The Bronze Age has been recognised as a distinct period in the prehistory of Scotland since the mid-nineteenth century. Synthetic accounts were produced up to the mid-twentieth century but since then its study has become fragmented into various specialities. In more popular accounts, the Bronze Age has suffered from an apparent lack of distinctive field monuments, like Neolithic chambered tombs or Iron Age brochs, and from a shortage of well-dated settlements.
The task of attempting an overview of the main developments between the 25th century BC – when metal-using and a ‘package’ of other Continental novelties appeared in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain and Ireland) – and around the 8th century BC, when iron objects and iron-using probably appeared, has been facilitated by several major developments over the last decade. The chronology of the period has been refined through several programmes of radiocarbon dating (namely the Beaker People Project, led from Sheffield University; the Beakers and Bodies project, led from Marischal Museum; and the National Museums Scotland programmes), together with radiocarbon dates obtained as a result of fieldwork. This, along with Stuart Needham’s reconsideration of Beaker pottery throughout Britain, has led to a much clearer picture of developments in ceramics and in funerary practices (inter alia). The application of isotope analysis to human remains (through the BPP and B&B projects) has clarified issues of diet and mobility among late third and early second millennium BC individuals. Developer-funded fieldwork has revealed numerous settlements, especially of Middle Bronze Age date (as at Kintore, Aberdeenshire and Upper Forth Crossing, Clackmannanshire); Pope (forthcoming) now provides a synthesis of the C-14 dated roundhouse assemblage; Orcadian Bronze Age funerary practices have been clarified by Jane Downes’ Orkney Barrows Project; metalwork developments have been clarified by targeted research by Stuart Needham, Brendan O’Connor and Trevor Cowie; and fieldwork by Sheffield and Cardiff Universities in the Western Isles has produced a detailed picture of developments in this part of Scotland (including the remarkable evidence from Cladh Hallan). These developments, together with others – including the fruits of Richard Bradley’s excavations of Clava cairns, recumbent stone circles and small henges in north-east Scotland – allow a richly-textured and regionally-variable picture to be formed. Only the main features of that picture will be sketched here, and the periodisation scheme developed by Stuart Needham to characterise this period over the whole of Britain will be adopted as a way of structuring the evidence (at least as far as the earlier part is concerned). A fundamental point to make is that, with the various innovations described below, current research does not visualise major population replacement: the ‘actors’ living at this time of profound change are, by and large, the descendants of the communities who had been farming in Scotland for up to 1500+ years.