Galloway’s lost kingdom?

Some weeks ago I received my copy of the latest TDGNHAS through the post. This year’s volume contains the customary banquet of history and archaeology, with Senchus-related topics featuring in three articles and a book review. One of the articles, written by Warren Bailie of GUARD Archaeology Limited, gives an interesting summary of an investigation at Carzield Roman Fort near Dumfries. It is preceded by an article from Ronan Toolis (also of GUARD) and Chris Bowles (Scottish Borders Council) on the excavations undertaken at Trusty’s Hill by the Galloway Picts Project in 2012. I’ve given occasional updates on this project, usually with links to relevant posts at the Galloway Picts website, but the article in TDGNHAS is the first lengthy printed report.

As many of you will know, Trusty’s Hill is famous for the Pictish symbols carved on a stone near the summit. What makes them special is their presence at a site so far away from the Pictish heartlands further north. On the summit of the hill are the remains of an ancient fort long assumed to have been a major Dark Age stronghold. The Galloway Picts Project set out to place both the fort and the symbols in a clearer historical context. In particular, it was hoped that the question of whether or not the symbols were fakes could be settled once and for all.

Trusty's Hill Pictish Symbols

The Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill. Illustration by J.R. Allen (1903).

The TDGNHAS article contains far too much good stuff to summarise in this brief blogpost, but I’ll mention three of the most significant findings. First, there is now no doubt that the fort was occupied by people of high status in the fifth to seventh centuries; second, the fort was destroyed by fire – presumably at the hands of enemies – in the early seventh century; and third, the two Pictish symbols are indeed ancient and were almost certainly carved in the time of the historical Picts (the horned head turns out to be of nineteenth-century origin).

A fuller, more detailed report on the excavations is in the pipeline. It will appear under the intriguing title The Lost Kingdom of Rheged: the Dark Age Royal Stronghold of Trusty’s Hill, Dumfries & Galloway and will be published by Oxbow Books of Oxford. Rheged appears in medieval Welsh tradition as one of several places ruled by a sixth-century king called Urien and his son Owain. Our main source of information on these figures is a group of poems attributed to Taliesin who sems to have been Urien’s principal court-poet or personal bard .

While eagerly awaiting the publication of the full report, I do wonder about the title, which links the archaeological data from the excavations to the rather less solid evidence for Rheged. In the TDGNHAS article, Ronan and Chris describe Trusty’s Hill as ‘a strong contender as a royal centre from which Urien and Owain struck out.’ This is probably true, but I’m not sure the point can be pressed any further. Fixing the location of Rheged on a modern map has always been a guessing game, like the one where a blindfolded person tries to pin a paper tail on a drawing of a donkey. None of the old Welsh texts actually tells us where Rheged was, or even what it was. The idea that it was a kingdom (rather than a smaller territorial unit) emerged in the nineteenth century and is not a necessary inference from the Taliesin poems. I’ve said all this before, in print and online, and I’ll continue to repeat it, even though it puts me at odds with the popular belief that Rheged was a very large realm straddling the Solway Firth. The theory put forward by Ronan and Chris in their article conforms to the conventional view. So does the statement by Andrew Breeze in his review of Beyond The Gododdin 150 pages later. Professor Breeze, an expert on Celtic place-names, asserts that ‘the territories of Urien Rheged stretched from the Ayr to the Yorkshire Ouse’, thus encompassing the Solway lands (present-day Cumbria with Dumfries & Galloway) and of course Trusty’s Hill itself. I’m not convinced. ‘The simple truth is that we cannot deduce the location of Urien’s kingdom from the data currently available’. I wrote these words on page 75 of The Men of the North and I still stand by them four years later. Perhaps the full report of the Trusty’s Hill excavations will go some way towards thawing my scepticism? I shall wait and see.

