Borderers have been roaming these lands for at least 10,000 years, but what did they eat? In this chapter of The Ages of Border Food, we shall forage for food like a stone age Borderer. But first, a short note on time.
The Stone Age progressed in three stages: the Palaeolithic, from the Greek for ‘Old Stone’, then the Mesolithic or ‘Middle Stone’, and finally the Neolithic or ‘New Stone’. The earliest period, the Palaeolithic, extended from the first appearance of humankind and primitive stone implements 2.5 million years ago to the end of the last ice age about 8,500BC.
During the Palaeolithic, Britain was subjected to great fluctuations in temperature, with the polar ice cap reaching its maximum extent as far south as London, followed by extremely warm interglacial periods as it retreated.
Our ancestors appear to have first arrived in Britain 300,000 years ago, living a nomadic life as hunter-gatherers following the herds of animals they relied upon for meat. So what did they hunt? Bones found next to the characteristic flint hand axe tools of these early stone age hunters suggest that in the cold phases, the exposed parts of southern Britain were roamed by mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, reindeer, bison, musk ox and arctic hare, while in the warmer interglacials these species were replaced by the straight-tusked elephant, bear, wild oxen, red deer, rhinoceros, hyena, and even hippopotamus. Mammoth tusks and teeth have been excavated in Berwickshire, while Ayrshire and Strathclyde yielded woolly rhinoceros remains, so it may be a little tricky to eat like a Palaeolithic Borderer without mammoth steaks or rhinoceros joints.
At the peak of the last ice age around 18,000 years ago, Scotland was almost completely covered in ice, so that no animals and plants could have survived. The abrasive action of the ice also destroyed nearly all evidence from the fossil record and archeological sites.
With the retreat of the ice sheets the climate became progressively milder, and about 10,000 years ago the tundra vegetation gave way to a forested environment, first of birch, hazel and pine, and then of oak and other deciduous trees such as elm, lime and alder.
With the spread of forest conditions, the large herds of wild animals were replaced by forest species: red and roe deer, elk, aurochs and wild boar. The last tundra species, the mountain hare, adapted to the Highlands of Scotland and in isolation evolved into a distinctive subspecies, still keeping its white fur camouflage in the winter snows. Hunters living close to the sea also exploited shellfish and seafish, leaving huge mounds or ‘middens’ of oysters, limpets, mussels and winkles.
So began the Mesolithic, which falls between the end of the last glacial period and the beginning of agriculture. Mesolithic people lived by hunting, gathering and fishing, and the hunters of the Borders’ early post glacial forests relied on game animals for their meat supply: red and roe deer, wild boar with the occasional wolf, pine martin, hedgehog and badger. Wild horse, brown bear, moose, wild pig, wild ox and beaver have also all been unearthed in the Borders and Dumfriesshire. The commonest hunted animal was the red deer, found on sites from Orkney to Dorset, which also supplied antlers used as tools in the flint mines and in the construction of earthworks.
“We do have evidence that there were bands of hunter-gatherers moving along the river networks of the Tweed basin,” writes Walter Elliot in Selkirkshire And The Borders, “settling when food was readily available and moving on when it became scarce. … [O]ver a hundred sites … are recognised by the concentrations of flint, chert and stone tools found in situ.”
These Mesolithic hunters’ arrow tips, which still retain their sharpness, litter the ground at river junctions, and even a Neolithic yew flatbow, carbon-dated to 4,000BC, was plucked from a peat bog at Rotten Bottom in the Tweedsmuir Hills in 1990.
Birds eggs were important in the diet too, in the long centuries before the introduction of domestic fowl sometime in the later Iron Age. The Mesolithic fishermen on the inland waterways used fish spears, or ‘leisters’, armed with barbed antler points to catch freshwater fish such as pike and salmon, and nets to trap smaller roach, perch, shad and trout. “[N]et sinker stones are to be found in the fields beside the rivers,” continues Walter Elliot, “showing that netting was one method of capture.”
