6.2.3 The chronological framework and overview of monuments

The most abundant structures that we have surviving from the Neolithic period (as upstanding remains and cropmarks) are monuments. These are the most visible and tangible statements of Neolithic belief, treatment of the dead, and identity. In this context monuments are structures with no clear functional or domestic role, contingent on the problems with defining such concepts in a Neolithic context (see Section 4). Monuments were usually associated with ceremony, ritual, mortuary rites and/or burial. In this section, a brief overview of the range and chronology of Neolithic monuments found in Scotland will be presented; more detailed case-studies and regional variations have already been discussed in Section 3.

At a general level, Neolithic monuments in Scotland could be viewed as falling into two ‘phases’. The first are largely rectangular or linear in form, and mostly restricted to the 4th millennium BC. The other group are circular, or sub-circular in form, and largely date to the later Neolithic (3000-2500 cal BC). The movement from rectangular to round (to simplify) can be recognised across the British Neolithic (Bradley 2007), and indeed is also reflected in house forms (Section 4.3). This is not a hard and fast rule, however: for instance chambered tombs were built in a wide range of cairn shapes from round to long (although in the Neolithic all had linear, rectangular or square chambers). And it should also be recognised that in some cases a variety of monument forms (rectangular and round) occurred in the same location as part of monument complexes or multi-phase sites. This suggests that even if monument types were not enduring, some places were.

The brief characterisations of monument types below are based on typological labels that mask a good deal of variation. However these are commonly accepted terms, and used throughout this document.

Causewayed enclosures

No causewayed enclosures of Neolithic date have been confirmed in Scotland, although these monuments are commonly found in southern Britain. A number of potential examples have been identified in the cropmark record: Leadketty, Perth and Kinross; Sprouston, Scottish Borders (Figure 104) and West Lindsaylands, South Lanarkshire the most likely (RCAHMS 1978; Smith 1991; Barclay 1996; Oswald et al.2001). However, these enclosures could as easily be later prehistoric or medieval. It is also possible such enclosures could be found in an upland context, with many hilltop enclosures as yet undated.

A ground plan showing part of a possible cause wayed enclosure 180 metres across with a rectangular timber post built structure and circular barrow 100 metres to the south east

Figure 92: Transcription of the putative causewayed enclosure at Sprouston, Scottish Borders, with possible timber hall and barrow to the SE (from Smith 1991, illus 4)

Chamber tombs

The most commonly found (and amongst the earliest) Neolithic monuments found in Scotland are the chamber tombs, of which over 600 have been recognised. These are largely monuments of the west, southwest and north of Scotland, although there are examples in the east (Figure 93). These were extensively catalogued by Audrey Henshall (Henshall 1972; Davidson & Henshall 1991; Henshall & Ritchie 1995, 2001). Generally these megaliths consist of some kind of chamber set within a stone cairn, some with passages. The cairn and chamber forms vary considerably, leading to a series of different regional ‘types’ identified (see Section 3). A review of dates by Noble (2006, 106-8) shows a wide date range for chambered tombs across Scotland from c3700 cal BC to the early centuries of the 3rd millennium BC. Some Orkney cairns (Maes Howe-type) are very late in the sequence. For instance, Quanterness was in use over the period 3510-3220 cal BC to 2850-2790 cal BC (95.4% probability) (Schulting et. al. 2010). Dating is further complicated by the multi-phase nature of these monuments, with, for instance, long cairns in the north being constructed in three or more phases of activity. The ‘tail’ of some long cairns may date to the final centuries of the Neolithic (e.g. Vestra Fiold, Orkney (C Richards pers. comm.); Tulach an t-Sionnaich, Caithness (Corcoran 1967).

