They were among the first people in the land that would one day become Scotland to till the soil and farm crops to sustain them and their community.  

But unlike their counterparts across the British isles, a small group of neolithic farmers appeared to have had an aversion to getting their hands dirty, or at least more dirty than normal for the average agricultural worker. 

New research into the remains of an almost 6,000-year-old farm at Balbridie, in Aberdeenshire, has revealed that its workers did not use manure to boost their crops, and instead relied on the earth itself to deliver its bounty. 

This is despite the practice of using dung to fertilise fields being well known at the time, with a similar site in nearby Angus showing evidence of well-manured fields.

Other neolithic farms on Orkney - at the sites of Skara Brae and the Braes of Ha’Breck dating to between 3300-2400 BC  - also had chemical traces of ancient smelly stuff being used to help grow food.  

The reasons for the ancient famers’ aversion to manure are lost to time, but archeologists probing the mystery say that it did not stop them from harvesting a good crop.  

Ancient grain was found in the remains of this house. Pic: Antonia Thomas and Dan LeePA

Skara Brae 

“The stable isotope analysis revealed very low nitrogen levels showing that the crops were not grown on manured soils,” said lead author Dr Rosie Bishop, from the University of Stavanger in Norway.

“The large size and number of the grains recovered suggest that during this first phase of farming, the soils were productive without the need for manuring," she added. 

The discovery was the result of an analysis of finds recovered from the site during excavations between 1977 and 1981.  

The well-preserved Neolithic site was home to some of Scotland’s first farmers around 3800 BC, and also features remnants of a timber hall as well as traces of ancient fields. 

Ancient grain was found in the remains of this house. Pic: Antonia Thomas and Dan LeeAntonia Thomas and Dan Lee

A map of the sites  - Pic: Rosie Bishop and Peter Rowley-Conwy.

A large quantity of ancient grain was also recovered, which a team of researchers have now studied. A plant’s growing conditions impact the ratios of its carbon and nitrogen isotopes, which archeologists can analyse, in this case revealing whether muck was spread on the fields.  

However, the manure-less farm of Balbridie appears to be almost unique. Previous studies on early farms in England, as well as on mainland Europe, have usually found evidence that crops were grown in fertilised fields. 

Away from questions surrounding dung, the researchers say their findings suggest that farming in ancient Scotland was a much more settled occupation than had been previously thought.  

Ancient grain was found in the remains of this house. Pic: Antonia Thomas and Dan LeeThe Herald

Modern farming makes extensive use of manure 

Initial theories have suggested that neolithic farmers were a transient lot, working small plots infrequently before moving on, possibly living semi-nomadically.  

However, The team’s research, published in the journal Antiquity, found that farms such as that at Balbirdie were well established parts of the landscape.  

Dr Bishop said: “The evidence showed that they grew their crops in permanent fields.” 

It is also likely that these settled farmers shared their produce with others who worked the land, coordinating communally to ensure there was enough food for all. 

Dr Bishop added, “At one of the Orkney sites we were also able to show that these early farmers grew their crops over a range of different soils, suggesting they grew their crops quite extensively around the landscape or that different farms were storing their crops in a communal store at the site.”