Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

Latest news from the Galloway Picts Project….

Radiocarbon dates from material unearthed at Trusty’s Hill have been analysed. They confirm that the fort on the summit was occupied in the sixth century AD.

Putting this into context, it means we now know people of high status were living on the summit in a period when kings were using hilltop fortresses as primary centres of power. Galloway had not yet been conquered by Anglo-Saxons moving westward from Bernicia, so we can cautiously identify the sixth-century occupants of Trusty’s Hill as native Britons. I say ‘cautiously’ because a rock at the site has Pictish symbols carved on it, so the question of cultural affiliations is rather more complicated.

Many historians think Galloway was part of a kingdom called Rheged which seems to have been a major political power in the late sixth century. The little we know about Rheged comes from a handful of texts preserved in the literature of medieval Wales. These suggest that the kingdom rose to prominence under Urien, a famous warlord whose deeds were celebrated by his court-bard Taliesin.

Although we cannot be certain of Urien’s chronology, our scant knowledge of sixth-century events makes it likely that he was dead by c.590. A reference in the poems to his survival into old age allows us to tentatively place his birth c.520-530. His father Cynfarch, whom we know only from a genealogy preserved in Wales, was perhaps born c.490-500. The same genealogy names Cynfarch’s father as Merchiaun (born c.460-470?) who may represent a ‘historical horizon’ for the royal dynasty of Rheged. Merchiaun’s forebears belong to the earlier fifth century, a very obscure period of British history, and their historical existence is doubtful.

Urien’s great-granddaughter Rhieinmelth, whose birth can be placed c.610, was given in marriage to the Bernician prince Oswiu in the early 630s. She is the last of Urien’s kin to be named in the Welsh sources and is regarded by some historians as the last princess of an independent Rheged. Her marriage to Oswiu was undoubtedly a political union and is often seen as symbolising her family’s submission to Bernicia. She therefore stands at the end of Rheged’s documented history, just as her ancestor Merchiaun may stand at the beginning. Whether the kingdom began before Merchiaun’s birth c.470 or lasted beyond Rhieinmelth’s marriage c.630 is unknown, for the Welsh sources give no further information that we can treat as reliable.

Interestingly, the radiocarbon dates from Trusty’s Hill suggest that the occupation phase may have run from as early as 475 to as late as 630. For those historians who see Galloway as the heartland of Rheged, this chronology is a tantalisingly close match to the span of Urien’s dynasty as indicated by medieval Welsh texts. In other words, the documentary record for Rheged’s royal family is consistent with the date-range for elite settlement at Trusty’s Hill. This point was noted by Ronan Toolis, co-director of the Galloway Picts Project, when he announced the radiocarbon results at the project website. See the link below.

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Galloway Picts Project: radiocarbon analysis

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12 comments on “Trusty’s Hill and Rheged

  1. ritaroberts says:

    I love reading about The Welsh History and I am trying to keep up with Trusty’s Hill It gets complicated. Thanks for this interesting post.

  2. Susan Abernethy says:

    This is really interesting stuff Tim. Welsh/Scottish history combined!

    • Tim says:

      Thanks Susan. It would be good if Trusty’s Hill (or any other place, for that matter) could be definitely linked with Rheged. Contrary to popular belief, this has yet to happen.

  3. Thomas says:

    Thanks for this Tim, I had forgotten about the Pictish Symbol, nice when science starts to match things up, gets the imagination going.

    • Tim says:

      Good to hear from you again, Thomas. I agree – it’s nice when science helps to join up the dots. Getting a specific range of dates for a site like this is an important step forward.

  4. Jo Woolf says:

    Some exciting possibilities there! Have there been any finds, other than the Pictish symbol on the stone?

  5. Chris Pickles says:

    Are they pushing the link between Trusty’s Hill and Rheged a little hard? I can’t see that there is anything that specifically connects the two.

    It was a high status site, and Rheged was allegedly a high status kingdom. But perhaps Rheged just got lucky in that its poetry was preserved and otherwise it didn’t stand out from its rival kingdoms in any way. There could have been other kingdoms that might have been based at Trusty’s Hill, perhaps even including ones we have never heard of.

    • Tim says:

      All good points, Chris. At present, nothing specifically connects Trusty’s Hill with Rheged beyond a widely-held but completely unproven belief that parts of Galloway were under Urien’s rule in the late 6th century. I’m on record (in The Men Of The North and on this blog) as stating over and over again that the location of Rheged is unknown.

      The only certain (or near-certain) North British kingdom in the vicinity of the Solway Firth was the one ruled by Gwenddoleu who died at the battle of Arthuret in 573.

      On your point about the poetry, people might argue that the fame accorded to Urien in Historia Brittonum suggests that his kingdom stood out from the rest. But this can be countered by suggesting that it was the fame of the Taliesin poems in Wales in the early 9th century, rather than the special prominence of Rheged in the 6th, that drew the attention of the HB author to Urien.

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