Prehistoric island: let’s rebrand Arran

By Kenneth Brophy and Gavin MacGregor, writing in the Island Review

There is an island off the coast of Scotland which contains some of the most spectacular standing stones in northern Europe, a fine collection of megalithic tombs and rich evidence for farming going back almost 6,000 years. It is the source of one of the most magical materials of prehistoric Britain and, for the past few years, it has even had its own fire festival. But this island is not in Orkney, Shetland, nor any of the Hebrides, Inner our Outer.

Within a short drive and ferry crossing from Glasgow, it has a very nice castle set in grounds bursting with rhododendrons and a well-known mountain that appears to be named after an ovicaprid accident. However, for the time being this island is more famous for its moors and mountains, arts and crafts, beer and whisky, condiments and cheese, than for its glorious prehistoric archaeology.

We are, of course, speaking about the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde. Just the right satisfying size to fit onto one Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 sheet, it is more accessible than ever thanks to road equivalent pricing on the ferries that sail back and forth across the estuary from Ardrossan on the North Ayrshire coast. And for the avoidance of doubt, that well-known mountain is Goat Fell.

Marketing Arran’s natural and cultural beauty: Arran Druidical Standing Stone and Goat Fell postcard. Source: TuckDB Postcards, reproduced under a Creative Commons license.

As Arran becomes an increasingly popular tourist destination – over 400,000 people visited in 2017 according to Visit Arran – we think the time has come for its prehistory to take a lead in how it is marketed to tourists and visitors.

Put simply, Arran is not well enough known for what it is: an easy to reach destination for lovers of heritage, archaeology, and prehistory. This type of visitor profile is working remarkably well for the more distant and expensive Orkney and the Western Isles. And standing stones are not just going to help with visitor numbers; they would also impact on the quality of experience, jobs in the heritage tourism sector, the range of outdoor activities on offer, length of stay and the general wellbeing of the local community.
So we want to argue that Arran should rebrand itself as Scotland’s accessible and easy to get to Prehistoric Island.

Arran in prehistory

Archaeologically speaking, Arran is a Very Important Island.
It has some genuinely spectacular archaeology, attracting antiquarians and archaeologists to visit, draw and excavate prehistoric monuments as early as the nineteenth century. That early enthusiasm has since peaked and troughed, but we have a good understanding of the range and quality of the island’s sites, particularly those of the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods (4000BC to 800BC) and there has been a recent upsurge in fieldwork and research.

Archaeologists have been attracted to Arran for other reasons. As a conveniently bounded entity for study – an ‘island laboratory’ it has been at the forefront of theoretical developments understanding the lifestyles of early farmers. Colin Renfrew (now Lord Renfrew) in his seminal 1973 Penguin paperback Before Civilization argued that the 18 megalithic chambered tombs on the island, dating back over 5,000 years, were arranged in such a way as to indicate a territorial farming society split into small communities, with an overall island population of no more than 1,200 people. (The population is now about four times this amount.)

A less theoretically charged account of the island’s past can be found in Horace Fairhurst’s charming and locally published 1981 book Exploring Arran’s Past. It was outdated even as it was published, but it offers a pseudo-antiquarian description of Arran’s first settlers and farmers, through to ‘the recent past’. Its attractive mix of excitable description and simple line drawings by Jean Forbes make it a great place to start in terms of getting to grips with Arran’s past, and no equivalent or better publication has appeared since its first edition was published.

Fairhurst’s book introduces the ‘amateur enthusiast’ to the jewel in the crown of prehistoric Arran – Machrie Moor. This remarkable windswept moorland on the west coast of the island, near the Highland Boundary Fault, is home to at least six stone circles and assorted standing stones, cairns and remnants of houses and field-systems all dating back to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age.

Fairhurst titles his chapter about these monuments ‘a pilgrimage to Machrie Moor’, enthusing that the area is ‘astonishing’ and ‘deserves more publicity than it has so far received’ – sentiments that are difficult to argue with. A walk of half an hour or so along a sandy track from a Historic Environment Scotland car park takes us past a succession of ancient megaliths, a striking mixture of towering eroded red sandstone monoliths and rounded grey granite boulders, usually set into circles. The sandstone standing stones in particular are majestic. They offer an experience of megaliths that cannot be matched in another location anything like this close to Motherwell or Dalkeith, or that can be reached so easily by public transport.

Machrie Moor. Photograph by G MacGregor.

