The samples to be discussed in this paper derive from a series of late Mesolithic shell-midden sites on the island of Oronsay in the Inner Hebrides. Despite the small size of the island (less than six square kilometres) at least six separate middens have now been identified on Oronsay, of which all except one are located along the south-east-facing coast of the island (fig. 1). Radiocarbon dates ranging from 3695 ± 80 to 3200 ± 380 bc have been obtained on samples of charcoal from the middens, and point to a considerable measure of chronological overlap in the occupation of the different sites (Mellars 1978).
Archaeologically, the chief interest of these sites lies in the excellent conditions for the preservation of faunal remains, which provides a unique insight into the economic activities of coastal-living groups shortly before the appearance of formally ‘Neolithic’ communities in northern Britain. In addition to a wide range of molluscan, mammalian and bird remains, the sites have yielded exceptionally large numbers of fish bones. While the total range of fish exploited from the sites is impressive (comprising at least 12 species), analysis has shown that by far the major emphasis in the fishing activities was placed on the exploitation of a single species—the saithe or coalfish (Pollachius virens L.). In all the samples so far analysed this species accounts for at least 95 per cent of the total fish-bone material, and in many of the samples it is the only species represented.