After the final Cold Snap that occurred between 9,000 and 8,000BC, tundra developed in Scotland and hardy animals moved north, followed by humans. It would have been a subarctic climate, but as it continued to warm, the land became host to vast forests, so that animals such as deer, boar and wild cattle now made their way north. The Mesolithic people who followed them were hunter gatherers, people who lived on animals, fish and shellfish, travelling by boat from one area to the next, sticking to coasts and rivers and probably settling over the winter, living in “tents” and using flint tools. No doubt a small group settled on Fair Isle, a relatively isolated spot where you would not readily be threatened by others.
Around 4,000 BC, the weather was still improving, but now rising sea levels submerged some coastal areas. People were building more permanent homes, at least for the winter months and over time some took to farming. From the Neolithic Hall at Balbridie in Aberdeenshire, we can surmise that at least some people had adopted this new way of life by around 3,500 BC. There, the people used grain, hazelnuts and crab apples to support themselves in addition to their livestock. This hall is 25x13 metres and also seems to have been built for ritual practices. Buildings at the Knap of Howar in Papa Westray in Orkney show similar evidence of family life. Possibly built on a previous site, it is one of the oldest preserved farmsteads in Northern Europe, two stone buildings revealed in recent times by coastal erosion and dating from about 3600BC. Middens reveal that these people kept cattle, sheep and pigs, grew crops and ate shellfish. By this time, the dead and how some of the dead were treated, was important, although we do not understand the detail.
By 3,000 BC, just when the early farmers were becoming embedded in the society, the weather changed, growing wetter and colder. Now, farming, building and possibly the weather, encouraged the deforestation of the land. More intense farming and the movement of more people from the south changed the way people interacted, creating boundaries and forcing some negotiation over these boundaries.
Orkney provides us with a great deal of information about early people in the Northern Isles, because it boasted rocks that were well stratified and produced easily quarried slabs. These flagstones enabled local people to build monuments and houses that are still with us today, indicating how they lived. Orkney is only 25 miles from Fair Isle, so people there most likely lived in a similar fashion, with similar beliefs.
At Skara Brae, eight stone dwelling houses from 3100-2500BC are clustered close together, linked by passageways and boasting stone beds, cupboards, dressers, chairs, hearths, and the remains of pottery and jewellery. This small village of perhaps 50 to 75 people, was not just a subsistence society. At the Ness of Brodgar, a 6-acre stone-walled site gradually reveals more homes and a massive building that is thought to be of religious or ceremonial importance. With evidence of painted stones and clay artefacts, it is possibly much more important than Stone Henge. At Maeshowe, we find a large chambered cairn, set on a position that would make it visible for miles and possibly built on a site that had earlier been enclosed by a henge. This impressive, mysterious, multi-chambered building is accessed by a long passage which at midwinter is illuminated by the sun. At the Ring of Brodgar there is a 60 stone circle, a huge henge monument no doubt connected to the other monuments. At Stenness, four large standing stones remain from the henge that once existed, possibly the oldest in Britain. Close by is the settlement of Barnhouse, 15 small houses, perhaps 500 years older than Skara Brae. It is an incredible inheritance.
Some people from Fair Isle no doubt visited these special sites and thus had beliefs and habits in common. It was a sophisticated culture that did much more than simply survive, successful farmers who had sufficient excess to create huge ritual sites over many hundreds of years. They were expert builders, able to construct not just homes, but huge monuments, revealing an understanding of mathematics and the stars, people who decorated both themselves and the stones with which they built. There seems to have been a hierarchy, a ruling class, a religious group with important ceremonies. Despite the fact that from 3,000 BC the weather became cooler and wetter, so that peat formed more quickly and reduced the amount of available farming land, these people continued to flourish.
On Fair Isle the relics are less impressive, for the stone here is not so easily crafted. Wooden buildings will have rotted over time and the island has been much cultivated and altered, no doubt destroying evidence. The shortage of easily accessed stone on the island means that buildings have always been recycled, new generations making the most of what previous people abandoned.
Although in early Neolithic times the island would have been wooded, gradually this vegetation shrank until today there is no evidence of trees. There are indications of early settlement however, including a long, wide earthen dyke separating the northern area from the south, today about 2 metres high. Archaeologists question if this was simply a boundary between arable and moor land and it may well have had ritual significance. Other dyke sites are relatively short and may have indicated either boundaries, or religious areas. To the north east of the island archaeologists have identified a small farming settlement site at the Ferny Cup, along with indications of early cultivation. Two adjoining arc-shaped stone structures were attached to field boundaries and one of these houses is well preserved with stone internal divisions.
The majority of the short dykes exist in the north and there are low mounds, cairns and evidence of some 28 burnt mounds, said to result from discarded piles of stones that may have been used for heating water during the Bronze Age.
By 2000 BC, jewellery, tools and axe heads could be made from bronze, rather than simply using flint and this metal was a highly desirable indication of success. Since bronze is made from copper and tin and the latter is not readily available in Scotland, we know that people who had bronze were also travellers and traders, although as yet we do not know if it was traded to Fair Isle, for it was an expensive, status item. At a later period iron would become the more accessible metal, one that was cheaper, easier to make and mend and more useful for ordinary people. There is a small iron age fort in the north of Fair Isle, at the Landberg peninsula, overlooking North and South Haven, but over time, as the climate worsened, people moved to the south of the island to live and farm, probably in round houses, although there is limited remaining proof of their location.
By the beginning of the first millennium AD, people in Scotland were living in tribal units, with different identities and local chiefs, many of whom had allegiances to more powerful rulers. Orkney seems to have retained considerable power, for it is believed that the King of Orkney travelled to Colchester in AD 43 when Emperor Claudius accepted submission from eleven kings of Britain.
The Romans did not extend their influence to the Northern Isles, where we assume that local lords continue to rule the islands. Over time, as Christianity made itself felt in Scotland, the Pictish farmers who lived on Fair Isle would have converted to the new religion, although it seems unlikely that Fair Isle would have been able to support a monastery. There is a strong feeling that simple religious structure existed by the 7th century, possibly on a promontory at Burrista on the North West side of the island.