A map of Scotland showing the distribution of different tomb types

Figure 93: Patrick Ashmore’s schematic map showing the distribution of chamber tombs and related monuments (some of which we now know to be Bronze Age) (Ashmore 1996, 57)

There have been few modern excavations of chambered tombs, and results of investigations have varied widely. Some (notably Orcadian monuments) have revealed huge assemblages of human and animal bone, and material culture. Others were largely empty. Earlier excavations have in some cases left large assemblages of material and human remains for analysis. Recent analysis of large bone assemblages from Orcadian tombs (Quanterness, Isbister, Holm of Papa Westray North) have revealed the potential of such monuments to help reveal information about diet, health and lifestyle. Chambered tombs seem to have been repositories of bones, with disarticulated skeletons the norm, often with a preference shown for long bones and skulls. In part this might be because corpses were probably excarnated before being put within tombs. The communal mass of bones may have been viewed as an ancestral resource, with the open entrances allowing bones to be taken in, and out, of the tombs, with forecourt areas at some monuments suggesting ceremonies took place. By the end of the 4th millennium BC many chambered tomb entrances were formally ‘blocked’ (Monamore, Arran; Mid Gleniron, Dumfries and Galloway).

Long barrows / mortuary structures and enclosures

The eastern half of Scotland has few megaliths, but does have a preponderance of timber and earthwork structures that in some cases had a mortuary role.  The early Neolithic of the south and east in particular is characterised by a series of rectangular structures, ranging from small settlement ‘huts’ to massive cursus monuments. Within this continuum could be placed timber halls, mortuary and long enclosures, long mounds (long barrows, bank barrows and perhaps long cairns) and timber and earthwork cursus monuments (Loveday 2006; Brophy forthcoming). Settlement and timber hall sites were discussed in Section 4.3.

 There are at least 20 long barrows known in Scotland, some of which have only been recorded as cropmarks (including a fine example near the base of Dunadd, Argyll, a rare western long barrow). Few examples have been excavated, with Dalladies, Aberdeenshire, being the best-known example (Piggott 1971-2). This long barrow began life as a few pits, then timber and stone mortuary structures were built, before being sealed by a long earth and turf mound. Noble (2006) has compared this sequence with evidence for activities found beneath Pitnacree round barrow, Perth & Kinross, Slewcairn, and Lochhill long cairns, both  Dumfries and Galloway. Unlike chambered tombs, long barrow burial areas were inaccessible once the mound was constructed. It seems likely that ceremonial activity was occurring in these locations pre-mound, with some so-called mortuary structures having no direct connection with human remains (Noble 2006).

Other monuments may also have served a mortuary role, perhaps for instance the exposure and excarnation of the dead. A range of rectangular timber settings and enclosures may have served such roles. Inchtuthil, Perth and Kinross (c50m by 10m), was defined by a wooden fence set within a palisade slot (Barclay & Maxwell 1991), while the Balfarg Riding School, Fife, structures appear to have existed as free-standing timbers (Barclay & Russell-White 1993). Some ‘mortuary’ structures were trapezoidal in plan, such as Eweford, East Lothian (Lelong & MacGregor 2008). Other rectangular structures such as Carsie Mains and Littleour, both Perth and Kinross, may have served a ceremonial role (Brophy 2007). Indeed, these monuments probably served a range of purposes, with little explicit evidence for mortuary activity at even so-called mortuary enclosures. Such rectangular structures had a relatively long currency within the early Neolithic, dated from the middle of the 4th millennium through to around 3000BC.

Cursus monuments / bank barrows

There are at some 40 possible cursus monuments known in Scotland (see Brophy 1999; forthcoming). Cursus monuments are long -, and often wide – rectangular enclosures with rounded or squared ends (‘terminals’), defined either by an internal bank and external ditch arrangement, or free-standing timber posts (apparently unique to Scotland). Over half of these sites are the timber variant, measuring between 60m and 570m in length, and usually 20m to 30m in width; most such sites have one of more internal divisions of partitions. The earthwork cursus monument show more variation in size, between 190m and 2.5km in length, with width varying from 20m up to 160m. All but one of these is a cropmark site, and 14 cursus monuments have been excavated since the 1970s. Timber cursus monuments appear to be the earlier of the two cursus forms, dating either to 3900-3600 calBC (Thomas 2006) or perhaps slightly later (Whittle et al.2011). The earthwork cursus monuments in England tend to date to the second half of the 4th millennium BC (Barclay & Bayliss 1999), and the one ditched cursus in Scotland to have been successfully dated so far, Broich, Perth, at 3640-3370BC, accords with this (Tamlin Barton pers comm). The timber then earthwork sequence of cursus building traditions was played out at Holywood North, Dumfries and Galloway, where a timber cursus was replaced by an earthwork variant sharing the same footprint (Thomas 2007). An apparent timber cursus at Ewwford, East Lothian, was shown to consist of two parallel lines of postholes that were intermittently added to towards the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, rather than being a large cohesive monument (Lelong and MacGregor 2008); the cropmark record may include more examples of this type of structure masquerading as ‘cursus monuments’.

