The history of Scotland

Scotland is a country with a fascinating history. We’re passionate about telling the story of Scotland and its people. This handy timeline offers a bird’s-eye view of Scottish history, from the first people to the Age of Enlightenment, and includes famous figures like Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Scotland’s beginnings

A view of the island of Hirta, part of St Kilda, looking out to sea. In the foreground is a steep grassy cliff. It stretches to a rocky point, reaching out into the sea.


People first occupied Scotland in the Paleolithic era. Small groups of hunter-gatherers lived off the land, hunting wild animals and foraging for plants. Natural disasters were a serious threat – around 6200BC a 25m-high tsunami devastated coastal communities in the Northern Isles and eastern Scotland.


People first started cultivating and claiming ownership of the land in Scotland in the Neolithic period. They built permanent shelters, made pottery and stone axes, and created tombs to house the remains of their ancestors.


The arrival of metalworking signalled the start of the Bronze Age and a period of technological change. Burial structures, like the one that was uncovered at St Kilda, and ornaments made from exotic materials (such as gold, amber or jet) show that people were displaying their wealth and status, and that social hierarchies were starting to form. At Brodick Castle you can learn about this early period of history in a reconstructed roundhouse.


The Iron Age saw people making better tools and weapons. Communities also built defensive forts of timber, earth and stone to keep enemies at bay. We’ve found evidence of human activity dating back to the Iron Age in the caves beneath Culzean Castle.

Early Scottish history

A view of the island of Hirta, part of St Kilda, looking out to sea. In the foreground is a steep grassy cliff. It stretches to a rocky point, reaching out into the sea.
Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona


We’re always uncovering and learning from historical written documents. Scotland’s recorded history began with the arrival of the Romans. Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD43 and soon ventured north. Despite the Romans’ best efforts to fortify the border with Hadrian’s Wall in AD122, and central Scotland with the Antonine Wall 20 years later, they were fought back by the Caledonians and the Picts, and eventually retreated from Britain altogether by AD410.


The Early Historic period refers to the era when Scotland’s history first started to be recorded in writing. There are records, written mostly by monks, that tell us that Christianity reached the west of Scotland in AD563, when Columba arrived in Iona.


Around this time the Vikings arrived to trade and settle around Scotland, both on the west coast and in the north at places like Fair Isle.

Where did Scottish people come from?

Early Historic Scotland was a melting pot of different groups – the Britons, the Picts, the Angles, the Gaels (Scots) and the Norse – and you can see this mixture reflected in place-names around the country, from Ben Macdui (Gaelic) to Stornoway (Norse) via Aberdeen (Pictish).


The medieval period saw the gradual expansion of the Scottish kingdom, as kings and queens came and went at a steady pace. The best known early Scottish king, Macbeth, was killed in battle in 1057, and the Kingdom of Alba became a feudal society by the 12th century. The reigns of William I (the Lion), Alexander II and Alexander III saw farming, trade and Christianity flourish.

The battle for independence

A statue of Robert the Bruce on horseback faces the camera, with the Stirling hills and blue skies in the background.


Following the death of Alexander III, England’s King Edward I had declared himself the overlord of Scotland and marched his troops north. In 1297, Edward’s army planned to cross the River Forth at Stirling Bridge, but were met by an army of Scots that forced them back. The Battle of Stirling Bridge is where William Wallace, one of Scotland’s most famous figures, earned his fame – he was knighted and appointed Guardian of Scotland the following year.


Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland. War between the English and the Scots raged until 1314, when Robert the Bruce’s army defeated Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn. A legend was born. Scottish independence was declared 6 years later with the Declaration of Arbroath on 6 April 1320. Addressed to Pope John XXII, the letter asked him to recognise Scotland as an independent country and Robert the Bruce as its lawful king.


Mary Stuart (you might know her as Mary, Queen of Scots) became queen when she was just 6 days old, following the death of her father James V. Sent to France aged 5, Mary returned to rule Scotland in 1561. She was welcomed at places like Falkland Palace and Alloa Tower, but made an enemy of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, who had her executed in 1587.

The Jacobites

A group of men re-enact the Highland charge at the Battle of Culloden, dressed as Jacobite soldiers. They wear blue berets and carry large targes.


After Elizabeth I died without an heir, James VI of Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots’ son) succeeded to the English throne and became James VI & I. This Union of the Crowns was supposed to signal an era of peace. Instead, a family feud, which eventually saw William of Orange invade England in 1688 to overthrow King James VII, would lead to decades of bloodshed and civil unrest.


When James VII fled to France, his supporters – the Jacobites – fought to try and restore him to the throne. The Jacobite risings saw a series of gruesome battles take place across the country, at places like Killiecrankie, Dunkeld and Glenshiel in Kintail.

In 1745, James VII’s grandson Prince Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, arrived in Scotland to try to rally the troops. He raised his father’s standard at Glenfinnan. But the Jacobite cause came to a tragic end at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, when 1,500 Highlanders died in a single hour.

Enlightenment and industry

A 1786 copy of Robert Burns’s ‘Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ is displayed open at the page for ‘To a Mouse’.


In the 18th and 19th centuries, Scotland was part of the one of the greatest intellectual and scientific outpourings ever recorded. The Age of Enlightenment saw Scottish thinkers and artists – the likes of Robert Burns, William Adam, Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith – transform the way we see and understand the world. Their work remains for all to see at places like Newhailes House, Hugh Miller’s Birthplace Cottage & Museum and Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.


At the beginning of the 19th century, Scotland’s economy changed drastically. The arrival of industrial technology created a shift in wealth, also caused by the boom in the tobacco, sugar and cotton trades, based largely on the exploitation of enslaved people. Houses like Greenbank House and Harmony were owned by these newly rich businessmen.

The sudden dominance of mining, shipbuilding and textiles, along with rising rents and poor harvests, meant that many people from rural communities were forced to move to towns and cities, or sometimes even emigrate. The written evidence for this is often recorded in the papers of the large landed estates. Rich landowners also cleared their land of towns and villages to make way for profitable sheep farming. Some places, such as Mingulay and St Kilda, were abandoned altogether by the early 20th century.

Around 200 years ago 90% of Scotland’s population lived in the countryside; now 90% live in towns and cities.

Modern Scotland

Can you Escape the Past?
The Tenement House

1900 to the present day

A number of architectural treasures in our care, such as the Tenement House and the Hill House, tell the story of the 1900s, including how the two World Wars impacted Scotland’s economy, industry and people, before prosperity returned in the 1950s and 60s (Scotland began drilling for oil in the North Sea in 1967).

In 1990, Glasgow was made European City of Culture, and the next decade saw Scottish culture make its mark on the world, with films like Trainspotting (1996) and the books of J K Rowling (1997) finding huge success. In 1999 the Scottish Parliament reconvened for the first time in nearly 300 years.