Protecting ancient monuments

Olwyn Owen

Although many ancient monuments are self-evident – prehistoric tombs and stone circles, hillforts, ruined castles – the phrase ‘ancient monument’ includes any site that retains direct evidence of past human action. Ancient monuments are often fine examples of human ingenuity, but they need not be decorative or impressive to be important. Some of the most important sites are in fact ancient rubbish tips, which can contain a wealth of evidence about past lifestyles and industries. Not all ancient monuments are obvious to the naked eye; most cropmark sites, for example, are invisible when you stand on the ground surface.

Ancient monuments which are considered to be of national importance can be scheduled, which means that they are legally protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Any works which will lead to damage, demolition or destruction of the monument, any works of repair, removal or alteration and addition, and any flooding or tipping, are not permitted on a scheduled ancient monument. There are also restrictions on the use of metal detectors. If in doubt about whether a site is scheduled, or about what can and cannot be done on a scheduled site, advice should be sought from Historic Scotland.

Other ancient monuments and archaeological sites may be of local or regional importance. The government has issued guidance on how these sites should be protected through the planning and development control process: National Planning Policy Guideline 5 on Archaeology and Planning, and Planning Advice Note 42. If in doubt, advice should be sought at an early stage from East Lothian Council Department of Planning, or its Heritage Officer.

Archaeological sites can also be threatened by normal farming operations such as ploughing and cattle trampling, or by natural processes such as erosion, the regeneration of trees or colonisation by bracken. The sensitive management of ancient sites by owners, occupiers and visitors, is always to be encouraged. Advice is available from the local council, Historic Scotland or the Council for Scottish Archaeology (c/o National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF; telephone 0131 225 7534).

Any ancient objects found in the ground are the property of the Crown, not of individual finders or landowners, and must be reported to the Treasure Trove Advisory Panel (contact The Treasure Trove Advisory Panel, c/o Archaeology Department, National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF; telephone 0131 225 7534).

How to find out more

The main repository of archaeological information in Scotland is the National Monuments Record, John Sinclair House, 16 Bernard Terrace, Edinburgh EH8 9NX; telephone 0131 6621 456; The NMRS is open to the public on weekdays.

For information on scheduled ancient monuments, contact Historic Scotland, Longmore House, Salisbury Place, Edinburgh EH9 1SH; telephone 0131 668 8777;

For advice on general archaeological matters, or on finding your local archaeological society, contact the Council for Scottish Archaeology, c/o National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF; telephone 0131 225 7534.

Many of the artefacts mentioned here can be viewed in the National Museums of Scotland, Royal Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF; telephone 0131 225 7534.

A series of books published by Batsford and Historic Scotland offers a good introduction to specific periods and subjects, and each includes a bibliography for further reading. Relevant volumes include:

  • Armit, I (1997) Celtic Scotland
  • Ashmore, PJ (1996) Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland
  • Breeze, DJ (1996) Roman Scotland: Frontier Country
  • Fawcett, R (1994) Scottish Abbeys and Priories
  • Tabraham, C (1997) Scotland’s Castles
  • Wickham-Jones, CR (1994) Scotland’s First Settlers
  • Yeoman, P (1995) Medieval Scotland: an archaeological perspective

The Making of Scotland series, published by Canongate in association with Historic Scotland, also offers popular introductions to periods. Relevant volumes include:

  • Barclay, G (1998) Farmers, Temples and Tombs: Scotland in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age
  • Finlayson, B (1998) Wild Harvesters: The First People in Scotland
  • Hingley, R (1998) Settlement and Sacrifice: The Later Prehistoric People of Scotland
  • Lowe, C (1999) Angels, Fools and Tyrants: Britons and Anglo-Saxons in Southern Scotland AD 450-750
  • Maxwell, G (1998) A Gathering of Eagles: Scenes from Roman Scotland