Cursus monuments are traditionally regarded as having a processional role, although more recently they have been connected to both timber hall, and mortuary enclosure, traditions (Loveday 2006; Thomas 2006; Bradley 2007; Brophy forthcoming). Little evidence has been recovered for activities within cursus monuments, and material culture associations are rare. The only non-cropmark cursus is the Cleaven Dyke, Perth and Kinross, an unusual cursus-type earthwork that is still visible as an upstanding single bank 1.8km in length with two parallel, flanking ditches. Although an early Neolithic date could only be speculated upon during excavations, the monument was shown to be built in segments over an unknown period of time (Barclay & Maxwell 1998). This monument shares certain characteristics of another early Neolithic linear form, the bank barrow.

Although bank barrows are relatively common in southern England, few examples have been identified in Scotland. Bank barrows are extremely lengthy long barrows (usually several hundred metres in length), with a single long mound, and in some cases, closely flanking ditches. Characteristically bank barrows have enlarged, or rounded, terminals, which may once have been free-standing barrows or mounds (Loveday 2006). The only non-cropmark example of this type of monument so far identified in Scotland is at Eskdalemuir, Dumfries and Galloway. Here, two lengthy earthworks run uphill on either side of the valley of the White Esk. This could be two separate monuments, or more likely one extremely long bank barrow (some 2km in length) which was at one time bisected by the river (RCAHMS 1993). A number of possible bank barrows have been identified as cropmarks, mostly in the eastern lowlands, although none have been confirmed by excavation (Brophy 1999; forthcoming). Despite the name, no evidence for burial activity has been found associated with a bank barrow in Scotland, and none have been dated; English examples tend to belong to the early Neolithic, and appear to be related to the cursus tradition.

Timber circles / henge monuments/ stone circles and settings

These variations on circular enclosure forms all suffer from problems with chronology and classification. Each monument form has its around or just before 3000BC, but variations on each were built well into the Bronze Age, and circles of earth, timber and stone seem to have been part of related traditions, often occurring in the same location.

At least 80 timber circles have been recorded in Scotland, almost all as cropmarks, with some found during excavations. These are circular or elliptical settings of standing timbers, mostly with diameters in the range of 5m to 40, with a few slightly larger (Millican 2007). Aside from one problematic early date from Temple Wood, Argyll & Bute (Scott 1991), the remainder of timber circles, where dated, seem to have been built from 3100BC onwards, with examples continuing to be built throughout the 3rd millennium BC. Excavations have shed little light on the function of these monuments, although they are commonly found in association with ceremonial monuments such as cursus monuments and henges.

