The Historic Environment Of North East Scotland

The present landscape of the North East of Scotland has been formed by several hundred generations of hunters, herdsmen, farmers and foresters. Traces of many of their houses, farms, religious sites or burial monuments survive beside more recent features such as castles, industrial sites, kirks or military installations from the last war.


The earliest evidence of human use of the area survives in the form of minute flakes of flint, found by the rivers or on the coast, which were tools (and the waste from making tools) for the manufacture of bone spears for fishing and other weapons for hunting.

These would have been produced by small bands of hunters who followed the retreating ice northwards from the last ice-age, more than 8,000 years ago. They fished for salmon in the rivers, gathered nuts and berries from the bushes in the forest and hunted deer, elk and boar in the woods. There would have been four or five families, forming a hunting band, which moved in seasonal cycles over very wide territories.


This was a relatively stable way of life, which lasted for more than 2,000 years, until contact was made with small groups of incoming farmers who were gradually removing the forest for agriculture. These farmers had come across the sea from North West Europe.

From the evidence of the massive timber hall at Balbridie on Deeside, they had origins in North France and on the North European plain. They grew wheat and barley and raised sheep and cattle. They were also responsible for the earliest burial features, the longcairns or barrows. The construction of these features, which are prominent in the landscape, could take a long time.

The mound at Dalladies, near Edzell, took 6,000 person-hours to construct.

These first farmers were also responsible for introducing pottery and polished stone axes. Their descendants made use of the deposits of flint near the coast at Boddam, south of Peterhead.

Recumbent Stone Circles

Sometime before 2000 BC, their descendants erected rings of stones, known as Recumbent Stone Circles.

By this time, the end of the third millennium BC, the Garioch, around Inverurie, was a major focus for settlement. This is reflected in the four ritual centres or henges which were erected at this time of social change, possibly heralding the appearance of pottery known as Beakers, linked to the knowledge of metal-working coming from the Netherlands.

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Evidence of early metal-working in the form of moulds for flat axes and halberds is concentrated on the River Deveron and North Buchan.

Distinctive graves containing Beaker pottery and single bodies laid in different orientations according to their sex appear at this time. Beaker pottery was also placed on sites representative of the older social order such as stone circles or tombs. Much evidence survives from the second millennium BC of a funerary nature. There were 600 or so round burial cairns in the North East and other monuments such as stone circles.

Physical Environment Decline

From the mid to the end of the second millennium BC, the physical environment had become decreasingly inviting, caused by the gradual and irregular decline in the climate, coupled with poor agricultural practices, soil erosion and impoverishment. This may have been exacerbated by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla in 1159 BC. Coupled with this long term deterioration in the climate (from c1200 BC) the archaeological record also changes, with more evidence of settlement in the form of round houses, agricultural plots and clearance cairns.


Evidence of warfare also appears, represented by bronze swords and shields, some buried in bogs in a possible reaction to the decline in the climate.

Hill Forts

Hill forts are also found, perhaps an indication that the wetter weather was increasing pressure on the better land. These features represent the beginnings of a hierarchical society that lasted with little change for 1,500 years.

From about 500 BC, iron technology was adopted but bronze continued in use for prestige goods.

There are six types of hill fort in the North East, ranging from the 21 hectare enclosure at Tap o'Noth at a lofty 500m OD to the 0.1 hectare coastal promontory fort at Green Castle, Portknockie at 25m OD. Some of the most dramatic forts are those with stone walls built high and narrower as a result of baulks of timber across their core. Their destruction by fire caused them to vitrify.

By the end of the first millennium BC, some evidence of more controlled settlement and agriculture, particularly in the concentration of souterrains - underground store houses - can be found in Upper Donside and the Howe of Cromar. The souterrains were used for storage of agricultural and dairy products.

More evidence of warfare, or at least display, can be found at the turn of the millennia, in the form of the bronze and enamelled war trumpet (Carnyx) from Deskford. This was the product of a warrior aristocracy similar to the rest of the Britains and Gauls in language, religion and rituals.

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Of the Romans, the only evidence comes from two campaigns during AD 83-84 and the early third century AD. This evidence is in the form of reference to a North East tribe (Taezali or Taexali) in Ptolemy's "Geographica", the remains of ditches of the legions' marching camps, some tribute in the form of coins and the possible site of a great battle, Mons Graupius, which may have taken place in AD 83, just to the north of Bennachie.

Pictish Tribal Society

The tribal society of the early and mid first millennium AD that we know as Pictish developed fairly seamlessly from the preceding millennium.

Organised by potentates, kings, sub kings and chiefs it was essentially based on warfare and violence. Christianity came late, appearing in the seventh century near Aberdour on the coast and at Tullich on Deeside.

By the ninth century Pictland was being attacked or pressured to the north, west and south by Viking and other raiders. Several of the promontory forts, for example Dunnottar or Green castle,Portknockie, were attacked but no permanent Viking settlement was established, owing perhaps to the density of Pictish settlement and the ease, in the open terrain, of deploying reinforcements to any landing site.

By the late tenth century or early eleventh century, the tribal Pictish kingdoms of the North East had been transformed under Scottish kings from Dalriada in Argyll, who had been ruling the adjacent kingdoms of the Picts and Scots jointly by the late eighth century, into areas administered by governors and mormaers , the latter possibly from the families of the former chiefs.

A fully medieval society developed during the eleventh century under the Canmore dynasty which in the next two centuries took on Anglo Norman practices.

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