Archaeological Resources

Interested in finding out more information about archaeology in Scotland?  Below are links to some of the best archives and journals – many of which can be accessed online!


Canmore is the online database hosted by RCAHMS.  Information about nearly all archaeological sites in Scotland can be found on the site. It contains information about 300,000 places in Scotland and 150,000 pictures.  It is updated by individuals and staff at RCAHMS and has recently been prioritized for the entry of maritime sites.

Discovery and Excavation in Scotland

This is an annual publication that has run since 1947.  Articles from 1947 to 2008 are available online and are summary accounts of the field work conducted during the previous year.  Because it relies upon the archaeologists to submit their work voluntarily, it does not necessarily contain everything, but it is still very useful.

Proceedings of the Antiquaries of Scotland

This journal is one of the oldest continuous archaeological publications in Scotland and has been published since 1851 and is available online (with a 5 year restriction for the most recent years).

National Library of Scotland Maps

The National Library of Scotland has an impressive map collection.  They hold hard copies of millions of map and many of them are available in high resolution online.  Many of the maps are hundreds of years old, and a particularly useful and interesting series is that of the First Edition of the Ordnance Survey’s mid-19th century maps (6 inches to 1 mile).  Some very detailed maps from the same period at a 1:2500 scale are also available.

Countrywide Research Initiatives


The SCAPE Trust was established in 2001 as a charitable organization to research Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion (SCAPE).  They are run by a board of directors run by a small staff whose goals are to “research, conserve and promote the archaeology of Scotland’s coast” (SCAPE Trust).

One of their most interesting projects is the Coast Zone Assessment Surveys of the coasts around Scotland.  The first assessment survey was conducted in 1996 and since then they have covered approximately 1/3 of Scotland’s shores and discovered many new sites.  The surveys are often conducted through walking surveys by archaeologists and geomorphologists.  Since 2001 they have been managed by SCAPE on behalf of Historic Scotland.  These types of surveys are very useful to consult when searching for evidence cultural heritage (SCAPE Surveys).

Click here to download the Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys for an area of your interest.



The Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) is a project implemented by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  The Society is Scotland’s oldest antiquarian society; it has been dedicated to “the study of the antiquities and history of Scotland, more especially by means of archaeological research” since its founding in 1780 by David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Eearl of Buchanan.  It is a charitable organization that is run by a full and part-time staff and governed by a voluntary council (ScARF).

ScARF is an ongoing project dedicated to analyzing past and current archaeological research strategies in Scotland in an effort to create a framework that highlights current research endeavors within Scottish archaeology and areas of research that should be addressed in the future.  By providing this framework, their goal is to “enable anyone wishing to contribute to the research environment of Scotland to effectively plan their work in relation to the framework; ensuring that the future research is relevant, represents greater value, and effectively contributes to our understanding of the past.”  The project is a partnership between the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Historic Scotland, and anyone conducting archaeological research in Scotland.  The project is made up of specialized research panels, including ones dedicated to the Iron Age, Medieval, Marine and Maritime, and Science and Archaeology panels (among others) (ScARF).

Scottish Contract Archaeology Groups

Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology

The Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology is housed within the Archaeology Department of Orkney College.  It is a contract archaeology service established in 2007 that provides archaeological and geophysical services.  It was originally a subset of the Orkney Archaeological Trust (called the Projects Unit).  The Geophysics Unit was started in 2004.  They are not limited to work only in Orkney, and provide their services across the highlands and islands of Scotland (ORCA).  As a result of demand created by the Marine Scotland Act 2010, ORCA has increased their ability to deal with marine and environmental archaeology.  ORCA occasionally does outreach activites for individuals interested in archaeology (ORCA).


Wessex Archaeology

Wessex Archaeology is one of the largest contract archaeology firms in the UK with offices all over the island, including one in Edinburgh.  They list themselves as a “charitable company which puts sustainability and community engagement at its heart” (Wessex Archaeology).  They have a Coastal & Marine Team in Edinburgh and have conducted interesting landscape studies in western Scotland.  For anyone who is interest in archaeology, Wessex archaeology has ways for people to become involved (A Day of Archaeology).

