6.1 Introduction

From around 2500 to 2400 BC, the Highlands witnessed the arrival of new people from the Continent bringing a new type of pottery – Beaker pottery – along with fancy archery and fire-making gear, a continental funerary tradition, a different way of making sense of the world, and a whole new technology: metal. While the numbers of the newcomers may have been small and initially they may not have made much of a local impact; people reacted to them and their novelties in different ways. Over the succeeding centuries, however, their novel ideas, styles and technologies were to exercise a profound influence on cultural developments both in the Highlands and elsewhere in Scotland. This is particularly noticeable in certain regions, such as the area around the Moray, Cromarty and Dornoch firths as well as parts of Aberdeenshire which became a centre for the production of bronze artefacts from the 22nd century.

The evidence from the Highlands for Chalcolithic and Bronze Age archaeology is uneven, with many outstanding questions still remaining. For example, the date of the stone alignments and stone settings of Caithness, types of monuments that are unique to this part of Scotland, are believed to date to the Bronze Age, though this has not been confirmed (6.6.4). There is a geographical bias in recent fieldwork, since most development-led archaeology has been done in the east, especially around Inverness. There is limited, but at least some, evidence from northwest Scotland while the picture in the west remains largely obscure, with relatively little fieldwork having been done there.

Nevertheless, there have been some very valuable studies, such as Bradley’s research projects on the Clava Cairns (Bradley 2000; Case Study Clava Cairns) and small henges (Bradley 2011), Brophy’s project on the stone rows and settings of Caithness (Baines et al 2003; Pannett 2005a; 2005b; Heald and Barber 2015, 63­–6; Megalithic overkill – Rethinking the multiple stone rows of Caithness and Sutherland ), Romera’s systematic osteological re-evaluation of the human remains from Embo passage tomb (MHG11630), including the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age individuals (publication awaited), and the current Scotland’s Rock Art Project, which is helping to enhance our knowledge of the re-use of rock art in post-Neolithic contexts the whole of Scotland. The Ardnamurchan Transitions Project has also produced new evidence for Bronze Age activity in the west of the Highlands.

The remains of the Orkney-Cromarty type chambered cairn at Embo ©The Highland Council

Moreover, there have been some recent informative and fortuitous finds, such as the evidence of metalworking from Eigg and North Kessock (Clark et al 2017), and targeted research on old finds that has produced some spectacular results. A suite of analyses, including DNA and isotopic, were undertaken in Hoole’s (et al 2017) project on a young female buried in a rock-cut grave with a Beaker and some flint artefacts at Achavanich, Caithness (Case Study Ava). The results revealed, inter alia, that this female was a second or third generation descendant of immigrants from what is now the Netherlands when she was buried in 2300–2140 cal BC.

Furthermore, as part of National Museums Scotland’s ongoing research into material held in its collections (Sheridan et al 2014), radiocarbon dating of a remarkable 1960s find of a Late Bronze Age hat made of horse hair from Kirtomy, Sutherland, has revealed that this item – together with a composite object of unknown function found in Sheshader, Lewis – constitutes the earliest evidence for domestic horses in Britain and Ireland. These finds and these internationally significant results substantially advance our existing knowledge of specific aspects of lifestyle and economy.

Chalcolithicc 2500/2450–2200 BC
Early Bronze Agec 2200–1500 BC
Middle Bronze Agec 1500–1100 BC
Late Bronze Agec. 1100–800 BC
Table 6.1 Chalcolithic and Bronze Age dates used in this chapter

There is no single synthetic account of the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age in the Highland Region, although summary accounts are available for Caithness (Heald and Barber 2015) and Skye (Armit 1996) as part of multiperiod overviews. Various key publications, including that of the excavation of a Bronze Age landscape at Lairg (McCullagh and Tipping 1998; ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project), are highlighted in the individual sections. Full publication reports are awaited on a number of important excavations, including various developer-led investigations in Inverness, excavations at Armadale (Case Study Armadale Cist Burial), Broadford Bay and High Pasture Cave on Skye (Case Study High Pasture Cave), recent excavation at Drumnadrochit and the research excavations carried out for the Ardnamurchan Transitions project. Likewise, the recently completed PhD theses on Beakers in northern Scotland (Scholma-Mason 2018; Case Study Bronze Age Beaker Pottery) and food vessels in the whole of Scotland (Innes 2020) remain to be published.

