Prehistoric & Early Scotland

Story of Scotland Chapter One: Ancient Scotland

by Robert M Gunnİ
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and İSkye-Net, RM Gunn

Chapter One

Ancient Scotland

Forty million years ago, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions helped to form the natural beauty of Scotland. Several Ice Ages later, the unique land split and eroded leaving majestic mountains and deep valleys. Even the picturesque landscape has a turbulent history with England.

For about 3 billion years, the landmasses we know as Scotland and England were on a collision course. Scotland, at various times, had been a desert, a swamp, tropical rainforest and a frozen, partially trapped, land under mountains of ice.

The denizens of creatures that once lived there included lizards, dinosaurs, sharks, bears, cats, giant elk, wolves, and in more recent geological times -- man.

About 3 billion years ago, the land (largely speaking) of Scotland was part of a different continent known as Laurentia. The land 'plates' shifted and moved and until eventually, Scotland was lying south of the equator. For eons, it wandered the Southern Hemisphere before, over time, drifting north across the equator. Geologists (specifically geomorphologists) tell us that by 600 million years ago, it was attached to North America, and north of a land mass the would become England, which was attached to what would be mainland Europe.

[Map of Scotland]However, eventually, through much shifting, floating, and moving, the two landmasses collided when an ancient sea, called Iapetus, which separated the two, dried up. Scotland and England came together with monumental force. Geologists also tell us that the connection point is roughly in the area of Hadrian's Wall. Volcanic eruptions on the western seaboard, along with the stresses and strains of the rough joining, helped to produce many of the Islands of the Hebrides. Erosion and glaciers (and most likely earthquakes and more volcanic activity) helped to produce the vast mountains and deep Glens we now see in Scotland. Indeed, Edinburgh Castle is built on the eroded ruins of an old volcano, 350 million years old. The Scottish Lowlands would benefit from richer soil and flatter lands, making agriculture more conducive to success than in the Highlands, but not as much as England. The Highlands Mountains, valleys, and passes would give its future inhabitants a natural protection from outside invasion. But, it would also hinder technological progress and make the people more isolated from the rest of Britain.

[Highlands & Lowlands] The so-called "Highland Line" is actually a remnant of that turbulent period of land activity. Faults in the Earth's surface would produce distinct structural divisions in the land that we now call Scotland. The Highland Boundary Fault Line was formed about 4 million years ago, from the splitting and folding of the Earth's crust, and runs diagonally southwest (Firth of Clyde) to the northeast (Stonehaven). The picture at right shows the Anglo-Scottish Border (as it is now) in black, and the Highland Line in blue. As you can see, not every part of the north or north-east falls, geographically, into the so-called "Highland Line". But that doesn't make those northern areas any less Highland in culture. This will be discussed more below. This map is for geographic purposes only and gives the rough separation of the Highlands to the north and the Lowlands to the south.

There are other Faults and Thrusts (the Moine Thrust) that further divide the northwest Highlands to the southwest Highlands. The Great Glen Fault Line runs from the Moray Firth to Loch Linnhe (by Fort William), and the Southern Upland Fault Line, which separates England from Scotland and lies diagonally across the land from the Solway Firth to Berwick-on-the-Tweed in the northeast.

However, the general definition of the Highland Line is rather more political than strictly geological and has undergone minor alterations throughout Scottish history. Geologically speaking, the northeastern areas such as Caithness and Sutherland lie in a flatter area and that would logically seem to place them in the Lowlands. But they are not Lowland communities and thus the need for capitalization of Lowlands versus lowlands. Yes, the elevation of the Highlands does have a bearing of the Highland areas but some areas considered "Highland" are actually in the lowlands (not Lowlands). The reasons for such ambiguous divisions are largely social, cultural and political rather than scientific.