Research Organisations

Morvern Maritime Centre

The Morvern Maritime Centre is a research charity set up by archaeologists Drs. Paula and Colin Martin.  They conduct interesting archaeological research on the west coast of Scotland, often using aerial surveys.  Their mandate is “to promote, maintain, improve and advance the education of children, young people and adults by the encouragement of the study of archaeological, historical and heritage matters, especially those associated with the sea, relating to Morvern and the Sound of Mull and other areas in particular by teaching the skills of archaeological investigation and recording, the principles and techniques of underwater archaeology, historical method, and conservation, and by engaging in research activities and promulgating the results in academic and popular media, and lodging any finds which may accrue from such activities in appropriate museums.”


Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology

The Scottish Trust for Underwater Archaeology (STUA) was started by archaeologists Dr. Nick Dixon and Barrie Andrian.  It “was formed to promote the research, recording, and preservation of Scotland’s underwater heritage. Towards realising these aims the Trust carries out surveys and excavations, provides training, expertise and advice, and tries to raise awareness of our underwater heritage through education, exhibition, and publication.”  One of the most interesting aspects of STUA is that it runs  the Scottish Crannog Centre, a top-notch educational tourist attraction about the Oakbank Crannog in Loch Tay which has been an archaeological project under the direction of STUA for over three decades(STUA).

Scottish Government Archaeology Organizations

Historic Scotland

Historic Scotland (an executive agency of the Scottish Government) is the regulatory agency responsible for historic monuments in Scotland.  It fulfills the same roles as English Heritage in England or Cadw in Wales.  There is a division of Historic Scotland that is dedicated to preserving the marine historic environment, which includes both shipwrecks and aircraft lost at sea; structures related to trade and seafaring such as harbours and lighthouses; and human settlements near the coast, some of which may be underwater.  Their jurisdiction extends to 12 nautical miles off the coast of the mainland, which is nearly 50% of the country’s “land mass”.  Shipwreck designation and situations dealing with the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 would fall under their jurisdiction (Historic Scotland).

Historic Scotland occasionally publishes documents pertaining to the protection of shipwrecks in Scotland. One such publication is Making the most of Scotland’s seas: turning our marine vision into reality.  This was created as the result of a cooperative effort between Marine Scotland, SEPA, Scottish Natural Heritage, and Historic Scotland and is intended to help these organizations “turn the marine vision into reality” (Marine Scotland).

Another publication is The Marine Historic Environment: Strategy for the protection, management and promotion of marine heritage 2012-15.  This document clarifies “how Historic Scotland will implement powers in the new marine legislation, thereby contributing to the marine vision”.  Another interesting and informative  publication is Marine Protect Areas in the Seas around Scotland: Guidelines on the selection, designation and management of Historic Marine Protect Areas. 

Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS)

The RCAHMS is an executive non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government financed and overseen by Historic Scotland, an executive agency of the Scottish Government.  As an executive non-departmental public body, it is different than an executive agency (which is what Historical Scotland is) in that it is not considered to be part of the Government and the staff are not civil servants.  The RCAHMS was established in 1908 by Royal Warrant.  It is responsible for recording and collecting information related to archaeology and history in Scotland; it places special emphasis upon the built environment and historic landscape.   One of their major projects (started in 1976) is conducting intensive aerial survey with Historic Scotland with the goal of locating archaeological and historical sites and features.

RCAHMS other responsibility it to then provide access to to this information to the public at little to no cost.  One of the best ways to learn about Scottish archaeology and the historic built environment is to visit their online archival database, Canmore.  It contains information about 300,000 places in Scotland and 150,000 pictures.  They are considered to be a charitable organization as all of their income goes back into developing the National Collection (RCAHMS).

Archaeological Organisations in Scotland

While archaeological methods and theory share similar themes across the world, different countries have a variety of organizations that practice archaeology.  The do so under different rules (which are often very similar to those in other countries, though not always) and with different priorities.  In many countries, the United Kingdom included, there governmental organizations, university organizations, research foundations, and contract archaeology companies (those that bid on contracts to conduct work that is required by the government; it is often surveying land for archaeological material before something is built upon the land).  The United Kingdom has different organizations in Scotland than it does in England or Wales.  Click on the links below to learn more about the organizations that conduct archaeological work in Scotland.

Government Organizations

Research Foundations

Contract Archaeology Companies

A Short History of Shipwreck Protection in Scotland

When important archaeological sites are discovered, they are often designated by the government as protected sites.  Different countries have different ways of doing this, and often times there are numerous ways to protect, or “designate”,  a site.   This applies to shipwrecks, as well, and Scotland has several ways of legally protecting its historic shipwreck sites.  In some cases it is possible to visit the site as a diver, in other cases it is not.