The challenge in the Highlands, then, is to synthesise what archaeologists already know and to highlight what we need to find out about the people who inhabited this part of Scotland over the 1,700 years between the first appearance of the incomers from the continent and the first use of iron in the Highlands. Creating this narrative is in line with one of the main recommendations of the National ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Panel: ‘Narratives should be developed to account for regional…trends’ (ScARF Chalcolithic and Bronze Age recommendations ). This contribution seeks to address the other ScARF recommendations and research questions (as set out in 6.9). Key sites are highlighted in the discussion below.

The specific aims of this overview are to:

  • address those knowledge statements or knowledge gaps identified in National ScARF that are particularly addressable or testable in the Highlands
  • pursue regional and local knowledge gaps
  •  identify those national questions and local gaps that the Bronze Age archaeology of the Highlands cannot address, which will remain knowledge gaps in a Highland context.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Highland Material for the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age

Before suggesting research questions and recommendations (6.9), it is useful to identify the regional Chalcolithic and Bronze Age archaeology strengths and weaknesses and to characterise these as either ‘within reach of a solution’ (opportunities) or ‘with no obvious solution’ (threats). Many of these relate to all periods outlined in Chapter 3 and are relevant to this discussion.

  • Very site-rich, visible landscapes of Bronze Age date with associated deep peat basins. These can therefore offer a particularly in-depth view of the start of, use of and end of settlement within a potentially date-rich palaeoenvironmental record.
  • Low impact post-Bronze Age agriculture in places, meaning less plough damage than in some other parts of Scotland.
  • Peat deposits that have preserved some organic items such as the horsehair hat from Kirtomy.
  • An existing, albeit sparse, framework of radiocarbon dates, with many from recent excavations.
  • A network of over 50 local museums across the region which together hold collections of regional Bronze Age artefacts. These can be added to the catalogue of numerous important finds in the collections of National Museums Scotland. Other material can be found in other collections, such as the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.
  • The landscape studies at Lairg have provided a baseline to compare future investigations and sites.
  • The single biggest limiting factor operating in the Highlands is the acidic nature of the soils in most of the region, a problem for all periods. This restricts our acquisition of new knowledge in the following ways:
    • It removes almost all organic relics from the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age archaeology in the Highlands, meaning that much of the human and animal bone, unburnt cereal and organic artefacts will not have survived.
    • It creates problems of representativeness for those rare organic finds which do survive.
    • The absence of fine-scale soil mapping prohibits our prospection for discrete places where the organic evidence is better preserved.
  • There is generally a poor understanding of post-depositional and post-Bronze Age changes in soils and vegetation and their impacts on the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age record.
  • There is generally a poor understanding of any adverse effects from Bronze Age land use upon Mesolithic, Neolithic and Chalcolithic remains.
  • There is relatively sparse evidence that can definitively be associated with the Chalcolithic period (Table 6.1).
  • The inability to closely date and mark changes at a generational level makes it hard to study changes in architecture, land use, lifeways etc.
  • The geographical remoteness of parts of the Highlands region means that they have received little archaeological attention.


  • Large number of surviving structural remains allow for the discussion of architectural variation on sites, between sites, between sub-regions and through time.
  • There are likely to be more burnt-down or waterlogged sites still to be discovered.
  • Sub-regional variations allow for highly nuanced observations that are usually unavailable in less variable landscapes.
  • The Lairg re-dating research project currently being undertaken as a PhD by Sophie MacDonald introduces greater precision into radiocarbon dating and into the interpretation of the dating results through the application of Bayesian analyses. Due for completion in 2021, this project will open a significant opportunity for understanding Bronze Age radiocarbon chronologies in the region. At last, the question of the potential contemporaneity of adjacent Bronze Age sites may become answerable, here and throughout the region.
  • SUERC has also undertaken deep research into the Marine Reservoir Effect in the eastern firths, which again will advance our understanding of radiocarbon dating precision (Russell et al 2010)


  • The current funding and research structure arguably limit opportunities for cutting edge research in the Highlands and could, if researchers are not careful, lead to repetitive and conservative approaches. There is a danger of an over-reliance on the results of commercial archaeology, which cannot often provide large excavations with extensive dating and post-excavation analysis, and on community archaeology, which, while innovative, has a mixed record of quick publication.


Case Study: Clava Cairns

Case Study: Ava

ScARF Case Study: The Lairg Project

Case Study: Armadale Cist Burial

Case Study: High Pasture Cave

Case Study: Bronze Age Beaker Pottery



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