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. In this article we’ll be looking at 10 ancient sites you can visit and including information on ways you can visit.
Among these prehistoric sites in Scotland are standing stones, stone circles, ancient villages and burial cairns – plenty to discover all over the country!
Growing up in Scotland I knew about a lot of these old Celtic 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!
Ancient Sites in Scotland Map
Many of these archeological sites in Scotland are a little out of the way in the outer islands like Orkney (which is why some are STILL on my wish list to visit – soon!).
There are also some within striking distance of main cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness so don’t let distance put you off exploring and finding them.
Cars are a must to explore these archaeological sites in Scotland but if you don’t have your own transport then there are some tours that will take you to the more popular ones.
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 Discover Cars for a good comparison of what’s on offer.
10 of 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 in the Highlands.
Don’t let that put you off though, if something appeals then go and explore!
1. Callanish Standing Stones
Where is it? The Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides
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 it as a model for Craigh na Dun – the stone circle that was also a time travel portal. 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 archaeological sites, including many ancient sites in England, 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 an Inverness day trip due to the ferry crossing, even though Inverness is fairly north. More time to explore though with a night on the islands!
Check these ones that are both run by Rabbies who are highly recommended:
- Lewis, Harris and Outer Hebrides Tour from Inverness
- 6-day Outer Hebrides and Isle of Skye tour from Edinburgh
2. Clava Cairns
Where is it? Near Inverness in the Highlands.
The Clava Cairns are a really interesting site and it’s another Outlander location that is said to have inspired Craigh na Dun in the book series so it’s often visited by fans.
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 alongside a trip to Culloden and other Highlands sites.
- Glen Affric, Culloden and Clava Cairns tour from Inverness
3. Skara Brae
Where is it? Orkney Isles in the far North of Scotland.
Head to the Orkney Isles and you’ll be in for a treat if you like ancient history. There are a number of sites not far from each other for you to look around!
Skara Brae is the most well known of the ancient sites on Orkney and a Scottish World Heritage UNESCO site. 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 Avebury, as well as the Egyptian pyramids! 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 around Skara Brae and other Orkney Prehistoric Sites
- Orkney by Trike – a very different way to see these sites!
- 5 day Orkney and Far North Scotland from Edinburgh
- Day trip to Orkney from John o’Groats
4. Ring of Brodgar
Where is it? Orkney Isles in the far North of 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 big.
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.
5. Stones of Stenness
Where is it? Orkney Isles in the far North of Scotland.
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.
6. Crannog Centre
Where is it? On Loch Tay, near Aberfeldy in Perthshire
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
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!
8. Kilmartin Glen
Where is it? Kilmartin on Argyll & Bute on the west coast of Scotland
Photo © Patrick Mackie (cc-by-sa/2.0)
Kilmartin Glen 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.
Where is it? Shetland Isles in the far North.
Shetland is the farthest north Islands in Scotland and the history and ancient locations there are slightly different, often having a Norse influence.
Jarlshof is an ancient settlement and like Skara Brae in Orkney, it was only revealed recently to us after huge storms.
The area was used for thousands of years and you can see remains of the village, a Scottish Broch and a longhouse from the Viking period.
10. Keiss Broch
Where is it? On the North East coast of Scotland
Brochs are Iron Age structures and in the far North of Scotland there are a tonne of them! While not as old as some sites on here, they are interesting roundhouses where many artefacts have been found over the years from the people who used them.
If you’re traveling towards John o’Groats then you’ll be wanting somewhere to stop and stretch your legs – you’ll be spoiled for choice for Brochs to visit on the road.
Keiss Broch is just off the main road and you can see another of Scotland’s Castles, Keiss Castle, as well if you go for a short walk along the coast.
All these sites are free to visit.
🏴 Scotland Travel FAQ 🏴
Do I need insurance for traveling to Scotland?
YES! I always recommend people take travel insurance when exploring the world!
Check Travel Insurance Master for quote comparisons from different providers.
Do I need a car for visiting Scotland?
YES – If you’re wanting to explore Scotland fully then a car is worthwhile. It will get you to all the best sights and on your own timetable
I recommend DiscoverCars to compare car rental prices in Scotland
How to book accommodation in Scotland?
For hotels I recommend Booking.com
For apartments and cottages check out VRBO
Will my phone work in Scotland?
Perhaps – it depends if you have roaming enabled and beware this can be an expensive way to use your phone.
If you need a SIM for use in Scotland I recommend GiffGaff which you can get and set up before traveling.
What to pack for Scotland
Keep yourself dry be prepared for any weather is my motto for Scotland! A rain jacket and comfy shoes are a must.
See my post about what to pack for Scotland
Do I need midge spray for Scotland?
YES – if you’re traveling in the summer months to any of the west coast, highlands, islands or lochs it’s recommended.
Locals swear by Avon’s Skin So Soft!
If you’re sticking to the cities or traveling in winter, early spring or late fall then you likely won’t need it.
What’s the best guidebook for Scotland?
I really like the Lonely Planet Guidebooks
Where to get flights for Scotland
Expedia is my first port of call for finding cheap flights to Scotland.
Do I need a visa for Scotland?
Many countries don’t need a visa for visiting Scotland as tourists (USA, Canada, Aus, NZ and Europe) – it’s always best to check first though.
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