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Rick Steves Classroom Europe™ is a free resource allowing teachers to share the best of European art, history, and culture with their students and fellow educators.

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Ancient Scotland: Stone Circles and Crannogs

Scotland

Prehistoric Scotland is easy to see if you know where to look. Tiny round islands in lakes were once wooden forts called crannogs. And stone circles older than Rome were built to function as burial chambers that lined up with the setting sun to mark special days.

Complete Video Script

We're driving south to learn how some of the original Highlanders lived. Across Scotland, little round islands on lakes are the remains of pre-historic fortified homes. These are called "crannogs" — and date back centuries before Christ. Here at the Crannog Centre on Loch Tay one's been rebuilt, using mostly traditional methods, and now welcomes visitors.

Docent: This is the Scottish Crannog Centre. It's a reproduction of a 2,500-year-old crannog that archaeologists are excavating, as we speak, in Loch Tay, right now. It was built out in the loch itself for defensive purposes. In Scotland then, you had bears, you had wolves, you had big cats — called "lynx," other people roaming the countryside. And if you're out here in the water, there's only one way in and out, and that's the walkway. So, if you can keep that secure, you, yourself, in here, are going to feel a lot safer.

Guides demonstrate Iron Age technology — turning a lathe…grinding flour…

Docent: …stones against each other.

and even starting a fire the really old-fashioned way.

Rick: Whoa.
Docent: That's how you make a fire.

You can give the tools a try yourself — and discover how easy the guides make it look.

Scotland is littered with reminders of prehistoric people from an even earlier age. At [the] Clava Cairns, three Bronze Age burial chambers date from about 4,000 years ago. Each was once buried under turf-covered mounds, and surrounded by a stone circle. The central "ring cairn" has an open space in its middle. The two "passage cairns" each have an entrance shaft that — on the winter solstice — lines up with the setting sun. Visitors are caught up in the peaceful wonder of this ancient and sacred site.

Enjoy the mystery of this place: Were these stone circles part of a celestial calendar? Was the soul of the deceased transported into the next life when the sun was just right? Nobody really knows.