Designated shipwrecks of Scotland are protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 and the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, which are UK-wide Acts that apply also in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  There are eight designated historic wreck sites in Scotland under the 1973 Act, all of which are from the 17th century with the exception the last, which is early 20th century: Kennemerland, Wrangels Palais, Duart Point Wreck, Dartmouth, Burntisland Wreck, Mingary Castle Wreck, Kinlochbervie Wreck, and HMS Campania.   Permits are required to dive on these sites.  There are seven wrecks protected as scheduled monuments under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979.  These are all part of the German High Seas Fleet scuttled in 1919 in Scapa Flow, Orkney.

The Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sties (ACHWS) was established to provide advice and recommendations to Historic Scotland when an application is submitted to designate a wreck in Scottish waters.  They also advise in situations where divers wish to conduct certain activities on Designated Wreck Sites (Historic Scotland).

“The Marine Scotland Act 2010 provides a framework which will help balance competing demands on Scotland’s seas.”  The Act is not limited to cultural resources, though it does address them. The Act repeals Section 1 of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.  Under the Act, it is possible to create a Historic Marine Protected Area (MPA) through a designation order if it is determined to be a marine historic asset of national importance (Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 Part 5 Section 73(1)). Part 5 Section 73(5) of the Act states that a marine historic asset could be

(a)    a vessel, vehicle or aircraft (or part of a vessel, vehicle or aircraft),

(b)   the remains of a vessel, vehicle or aircraft (or a part of such remains,

(c)    an object contained in, or formerly contained in, a vessel, vehicle or aircraft,

(d)   a building or other structure (or apart of a building or structure,

(e)    a cave or excavation,

(f)    a deposit or artifact (whether or not formerly part of a cargo of a ship) or any other thing which evidences, or groups of things which evidence, previous human activity (Marine (Scotland) Act 2010 Part 5 Section 73(5)).

The Picts and the Vikings

When the Vikings arrived in Orkney, it was already inhabited by a people known as the Picts.   They were the descendants of Orkney’s Iron Age broch builders, and by 565 AD they had been incorporated into the larger Pictish kingdom of northern mainland Scotland.  Though they took the name Pict (a derivative of Latin that refers to them as “the painted ones”) and were technically under Pictish rule, the extent of Pictish influence in their culture is still being studied.  When the Vikings arrived, these “Picts” were primarily fishermen and farmers living relatively comfortable lives in stone houses that were often built around the older Iron Age settlements such as the Broch o’ Burness in Evie (Orkneyjar).

How the Vikings and the Picts interacted when the Vikings arrived from Norway is still up for debate.  Many scholars, perhaps most, believe that the Norse take-over was abrupt and complete, perhaps even violent.  Though some scholars have theorized that the Norse colonization was peaceful, there is little evidence that supports this theory.  Rather, it is believed that the Norse quickly overtook existing Pictish settlements, renamed them, and replaced both the culture and language with their own native Norse (Vikings in Orkney Guide).

Though the Norse eradicated nearly all Pictish place-names, they did record something of the people that they encountered in Orkney.  The Historia Norwegiae, written in the 11th and 12th centuries, mentions that the Picts “did marvels in the morning and in the evening, in building towns, but at mid-day they entirely lost all theirstrength, and lurked, through fear, in underground houses’” It later states: “But in due course…certain pirates…set out with a great fleet…and stripped these races of their ancient settlements, destroyed them wholly, and subdued theislands to themselves” (Vikings in Orkney Guide).

The Origin of Orkney Vikings

Historically, the people that we know today as Vikings came from several countries in Northern Europe  Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.  The Vikings who settled in Scotland’s Orkney Islands came from Norway specifically, but where?  Most of the Orkney Vikings are thought to have come from the mountainous western Norway, famous for its deep fjords and intense landscape.  It was a vastly different place from the Orkney Islands.  Mountainous and rugged compared to Orkney’s rolling, fertile fields.  Archaeologist and Viking Orkney expert Olwyn Owen states that “When the first boatloads of Viking settlers from the rugged west coast of Norway arrived in Orkney, they must have thought they had landed in paradise. The well-drained light soils, and the mild climate of cool summers and warm winters, would have made Orkney and north-east Caithness especially attractive” (Owen 1999).

