Prehistoric Scotland

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History of Scotland
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Archaeology and geology continue to reveal the secrets of prehistoric Scotland, uncovering a complex past before the Romans brought Scotland into the scope of recorded history. Successive human cultures tended to be spread across Europe or further afield, but focusing on this particular geographical area sheds light on the origin of the widespread remains and monuments in Scotland, and on the background to the history of Scotland.


The extent of open countryside untouched by intensive farming, together with past availability of stone rather than timber, has given Scotland a wealth of accessible sites where the ancient past can be seen.

The remote prehistory of Scotland

Scotland is geologically alien to Europe, comprising a lost[ clarification needed ] sliver of the ancient continent of Laurentia (which later formed the bulk of North America). During the Cambrian period the crustal region which became Scotland formed part of the continental shelf of Laurentia, then still south of the equator. Laurentia was separated from the continent of Baltica (which later became Scandinavia and the Baltic region) by the diminishing Iapetus Ocean. The two ancient continents moved toward one another through the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, with tectonic folding during the Silurian pushing the first Scottish land above water. The final collision occurred during the Devonian period, with the Scottish segment of the Laurentian plate smashing into Avalonia (which contained what is now most of England and Wales), a motile subcontinent which had previously joined with Baltica. This impact threw up a massive chain of mountains (at least as tall as the present-day Alps) and saw the formation of the granitic West Highland and Grampian mountain chains and (through the Carboniferous) a period of volcanic activity in central and eastern Scotland. During the Permian and Triassic periods, with the Iapetus Ocean entirely closed, Scotland lay near the centre of the Pangaean supercontinent. At the start of the Tertiary, a constructive plate boundary (at which tectonic plates move apart) became active between Laurentia and Eurasia, pushing the two apart (and parting Scotland from Laurentia). This recession opened the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, and the consequent subduction zone at the western plate margin led to a renewed period of volcanism, this time on Scotland's west coast, producing fresh mountains on Skye, Jura, Mull, Rùm, and Arran.

This tectonic activity produced the basis of Scotland's topography: ancient mountains in the North and South of the country, partially eroded by 400 million years of water and ice with a wide fertile valley between them, and a newer, wilder western terrain. With Scotland now in the northern temperate zone, it was subjected to numerous glaciations in the Neogene and Quaternary periods, the ice sheets and their attendant glaciers carving the landscape into a typical postglacial one, overdeeping[ clarification needed ] river valleys into the characteristic U-shape and leaving the upland areas covered with glacial corries and dramatic pyramidal peaks. In lowland areas the ice deposited rich fields of fertile glacial till and eroded the softer material surrounding the extinct volcanoes (particularly the older Carboniferous ones), leaving many crags.

Before modern humans

During the last interglacial, around 130,000–70,000 BC, there were times when the climate in Europe was warmer than it is today, and after the Neanderthals came to prominence[ clarification needed ] there was another mild spell around 40,000 BC. Neanderthal sites have been found in the south of England from this era, though no traces of early modern humans have been found.

Glaciers then scoured their way across most of Britain, and it was only after the ice retreated about 15,000 years ago that Scotland again became habitable.


As the climate improved, mesolithic hunter-gatherers extended their range into Scotland. The earliest evidence to date is the flint artefacts found at Howburn Farm, near Elsrickle in 2005. This is the first and so far the only evidence of Upper Paleolithic human habitation in Scotland, around 12,000 BC, which appears to fall between the Younger Dryas and Lomond Stadial periods when cold conditions returned relatively briefly. [1] [2] [3]

An early settlement at Cramond, near what is today Edinburgh, has been dated to around 8500 BC. Pits and stakeholes suggest a hunter-gatherer encampment, and microlith stone tools made at the site predate finds of similar style in England. Although no bones or shells had survived the acid soil, numerous carbonised hazelnut shells indicate cooking in a similar way to finds at other Mesolithic period sites, including the slightly earlier Star Carr and the Howick house in Northumberland, dated to 7600 BC ("Britain's oldest house"), where post holes indicate a very substantial construction, interpreted as a permanent residence for hunting people. This suggests that hunter-gatherers could also have settled down in Scotland.

Other sites on the east coast and at lochs and rivers, and large numbers of rock shelters and shell middens around the west coast and islands, build up a picture of highly mobile people, often using sites seasonally and having boats for fishing and for transporting stone tools from sites where suitable materials were found. Finds of flint tools on Ben Lawers and at Glen Dee (a mountain pass through the Cairngorms) show that these people were capable of travelling well inland across the hills.

At a rock shelter and shell midden at Sand, Applecross in Wester Ross facing Skye, excavations have shown that around 7500 BC people had tools of bone, stone and antlers, were living off shellfish, fish, and deer using "pot-boiler" stones as a cooking method, were making beads from seashells, and had ochre pigment and used shellfish which can produce purple dye.