Even so, the dawning days of Man in Scotland was less concerned with such divisions. Around 7,000 BC the first people began to arrive in Scotland probably moving north from England, eventually into all of Scotland but mostly on the coasts. It was during the Mesolithic Era, that Man first made his appearance. A farmer discovered the earliest human site yet unearthed in Scotland in the early 1980's at Kinloch, on the Island of Rum (Rhum). By the mid-eighties, archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones was excavating the area for Historic Scotland. It is the oldest Mesolithic (middle stone age) site yet discovered, dating back nearly 9,000 years.

Microliths, stone tools
[Stone microliths]
Some 140,000 stone tools have been discovered, including arrowheads, scrapers, awls, blades, and flakes. As suspected, Mesolithic Man did use flint, but only small sized flint was found; the majority of good cutting and knapping stone was Bloodstone, which has similar properties to flint. This made Rum somewhat rare, as good quality; stone for tools was difficult to obtain in Scotland in any adequate amount. Therefore, archaeologists agree that Rum was probably a major center for the trade of such items. Indeed other archeological sites in Scotland bear stone tools from Rum. The main source of the bloodstone seems to be on the west coast of the Island, only 10 kilometers from Kinloch settlement, a place known as 'Creag nan Stearnan': Bloodstone Hill.

These early settlers came to Scotland as hunter-gatherers, and didn't become an agricultural society until the end of the Mesolithic or beginning of the Neolithic Era [For an expanded history of Neolithic Scotland, please see Neolithic Scotland ]. They were nomadic and settlements thus discovered indicate a people who rarely traveled deep into the interior of Scotland.

Early man learned to use his dexterous hands to make tools and weapons. They lived in small family groups or communities, relying on each other and their own unique skills to survive. Almost from the beginning of his arrival, communities were made up of coastal settlements. To go inland meant forest, swamp, and wild animals. Seldom did they venture to far inland to hunt. Eventually, towards the Neolithic period when farming and villages were more firmly established, Man slowly made his way inland, claiming what he could for himself. [Author's note: I am using the term Man, He, Himself, in the broadest context of "Man" as a race. It is not my intention to include 'persons' or gender to this description, as it should be implicit that where early Man went, Woman also went.]

Bloodstone from Rum and Arran has been discovered in Fife and southeast Scotland having arrived by boat. Axes from Antrim were widely used in communities in the Isle of Lewis, the Shetlands and Aberdeenshire. Early man moved on the sea by means of small boats (Curachs) and trade was increased. Boats came also from the English Lake district and North Wales. Flint from Yorkshire has been found in various parts of Scotland. Communities few and far between, but with knowledge of each other.

The Mesolithic Period in Scotland lasted over 4,000 years, eventually yielding to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) Era, by 3,000 BC. The population in Scotland increased partially due to the submerged land link between southeast England and Continental Europe -- Britain had become an island. This forced some southern settlers to look for new lands in the north and the influx of people into Scotland began to alter the face of the land. People began to clear forests, farm and form permanent settlements such as the incredible Neolithic village of Skara Brae, in Orkney.

Stones on Calanais (callanish)
[Stone cirle, Calanais]
The expanded Neolithic history (link given earlier) goes into more detail, but it would be useful to mention some of the names of the marvelous Neolithic villages here: Skara Brae, Calanais on the Isle of Lewis, (formerly called Callanish or Callernish but having only recently been replaced with the Gaelic form of the name), Maes Howe and many others.

Settlers came to Scotland several thousand years after the last Ice Age, but no one knows exactly whom the original people were. There are some interesting theories, none of them conclusive. In Jarlshof, Shetland, inhabitants date as far back as 4,000 years ago. There, they made a living rearing sheep and cattle, eating mainly shellfish and other seafood. Their homes - similar to those found in Crete, in the Aegean, - provide tantalizing clues as to their origins, but it is mere speculation. It has been stated in earlier history books, (mostly older texts) that the early-civilized inhabitants of Scotland were Sythians. The Sythian connection goes back to a conjecture by the Venerable Bede, but has been largely discounted by modern historians. Even as far back as the 1600's AD, early writers of history (specifically William Camden) were disputing the Sythian connection and commented that Sythians might actually be Scandinavia. Make what you will of all of that, for the proof is entirely missing and evidence is speculative at best. In his book, "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles", Ronald Hutton, maintains that human beings were living in Scotland before the last Ice Age. Axes, found in southern Scotland seem to substantiate this dating scheme. It is known that several branches of Celts roamed in tribes all over Europe thousands of years ago. There is little question that the Celts occupied the whole of Britain (different tribes) in the centuries before Christ (1500-1000 BC), but exactly when the first Celts came to Britain is unclear. What is clear is that the earliest monuments predate the Celts, so we are still left with a dilemma: who were the first people in Scotland?

