Ancient sites in Scotland: visit these 8 mysterious historic places

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When thinking about ancient sites in Scotland you’re probably thinking of standing stones on a desolate moorland. It can be that but did you know that there’s actually a lot more to Scotland’s ancient ruins?

Scotland is a land full of mystery, history and legend and if you’re exploring Scotland and have an interest I highly recommend including in some of these ancient sites in your trip.

There are standing stones, stone circles, ancient villages and burial cairns to discover all over the country.

Callanish Standing Stones in Scotland

Many are a little out of the way in the outer islands like Orkney (and why some are STILL on my wish list to visit – soon!) but there are also some within striking distance of main cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness

If you’re considering renting a car to get around and fully explore Scotland and it’s history (highly recommended if you can) then check RentalCars for a good comparison of what’s on offer.

Growing up in Scotland I knew about a lot of these sites but it was only in my adult years that I managed to get to visit some of them. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Where to see the best ancient sites in Scotland

If you want to see all of the ancient landscapes on offer here you’ll need quite a determined spirit as they range from the islands of Orkney in the far north of Scotland to the Outer Hebrides and various other remote locations. 

Don’t let that put you off though, if something appeals then go and explore!

Check out my Highlands Itinerary if you want help planning a tour of Scotland’s Highlands from Edinburgh

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Stone circles, ancient villages and burial cairns can all be found within Scotland. Here's a guide to the best ancient sites in Scotland and some are even the inspiration for Outlander TV series standing stones called Craigh na Dun. Including Callanish, Skara Brae, Clava Cairns, Ring of Brodgar and much more! Standing stones are so mysterious!

Callanish Standing Stones

Where is it? The Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides

Callanish Standing Stones on Isle of Lewis

Callanish (sometimes known as the Gaelic word Calanais) is probably one of the most well known stone circle sites in Scotland and it’s been recently used as inspiration in many films and tv series. 

Outlander, based on the Diana Gabaldon books, used the circle as a model for Craigh na Dun the stone circle that was also a time travel portal and the Disney film Brave also featured a similar site.  There have been many more as well – I was first drawn to the site after reading a book that was set there called Callanish by William Horwood.

It’s thought that the stone circle was built in 2900BC to 2600BC built using local Lewisian gneiss rock. 

Like many of these ancient sites in the UK we’re still not 100% clear on the use of the circle and whether it was purely ceremonial or for some form of lunar observance which is one theory.

As well as the main stone circle there are numerous other standing stones in the area so it’s well worth exploring all around.  Don’t miss the visitor centre next to the main circle which is open year round for information on the site. 

It’s free to enter and visit the stones.

Tours to Callanish

If you want to visit the Isle of Lewis but aren’t keen on organising the trip yourself there are plenty of trips and tours that will take you this way. 

Unfortunately it’s definitely not a day trip even from places like Inverness due to the ferry crossing. More time to explore though! 

Here’s one trip that begins in Inverness and another that begins in Edinburgh both run by Rabbies who are highly recommended.

Another famous stone circle in England is Avebury. See our guide to visiting Avebury Stone Circle

Clava Cairns

Where is it? Near Inverness in the Highlands.

Clava Cairns near Inverness Scotland

The Clava Cairns are a really interesting site and it’s another that is said to have inspired Craigh na Dun in the Outlander book series so it’s often visited by fans of the tv show.

It’s a series of burial cairns and standing stones dating back to the bronze age.  You’ll find passage cairns, ring cairns and kerb cairns in the vicinity as well as some big standing stones. 

It’s believed to have begun around 2000BC.  You can walk into the cairns and have a really good look round – no climbing on the stones though, remember this is a sacred site.

It’s easily reached from most of the major cities in Scotland but it’s easiest from Inverness where it’s only about 7 miles from the city.  Parking is plentiful even though it’s become a much busier site in recent years and entrance is free.

We loved visiting a few years ago and stayed overnight in our campervan in the car park – if you’re visiting Scotland by motorhome it’s a must stop and really peaceful.

Tours to Clava Cairns

Since the blossoming Outlander tourist trade this site is often on many tour trips. 

Depending on where you start in Scotland there’s likely to be a tour that will suit.  Here are some tours beginning in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and also Aberdeen.

Visiting England too? See our guide to ancient sites in England here

Skara Brae

Where is it? Orkney Isles in the far North of Scotland.

Skara Brae ancient village in Ornkey Scotland

Head to the Orkney Isles and you’ll be in for a treat if you like ancient history as there are a number of sites here for you to look around.

