The cave is in a small cliff on the hillside. A dark hole in the grey basalt cliff, it is intriguing and curious, otherworldly even, inviting us to investigate. Climbing the short hillslope, we approach from below, following the path through the tall grass and bracken. I pick my way past drystone walls and tumbled stone, remnants of recent use of the cave. And enter. Into the dim interior of a surprisingly large space. With light streaming in from outside it is not gloomy, instead it is dry and spacious, liberally sprinkled with bird droppings. A couple of pigeons, startled at our presence, fly past our heads and out into the sunlight. Stepping carefully around the remains of excavations, I gaze around and wonder, thinking of the people who used this cave 7 or 8000 years ago, who left behind their refuse to be picked apart by archaeologists. For I am standing in the same space used by hunter-gatherer groups, sporadically perhaps, for a period of 2 or 3000 years. Groups who left deposits of marine molluscs, fish, animal and bird bone and burnt plant remains – the left-overs from meals. Flint and bone tools, and shell artefacts; the remains of lives lived. And occasional human bones. Reminders of real people. People like me.
I try to think about the people who left such small glimpses of their lives in this cave. This was the period before farming, this cave probably a stopping-off point for groups moving around the landscape. Groups with sophisticated knowledge of their surroundings and immense skills in utilising and transforming raw materials, of making stone, bone and plant materials into tools and artefacts. The archaeological remains give us but a small glimpse into the richness of their lives. I imagine groups sheltering in this cave, making a fire, keeping warm, cooking a meal, watching the weather and planning the next day’s work, repairing equipment and making objects. I think of the skill involved in knapping flint, shaping rock, making tools, of knowing the environment intimately, knowing where to find food, where to look for shelter. Knowledge that I cannot grasp, that most of us have forgotten. I imagine this cave full of warmth and light, so different from today, filled with talk and laughter, story and song. Perhaps parents telling their children stories of days gone by, others making tools or repairing equipment in preparation for the next day’s hunting. Children playing in the corner, adults chatting, preparing a meal. At one time, this cave was full of warmth and life. At one time it was home.
I walk back to the mouth of the cave and gaze out at the vista below, a view that has changed and altered since this cave was used so long ago. The sea was higher then, the shore likely closer. With no sheep to crop the grass so closely, the vegetation would have been denser and more varied. Small green islands are scattered across the blue sea, the cliffs of Mull visible beyond. On the terrace below I see the remains of 19th century lazy beds, remains of more recent exploitation of the landscape, so different from the way in which the Mesolithic groups of this cave used this environment. A reminder of the many people who have lived in, exploited and passed through this landscape over the millennia. Those who have called this home as well as those, like us, just passing through. A reminder too, that this landscape was not always so empty, not always so quiet.
I pick my way carefully out of the cave and down the slope to the path below. Looking back, I glance up at that dark hole in the grey basalt cliff. For a moment, I think I can almost see smoke from a fire drifting out the cave mouth and hear song and laughter hanging on the wind. The moment passes and I look again at that quiet grey entrance, and the cave within. Changed and altered by the presence of those people so long ago, it was not always so quiet, so empty. Once lived-in and occupied, it is still redolent with their presence, if you just take the time to look … and listen.
Livingstone’s Cave is on Ulva, a small island to the west of the Island of Mull. Excavations undertaken in this cave in the 1980s and 1990s by the University of Edinburgh uncovered Mesolithic shell middens and later material, providing evidence of the use of this cave extending back more than 8000 years ago. More information can be found on Canmore. The island itself is a great place to visit with much to explore. More information about Ulva can be found here. I highly recommend a visit!