Prehistoric Stone Monuments

Remnants of the Beaker people

Many of these monuments date to 6,000 BC and may have been erected by a long forgotten race of people known vaguely as the 'Beaker People', who were thought to have come to Scotland from the Rhine. Their name derives from the practice of laying clay beakers in the tombs of the dead. The picture at left, would be from the late Bronze age, showing a complete beaker and several tools, such as arrow heads. They (or people related to them) may have built the stone monoliths in Calanais, Orkney, and even Stonehenge. Many have ascribed these early monuments to the Celts, but this seems unlikely, although not impossible. Certainly some of the older monuments predate the Celts by a thousand or more years, so that it had to be the work of an earlier people. Inspired by these remnants of an older civilization, the Celts may have duplicated some of the mega and monoliths for their own reasons. So, the construction, both method and purpose, of many of the Neolithic monuments remain a mystery. They bear similarities to others found in Europe and Greece, but further association is elusive.

[Maes Howe, inside] They fall primarily into three categories: Cairns, henges, and brochs. The first chambered cairns has been found in vast areas of Scotland, some dating to 5,000-6,000 BC. Their construction is unique and ordered. An example of this is the huge Kerbstones found at the entrance of some cairns -- shaped to fit a passageway leading to the central burial chambers. At Maes Howe (pictured right), in Orkney, the intricate and extraordinary cairn is chambered and believed to be a resting-place of ancient royalty. Cairns range from simple stone piles to amazing multi-chambered tombs.


Henge on Lewis, Calanias
[Stone microliths]
Standing henges, or stones, are perhaps the most fascinating and enigmatic ruins. Usually found in the area of burial cairns, such as the standing stones of Calanais (Callanish) on the Isle of Lewis, date to 3,000 BC. Calanais lies at the head of Loch Roag, 20 kilometers west of Stornoway and is comprised of a circle of 13 stones encircling a central massive monolith (single stone). A small-chambered cairn is nearby. Theories as to the purpose of these stones or henges continue to mystify. Was it a religious icon or temple? Was it used for astronomy or was it a large funerary complex? Or, was it simply built for aesthetic reasons that are lost to modern man. Undoubtedly, there will be debate and discussion on this for many years to come. One cannot help but notice the similarity of layout to other sites, including Stonehenge in England and Carnac on the coast of Brittany. All three places have strong ties to the ancient Celts, so the mystery continues.

[Ring of Brogar]
Another amazing example (perhaps the most spectacular) is at Maes Howe in Orkney. Again, stone circles with a cairn some distance away -- very similar to the others. Also, the Ring of Brogar, (pictured right, pronounced 'Brodgar') above the Harray Loch, near Stromness, Orkney, is of roughly the same time period as Maes Howe.

Standing stones at Stenness
[Henge at Stenness]

Some say the ring of Brogar (which at one time had sixty stones! and formed a perfect circle) is an ancient temple of the sun, whilst the circle (henge) at Stenness (pictured left), is possibly a temple of the moon owing to its crescent shape.


These towers of dry stone having a single entrance are a unique architectural invention. Long before medieval castles would dot the countryside of Scotland, these stone fortifications served as protection and living quarters. They appear mostly in the North of Scotland, and the Isles, and often near shorelines. They date back to 1,000 BC. These stone circular towers had a space between the walls for living and stairs to the top.