Seal bones occur in the Mesolithic middens in Argyll, where inhabitants also deep-sea fished from boats for conger eel, sea bream, saithe, wrasse, haddock, thornback ray, skate and shark. At Morton, Fife, Mesolithic fishermen also caught cod, salmon and sturgeon, while crushed fish bones in a mortar at Skara Brae on Orkney may suggest that fishmeal was used as a famine food. Sea birds were also an important source of food: guillemots, gannets, eider ducks, pink footed geese, and swans were all found in the Mesolithic site at Morton, Fife, and at Skara Brae. Seaweeds are bound to have been exploited, but leave no archeological trace.
While Mesolithic hunters had some impact on the forests of Scotland when they burned and cleared woodland for firewood and settlements, the first major human impact was during the Neolithic, when land was systematically cleared for agriculture and more permanent settlements. This dawn of agriculture came about 3,500BC when the first Neolithic farmers reached Britain from the Continent by sea – the land bridge joining Britain to the Continent during the Palaeolithic had become submerged after the melting of the ice sheets around 6,000BC.
These early farmers brought bags of seed corn comprising two types of wheat (Emmer and Einkhorn), six-row barley and flax. The coarsely ground husked grains could have been baked into small unleavened loaves on the hearthstone by the fire, or they could have been made into porridge or gruel, or added to soups and stews, cooked in pots which the first farmers also introduced. They also brought and bred domestic cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, of which cattle seem the most significant: many of their bones show knife cuts at points suitable for the removal of sinew, flesh and skin, and many bones were split for the extraction of marrow.
There must have been a good supply of milk available for human consumption, either fresh or in the form of butter and cheese. In many parts of Britain it was the custom to bury butter in wooden vessels or baskets, or occasionally in cloth, bark or leather containers, in peat bogs – perhaps to store surplus summer butter in the cool bog for use in the winter. In the winter months, the cattle were probably bled, the blood being mixed with flour and herbs to make black puddings. Sheep were valued for mutton and for wool, and goats were probably kept for their milk as well as for their meat.
The pulse crops, peas and small beans, first appeared in Britain in the Bronze Age. When dried they could be ground up on quern stones and added to cereal flour for breadmaking in time of dearth, and, chiefly, they could be used in soups or stews.
The surviving evidence does not shed much light on green vegetables, but seed finds suggest fat hen, nettles, common orache, white deadnettle, cleavers and wild cabbage were eaten. Other wild plants would have been used as herbs to add flavour to various dishes, such as mustard, coriander and poppy seeds. It’s likely they also used the onion flavour of jack by the hedge, wild garlic, peppery meadow bittercress, vinegary sorrel leaves, the aniseed taste of sweet cecily, the clove flavour of herb bennet, the gingery tang of tansy, and the savoury spice of juniper.
All the fruits and nuts found on prehistoric sites in Britain belong to wild species, and many Mesolithic campsites have yielded large numbers of hazelnuts, suggesting that they were collected for winter use.
The native woodland was rich in fruit and nut-bearing trees, producing seasonal gluts: acorns, beechmast, hazelnuts, sloes, rosehips, haws, rowan berries, crab apples, wild pears, elderberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and cranberries have all been found on prehistoric sites in Europe.
We know from the impressions of apple pips in their pottery that the first farmers ate crab apples. Honey was the only form of sweetening used in prehistoric Britain. Rock paintings show that wild bees’ nests were raided for honey in the late Palaeolithic, and wax would also be useful to seal up jars of jelly, ale and mead for storage.
The completely new Neolithic lifestyle included living in more or less permanent settlements, using pottery containers, weaving cloth, making polished stone tools, and constructing elaborate tombs and ritual monuments.
These first farmers set the stage for developments such as metallurgy – first, with the making of copper, then bronze tools, and later working with iron too. These had implications for cooking since it was now possible to have a wider range of tools, especially sharper knives, and later buckets and cauldrons, flesh-hooks, firedogs, spits and tripods, spoons and elegant drinking vessels. This marks the beginning of the Bronze and Iron Ages, where we shall pick up the next chapter of The Ages of Border Food.