Machrie Moor is one of the finest groups of standing stone circles in Britain, but this landscape contains invisible and less heralded elements uncovered by a series of important excavations in the 1980s. These include Alison Haggarty’s discovery of evidence for weird timber post monuments pre-dating two of the stone circles, and her excavations, as well as work undertaken by John Barber for a predecessor body of HES, identified rare field-systems that date back to the Stone Age beneath the stone circles and in the wider landscape.

Such things might seem more prosaic than spectacular megaliths, but the best evidence we have for Neolithic ard ploughing anywhere in Britain has been found across the central belt of Arran. This is exciting for Neolithic nerds like us, and a clear indicator of the important role that this island must have played in the establishment of a farming economy and ideology some 6,000 years ago in the place we now call Scotland. For those who market the island for visitors and new occupants, it suggests if nothing else that Arran has, for millennia, been good to farm.

The variable geology of the Machrie Moor standing stones is reflective more broadly of the intriguing megalithic monuments of Arran. Across the southern half of the island, where the landscape was more conducive to settlement, farming and big monument building projects, there are majestic standing stones and ruined chambered tombs, such as the venerable Giant’s Graves tomb complex in the hills overlooking Whiting Bay or a red sandstone monolith that stands guard on the road running north out of Brodick, often flanked by domestic wheelie bins.

One Neolithic tomb, at Torrylin on the south coast, has a burial chamber that aligns directly on the iconic island of Ailsa Craig, which likely would have been place of myth and legend thousands of years ago. The combination of red sandstone and grey-white granite in such monuments led archaeologist Andrew M Jones to argue that the petrology, texture and colour of the stones used to build them were representative of the island itself. He wrote in 1999 ‘…it may be that white and red … symbolised the land itself, the white of the north and the red of the south’. Arran is often referred to as Scotland in miniature; and so it seems that Machrie Moor is Arran in miniature.

Red and white are not the only hues of Neolithic Arran; there is also green, the colour of a magical rock called pitchstone, found on Arran’s east coast and nowhere else. This was a material so precious that it changed hands and moved across much of Britain and Ireland in prehistory, turning up in many famous sites on Orkney. Torben Ballin, an expert on stone tools made of this rock, has described pitchstone as being a ‘very close relative of obsidian’, an ‘acid volcanic glass’.

Usually deep green in colour, it is a glassy stone that, when knapped and worked, can produce gorgeous tools with very sharp cutting edges. The ubiquitous Arran pitchstone should be considered not just a material for making efficient cutting tools thousands of years ago, but also a powerful, legendary material that was prized by those who came into possession of it, precisely because the material embodied the island of myth from whence it was sourced.

Arran pitchstone carved stone tools found at the Ness of Brodgar, Orkney. © Hugo Anderson-Whymark. Courtesy of the Ness of Brodgar Trust

The evidence for prehistoric life on Arran is of the highest quality but why should scholars of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age be the only ones to know about this stuff? Why should Orkney and Calanais get all of the attention when equally grand megaliths, in a much easier to get to place, remain below the radar?

Re-brand Arran!

There is no doubt that prehistoric sites can be, and have been, successfully used to market islands elsewhere in Scotland with a concomitant benefit to the local economy and visitor numbers. The examples of Orkney and Western Isles are particularly pertinent. In Orkney many of the prehistoric sites are managed and interpreted holistically as part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. There, 51% of visitors cite archaeology/history as the main influence for deciding to visit, and that is a lot of people. In 2013 alone, 140,000 visitors brought in £31 million to the local economy and those numbers are increasing every year in part due to the cruise liner industry. A more recent study of the Western Isles has indicated that archaeology contributes approximately £4m and 80 jobs to the local economy, with the potential to doubling over a ten-year period.

The need for sustainable visitor destination management is key to looking after community interests, archaeological monuments and providing a high-quality visitor experience. In both cases, there has also been an annual increase in the number of cruise ships docking, with archaeological trips offered to passengers as standard. Stressing the surprising accessibility of tourist attractions is the basis of a new campaign by Argyll and Bute Council called ‘Best of Both’, as it seeks to promote, ‘how close the attractions of Argyll are to the central belt of Scotland’, and ‘showcase how easy it is to combine both city life / city breaks to Glasgow, with the benefits of Argyll’. Exactly the same case could be made for Arran, the Prehistoric Island.

Prehistoric Arran is, of course, not unknown to the local community, although from conversations we have had on the island, the depth, breadth and international significance of the prehistoric remains are perhaps not all that well-known. Certainly, the prehistoric sites, notably Machrie Moor, are to an extent used in the marketing of the island and some local products.