[Viking Runic script @ Maes Howe] About ten feet in diameter (internal), 15 feet thick, 30-40 feet high, these appear to have been fortifications from sea borne raiders, long before the time of the Vikings Interestingly, when the Vikings occupied Orkney in the 8th-11th centuries, they used some of the structures themselves and even left Norse runic script, as seen at right, at Maes Howe. There is evidence that the brochs were used over again by successive incoming people.

One questions how these heavy stone henges, cairns and fortifications could have been built at a time when the people went without the use of levers or rollers to assist them. Some of the individual stones weigh up to three tons!

A broch
The next major Era brought metallurgy to Scotland -- the Bronze Age. Roughly, about 2,000 BC, this single invention would revolutionize life in Scotland as it had elsewhere in the world. Bronze, a new metal made of tin and copper smelted together, meant new tools and weapons of superior strength and resilience could now be forged. Undoubtedly, warfare increased with this new technique and with the rise in population. Bronze brought about an increase in trade and technology. It is early in this period that the brochs first appear. There are still traces of some 500 brochs in Scotland today. Formerly, they had been called "Pictish Towers", but this is a misnomer as ancestors of the Picts, not the Picts themselves, built them. Probably the most outstanding example is in Shetland. The Broch of Mousa is the best-preserved broch -- still almost intact. Even centuries, after it ceased to function as designed, the Icelandic sagas say it was used on two occasions as a refuge for runaway lovers during Viking times. [Egil's saga, Orkneyinga saga].

Arm Torc, decoration
[Arm Torc, ornamentation]
With the Bronze Age came metal axes with wooden handles, bronze daggers - the forerunners of the dirk; bronze shields were possibly forerunners of the Highland targe (target). Ireland was the chief center for the manufacture of bronze and Scotland's early settlers were energetic seamen. They traveled to Ireland, the Outer Hebrides and the Continent. The most powerful were found of displaying their wealth. Beautiful gold and silver arm, neck and ankle decorative bands were found all over Britain.


One of the most interesting structures in ancient Scotland is the crannog. Simply put, crannogs are safe-homes that happen to appear to float on the surface of a pond or small loch. Often these loch-dwellings were built on artificially modified natural islands on inland waters. Some later constructed crannogs, possibly built by the early Celts, provided protection against animals and invaders. Small circular homes, like huts, were built on wood pilings over a pond or body of water. From the evidence of the brochs and crannogs, they must have needed that protection, for sea-raiders invaded Scotland in search of slaves for the Roman Empire, a century before Christ. There is also some evidence to suggest that raiders also came from Scandinavia (not yet the Vikings) and Europe.

Crannog reconstruction
[A crannog] Crannog pilings were driven into the pond floor and a platform was built atop them at the surface level on the water. Then wooden walkways (which could often be retracted) were extended to the shore. Some crannogs had stone causeways and were not retractable. These clever structures were first constructed towards the end of the Neolithic age (3000 AD) and some were still inhabited as late as the 17th century AD.

Loch Tay contains at least eighteen crannogs, with hundreds more not yet having been identified throughout Scotland, north of the Central Belt.

Arrival of the Celts

One thousand years before Christ, unified tribes of peoples known collectively as the Celts first came to Britain from Europe. According to author Charles Thomas in his book "Celtic Britain", the adjective Celtic means in the strict and most pedantic form, 'of pertaining to the Celtic group of Indo-European languages'. It has long been extended to include virtually everything connected to past and present (mainly European) peoples; inhabiting lands were a Celtic language was used. In Britain, there are two main forms of 'Celtic' spoken, and we shall examine that a bit later. The Celtic tribes, (many of whose tribal names we know), came over to the British Isles in massive waves, displacing or assimilating the local inhabitants, by war or by marriage. This is very likely what happened with the Picts.
[Maiden Castle @ Dorset]
The Celts had already successfully dominated much of Europe and built strongholds in Britain to secure their position. One such stronghold in Dorset, England, best typifies these mounds or hill forts. Maiden Castle (right) is probably the best preserved ancient Celtic fort in Britain. It is very likely that similar structure could have been found in Scotland, but have since been lost. Pictured at right is the astonishing remains of Maiden Castle. In its day, it probably had wood palisades and timber construction to add to the defensive ability. The various Celtic languages were common links amongst different Celts who occupied Brittany, France (Gaul) and parts of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Celts are often associated with their ritualistic form of religion or faith organized by a group of leaders known as Druids. The Celts were a people of nature and thus worshipped many things of nature, knowing very well how to work and till the land and rear livestock, especially cattle. They were a cultured and abstractly artistic people, creating intricate and delicate motifs that are still prized (and copied) today. These new settlers in Scotland (in northern Scotland, Picts, and later Scots) and all of Britain were skilled metal workers.

