Rubha Port an t-Seilich

12,000 years ago the first known footsteps were made on Islay at Rubha Port an t-Seilich by ice age hunter-gatherers who camped here whilst making the first known exploration of the west coast of Scotland.

After the Ice Age came to an end approximately 11,600 years ago, woodland spread across what had been tundra landscapes, and people settled on the islands and mainland. They continued to live as mobile hunter-gatherers, using Rubha Port an t-Seilich as a camping site during what we call the Mesolithic period.

In 2010, Rubha Port an t-Seilich was identified as the location of a Mesolithic settlement, and was explored with a small trial excavation in 2013, by the kind permission of the Dunlossit Estate and with funding support from the University of Reading. The trial excavation showed Rubha Port an t-Seilich to be one of the best preserved Mesolithic sites in Scotland, with a diverse range of stone tools, animal bones, plant remains, a fireplace, pits and postholes. The site also produced traces of Neolithic activity. However the most exciting discovery was made towards the end of the 2013 excavation, when traces of the ice age campsite were found, buried beneath the Mesolithic deposits.

Despite only a tiny part of the ice age sediment being exposed, it was enough to provide a number of distinctive ice age stone tools, which were dated at 12,000 years old, 3000 years older than any previous discovery on Islay. Their age and distinctive style means they had been made by people of the Ahrensburgian culture, which flourished in mainland Europe towards the end of the last ice age.

In April 2017 a new excavation began at Rubha Port an t-Seilich by a team from the University of Reading, with the support of Islay Heritage. This was the start of a multi-year project to learn more about the Mesolithic settlement and the underlying ice age campsite. The project is also designed to provide excavation experience to undergraduate students as part of their degree programme. During the first field season the excavation reached the surface of the Mesolithic deposits, which will be explored in 2018. A report of the excavation can be found here ‘Rubha Port an t-Seilich 2017 Excavation Report’. The results of the fieldwork were presented in a public lecture on part of Islay Archaeology week 2017, as can be viewed here ‘First Footsteps on Islay’.

This is a hugely important project for understanding the prehistory of Islay and Scotland; further excavation at Rubha Port an t-Seilich will enable more artefacts to be recovered and provide the first ever insights into an ice age campsite in Scotland.