Middle Bronze Age, c 1700/1600–c 12th century [Period 5]

In this period the evidence for settlement and metalwork becomes more prominent while in contrast to the Early Bronze Age periods, the funerary evidence is less of a feature. The period sees the continuity of traditional unenclosed platform settlements in the south-west – such as Lintshie Gutter, Lanarks. and Blairhall Burn, Dumfries and Galloway, – as well as establishment of new ones such as Green Knowe , Peebles and Fruid Reservoir in the Borders (Pope forthcoming). Much more evidence relating to settlement, including many round houses, has been found during developer-funded investigations (including Lairg which continues throughout this period).

During the Middle Bronze Age, the spread of Scottish settlement traditions further south into Northumberland and Durham can be seen. The period  sees a far more intensive settling of the lowlands with coastally distributed ring-banks at Kintore/Deer’s Den, Aberdeenshire in the east and Tormore and Kilpatrick on Arran in the west, as well as the establishment of a number of post-built houses (Auchrennie (Angus), West Acres, (East Renfrewshire) and at the site of the Upper Forth Crossing can be seen). After 1600 BC we see the start of ring-ditch house settlements along the east coast within formerly occupied landscapes such as at Kintore and Upper Forth Crossing, as well as recently discovered examples at Ednie and Oldmeldrum (Aberdeenshire) and Hatton Farm, Angus (the latter two employing the newer post-built architectures). The period up to 1400 BC seems to have been one of experimentation visible through the expansion of settlement into new landscapes.

Few dates are recorded from the 14th century BC – particularly in more extreme landscapes, such as upland and coastal environments – and 1400 BC seems a likely juncture for major social change. At this point, a decline in traditional architectures (upland/lowland ring-banks and post-built structures) can be seen, but continuity of the newer lowland types (ring-groove and ring-ditch structures). The large polygonal, timber-built ring-groove houses, with their more southerly focus, seem to survive the transition becoming more widely distributed, so that at around 1400 BC this eastern lowlands type is found in the uplands at Fruid Reservoir and in the west at Ross Bay (Dumfries and Galloway) and The Carrick. Ring-groove houses are then apparently lost to us between the 13th-10th centuries BC and not found again until the 9th century BC. The lowland ring-ditch house seems to have been more successful at surviving the 1400 BC transition in the eastern coastal plain with a good suite of dates across this period. Similarly, however, the ring-ditch house saw decline between the 13th-9th centuries BC: the site of Kintore alone providing evidence for continuity across the Later Bronze Age.

Following social change around and after beyond 1400 BC, a return to greater architectural variation (and associated land use) in both upland and lowland landscapes can be found by c. 1250 BC; running alongside the decline of lowland ring-groove and ring-ditch houses noted above. Despite this, there remains far less variety in the uplands than there had been prior to 1400 BC, so that Middle Bronze Age land use appears more organised than during the Early Bronze Age, certainly with less experimentation in the settling of landscapes, particularly in the uplands. 13th century BC dates from coastal ring-banks in the north and west include Cladh Hallan (South Uist), Cnoc Stanger H5 (Caithness), Cùl a’Bhaile Pd2 (Argyll and Bute), and Upper Suisgill H2 (Sutherland); a key feature of these sites is their repeated rebuilding, which is taken to represent their episodic occupation (cf. Halliday 2007). Burnt mounds from the south-west of Scotland (Dervaid and Glenluce), and the west (Machrie Moor, Arran) date to this period (Ashmore 1996, 97).

Key dates for the Middle Bronze Age settlement evidence then are: 1) 1600 BC, when settling of lowland landscapes can be seen; and 2) 1400 BC, after which follow lowland ring-ditch settlements, apparently associated with cattle-based pastoralism, which flourish, at the expense of other, more traditional upland settlement forms.

In terms of Funerary practicesCladh Hallan/Hebridean practice in general exhibits a distinctive regional variant, elsewhere cremation still dominates, with Cordoned Urns morphing into Bucket Urns, and in Orkney, and in Shetland, steatite urns still in use.

Monuments: four-posters probably built during this period; short stone rows and kerb cairns being built towards the end of this period.

After the end of the Early Bronze Age the metalwork types characteristic of Scotland were often distinct from southern Britain. The small number of hoards before the Ewart Park phase makes relative chronology difficult and there are still very few absolute dates for Middle and Late Bronze Age objects in Scotland.

Early Bronze Age long‐flanged axes were succeeded by short‐flanged axes (Bannockburn type, etc) rather than the palstaves which characterised the Middle Bronze Age in southern Britain and such palstaves found in Scotland were imports, like the small number of Irish palstaves. The earliest rapier forms (like the latest daggers types) were scarce in Scotland, the Perth and Pitcaithly dirks ‐ probably imported from Ireland ‐ being exceptions.

The finest rapier blades (with triple‐ribbed sections) were also largely absent from Scotland, in contrast to Ireland and south‐eastern England. The Taunton metalwork assemblage in southern Britain is characterised by hoards of palstaves and of bronze ornaments (so‐called Ornament Horizon) which are not found in Scotland.

Later palstave types from northern England (Shelf type, etc) are found in Scotland but were not the dominant axe type and short‐flanged axes (Cargill type, etc) probably persisted into the Late Bronze Age. Most of the new types characteristic of the Penard assemblage in southern Britain, eg, swords and sheet‐bronze vessels, did not reach Scotland; in particular, rapiers (with broad midribs) probably continued to be the dominant weapon. Gold ornaments, notably bar torcs, did occur in Scotland but much less frequently than in Ireland, Wales or southern England. Scottish finds of flesh‐hooks seem to represent an extension of their distribution in the north of Ireland.

While some types characteristic of Wilburton hoards in southern Britain are found in Scotland, these were still scarce and swords in particular were probably still imported. The earliest sheet‐metal vessel from Scotland (Hattonknowe cauldron) probably belongs to this phase.

Key questions include:

(left):Kintraw ©RCAHMS and (right) Bronze Age dirk from at Pitcaithly,  Perthshire ©NMS.

  1. The date of individual standing stones is problematic. Some evidence (e.g. Kintraw) suggests that some may have been erected during this period, but what about the others? There is a likely wide time span for construction, from  the Late Neolithic onwards and more research is required to date individual monuments.
  2. What are the land use systems of these three main regional settlement types (unenclosed platform settlements, ring-ditch settlements, and coastal ring-banks)
  3. Can an MBA culture in Scotland be identified in the same way as in southern England?
  4. Why did Scottish metalwork diverge from southern Britain 1500-1000 BC?