Hilt of a Celtic Sword
[Hilt of a Celtic Sword]
Now armor and weaponry evolved to a new level, especially when iron was produced. The Celts were the first Indo-European race to use the long sword in Europe, whereas the Romans, and Greeks before them, preferred a shorter stabbing sword. The Celts are described by the Romans as tall, muscular and of fair complexion, and wielded a great advantage with these longer swords. The main weapon of all Celts though, were spears, (below, right) as they were cheaper to produce.
[Celtic Warrior]

Other distinguishing features of the Celtic peoples included the use of items such as chariots, torcs, tattoos, and limed hair. Often they went naked into combat, but the reason for this is unclear. Celtic tribes in the south (England) went by names such as Iceni (Boadicea's tribe), Dumnonii, Belgae, Silures and the Brigantes to name a few. As a whole, they were simply referred to as the Britons. In Scotland the Caledonii and Picti (in the north), made of the bulk of the early Celts, along with smaller tribes in southern Scotland such as the Votadini, Novantae and the Selgovae. Along with the northern Britons, and later, the Scots from Ireland, the Celtic peoples in Scotland seemed to be firmly entrenched. In short, at one time the Celts and their various tribes made up the entire population of early Britain.

Celtic Tribes of Britain
[Celtic Tribes]

The Celts in Britain spoke one of two forms of Celtic language, classified by linguists as either P-Celtic (Brythonic) or Q-Celtic (Goidelic). In both cases, it must be assumed settlers introduced 'Celtic' from the Continent. Q-Celtic speakers reached Ireland before 500BC (likely circa 1000 BC), with the majority of P-Celtic speakers coming somewhat later. The ancient Irish, Scots and Manx (now extinct) spoke Q-Celtic. The Welsh, the Cornish, and the Britons (both north and south) spoke P-Celtic, which is very similar to its European parent root language Gaulish (from Gaul, later France). This latter form was a language or group of dialects spoken in much of Celtic Europe during the height of the their reign on the Continent.

Of the Picts, there remains a mystery of language and identity. We know they predated the P-Celtic speaking tribes of the south, but since they left no written records, we can only surmise into which category their language, if either, can be grouped. Early names, both tribal names and the list of Pictish kings names (a list of questionable repute) from the Irish annals, seem to show the names are clearly of some Celtic language. Also, the names of major rivers (Deva - Dee) and (Tava - Tay) are Celtic names given to them by the Picts -- but of what exact language? The Venerable Bede refers to two distinct Pictish peoples though his stories might be as much supposition as history. We do know the Picts spoke some form of Celtic language, and has been suggested in recent years by renowned Freelance archaeologist, Dr. Fiona Ritchie; a solution to this may lie in the make-up of the Picts themselves. A general understanding of the Picts has been slow in coming but has made some major leaps in recent years. Historians and archaeologists now suggest that the Picts were likely an amalgamation of incoming Celts from Europe and native, aboriginal - perhaps even indigenous -- peoples already populating Scotland. Over time, the two merged and so did their language. If this were the case, it would explain much about the enigmatic Picts, their mysterious language, and our lack of understanding of whom they were. But like all theories of the Picts, this too, may change in time.

Next, in chapter 2 of "The Story of Scotland's History":

  • Chapter 2 -'On the Fringe of the Empire', the Romans in Scotland.

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