Awakening Sleeping Giants: a reference point in holistic and inclusive archeological project design

By Dr Gavin MacGregor (Director, Archaeology Scotland) and Matt Ritchie (Archaeologist, Forestry and Land Scotland) 

The island of Arran is found to have played a distinctive role within the region. This cautions against regarding Arran as a typical example of monumentality on the Atlantic seaboard of Europe. Traditions and practices were established in the Mesolithic which were seen to have contributed to this development. In addition it is likely that its physical prominence made it a natural reference point for the region, which through its central location was focal to maritime communications

Isobel Hughes (The Neolithic and early Bronze Age in the Firth of Clyde, 1987) 


The Awakening Sleeping Giants Archaeological Route Map (2022) emerged from a shared recognition that there was significant potential, due to a concentration of Neolithic archaeology on the Isle of Arran, for interlinked research activities to deliver on a range of strategic objectives and community needs. The route map is intended as a Boyne to Brodgar case study, and aims to both encourage and enable local action that is supported by international and national research frameworks and thematic strategies. 

It is an open archaeological proposal rooted in innovative practice – a considered local thematic action research framework that was developed in consultation with a wide range of different stakeholders. The approach was not ‘top down’ from the profession, nor ‘bottom up’ by the community, but ‘sideways’, allowing a wider, more holistic and inclusive approach to archaeological project design. Our intention was to demonstrate and practice a research and development process which sought to enhance the value and impact of archaeological methodologies and resources. We sought to build on strong technical and scientific methodologies and complement them with more creative methods, ultimately seeking to build an archaeological route map that could be used by many different people. In essence, we sought to develop a new process of project design that in itself is informed by and contributes to Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

This article provides a context for the emergence of the initiative, documents the processes which were used, outlines the nature of the outputs and outcomes to date, and reflects more broadly on how similar approaches could be useful in the context of local targeted or thematic archaeological route maps in Scotland that aim for broader delivery on a range of policies. The development of the Awakening Sleeping Giants Archaeological Route Map was undertaken between 2020 and 2022 with support from Forestry and Land Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland and University of Glasgow. 

Portrait image of three of the irregular standing stones at Machrie Moor, taken at sunset with white and grey clouds on a blue sky, and an orange hue covering the stones and the landscape of hills in the background.
Machrie Moor © Matt Ritchie


The Isle of Arran, located in the Firth of Clyde, has long been known for its remarkable historic landscapes and significant archaeological remains. Among these is a marked concentration of Neolithic  chambered tombs, most of which relate to similar forms of ‘Clyde type’ architecture. Several  chambered tombs on the Isle of Arran have been excavated, but their chronology and detailed biographies of use are poorly understood, in part due to limited investigation to modern standards.  

The Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) produced a report on the Neolithic period in 2012. The Isle of Arran is recognised in this context for the importance of the role of pitchstone in the early Neolithic and its situation in a highly connected series of regional routeways, including during the later Neolithic. The ScARF Neolithic Panel process in part led to the emergence of the Boyne to Brodgar initiative, which recognises that there is high potential for collaborative international research around the shared Neolithic monumental heritage of Ireland and the United Kingdom (Sheridan & Cooney 2019).  

Also of note was the innovative project commissioned by Forestry Commission Scotland (now Forestry and Land Scotland) in 2014 to undertake archaeological measured survey of several of the chambered tombs on Arran, including Giant’s Graves and Torran Loisgte. Terrestrial laser scanning and photogrammetry of the monuments was undertaken by three different teams (one each from AOC Archaeology, Archaeological Survey & Consulting and Northlight Heritage), each of whom produced data sets and visualizations for these monuments. As part of the process, all three teams met on Arran and discussed issues of survey, interpretation and visualization.  

Inspired by the construction of a replica Bronze Age roundhouse at Brodick Castle in 2012, Northlight Heritage and University of Glasgow began to explore how archaeologists could engage with the public using Arran’s prehistory, which led to the delivery of several prehistoric-inspired events (2013, 2015 and 2017), delivered in partnership with the National Trust for Scotland team at Brodick Castle. Known as Burning The Circle, these events combined experimental archaeology and performance to highlight the significance of Arran’s prehistory (Brophy et al 2017). In 2017, following the construction of a timber post-avenue and timber circles inspired by archaeological remains at Machrie Moor, an audience of several hundred attended a night time processual performance. This now has deeper significance with the discovery of further elements of late Neolithic activity at Blackwater Foot. 

It became apparent there was high potential to undertake more collaborative work together, and Northlight Heritage and University of Glasgow ran a workshop in 2018 which explored future opportunities in relation to the Isle of Arran’s prehistory. Attendees explored three key issues: 

  1. What do you want to achieve as organizations? 
  1. Do you see potential for doing more with Arran’s prehistoric assets? If so, what initially would be of interest to you? 
  1. What needs to be done to deliver both organizational and community objectives? 

It is in this context that Awakening Sleeping Giants was proposed in 2019 by Northlight Heritage to explore how collaborative action research could begin to develop wider outcomes from the significant concentration of Neolithic sites on the Isle of Arran. With support from Forestry and Land Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland, a scoping phase was delivered which resulted in first version of the Awakening Sleeping Giants Archaeological Route Map (now hosted by the ScARF website).  

