THE ancient inhabitants of Scotland may have gone into the importation business to bring red deer to the Hebrides and other islands.

New research has suggested that Neolithic man may have transported red deer from remote sites in Europe rather than from the Scottish mainland.

Red deer were an important source of supply of food and skins, while their bones and antlers were used by Stone Age peoples across Europe as weapons and tools.

The new theory suggests that red deer – of which there may be 400,000 in Scotland today – were transported to the islands of Scotland by boat, though the deer themselves may have colonised some islands as they are powerful swimmers able to swim short journeys of perhaps two or three miles.

David Stanton, an evolutionary biologist at Cardiff University, said in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that when the ice retreated about 10,000 years ago, deer and other beasts – including humans – gradually repopulated northern regions, but archaeological remains show that red deer only made it to the islands some 5,000 years ago.

Stanton and his colleagues analysed genetic material from 74 red deer bones—some up to 7,500 years old—that had been found at archaeological sites on the Scottish mainland, Orkney, and the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

Then they compared the results with previous analyses of ancient DNA from red deer in Norway, Ireland, and Italy, as well as those from modern specimens throughout Europe.

The DNA samples strongly suggested that red deer on the Outer Hebrides and their cousins on Orkney originated in Europe in lands that have not yet been identified though somewhere in western continental Europe is the most likely place.

Stanton said: “There’s not a huge amount known about the seafaring capabilities of humans in northern Europe around that time – we just don’t know.

“This potentially gives us a bit of a clue as to what they might have been capable of.”

Prof Jeremy Searle from Cornell University in the USA, said the new work on red deer DNA was “absolutely fascinating” but cautioned that there are other explanations for the genetic uniqueness of the ancient outer-island deer.

He said: “One other explanation, which they do actually mention in the paper, is that there was an initial colonisation of the British Isles by the red deer, and then that initial genetic type later got replaced by another genetic type.

“So what you’re seeing around the periphery is kind of the relic of that initial colonisation, while the bulk of Britain is represented by the second population.”

Two-phase colonisation in several British species has already been found, explained Prof Searle, but he added that long-range deer delivery could be proven by establishing a strong genetic similarity with the mysterious source of the islands’ red deer population.

Prof Searle said: “I think the study is a really interesting springboard for future investigations.”Dr Stanton concluded: “It’s the tip of the iceberg. We’ve got a lot more searching to do.”