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First footers reached the Hebrides perhaps more than a thousand years before Britain was separated from the continent of Europe by the English Channel. The galaxy of the British Isles was still in the making as the sea-level rose in the wake of the last ice-age. Those who landed on Jura from their dug-out canoes found its beaches between 50 and 120 feet above their present level, while those who paddled on to Oronsay reached an island far smaller than tis present size. Anyone driving around Arran today can see the old sea caves on one hand and the shore on the other, 25 feet below its former level.
The height of the raised beaches varies in this way according to a sea-saw motion that has continued throughout the ages. When water was taken from the sea to form ice sheets the level of the ocean fell: when the ice melted, it rose again. The land had its own responses. Where the ice lay thickest, it rose farthest after the weight had been removed. The mean level has been reached a number of times in the past, between periods in which the sea was either higher or lower.
The earliest settlers came up from the South in extremely small numbers, perhaps not more than a hundred all told, widely scattered about this region. The presence of these original tourists can be traced largely because, like so many of their modern descendants, they left their rubbish lying around. This included massive shell-heaps. It takes 140 limpets to provide the food value of a pound of meat, so comparatively small numbers of people assembled all these shells. Their tools have also been found, stone hand hammers and antler mattocks, harpoons and bone fish-hooks, and they learned to make use of the pitchstone of Arran and the bloodstone of Rum. They adventured north beyond these islands to Skye and as far as Lewis. Today we may make such a journey in a matter of hours. In their dug-out canoes the voyage of discovery could not have extended far in each generation, especially in an age when few people lived longer than twenty-five years, and scarcely any reached thirty.
About 2000 years after the appearance of the earliest Mesolithic food gatherers, others arrived in the islands with new skills. These people brought with them cattle, sheep and goats, and their previous store of seed grain. They looked for the most fertile areas and discovered these in North Uist and Orkney. In Orkney they found that in addition to the rich soil there was a kind of stone which splits easily into flags, an ideal building material. With this they began the tradition that was to endow Orkney with the most impressive concentration of prehistoric monuments in all Europe. Here the earliest domestic settlement to have been discovered dates back over 5000 years, yet it is preserved better than many buildings erected in this century. It stands on the Orcadian isle of Papa Westray, and there is another complex, larger but less well preserved, at Noltland on neighbouring Westray.
The most spectacular of all these settlements is Skara Brae, which lies by the bay of Skaill on the Orkney mainland. When the earliest boat people came to Scotland the sea-level was far higher than it is now. Yet by the time the farming folk built Skara Brae, thousands of years later, the sea had sunk below its present level. Today their homes have had to be protected from the waves by a concrete wall, and there may be lost sites beyond, under water, which originally lay at a safe distance inland.
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