Five great Scottish Highlands and islands landscapes where history was forged

“In the Highlands and Islands, geology made geography and geography would make history,” writes Alistair Moffat in his new book

From an uninhabited island where Scotland’s earliest Christians gathered to an oil terminal that brought great riches from the earliest discoveries in the North Sea, Scotland’s landscapes have set the foundation for the turning points in Scotland’s great story.

Author Alistair Moffat has travelled the miles – and through the years – to compile his latest book The Highlands and Islands of Scotland: A New History. Here he offers five landscapes where geology – then geography – created a stage for history to be made.

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Ness of Brodgar, Orkney

A beehive cell on the unihabited island of Eileach nan Naoimh in the Inner Hebrides where St Brendan is said to have holed up around 40 years before St Columba landed in Iona. PIC: Donald MacDonald/CCA beehive cell on the unihabited island of Eileach nan Naoimh in the Inner Hebrides where St Brendan is said to have holed up around 40 years before St Columba landed in Iona. PIC: Donald MacDonald/CC
A beehive cell on the unihabited island of Eileach nan Naoimh in the Inner Hebrides where St Brendan is said to have holed up around 40 years before St Columba landed in Iona. PIC: Donald MacDonald/CC

Discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar in Okney – a place where Neolithic communities converged, traded, worked and worshipped 5,000 years ago – have “upended the story of Prehistoric Britain”, with the islands a nerve centre of a new understanding of the world.

While Stonehenge was long been considered the “zenith” of megalithic culture given its fame and scale, it was Ness of Brodgar that was the focus of “vibrant world-changing” ideas, Mr Moffat said.

Stonehenge, because of its fame and scale, was presumed to have been the “zenith” of megalithic culture, but the origins of this is found much further north in Orkney’s prehistoric landscape, which runs like a chain through the mainland.

"The Ness was the focus of new and vibrant world-changing ideas that swirled around the archipelago and these moved southwards down the length of Britain to create the first unified culture in these islands, a different way of understanding the world,” Mr Moffat wrote.

The Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, the heart of Great Britain's Neolithic civilisation some 5,000 years ago. PIC: UHI Archaeology / Tom O’BrienThe Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, the heart of Great Britain's Neolithic civilisation some 5,000 years ago. PIC: UHI Archaeology / Tom O’Brien
The Ness of Brodgar in Orkney, the heart of Great Britain's Neolithic civilisation some 5,000 years ago. PIC: UHI Archaeology / Tom O’Brien

"Far from being peripheral, Orkney was the centre of Stone Age Britain, the beating heart of the culture that ultimately supplanted the old life of hunting and gathering.”

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Kilmartin Glen, Argyll

Described by Mr Moffat as “Scotland’s most impressive and mysterious Bronze Age site”, Kilmartin Glen lies between the sea at Loch Crinan and the southern tip of Loch Awe in Argyll.

Loch Ness and Great Glen looking south from Inverfairgaig. PIC: Dave Conner/CC.Loch Ness and Great Glen looking south from Inverfairgaig. PIC: Dave Conner/CC.
Loch Ness and Great Glen looking south from Inverfairgaig. PIC: Dave Conner/CC.

At the south of the glen lies the hillfort of Dunadd, believed to have been the capital of the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata that encompassed the western seaboard of Scotland and north-eastern Ireland.

From the end of the third millennium, the development of the whole glen began at pace, with the construction of a huge cursus monument – made of up long parallel ditches and possibly timber posts that were set on fire as part of important ceremonies – and burial cairns, which were stacked up to 18-feet high.

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By 1500BC, an extraordinary ‘linear cemetery’ had been laid out.

Mr Moffat wrote: “Perhaps three miles long when complete, running the whole length of Kilmartin Glen, it was created on an epic, theatrical scale.”

Kilmartin Glen in Argyll. The capital of the Gaelic Kingdom of Dal Riata was found here. PIC: Postdlf/CCKilmartin Glen in Argyll. The capital of the Gaelic Kingdom of Dal Riata was found here. PIC: Postdlf/CC
Kilmartin Glen in Argyll. The capital of the Gaelic Kingdom of Dal Riata was found here. PIC: Postdlf/CC

Rock art of cup and ring marks may have been carved to out the boundaries of this ceremonial “precinct”, with Scotland’s earliest figurative art found also there. Carvings of two stags with antlers and three other deer appeared on a stone some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Sullom Voe, Shetland

The building of Sullom Voe oil terminal followed the discovery of North Sea oil in 1969 and led to Shetland Isles Council, which constructed and owned the facility, becoming the second richest local authority in the UK after the City of London.

The terminal, the tugboat fleet and an improved Sumburgh Airport raised revenues of around £56 million in the first year alone, with the money flowing into an array of community gains, including a leisure centre in Lerwick and eight new swimming pools across the islands. The fishing, fish processing and knitwear industries also benefited.

Much of the success of the scheme has been laid at the door of Ian Clark, a young accountant who moved to Shetland to become county clerk to the old Zetland Council. He pushed for special powers for the authority to protect the islands from the expected free-for-all of the oil business, Mr Moffat wrote.

Sullom Voe Terminal in Shetland which transformed the fortune of the islands following the discovery of North Sea Oil in 1969.  (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)Sullom Voe Terminal in Shetland which transformed the fortune of the islands following the discovery of North Sea Oil in 1969.  (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Sullom Voe Terminal in Shetland which transformed the fortune of the islands following the discovery of North Sea Oil in 1969. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Great Glen

The Great Glen – An Gleann Mor – the fault-line that runs north-east from Fort William to Inverness is “a memory of an immense, slow-motion collision that took place hundreds of millions of years ago, one of three that formed the geology, the geography and the history of the Highlands”, Mr Moffat wrote.

From the earliest of times, it has provided a natural highway for east-to-west communications. During the period of Jacobite unrest, the glen’s critical function became clear when the government built the forts of Fort George, Fort Augustus and Fort William as it sought to pacify the Highlands.

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Eileach an Naoimh, Argyll

The author travelled to Eileach an Naoimh in the Inner Hebrides in “search for sanctity” in a journey that followed in the footsteps of St Brendan, one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland.

St Brendan found the island sometime around 542AD – two decades before Columba landed on Iona. Through prayer, fasting and privations, one might draw closer to God, Mr Moffat wrote.

The early Irish saints found the “wastes of the sea” stood against the temporal world with the author voyaging to Eileach an Naoimh in a journey that rewound him 14 centuries.

"A jagged angry deposit of geology thrust up through the waters of the firth by an ancient convulsion, Eileach an Naoimh looked forbidding,” Mr Moffat wrote. He found the two beehive cells which St Brendan and his followers are said to have occupied.

Mr Moffat added: "I knew I was entering a holy place, Britain’s oldest surviving chapel, oldest surviving ecclesiastical building of any kind. I had come to the place where the word of God was first heard in the Highlands and islands of Scotland.

"There is no feeling, nothing like being alone in the turn of history, in the hypnotic silence as 14 centuries fall away."

-The Highlands and Islands of Scotland, A New History by Alistair Moffat is published by Birlinn and available now.

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