Farmers and monument builders

Neolithic dwellings at Skara Brae, Orkney Orkney Skara Brae.jpg
Neolithic dwellings at Skara Brae, Orkney

Neolithic farming brought permanent settlements. At Balbridie in Aberdeenshire crop markings were investigated, and ditches and post holes found, revealing a massive timber-framed building dating to about 3600 BC. An almost identical building, with evidence of pottery, was excavated at Claish near Stirling. [4] On the islet of Eilean Domhnuill, in Loch Olabhat on North Uist, Unstan ware pottery suggests a date of 3200–2800 BC for what may be the earliest crannog.

The remainder of this section focuses mainly on the Orkney Islands, where there is a Neolithic landscape rich in sites amazingly preserved by prevalent use of the local stone which appears on the shore ready-split into convenient building slabs. There are many other examples across the country, many under the care of Historic Scotland.

At the wonderfully well preserved stone house at Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray (occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC) the walls stand to a low eaves height, and the stone furniture is intact. Evidence from middens shows that the inhabitants kept cattle, sheep and pigs, farmed barley and wheat and gathered shellfish, as well as fishing for species which must be caught from boats using lines. Finely made and decorated Unstan ware pottery links the inhabitants to chambered cairn tombs nearby and to sites far afield, including Balbrindi and Eilean Domhnuill.

The houses at Skara Brae on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands are very similar, but are grouped into a village linked by low passageways. This settlement was occupied from about 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Pottery found here is of the grooved ware style which is found across Britain as far away as Wessex.

About 6 miles (10 km) from Skara Brae, grooved ware pottery was found at the Standing Stones of Stenness (originally a circle) which lie centrally in a close group of three major monuments. Maeshowe, the finest example of the passage grave type of chambered cairn (radiocarbon dated to before 2700 BC) lies just to the east. The Ring of Brodgar circle of standing stones is across a bridge immediately to the north. This circle was one of the first to be analysed by Professor Alexander Thom to establish the likely use of standing stones as astronomical observatories. Another Neolithic village has been found nearby at Barnhouse Settlement, and the inference is that these farming people were the builders and users of these mysterious structures.

Like the standing stones at Callanish on Lewis and other standing stones across Scotland, these monuments form part of the Europe-wide Megalithic culture which also produced Stonehenge in Wiltshire and the stone rows at Carnac in Brittany.

Further evidence can be found in Kilmartin Glen with its Stone Circles, Standing Stones and Rock Art

The widespread connections of these people are shown by offerings imported from Cumbria and Wales and left on the sacred hilltop at Cairnpapple Hill, West Lothian, as early as 3500 BC.

Bronze Age

Bronze-age burial cist, Cairnpapple West Lothian Bronze Age burial cist, Cairnpapple, West Lothian.jpg
Bronze-age burial cist, Cairnpapple West Lothian

The cairns and megalithic monuments continued into the Bronze Age, which saw metals as an additional material[ clarification needed ] rather than a replacement for flint. However, there was a decline in both the building of large new structures and the total area under cultivation from about 2500 B.C. [5]

The Clava cairns and standing stones near Inverness show complex geometries and astronomical alignments, with smaller, perhaps individual, tombs instead of the communal Neolithic tombs.

Mummies dating from 1600–1300 BC have been discovered at Cladh Hallan on South Uist.

Hill forts were introduced, such as Eildon Hill near Melrose in the Scottish Borders, which goes back to around 1000 BC and which accommodated several hundred houses on a fortified hilltop. Excavation at Edinburgh Castle found late Bronze Age material from about 850 BC.

Iron Age

From around 700 BC and extending into Roman times, the Iron Age was an age of forts and defended farmsteads, which support the image of quarrelsome tribes and petty kingdoms recorded by the Romans. Evidence that at times occupants neglected the defences might suggest that symbolic power was as significant as warfare.

Traprain Law, East Lothian Traprain Law, East Lothian.jpg
Traprain Law, East Lothian

Brythonic (or "Pritennic") Celtic culture and language spread into southern Scotland at some time after the 8th century BC, possibly through cultural contact rather than mass invasion, and systems of kingdoms developed.

Larger fortified settlements expanded, such as the Votadini stronghold of Traprain Law, East Lothian, which was the size of a town. Huge numbers of small duns, hill forts and ring forts were built on any suitable crag or hillock. The spectacular brochs were built, most impressively the nearly complete broch at Mousa on Shetland. Many Souterrain underground passageways were constructed, though their purpose is obscure. Island settlements linked with land by a causeway, the crannogs, became common; it is thought that their function was defensive.