Over 80 possible henge monuments have been found in Scotland, although recent excavations and radiocarbon dates suggest that many of these monuments were constructed in the Bronze Age (Bradley 2011; Brophy & Noble forthcoming). These monuments were earthwork enclosures with an internal ditch, external bank and one or two entrances. Again, the majority of henges in Scotland are known only as cropmarks, and they display a remarkable variation in terms of size, ranging from mini-henges (formerly known as hengiforms) less than 10m across, to the Ring of Brodgar, over 100m in diameter (albeit with no bank) (Barclay 2005). The earliest henge in Scotland is the Stones of Stenness, Orkney, dated by animal bone on the ditch base to 3100-2650 (Ritchie 1976). The Ring of Brodgar has recently been dated to the late Neolithic throught OSL dating of the ditch base, while Balfarg Riding School seems to have a Grooved Ware association. The henges at Forteviot 1 and 2, North Mains, and Pict’s Knowe all appear to be early Bronze Age, while Pullyhour, Caithness, is a monument of the 2nd millennium BC. Our understanding of the role of henges remains vague, with little direct evidence for activities within the enclosures, although acts of deposition have been recorded in henge ditches. A ceremonial role seems most likely, perhaps offering a more solidly bounded arena that timber circles. Recently it has been suggested that the internal ditch indicates henges were built to control or seal something in (Barclay 2005; Bradley 2011; Brophy & Noble forthcoming).

Some stone circles have their origin in the late Neolithic, although given the difficulty in dating standing stones, the chronology of stone circles is far from obvious. (The smallest stone circles may have been built as late as 1000 BC.) The evidence from Calanais is not fully published. It seems possible that there were stone settings by around 3000 BC at the Ring of Brodgar and Cairnpapple (if the setting here was not timber) among other sites. The presence of standing stones within other henges, such as Balfarg, and Stones of Stenness, suggests a close relationship although again relative chronology here is unclear. Many stone circles, including the recumbent stone circles of NE Scotland, were built in the Bronze Age.

How did timber circles, henges and stone circles relate to one another? Gibson (2004) has noted that wherever timber circles are found within henges, the former is always earlier (where dating evidence is available). Where the two occur together, timber circles were situated within the henge (with a notable exception at Forteviot henge 1, Perth and Kinross (Noble & Brophy 2011a)). Yet some timber circles stood alone and were never ‘replaced’ by a henge, while many henges have nothing to do with timber circles. More stone circles sit on their own than are found within henges, while evidence for stone replacing timber (as at Machrie Moor and Temple Wood) is to date limited. Many of these circular monument forms were subject to reuse and alteration in later prehistory, utilised as pyres, cremation cemeteries, or for metalworking, or transformed into cairns or barrows. Thus henges and stone circles must be investigated by Bronze Age specialists as well as those who study the Neolithic period.

Round barrows / Round mounds

Although rare in a Neolithic context, there are a number of possible late Neolithic round (non-megalithic) barrows known in Scotland, largely found in the northeast and east (Kinnes 1992; Sheridan 2010). The best-known example is Pitnacree, a large round mound in Strathtay that capped a complex sequence of timber and stone structures, perhaps in the late Neolithic. Sheridan (2010) has recently listed eight possible non-megalithic round barrows in Scotland (all but one in the NE), with some possible unexcavated examples identified in Strathtay (Brophy 2010). The chronology for these monuments is poor, with dates for the pre-mound activity at Pitnacree for instance unreliable (Ashmore et al. 2000). The recognition of Neolithic round barrows as opposed to Bronze Age examples (which are more common) is difficult without excavation, although Barclay (1999) suggests a height-diameter ratio could be used to make this distinction. It may well be that activity in these locations (not all of which was directly associated with burial) was brought to a halt by mound construction.

A photograph showing a substantial artificial mound in a flat grassy field with woodland in the background

Figure 94: The Droughduil mound artificial mound (photo: K Brophy)

Only one artificial Neolithic mound has been recognised in Scotland to date, Droughduil, Dumfries and Galloway (Figure 106). Thomas (2002, 2004) demonstrated through excavation that this huge mound with diameter of some 50m and height 10m was a natural sandy mound that was augmented in the Neolithic. The avenue of the Dunragit palisaded enclosure aligns on this mound. Although not on the same scale as Silbury Hill, Wiltshire, Thomas’s work has demonstrated the potential for such huge artificial mounds to be identified in Scotland.

