Diners tucking into steaming bowls of mussels or slurping oysters from the shells in seafood restaurants along the Shore in Leith are enjoying a meal whose traditions date back for over ten millennia. Archaeologists at Cramond, on the northwestern edge of Edinburgh, have recently uncovered huge piles of discarded shells (known as middens, a Scots word meaning ‘rubbish heap’) which show that Scotland’s first inhabitants made good use of the oyster and mussel beds on the Firth of Forth. These primitive encampments have been dated to 8500 BC – the earliest known traces of human activity in Scotland.
As the glaciers retreated in the wake of the last Ice Age, the climate gradually improved, allowing people to make this place their fixed home rather than a mere foraging camp. Edinburgh’s Castle Rock, a volcanic crag with three vertical sides, was a natural defensive position that must have attracted the first settlers; the earliest signs of habitation on the rock date back to around 900 BC. There is also evidence that people grew crops on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, where traces of ancient cultivation terraces have been found.
When the Romans first arrived in the Lothian region, the chief tribe they encountered was the Votadini, who had settlements on Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat and Blackford Hill. Little is known about these ancient Britons, but it seems likely they were the ancestors of the Gododdin, who are mentioned by the Welsh bard Aneirin in a 7th-century manuscript. Aneirin relates how Mynyddog Mwynfawr, king of the Gododdin, feasted with his warriors in the ‘halls of Eidyn’ before going into battle against the Angles (the tribe who gave their name to Angle-land, or England) at Catraeth (Catterick, in Yorkshire).