The image of Machrie Moor’s sandstone stone circle 2 has been used in promotional material and branding, from old packaging for the 10- and 14-year-old Isle of Arran single malt whisky, to one monolith appearance in brooding silhouette on the label for the Arran Brewery’s Dark ale. The brewery markets this beer by alluding to prehistoric Arran as well: ‘there is something of a pagan feel about Arran. A place where nature still holds sway’.

But we think that more could be done. So we have begun a process of consultation and prehistoric evangelism with local organisations, stakeholders and islanders. Through a workshop in March 2018, and other activities we have been involved in over the past five years, it is clear there is a lot of local enthusiasm to learn about, and do more with, the prehistoric resource – and who better to help than archaeologists.

Fresh research and fieldwork could help stimulate interest, increase participation, raise awareness and offer information for visitors in the form of state-of-the-art digital technology. This year Historic Environment Scotland is sending its world-class archaeological survey team to carry out the first ever comprehensive survey of the island, while data from aerial LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) surveys are finding and documenting archaeology hidden beneath trees.

With the support of the Forestry Commission, digital laser surveys of Neolithic tombs on Arran undertaken in 2016 have offered powerful and engaging ways to present these sites to visitors and enhance analogue site visits. National Trust for Scotland (NTS) Thistle Camps are offering opportunities for ongoing excavations, under the tutelage of their archaeologist Derek Alexander, while other sets of skills such as photogrammetry will be taught on the island in the near future through Scotland’s Rock-art Project.Taken together, our understanding of this rich archaeological resource has never been better, with the promise of more to come to update and promote Arran’s prehistoric story: in other words, there is a buzz about the place.

Other activities can play a part in exciting islanders and attracting visitors. Since summer 2014, we have helped to organize and deliver the Burning the Circle prehistoric fire festival three times. Each event has been held in the grounds of Brodick Castle and has been a collaboration between the University of Glasgow, Northlight Heritage and the NTS.

The festival includes hands-on prehistoric skills demonstrations and workshops, based around a reconstructed Bronze Age roundhouse near the Castle. The main event each year has been the construction of a replica wooden monument, based on archaeological sites from across the island, which we set ablaze in a huge fire at dusk to bring the festival to a close. The 2017 event was our biggest yet, with an audience of more than 300 people enjoying performances, costumes, music and a fire spectacular within and around a timber monument consisting of over 70 wooden posts. Burning the Circle celebrates Arran’s prehistoric archaeology by offering hands-on learning and memorable experiences, but also holds huge potential to continue to grow and become part of a distinctive Prehistoric Island brand marketing campaign.

Climax of the Burning the Circle 2017 prehistory fire festival. Photo:graph by G MacGregor.

Arran does not have the logistical set-up or scale to receive large cruise ships, but this is an advantage. The offer for visitors is slower and more engaged, in keeping with an island that wants visitors to be attracted to its rugged outdoor charms rather than a mass-market appeal. The stone circles, the megalithic tombs, the magical pitchstone story, enhanced digital content and unique festival experiences inspired by and evoking prehistory form the basis of a distinctive package that would help fulfil the aspirations of local stakeholders and islanders.

Alongside other added value experiences and outdoor events, such as the successful annual Mountain Festival, and the island’s Geopark, rebranding Arran as Scotland’s easy-to-get-to Prehistoric Island seems to us to be a timeless offer that will be hard to resist.



Kenneth Brophy is Senior Lecturer in archaeology at the University of Glasgow, with 20 years of experience of directing excavations of Neolithic monuments and settlement sites across Scotland, and has published widely on issues related to the British Neolithic. He blogs as the Urban Prehistorian.

Gavin MacGregor is co-director of Northlight Heritage, a heritage charity based in Glasgow and part of the York Archaeology Trust.

The authors wish to thank Visit Arran, the National Trust for Scotland Brodick Castle Ranger Service, Derek Alexander, Arran Heritage Museum and the many local people who we have spoken to or who have attended one or more of our events. In particular, we want to thank Corrinna Goeckeritz and Kate Sampson of the NTS Ranger Service for hosting the March 2018 workshop and their very hard work to make the Burning the Circle events happen. The Andrew M Jones quote comes from his paper in volume 18 of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology (Local colour: megalithic architecture and colour symbolism in Neolithic Arran). Torben Ballin’s comments on Arran Pitchstone come from his paper, ‘Arran pitchstone (Scottish volcanic glass): new dating evidence’, published in the Journal of Lithic Studies 2 (2015).