Skara Brae is the most well known of the ancient sites on Orkney. It’s a prehistoric village which was discovered in the late Victorian period after a big storm blew the upper layers of soil away and exposed it. 

It’s actually older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids and what makes it so special is the fact that it’s been so well preserved.

You can wander the path and look into all the preserved houses which even have some furniture too and explore a replica house that was built so you can see up close the way that the people here lived so many years ago.

Skara Brae is open year round and in the summer month your ticket also allows you to visit the mansion of the person who discovered the site, Skaill House.  It costs £9 per adult.  You might also like to look at the Historic Scotland Explorer Pass which includes the site.

You can get to Orkney by car, coach (and subsequently ferry) or also by air as it’s served from all the major city airports in Scotland.  Although it seems a long way to get there it can be done!

Tours to Skara Brae 

See below for some tours that are made to Orkney and to Skara Brae – some may find it easy to do a day trip from Inverness (like this one) especially if you’re short on time but there are also some longer tours you can take too.

Ring of Brodgar

Where is it? Orkney Isles in the far North of Scotland.

Ring of Brodgar Orkney Scotland

Just 5 miles down the road and a 10 minute drive from Skara Brae is the Ring of Brodgar (and if you keep driving a tiny bit more you’ll see the next site too) so it makes sense to combine these sites in a full on day of ancient goodness!

The Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle built around 3000BC and is pretty huge.  Originally there were around 60 standing stones present here but only 36 are still standing today and it’s surrounded by a huge ditch all around it.

Stones of Stenness

Where is it? Orkney Isles in the far North of Scotland.

Stones of Stenness

Photo © Colin Smith (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Again just a little further down the road when exploring the Orkney sites, you’ll find the standing Stones of Stenness.  There are only 4 of the huge standing stones left out of the original 12 and it’s not as well preserved as many other sites but still impressive nonetheless.  These stones are massive!  It’s also thought that this might be one of the oldest henge monuments in the British Isles so definitely worth a trip to see if you’re in Orkney.

Crannog Centre

Where is it? On Loch Tay, near Aberfeldy in Perthshire

Crannog Centre Scotland

This one is a reconstructed site and replica attraction, but it was actually built where an original crannog was so I think that if you’re interested in ancient Scotland it would be a great addition to your vacation.

The Crannog centre in Perthshire aims to recreate what life was like in the Iron Age in a crannog which is an ancient loch dwelling. 

It was created as part of an archaeological research experiment on the site of where one actually was and has since been turned into a tourist attraction.

You can see a museum, the recreated crannog and how people lived and also demonstrations of crafts and workmanship that would have taken place in the Iron Age (around 800 BC to 100AD – crossing into the Roman times). 

It’s a great family friendly site and if you’re travelling with kids it would be highly recommended!  Dogs are also welcome too!

The museum is open every day and the cost is £10 per adult and £7 for children.  See the official website here.


Where is it? Near Bathgate

Cairnpapple Hill

Photo © kim traynor (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Cairnpapple henge is a ceremonial burial ground that dates to 3800BC and it’s a great option if you’re not wanting to stray too far from Edinburgh – it’s only 20 miles from the city. 

It’s been used at various times over the history of the site for burials from the original neolithic time to the bronze age and then more recently it was used for Christian burials.  The site is a nice escape from Edinburgh and enjoys really great views of the surrounding countryside – well worth the trip.

The site is open from April to October and closed in winter.  Cairnpapple is a dog friendly site too which is great.  Parking is easy in a layby near the attraction.

It’s looked after by Historic Scotland and tickets cost £6 per adult.  If you’re looking to do a number of historic sites in Scotland definitely think about an explorer pass which we used in this area which covers abbeys, castles and palaces too!

Kilmartin Glen

Where is it? Kilmartin on Argyll & Bute on the west coast of Scotland

Kilmartin Glen

Photo © Patrick Mackie (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Finally we have Kilmartin Glen which is one for anyone exploring the west coast of Scotland. 

It lies about 30 miles south of Oban and just under an hours drive away.  The whole area of the glen is really rich in history both ancient and not – what you can find here is ancient standing stones and burial cairns.

The sites date back to around 5000 – 3500 BC and I recommend a visit to the local museum in Kilmartin to get a sense of what is around in this site and to familiarise yourself with the area.  There is so much here!

If you’re exploring the west coast of Scotland and want to see some ancient history this is definitely one to add to the list.

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Kirsty Bartholomew

Kirsty has been getting lost around the world for over 30 years and writing about it for 10 of those. She loves to help people explore her favourite places in Scotland, England and beyond. She cannot stay away from historical sites.

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