Reconstruction of a wishbone shaped monument, with small stones covering the top and lined with small, horizontal stones all around the edge. Larger, upright slabs line the monument with regular gaps between them
Reconstruction of Giant’s Grave North © FCS by Northlight Heritage


In February 2020 Northlight Heritage delivered a workshop and field study visit to explore the current needs and opportunities of key Neolithic archaeological sites on the Isle of Arran, and the current activities and aspirations of several of its key organisations. This included representatives from Arran Geopark, Arran Heritage Museum, Arran Theatre and Arts Trust, Arran Trust, Forestry and Land Scotland and Visit Arran. The process was made particularly challenging due to storms, which resulted not only in very wet site visits but also some participants not being able to attend and others having to stay several days longer due to ferry cancellations.  

Highlighting the potential for future collaborations to provide a Boyne to Brodgar case study, we explored how different values could be delivered on through future research which used both scientific and creative processes. From this perspective, several areas of potential research focus, as related to the aims and objectives of Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy were highlighted in an initial proposal document, which was pre-circulated before the workshop. Site visits were made, framed from a perspective of Neolithic Pasts – Neolithic Futures (MacGregor 2016). Discussion sought to explore and define research questions; and to identify management, access, educational and interpretation challenges and opportunities. 

The workshop was structured around the theme of ‘Archaeology-Art-Community: from Boyne to Brodgar’ and had four main focal points for discussion:  

  • to consider research on the Neolithic of the Isle of Arran in the wider community context. 
  • to place the project in the international research and sustainable tourism context. 
  • to identify wider constraints and opportunities. 
  • to formulate next steps and identify a range of potential actions. 

Insights from the workshops were taken and used to produce a draft framework document which was based around four different areas of practice: archaeological investigation; art and creativity; community learning and development; interpretation and visitor experience.  

  • Research Action – the process of investigation of sites and landscapes relating to the Neolithic of the Isle of Arran and the associated analysis, synthesis and dissemination of results. 
  • Creative Action – the process of supporting artistic responses within all elements of the project and production of art works which situate emergent dialogues, interpretations and legacies more broadly. 
  • Learning Action – the process of enabling formal, informal and non-formal learning for a range of different groups with clear learning outcomes. 
  • Interpretative Action – the process of enhancing the visitor experience through interpretative planning, audience development and visitor management. 

While some ideas for particular actions were identified in the first iteration of the framework, the process of further planning and delivery was yet to be agreed. There were, however, three main scenarios for future development and collaboration suggested: 

  • Scenario 1 – Just Get Started. Essentially a more organic approach involving some initial baselining and capacity building activities. 
  • Scenario 2 – If Something’s Worth Doing. A more holistic approach with the development of a full suite of project activities as part of an overall programme of activity (as outlined in the initial framework). 
  • Scenario 3 – Part of Something Bigger. A more ambitious approach where Awakening Sleeping Giants became one element of a larger landscape initiative, which as well as an being an archaeological programme, would also have geoheritage and biocultutural / biodiversity programmes. 

During completion of the first full draft document, just as it was due to be circulated to possible future partners for comments, and to discuss if and how we could build on the proposed framework, COVID was identified and we were very soon in our first lock down. In these exceptionally challenging circumstances, the document was never formally finalised or agreed, but through the relationships which had been established we continued to keep the potential for collaborations alive.  

COVID responses 

Despite huge challenges faced by individuals and organisations due to the emergence of COVID in 2020, it felt important, with so much earlier interest and support, to try and keep some momentum going around the potential framework. So where possible we continued dialogue with potential partners as to their circumstances which allowed several small actions to be delivered together.  

In response to the impacts of COVID, Arran Geopark worked with a range of partners to produce three short promotional Arranology films in early 2021, one on archaeology, one on ecology and one on geology of the Isle of Arran. These were produced with support of Highland and Island Enterprise and the Arran Trust.  

Northlight Heritage worked with local film maker Ed O’Donnelly on the production of People of Sea and Stone, a short film on Isle of Arran’s archaeology, which was accepted for the 1st International Global Geoparks Network Film Festival. As part of the film Northlight Heritage worked with Marcus Abbot to produce a full digital model of Giants Graves chambered tombs and their wider landscape context, in order to include a short animation of entering the main chamber of Giants Graves north in the film. Importantly, this proved possible through using the preexisting data sets which had been generated by the previous archaeological measured survey and visualisation project (2014).  

Painting of a stone monument using abstract patterns and bold colours. The stones are grey with gree and blue lines, the sky is blue with grey and white lines. An orange tree sits behin the stones.
Artist’s impression of the Giant’s Graves © Liz Myhill

During the initial framework development phase, Northlight Heritage discussed with Historic Environment Scotland’s Survey and Recording team the potential discovery of a new Neolithic cursus monument at Drumadoon, identified through their work on Lidar datasets relating to the Isle of Arran. This led to a discussion about the Awakening Sleeping Giants framework and opportunities for delivery in partnership with the Drumadoon Rewilding project. We then worked with academic partners at University of Glasgow and Birkbeck University to deliver a short pilot evaluation of Drumadoon Cursus in August 2022. This established that a substantial bank is present, alongside a possible ditch and associated with prehistoric struck lithics; and also led to participation in the fieldwork, and further dialogue, with representatives from a range of Arran based organisations including Arran Access Trust, Arran Geopark and National Trust for Scotland.  

In parallel with the Drumadoon Cursus pilot season, Northlight Heritage were able to work with Dig It! and Jambo! Radio to provide an introductory tour of the archaeology and heritage of the Isle of Arran. Jambo! Radio was established during the first lockdown to broadcast through multiple languages to people of African and Caribbean Heritage in Scotland. As well as participating in the excavation of the possible cursus at Drumadoon, we visited heritage sites such as Brodick Castle and Arran Heritage Museum, during which frank discussions were held about the experience of black people in Scotland and whether archaeology has any relevance.  


Whether or not an open archaeological route map like Awakening Sleeping Giants will enable more or better forms of collaborative action and research will only be known in years to come. It is possible to suggest, however, that in the absence of the emergent framework, it is likely that the small, at times serendipitous, activities which have been delivered with partners during COVID, would not have happened.  

It is also worth emphasising that the framework was probably only possible to develop and receive support due to the work / projects which had been undertaken previously with partners on the Isle of Arran. The processes of developing the local route map also benefited from earlier collaborative work at a strategic level (including ScARF and Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy), a process which allowed different researchers and organisation to mobilise around the issue of research and management implementation. This is most clearly manifest in the Boyne to Brodgar initiative, this allowed articulation with a wider international series of inter-relationships, both in the past and currently. That there are World Heritage sites relating to Neolithic landscapes and monuments on the Atlantic seaboard provides an important context for future local research action: see for example the Boyne to Brodgar case study in the Ireland-Scotland Joint Bilateral Review Report and Recommendations 2021–25. Indeed the ‘big stories’ of the Neolithic inevitably have geographies which took people six thousand years ago across large distances. 


A key condition allowing the Awakening Sleeping Giants Archaeological Route Map to emerge was the initial support from Forestry and Land Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland to seed-fund a phase of exploration and development with other partners. Initial exploratory funding, with a more open-ended approach to outcomes and outputs, is perhaps a critical component in developing capacity around local thematic action research frameworks. As such attention to different design, piloting and prototyping methods could be useful to explore in the context of action research but has value not only in terms of framework development but as capacity building towards shared forms of engagement and interpretation which can be built upon during delivery.  

Our approach has been based on recognition of the distinctiveness of archaeologies of place and the different values which can articulate through shared action. The framing of action research was in relation to four different areas of practice: archaeological investigation; art and creativity; community learning and development; interpretation and visitor experience. This provides a useful model which helps increases understanding and insights, build skills and capacity and provides enhanced experiences through further collaboration. 


Brophy, K, Goeckeritz, C and MacGregor, G 2017 ‘Build N Burn: Using fire as a tool to evoke, educate and entertain,’ Archaeological Journal 174, 437–63. 

Hughes, I M 1987 The Neolithic and early Bronze Age in the Firth of Clyde. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow. 

MacGregor, G 2016 Neolithic Pasts, Neolithic Futures: The Contemporary Socio-politics of Prehistoric Landscapes. In: Brophy, K, MacGregor, G & Ralston, I (eds) The Neolithic of Mainland Scotland, 21–40. Edinburgh: EUP. 

Sheridan, J A and Cooney, G 2014 ‘The Boyne to Brodgar initiative: understanding and preserving, presenting and raising awareness of Neolithic monuments and the people who built and used them in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man,’ Journal of Irish Archaeology 23, 1–11. 


The Awakening Sleeping Giants Archaeological Route Map was made possible with support from Forestry and Land Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland.  This article was written in May 2022.  We appreciate the ongoing interest and collaboration in the initiative from the different individuals and organisations, including Arran Access Trust, Arran Geopark, Arran Theatre and Arts Trust, Arran Heritage Museum, Drumadoon Rewilding, Lochranza Centre CIC, National Trust for Scotland Brodick Castle and Country Park Ranger Service, and Visit Arran. We are also grateful to the Historic Environment Scotland Survey and Recording team for sharing of information and coordination of workflows. A big shout out to Jambo! Radio and Dig It!, who brought so much energy and enthusiasm to 2021. 

A further season of fieldwork exploring the cursus monument was delivered in August 2022 in partnership with Archaeology Scotland, Birkbeck London,  Bournemouth University,  Coventry University, University of Glasgow, and University of Reading, we are grateful to Dr Kenny Brophy (University of Glasgow), Professor Emma Jenkins (Bournemouth University), Professor Michelle Farell (Coventry University), Dr Darko Maricevic (University of Reading),  Dr Lesley McFadyen (Birkbeck University) and Professor Nicki Whitehouse (University of Glasgow) for their ongoing collaboration and partnership.  

For additional information or to discuss how to get involved please email gavin at:


Awakening Sleeping Giants Archaeological Route Map can be downloaded and printed as a PDF file here.