Access - guide books

The government website, Historic Scotland, lists many accessible sites and monuments including most of those mentioned above, and others are also freely accessible, making exploration of the distant past open to anyone with a guide book and map. The following were used as references:

See also

Related Research Articles

Chambered cairn Burial monument, usually constructed during the Neolithic, consisting of a sizeable (usually stone) chamber around and over which a cairn of stones was constructed

A chambered cairn is a burial monument, usually constructed during the Neolithic, consisting of a sizeable chamber around and over which a cairn of stones was constructed. Some chambered cairns are also passage-graves. They are found throughout Britain and Ireland, with the largest number in Scotland.

Skara Brae Neolithic archaeological site in Scotland

Skara Brae is a stone-built Neolithic settlement, located on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago of Scotland. Consisting of eight clustered houses, it was occupied from roughly 3180 BC to about 2500 BC and is Europe's most complete Neolithic village. Skara Brae gained UNESCO World Heritage Site status as one of four sites making up "The Heart of Neolithic Orkney". Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the "Scottish Pompeii" because of its excellent preservation.

Grooved ware archaeological culture

Grooved ware is the name given to a pottery style of the British Neolithic. Its manufacturers are sometimes known as the Grooved ware people. Unlike the later Beaker ware, Grooved culture was not an import from the continent but seems to have developed in Orkney, early in the 3rd millennium BC, and was soon adopted in Britain and Ireland.

Knap of Howar Oldest stone house in northwest Europe

The Knap of Howar on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney, Scotland is a Neolithic farmstead which may be the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe. Radiocarbon dating shows that it was occupied from 3700 BC to 2800 BC, earlier than the similar houses in the settlement at Skara Brae on the Orkney Mainland.

Unstan ware

Unstan ware is the name used by archaeologists for a type of finely made and decorated Neolithic pottery from the 4th and 3rd millennia BC. Typical are elegant and distinctive shallow bowls with a band of grooved patterning below the rim, a type of decoration which was created using a technique known as "stab-and-drag". A second version consists of undecorated, round-bottomed bowls. Some of the bowls had bits of volcanic rock included in the clay to make them stronger. Bone tools were used to burnish the surfaces to make them shiny and impermeable.

Eilean Dòmhnuill island in United Kingdom

Ian Armit identifies the islet of Eilean Dòmhnuill, Loch Olabhat, on North Uist, Scotland, as what may be the earliest crannog. Unstan ware pottery found there suggests a Neolithic period date of 3200-2800 BC. A surrounding timber screen and the turf-walled houses seem to have been repeatedly taken down and rebuilt, and in the final phase two oblong stone-footed structures bear a resemblance to Knap of Howar on Papa Westray, Orkney.

Cairnpapple Hill Neolithic henge monument

Cairnpapple Hill is a hill with a dominating position in central lowland Scotland with views from coast to coast. It was used and re-used as a major ritual site over about 4000 years, and in its day would have been comparable to better known sites like the Standing Stones of Stenness. The summit lies 312 m above sea level, and is about 2 miles (3 km) north of Bathgate. In the 19th century the site was completely concealed by trees, then in 1947–1948 excavations by Stuart Piggott found a series of ritual monuments from successive prehistoric periods. In 1998, Gordon Barclay re-interpreted the site for Historic Scotland. It is designated a scheduled ancient monument.

Standing Stones of Stenness henge in Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

The Standing Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument five miles northeast of Stromness on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland. This may be the oldest henge site in the British Isles. Various traditions associated with the stones survived into the modern era and they form part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site. They are looked after by Historic Environment Scotland as a scheduled monument.

Barnhouse Settlement archaeological site in Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

The Neolithic Barnhouse Settlement is sited by the shore of Loch of Harray, Orkney Mainland, Scotland, not far from the Standing Stones of Stenness, about 5 miles north-east of Stromness.

Humans have inhabited Orkney, an archipelago in the north of Scotland, for about 8,800 years: archeological evidence dates from Mesolithic times. Scandinavian clans dominated the area from the 8th century CE, using the islands as a base for further incursions. In the late 14th century the archipelago became part of Scotland.

Prehistoric Ireland aspect of history

The prehistory of Ireland has been pieced together from archaeological evidence, which has grown at an increasing rate over the last decades. It begins with the first evidence of humans in Ireland around 10,500 BC, and finishes with the start of the historical record around 400 AD. Both of these dates are later than for much of Europe and all of the Near East. The prehistoric period covers the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age societies of Ireland. For much of Europe, the historical record begins when the Romans invaded; as Ireland was not invaded by the Romans its historical record starts later, with the coming of Christianity.