* * *

TDGNHAS = Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. The contents of Volume 87 (2013) include the following:

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles ‘Excavations at Trusty’s Hill, 2012’ [pp.27-50]

Warren R. Bailie ‘Recent Investigations at Carzield Roman Fort, Kirkton, Dumfries and Galloway’ [pp.51-80]

D.C. McWhannell ‘Gaill, Gáidheil, Gall-Gháidheil and the Cenéla of Greater Galloway’ [pp.81-116]

Andrew Breeze: Review of Alex Woolf (ed.) Beyond the Gododdin: Dark Age Scotland in Medieval Wales (St Andrews, 2013) [pp.197-9]

* * *

Here’s a link to the website of the Galloway Picts Project

* * *
I discuss the location of Rheged on pp.68-75 of The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

* * * * * * * *

17 comments on “Galloway’s lost kingdom?

  1. Dan Elsworth says:

    Thanks for flagging that up, sounds like a very interesting read!

    • Tim says:

      The archaeological data from the site looks pretty significant. For many people it will be the most interesting part of the report (i.e. more so than the Rheged theory).

  2. diaspora52 says:

    Looking forward to the report on Trusty Hill and further debate about Rheged.

    • Tim says:

      I imagine there’ll be a flurry of media interest in Rheged around the time of publication, followed by a renewal of the debate. An interesting prospect – even if it produces no new answers.

  3. Can’t wait to read more about why they seem so certain about Reged….and what about the pictish stone….any light shed on why it’s there in the middle of a British kingdom?

    • Tim says:

      The stone is one of the great mysteries of the Pictish period. It shouldn’t be there at all, so it raises big questions about the Picts and the extent of their cultural influence.

  4. kevin halloran says:

    Tim, I share your surprise at the title. I venture to suggest that the report will present no evidence whatsoever in respect of the location of Rheged. What has almost certainly happened is that the authors have accepted the orthodox argument that the kingdom was centred on the Solway and in identifying a royal stronghold have Hey Presto! associated it with Rheged.

    • Tim says:

      It shows how entrenched the orthodox theory has become during the course of the twentieth century. The theory is now a factoid, like Catraeth=Catterick. The main problem with factoids is that they get in the way of objective study and take up a lot of space that could be used for something more useful. This is why they need to be challenged before they get a chance to solidify. Sadly it may be too late for this to happen with Rheged.

  5. Beth says:

    It does seem something of a leap to go from ‘Dark Age stronghold’ to ‘Dark Age stronghold of Rheged’, unless there’s something more we haven’t heard about yet. 😉 That said, looking forward to the book – thanks for flagging it up!

    • Tim says:

      Yes, I think it’s going to require a leap of faith. On the other hand, the archaeology sections might provide extra info for your novel (e.g. sixth-century pottery).

  6. dearieme says:

    Quoting about a different recent Pictish find:
    “The stones could have been grave markers (although archaeological evidence of burials associated with Pictish Symbol Stones is sparse) or perhaps boundary markers”.

    This made me wonder: if the stones are boundary markers, shouldn’t they come in sets? Could one deduce anything about ancient boundaries that would gave one a clue where to look for complements to already discovered stones?

    • Tim says:

      I tend to see different functions for different stones. Some do seem to be on boundaries, while others are probably waymarkers on important routes, but a large number look like memorials to the dead (even if they didn’t actually mark a grave). I’m hoping to mention the recently-discovered stone from Dandaleith in a blogpost fairly soon.

      • dearieme says:

        Do waymarkers tend to sit at high points (for visibility), or at points that help you choose between divergent routes, or at points where a route takes a big change of direction ….? Can we guess from non-Pictish evidence?

        • Tim says:

          I suppose the positioning of waymarkers depended on various factors. The ninth-century Barochan Cross, for example, was placed on a hilltop overlooking a crossroads, but its original purpose was clearly as a commemorative monument – even if it became used as a waymarker in later times. Perhaps there’s a book on this topic out there somewhere?

  7. