FODC Winter Talk Series: Dr Kenny Brophy on Prehistory in Ayrshire – Talk Recap

Friends of Dundonald Castle Winter Talks Evenings have moved online this year, like so many other events across the world, due to Covid safety restrictions. The latest Winter Talk was given on Thursday 14th January 2021 by Dr Kenny Brophy, Senior lecturer in Archaeology at Glasgow University on the subject of  ‘Prehistoric Ayrshire’ with specific focus on the area near Dundonald Castle.

We all have a penchant for history here at Dundonald Castle and we were delighted to find that we aren’t alone in our predilection when we discovered that every single ticket to this latest event had been taken up by the time we opened our virtual doors at 7pm! “It was completely sold out on Eventbrite and we were joined by people from as far afield as North America and Norway!” explained Dr Kirsteen Croll, General Manager of Friends of Dundonald Castle SCIO (SC031541), who went on to say “One of the main benefits of diversifying to digital at this time is that it opens up what we do to a much wider and new audience- which is just fantastic!”

This talk, the second which Dr Brophy has given here, included a whole lot of new content and it provided well for a deeply rounded look at what the various archeological finds that have been discovered in this small part of Ayrshire, can tell us about the people who lived here. Marcus Aurelius the illustrious Roman emperor (161-180AD) said “Consider the bigger picture: consider the lives led once by others, long ago, and the lives to be led by others after you.” as a stoic belief he held for deepening wisdom.  This talk was as much a close study of archaeological data as it was the opening of a sociological window into a past we know so little about.  It peaked our interest for the full 90 minutes of in-depth information sharing, with clearly illustrated slides, and together with an interactive Q+A with our audience, helped deepen this enquiry.

We learned that the ancient remains of buildings, tools, artworks, fire-pits and areas designated for large ceremonial activity along these fertile Ayrshire coast lands that can tell us much about who these people were. Dr Brophy reasoned that by what we do know of the area not too far from here, there has been something of a continuous settlement between the foothills of Castle Hill and the seaboard of the Firth of Clyde over the last 8000-10,000 years. He told us it is thought that fairly sizeable communities of people had settled here,  and others had moved through here over this whole period, and that it is considered to have been some kind of important seafaring gateway to Ireland and Argyll.

We also learned it’s the land that shapes the lives of the people, as shown by the geographical nature of the area which has larger hills surrounding the lower landscapes allowing for prosperity in their shelter, where most of the finds are, and even though Ayrshire would have been heavily wooded with hazels and pine forests, it was not until the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC) that it would have been cleared for farming.

Mesolithic campsites have been found all over this area with lithic scatters (stone or flint tools) from 67 possible Mesolithic sites having been found between Ballantrae and West Kilbride. All have huge potential for further investigation Dr Brophy deduced,  but especially Shewalton Moss, which starts at the foothills of Dundonald Castle heading west, almost as far as the shore near Gailes.  Here a most exciting find of a carved barbed red deer antler which has been carbon dated to the late 4th millennium BC had been found, along with Mesolithic flint implements, imitation barbed and tanged arrowhead executed in the Mesolithic technique, and fine crop marks showing the remains of homesteads, all thought to have come from classic Mesolithic to Bronze Age sites by the side of the River Irvine.

He went on to explain that the lion’s share of Ayrshire’s archaeology has been mainly centered around the Isle of Arran, where megalithic chambered cairns are dotted about the island in which our Neolithic ancestors buried their dead around 4000 years ago. The rich archaeological landscape there includes stone circles, standing stones, burial cairns and cists (box-shaped burial structures made of stone slabs set on edge- either sunk below ground level or built on the land surface, in which case they are covered by a protective barrow or lid) as well as hut circles all dating to between 3500 and 1500 BC. The relatively famous stone circles such as those on Machrie Moor on Arran were preceded by timber circles on exactly the same sites and were associated with religious activities dating back around 4500 years. Evidence shows that cremation and inhumation burials had been placed inside the circles, long after they were first built. This has made Arran something of the jewel in the Ayrshire crown of finds so far but perhaps, as Dr Brophy suggests, because other places of interest have not yet been fully explored.

For example, at Drybridge, only 1.3 miles west from us here at Dundonald Castle is the remains of 2 major ceremonial centres, with a cursus monument, which is a vast early Neolithic enclosure some 220m long by 50m wide, thought to be a processional route-way dating from 3600-3000 BC. There is of course much speculation about the actual reason behind this site; Dr Brophy believes that it could have been a long passage way for the dead, or a ritual site aligned to astrological elements of some sort.

He further pointed out “Ritual maintains social order underlying the building blocks of what makes us human; and we all have ritual.”  In other words, “There’s so much still to be learned about our ancient ancestors and yet we can also assume from the size of this space that has been marked off for something, that it was a society which was well established and sizeable enough to want for this specially designated area.

Drybridge, also has a sizeable henge (a roughly circular or oval-shaped flat area enclosed and delimited by a boundary earthwork – usually a ditch with an external bank) and there is a standing stone at Stane Field, the only one recorded for this part of Ayrshire, standing alone close to the old railway station, on level ground in a field with a height of 2.6 m with a girth of about 4m. A perforated stone axe head was found nearby as were several sites of flint flake deposits and a twin concentric circle structure leading Dr Brophy to conclude that the prehistoric finds in nearby Drybridge “are on a mind-boggling scale, with huge potential for further detailed examination.”

And perhaps we have stumbled on the need to update the modern heritage laws in Scotland, as was suggested by a member of the audience in the comments, given that funding for digs is limited, and developers are at present expected to foot the cost of any finds that appear on their surveys, or not.

Dreghorn, which is 2.6 miles west of Dundonald, just a little further along the road from Drybridge, is thought to have been occupied for 5 and a half millennia, with a site discovered dating from 3900-3700 BC -one of only five ever found in Scotland, and thought to have been similar to Skara Brae in Orkney in size.  Dr Brophy considers that this too needs further examination. Some more information about the Station Brae site can be found here from one of Dr Brophy’s previous blog posts, written by Dr Kenny Brophy and Lauren Welsh (of FODC):

We were also shown slides containing the Neolithic timber remains 14m x 8m wide at Hillhouse farm, near Kilmarnock approximately 6 miles north of here. This is anticipated to be the oldest building in East Ayrshire, and thought to be older than Stone Henge in Wiltshire, with the remains of another similar structure found at Laigh Newton near Loudoun Hill in 2011, some 16 miles due East.

Slide: Dr Kenny Brophy

Dr Brophy determined Rock Art as “another fascinating example of Neolithic evidence, and not too far away in the Ballochmyle area is to be found the only example of vertical rock art outside Norway. It’s thought to be one of the most exciting and unique examples of carvings in Scotland and yet, it’s tucked away and few people know it’s there!” This is approximately 12 miles south-east of Dundonald.  We would certainly like to find out more!

There are 10 listed Megalithic burial sites in Ayrshire listed on Canmore with 15 or 16 more on Arran.

The subject was fascinating, and it was delivered in an easily understood manner with plenty of visuals to help us to know the difference between a cursus and a henge as well as fascinating facts behind the actual archaeological finds which have been uncovered over the years.

Our own site itself is one of special interest to us, of course, and we know that the castle hill with commanding views of up to even 60 miles away, has hosted settlers here from very early human history. There are vestiges of Neolithic activity and clear evidence of late Bronze Age in buildings and fragments of pottery from these eras which have been found here.  It is thought that the site continued to be occupied in the Iron Age where the remains of round houses built here around 500 – 300 BC. We also know that several neighbouring hills have also been settled in the distant past with remains of very early fortification on Kemp Law and Wardlaw Hill. 

This is the kind of thing that keeps us doing what we’re doing – the history of this area is like a rabbit hole we just want to keep digging in, literally!  There’s always so much more to find out and judging by the content of enthusiastic comments and questions coming from this event,  it’s safe to say that this latest talk was a big success! Many thanks to everyone who made it ‘along’ and especially to our invited speaker who took the time to share his knowledge and helped us all to learn so much more about Prehistoric Ayrshire!

This Talk, from our Winter Talk 20/21 series, has been recorded and is available for free, unlimited viewing as one of the perks of being a Member of Friends of Dundonald Castle (SC031541) via our Members’ Area on our website. Membership is reasonably priced starting from £10 per year and other perks include free entry to the castle for the full year, priority booking for all our events, prior notification of opportunities (e.g. volunteering at the archaeological excavations) and a members monthly newsletter. For more information click this link:

There will be another FODC Winter Talk on February 11th at 7-8.30pm – where we will be joined by Dr Callum Watson who will be looking closely at the poem “The Bruce” by John Barbour, commissioned by King Robert II about the life of his grandfather, Robert the Bruce, with a view to enabling us to understand more about both Roberts. You can find the Eventbrite page here:

All are welcome once again to join us, and keep an eye out for news on our website or on our social media.

Other sources/further information: short film showing Standing Stone at Drybridge.