Timeline of prehistoric Scotland timeline of prehistoric Scotland

This timeline of prehistoric Scotland is a chronologically ordered list of important archaeological sites in Scotland and of major events affecting Scotland's human inhabitants and culture during the prehistoric period. The period of prehistory prior to occupation by the genus Homo is part of the geology of Scotland. Prehistory in Scotland ends with the arrival of the Romans in southern Scotland in the 1st century AD and the beginning of written records. The archaeological sites and events listed are the earliest examples or among the most notable of their type.

Prehistoric Orkney historical period in Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

Prehistoric Orkney refers to a period in the human occupation of the Orkney archipelago of Scotland that was the latter part of these islands' prehistory. The period of prehistory prior to occupation by the genus Homo is part of the geology of Scotland. Although some written records refer to Orkney during the Roman invasions of Scotland, prehistory in northern Scotland does not end until the commencement of the Early Historic Period around AD 600.

Midhowe Chambered Cairn Neolithic chambered cairn in Scotland

Midhowe Chambered Cairn is a large Neolithic chambered cairn located on the south shore of the island of Rousay, Orkney, Scotland. The name "Midhowe" comes from the Iron Age broch known as Midhowe Broch, that lies just west of the tomb. The broch got its name from the fact that it's the middle of three such structures that lie grouped within 500 metres (1,600 ft) of each other and Howe from the Old Norse word haugr meaning mound or barrow. Together, the broch and chambered cairn form part of a large complex of ancient structures on the shore of Eynhallow Sound separating Rousay from Mainland, Orkney.

Unstan Chambered Cairn Neolithic chambered cairn

Unstan is a Neolithic chambered cairn located about 2 miles (3 km) north-east of Stromness on Mainland, Orkney, Scotland. The tomb was built on a promontory that extends into the Loch of Stenness near the settlement of Howe. Unstan is notable as an atypical hybrid of the two main types of chambered cairn found on Orkney, and as the location of the first discovery of a type of pottery that now bears the name of the tomb. The site is in the care of Historic Environment Scotland as a scheduled monument.

Ness of Brodgar archaeological site

The Ness of Brodgar is an archaeological site covering 2.5 hectares between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site in Orkney, Scotland. Excavations at the site began in 2003. The site has provided evidence of decorated stone slabs, a stone wall 6 metres (20 ft) thick with foundations, and a large building described as a Neolithic temple. The earliest structures were built between 3,300 and 3,200 BC, and the site had been closed down and partly dismantled by 2,200 BC.

Linear Pottery culture archaeological culture

The Linear Pottery culture is a major archaeological horizon of the European Neolithic, flourishing c. 5500–4500 BC. It is abbreviated as LBK, and is also known as the Linear Band Ware, Linear Ware, Linear Ceramics or Incised Ware culture, and falls within the Danubian I culture of V. Gordon Childe.

Prehistoric Shetland

Prehistoric Shetland refers to a period in the human occupation of the Shetland archipelago of Scotland that was the latter part of these islands' prehistory. The period of prehistory prior to occupation by the genus Homo is part of the geology of Scotland. Although some written records refer to Shetland during the Roman invasions of Scotland, prehistory in Shetland does not end until the later part of the Early Historic Period in Scotland, around AD 900.

Prehistoric art in Scotland

Prehistoric art in Scotland is visual art created or found within the modern borders of Scotland, before the departure of the Romans from southern and central Britain in the early fifth century CE, which is usually seen as the beginning of the early historic or Medieval era. There is no clear definition of prehistoric art among scholars and objects that may involve creativity often lack a context that would allow them to be understood.

Jeulmun pottery period archaeological period in Korea (ca. 8000–1500 BCE), named after the decorated pottery vessels that form a large part of the pottery assemblage consistently over the above period

The Jeulmun Pottery Period is an archaeological era in Korean prehistory broadly spanning the period of 8000–1500 BC. This period subsumes the Mesolithic and Neolithic cultural stages in Korea, lasting ca. 8000–3500 BC and 3500–1500 BC, respectively. Because of the early presence of pottery, the entire period has also been subsumed under a broad label of "Korean Neolithic".


  1. Haworth, Jenny (10 April 2009) "Scotland's most ancient home found – at 14,000 years old" The Scotsman. Edinburgh. Retrieved 24 June 2009.
  2. "Earliest site in Scotland discovered" Archived 2010-10-10 at the Wayback Machine . Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  3. "South end of Loch Lomond (Geomorphology)" Archived 2006-06-16 at . Scottish Geology. Retrieved 13 March 2011.
  4. Barclay, Gordon; Brophy, Kenneth; MacGregor, Gavin (2002). "A Neolithic building at Claish Farm, near Callander, Stirling Council, Scotland, UK". Antiquity. Antiquity Publications. 76 (291): 23–24. Archived from the original on 11 October 2013. Retrieved 11 October 2013.
  5. Moffat, Alistair (2005) Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History. London. Thames & Hudson. Page 154.

Further reading