Historic sources provide some detail about the specific origin of certain Norsemen who settled in Orkney.  The first earl of Orkney (as recorded by the Orkneyinga saga) Rögnvaldr and his younger brother Sigurðr of Möer are recorded as hailing from Møre og Romsdal, a county near Trondheim on the NW coast.  The rest of earls of Orkney descended from Rögnvaldr and Sigurðr.  Some scholars believe that large scale colonization came about after the Møre “dynasty” gained political control over the islands and established a peaceful place to immigrate to (Owen 1999).

Though much of the ruling class of the Orkney islands and many of the other settlers came to Orkney from the west coast of Norway, not all settlers hailed from Norway’s west coast.  Most famously, Earl Rognvald Kolsson (1129 AD), who commissioned St. Magnus Cathedral in honor of his uncle St. Magnus, is thought to have come to Orkney from Grimstad in southern Norway (Orkneyjar).  Earl Rognvald erected  the imposing and magnificent cathedral that still stands in Kirkwall (the capital of Orkney) in honor of St. Magnus, his uncle who had been canonized as a saint.  The Orkneyinga saga records that Earl Rognvald was advised by his father Kol to:

build a stone minster at Kirkwall more magnificent than any in Orkney, that you’ll have (it) dedicated to your uncle the holy Early Magnus and provide it with all the funds it will need to flourish.  In addition  his holy relics and the episcopal seat must be moved there” (The Orkneyinga Saga, chapter 68).

A brief introduction to Norse expansion in Scotland

Dates of Contact

Viking migrations began at the end of the 8th century.  Contact with northern Scotland began relatively early as the islands of northern Scotland (Shetland and Orkney) were a natural base for the Norse due to location.  The islands are located approximately half way between Ireland and northern England, two of the most profitable raiding and trading locations; Iceland and Greenland are a bit farther away.   With a good wind, the journey from western Norway to the Shetland Islands was a mere 24 hours.  After that, Orkney, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man were but a short journey.  Much of the path to the Irish Sea was sheltered by the Scottish skerries and islands, making it possible to stop at night.  The proximity to Norway made it possible for traders and raiders to spend the summer season in the British Isles but return to Norway for the winter (Roesdahl 1999).  However, other than the raids on the monastery on Iona (795, 802, 806), the date of contact and settlement with Scotland is unknown.  While it is possible that there was contact prior to the raid on Lindisfarne in 793 AD (the traditionally accepted date for the beginning of Viking contact with Great Britian), evidence for this has yet to be found.

Reasons for Expansion

Different sources provide various reasons for Viking expansion.  According the rune stones and Scandinavian skaldic poems, honor and loot were the primary motivation for expansion.  Historic sources from western European have suggested that Vikings first sought “easy money” in the form of looting.  With time, they began to establish trading bases that allowed them to become permanent residents, sometimes overtaking land inhabited by indigenous peoples (Roesdahl 1999).

Another cause for expansion is attributed to climactic change at the end of the first millennium AD.  A warmer climate during the Viking era made sea travel and westward expansion a more viable option than it had been in the past.  In addition, it contributed to the development of more advanced agricultural practices that lead to better access to resources and population growth (Vikings in Orkney Guide).

Nature of Contact

Much of Scotland would have looked familiar to the Vikings, with its steep mountains and low, fertile fields.  Depending upon the region of origin of the Norse settlers, they may have had to make very few modifications to their lifestyle to survive and thrive in Scotland. In particular, James Graham-Campbell theorizes that “the lush greenery of Orkney, parts of northern Scotland and the machair of the west would have seemed attractive to incomers from other parts, who had left behind small farms wit fragmented holdings” (Graham-Campbell 1998).

Initial settlement in Great Britain was often in the form of over-wintering for raiding and trading parties (Roesdahl 1999).  Though some areas where the Vikings settled were likely uninhabited, others, such as Orkney, were not.   The Historia Norvegiae, the late 12th-century Latin history text, records that the Vikings had to defeat the inhabitants of Orkney in order to settle there.  Archaeological evidence has revealed local farms that were overtaken by Vikings.  Udal on North Uist contains “signs of unrest”, while a number of graves in Norway had Scottish goods (Roesdahl 1999).