Scotland is filled to the brim with beauty – from its majestic mountains and lochs to the medieval castles that dot its landscape. But one should not forget its prehistoric sites, which are truly fascinating and plentiful. Before the Kingdom of Scotland emerged and even prior to Roman contact, the region was an active cultural hub with trade, arts and architecture flourishing. Sites like Skara Brae and the many Iron Age brochs found in northern parts of the country are a testament to the achievements of these ancient people. Some sites rival even the great Egyptian pyramids in age.
Come and explore our list of the 10 best prehistoric sites to visit in Scotland.
1. Machrie Moor Standing Stones
This ancient site was erected some 4,000 years ago, though excavation works have shown human activity in the region long before the creation of the Machrie Moor Standing Stones. Roughly 500 years before the stones were put in their place, timber circles occupied the exact same spots. The site has been associated with Stone and Bronze Age religious activities, before becoming a burial place in later centuries.
The Machrie Moor Standing Stones can be found near the village of Blackwaterfoot on the Isle of Arran.
2. Cairnpapple Hill
The prehistoric site is a must visit for anybody exploring West Lothian. The hill has been of importance to local farming communities from 4,000 BC to the Christian era.
By the 19th century the site was completely covered in trees, until excavations by Stuart Piggott found a series of ritual monuments. Archeological finds from the hill have uncovered Stone Age trade networks that reached Wales and Cumbria, showcasing how interconnected Britain has been since the earliest times. During the Bronze Age the site was used as a burial ground.
Cairnpapple Hill is open to visitors from April to September.
Characterised by sturdy stone slab structures insulated and protected by the clay and household waste which holds them together, Skara Brae is a stunning example of the high quality of Neolithic workmanship and is a phenomenal example of a Neolithic village.
Skara Brae was inhabited between 3,200 and 2,500 BC, although it was only discovered again in 1850 AD after a storm battered the Bay of Skaill on which it sits and unearthed the village. Subsequent excavation uncovered a series of organised houses, each containing what can only be described as “fitted furniture” including a dresser, a central hearth, box beds and a tank which is believed to have be used to house fishing bait.
4. The Caterthuns
The Caterthuns are a pair of Iron Age hill forts that overlook Strathmore. It is not clear for what purpose these fortifications were built, though they likely served both as military and ceremonial centres. One of the hill forts has visible stone dry walls, causing it to be known as ‘White Caterthun’, while the other one has large earth ramparts, giving it the name ‘Brown Caterthun’. The sites were possibly constructed between 700 to 200 BC.
5. Mousa Broch
Mousa Broch, located on the Shetland Islands, is one of the best preserved brochs. It towers over 13 metres above the surrounding countryside and is the tallest prehistoric building in Britain.
Standing on the uninhabited island of Mousa, this broch can only be reached by boat. The broch contains three large chambers, which each have a stone cupboard built into the wall. A spiral stair also leads to six galleries. This broch appears twice in the Orkneyinga Saga collection of Norse histories.
6. Clava Cairns
Situated just outside of Inverness, Clava Cairns, or the Prehistoric Burial Cairns of Bulnuaran of Clava, are a group of three Bronze Age cairns, or burial mounds. Remarkably well-preserved, Clava Cairns are thought to date back around 4,000 years. The burial mounds were used in two periods, and in around 2,000 BC a row of large cairns was built, three of which are still standing today.
Excavations have revealed that there was once farming on the site before any of the monuments were built, and the settlement was directly replaced by the cairns, with some of the material used to build them being taken from the demolished houses. Over time, several more stones were added, many with cup and ring markings. Today, it is a popular attraction, not least because it is likely the inspiration for the site Craigh na Dun, the standing stones that form a time-travelling portal in the popular television series Outlander.
7. Kilmartin Glen
Situated between Oban and Lochgilphead and surrounding the village of Kilmartin is Kilmartin Glen. The area spans some 5,000 years and features an incredible range of cairns, standing stones, carved rock, stone circles, castles and forts, to the extend that it is considered to have been one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland. Of the more than 350 ancient monuments within a six mile radius of the village, more than 150 are prehistoric.
Visitors today both enjoy the stunning natural landscape and the ancient history of the area. A particular highlight includes the fortress of the Scots an Dunadd, a royal centre of Dal Riata, which is located to the south of the glen on the edge of the Moine Mhòr, or Great Moss.
8. Tomb of the Eagles
Located on the dramatic South Ronaldsay cliffs, the Isbister Chambered Cairn – better known as the ‘Tomb of the Eagles’ – is one of the most visited archeological sites in Orkney. Discovered by local farmer Ronnie Simison when he was digging for flagstones in the 1950s, the Stone Age tomb revealed a striking collection of over 16,000 bones and a number of artefacts that were placed there some 5,000 years ago. The remains of 8-20 birds were also found, which had been placed there later.
Though the tomb is no longer open to the public, it is still possible to walk around the site. A stunning mile’s walk from the site takes you to the visitor centre, which contains a wealth of information about the tomb and Orkney’s ancient past more generally.
9. Glenelg Brochs: Dun Telve and Dun Troddan
This pair of tall broch towers are situated in the beautiful valley of Gleann Beag. Dun Telve is situated just 500 metres from Dun Troddan, so visitors can easily see these unusually close together brochs on the one trip. They are among four brochs which still stand close to their original height (along with Mousa in Shetland and Dun Carloway in Lewis).
They were probably built between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, and became a tourist attraction in the 18th and 19th centuries due to their well preserved state and height. Dun Telve retains a section of wall over 10 metres high, and is more than 20 metres in diameter. It contains a winding stone stair that leads to the top of the tower. Dun Troddan is shorter, at 7.6 metres, but better preserved, providing evidence as to its use. The interior floor shows evidence of a number of holes for upright posts and a hearth, containing a quern-stone which would have helped grind corn.
10. Standing Stones of Stenness
Forming part of the Heart of Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Stones of Stenness, are a group of 4 upright stones that are all that survive of what was originally a much larger stone circle. The stones are enormous in size, emphasising how the earliest stone circles of the Neolithic period appear to have been much larger than the later ones (though dating is difficult, it appears the Stones were constructed by at least c.3,100 BC). Some estimates even suggest that the stones were the earliest henge monument in the British Isles.
Today, the stones are hugely popular and are best visited in tandem with the other sites part of the Heart of Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site collection.