groove, and hence the resemblance between the two though parted by thousands of years. All his implements, peaceful and warlike, did man then fabricate of stone. With an axe of stone he cut down the oak; with an axe of stone he hollowed out the canoe; with an axe of stone he drove into the ground the stakes of his rude habitation; with an axe of stone he slaughtered the ox on which he was to feast; and with an axe of stone he laid low his enemy of the battlefield, or himself bit the dust by a blow from the same weapon. It was the STONE AGE, the first march on the road to civilization.

The harder stones were used in the fabrication of the heavier instruments. It was of no use going into battle with a weapon which would fly in splinters after dealing a few blows. The stone used in the manufacture of the battle-axe was that known as green-stone. But the lighter weapons, and in particular the projectiles, were fashioned out of flint. A mass of flint was split up in flakes, the flakes were chipped into the form of arrow-heads, and were fitted on to a cane, and made fast by a ribbon of skin. These flint arrow-heads proved rather formidable missiles. Shot by a strong hand from a well-strung bow, they brought down the roe as he bounded through the forest, or laid the warrior prostrate on the field. These flints were capable of receiving an edge of great sharpness. Flint knives were made use of by both the Hebrews and the Egyptians in their religious rites, in those especially where a clean incision had to be made, as in the process of embalming and other ceremonies. The hieroglyphics on the Egyptian obelisks are supposed to have been cut by flint knives. The granite in which the hieroglyphics were graven is too hard to have been operated upon by bronze or iron, and the Egyptians were not acquainted with steel.

These arrow-heads buried in the soil are often turned up at this day in dozens by the spade or the plough, showing how prevalent was their use in early times, and for a very considerable period. They suggest curious thoughts touching the artists that so deftly shaped them, and the men who turned them to so good account in the chase of in the fight. Were these ancient warriors to look up from their cairns and stone cists, how astonished would they be to mark the difference betwixt their simple missiles and the formidable projectiles—the breech-loaders, the guns, the mortars, and various artillery—with which the moderns decide their quarrels.

In some localities these flints are gathered in a heap, as if they had fallen in a shower, and lay as they fell till the plough uncovered them. This accumulation of weapons tells a tale of forgotten warfare. When we dig in the moor of Culloden, or in the field of Waterloo, and exhume the broken shells, the round shot, the swords, and other memorials of battle which so plentifully exist in these soils, we say, and would say, though no record existed of the carnage formerly enacted on the spot, here armies must have met, and here furious battle must have been waged. And so, when we gaze on these long-buried flints laid bard by the plough, we are forcibly carried back to a day in our country’s unrecorded past, when uncouth warriors, with matted locks, painted limbs, and eyes gleaming with the fire of battle, gathered here to decide some weighty point of tribal dissension, and awaken the echoes of the lonely hills with their wild war-whoop, and the crash of their stone axes.

Let us look a moment with the eyes of these men, and view the world as it was seen by them. What a narrow horizon begirt them all round! History had never unrolled to their eye her storied page, and beyond the genealogy of their chief, which they had heard their senachies rehearse, they knew little of what had happened in the world till they themselves came into it. In front they were shut in by a near and thick darkness. The moor on which they dwelt was their world. The chase of the battle was the business of their lives; and to die at last by the side of their chieftain in some great tribal conflict, and have their bones inurned in the same sepulchral mound, was the supreme object of their ambition. Their range of knowledge and enjoyment was only a little less contracted than that of the beasts that perish. What a change when knowledge lit her lamp, and the barbarian, loosed from the handbreadth of earth to which he had been chained, could make the circuit of the globe, and the circuit of the centuries, and draw the elements of his happiness from all the realms of space, and from all the ages of time!

Let us ascend an eminence and take a survey of the landscape of this age. It looks to the eye a vast shaggy wood, crossed by sedgy rivers, dotted by black tarns, and broken by rocky cliffs and ridges. Here and there a gleam of gold tells where a patch of grain is ripening, and the ascending wreath of blue smoke reveals the wattle-worked homestead that nestles in the forest. We visit one of these clearings. We find the hamlet within its staked enclosure. The inhabitants, some in linen, for they grow a little flax, others in skins, are variously occupied. Some are cutting wood with the stone axes of wonderful sharpness, or sawing it with pieces of notched flint, or splitting it up by means of a stone wedge. Others are fabricating spear-shafts, arrowheads, or scraping skins, or polishing celts, or carving implements out of bone and antler. Outside the huts the women are grinding the corn with pestle and mortar—for the hand quern has not yet been invented—and cooking the meal on the fire, or they are spinning thread with spindle and distaff, to be woven into cloth on a rude loom. Perchance some are engaged moulding with the hand vessels of clay. It is verily but the infancy of the arts, but we here behold the foundation on which have been built the mighty industries that now occupy our populations.

Outside the stockade that runs round the hamlet are flocks of sheep, herds of goats, troops of horses, and droves of short-horned cattle. Numerous hogs score the clearing in search of roots, tended by swine herds and defended by large dogs against the bears, wolves, and foxes that infest the forest that forms the environment of the homestead.2 Such is the picture the clearing presents


FOOTNOTES

1. A cairn on the moor above Ardoch when opened was found to contain a cist in which was the skeleton of a man seven feet long. Sir John Sinclair, Statistical Account of Scotland, vol. Viii. P. 497; Wilson, Prehistoric Annals, p. 64, Edin. 1851.

2. "Early Man in Britain," W. Boyd Dawkins, p. 272, London, 1880.


 

 


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