Palisaded enclosures

These huge enclosures are perhaps the largest expressions of Neolithic monumentality found in Scotland. These monuments consist of a large enclosed space defined by a boundary of timber posts (erroneously known as a palisade in most cases), often with a narrow entrance avenue. Three of the monuments – Forteviot and Leadketty, Perth and Kinross, and Meldon Bridge, Scottish Borders – have one boundary defined by a natural feature. One further site has been confirmed – Dunragit, Dumfries & Galloway, and excavations have been carried out at all but Leadketty, with radiocarbon dates suggesting these monuments were constructed c2800-2600 calBC (Noble & Brophy 2011b, 74).These were huge enclosed spaces – Leadketty is some 400m across, while Forteviot has a circumference of c750m.  In each case the monument was shown to be defined by huge (oak) posts, with some kind of fence line connecting these at Meldon Bridge. These monuments in some cases enclosed earlier structures, and we have evidence for later monuments and activities within the boundaries. For instance at Forteviot (illus e) a middle Neolithic cremation cemetery preceded the palisaded enclosure, while two timber circles and two henges were later constructed within it (Noble & Brophy 2011b). At Meldon Bridge, pits with a fine assemblage of Impressed Ware pottery were found (Speak & Burgess 1999) while Dunragit has multiple phases of palisade construction (and was built in the location of a timber cursus (Thomas 2004)). It is likely these extravagant monuments were a last flourishing of mega-monumentality in Scotland’s Neolithic, and although evidence for function is limited, they would have been places where large number of people could have gathered for a range of activities.

Other monuments may belong to related traditions, such as Blackshouse Burn, an embanked enclosure in an upland location, South Lanarkshire. This monument was originally defined by a double boundary of oak posts with a stone rubble bank between, surrounding an area some 300m in diameter (Lelong & Pollard 1998). Further mega-enclosures like this may remain unidentified, either in the cropmark record, or the uplands.

Monument complexes / special places

A key characteristic of Neolithic landscapes in northwest Europe is the creation of complexes of monuments in certain places, for instance at Stonehenge, the Cranborne Chase, the Bend of the Boyne and Carnac. In Scotland, there are some exceptional examples, where Neolithic (and often Bronze Age) ceremonial and burial monuments cluster together, places that were in use and reworked for many centuries. Important examples in Scotland include the Heart of Neolithic Orkney central mainland area; Balfarg, Fife; Forteviot-Leadketty, Strathearn, Perth and Kinross; Kilmartin Glen, Argyll & Bute, and Machrie Moor, Arran. Such landscapes appear to have had sacred importance in the Neolithic, perhaps established in the Mesolithic, or from pit-digging and deposition early in the Neolithic. These complexes offer excellent opportunities to follow social change through time, and suggest traditions that endured for huge periods of time and many generations.


Before completing this section, it is worth looking at one other expression of belief, or ideology, that seems to have originated in the Neolithic (but overlaps considerably with the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age, and see the panel document for these periods as well). The meaning of rock-art seems beyond our grasp, with cup-and-ring marks, and other abstract and geometrical symbols, defying attempts to read them as texts (cf. Morris 1977, 1981). Recently, excavations at rock-art sites have started to shed light on the context of their production, and also some of the activities that went in the vicinity of rock-art panels.  Excavations at Torbhlaren rock-art outcrops, Argyll and Bute, produced radiocarbon dates for material recovered from a fissure in the rock, and a stake-circle beside one panel. This allowed the excavators to argue the rock-art dated to between 2900 and 2300 cal BC (Jones et al.2011, 261). That the rock-art here was associated with structures and ‘deposits’ jammed into cracks in the rock adds much depth to our understanding of activities associated with rock-art. Test-pitting in the vicinity of rock-art panels at Ben Lawers, Perth and Kinross, was equally illuminating.  Outcrops with rock-art were found to be associated with quartz working and deposition, some flint was found jammed into cracks in the rocks, and a cobbled surface was found. Such investigations might not help us ‘translate’ motifs, but offer a context and chronology for the creation of rock-art.


This section of the document has offered an overview of the main types of Neolithic monuments found in Scotland, with a brief description of the main characteristics and chronology for each given. Inevitably these are broad brush labels, each of which hides considerable variability, although much of this level of detail can be explored in Section 3.