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Ancient sites of Scotland

Author: David Pettitt

A land of great antiquity, Scotland is home to many extraordinary historic sites – some even dating back to the earliest inhabitants of the British Isles. From Neolithic villages, prehistoric settlements and ancient standing stones to Iron Age forts, Bronze Age round houses and chapels that hark back to earliest days of Christianity, this blog focuses on the most important and, in some cases, little-known ancient sites of Scotland.

1. Skara Brae, Orkney

Uncovered by a storm in the 19th century and excavated during the 1970s, the 5000-year-old settlement of Skara Brae is Europe’s most complete Neolithic village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people that lived on this windswept promontory, the eight enigmatic stone-built homes of Skara Brae are complete with stone beds and seats and are remarkably well-preserved.

Skara Brae ancient site
Skara Brae / Image credit: Wilderness Scotland

2. Iona Abbey, Iona

Despite its small size, the Isle of Iona played a pivotal on the introduction of Christianity to Scotland and the wider British Isles. It was here that Columba and his followers landed from Ireland, founding a monastery in AD563 and began spreading the gospel in Scotland and northern England. There are several important Christian sites on Iona including Iona Abbey, the Nunnery and St Oran’s Chapel where the remains of 48 Scottish kings are buried.

Iona Abbey surrounded by sea
Iona Abbey

3. Callanish Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis

The Callanish Standing Stones are some of Scotland’s grandest and best-preserved Neolithic monuments. Dating back over 5000 years, the stones are located high atop a blustery moor and on clear day the views over ocean and mountain are spectacular. Predating the stone circle of Stonehenge, archaeological debate over the function of the Callanish Standing Stones is ongoing but it is though they formed part of an astronomical observatory.

Ancient Callanish standing stones at sunset
Callanish Standing Stones

4. Jarlshof, Shetland

Like its neighbour Orkney, Shetland is blessed with a number of ancient settlements. The most famous of these is Jarlshof which is considered to be one of the preeminent prehistoric archaeological sites in the UK. Excavations have revealed that Jarlshof has been a place of human occupation for thousands of years with the site containing not only Neolithic houses and Bronze Age village but also an Iron Age broch, Norse longhouse and a medieval farmstead.

Ancient stone walls of Jarlshof
Jarlshof / Image credit: Wilderness Scotland

5. Neolithic sites of Orkney

Aside from Skara Brae, there are further Neolithic sites to discover on Orkney. Three of these are the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness and Maes Howe – all of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Ring of Brodgar is an enormous prehistoric stone circle and henge, the Standing Stones of Stenness are thought to be the oldest ancient henge monument in the British Isles and Maes Howe is a truly monumental 5000-year-old chambered tomb.

Ancient stones of the Ring of Brodgar
Ring of Brodgar/ Image credit: Wilderness Scotland
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6. Church of Rodel, Harris

Also known at St Clement’s Church, the Church of Rodel dates to the early 1500s and was constructed for the Clan MacLeod. Founded by Alasdair ‘Crotach’ MacLeod, his tomb can still be seen within the church. Thought to be the grandest medieval building in the Western Isles, a prominent feature of the church is the quality of its interior stone carvings. Set in a prominent position, it is thought that an older church was once located on this site.

Medieval Rodel Church
Church of Rodel

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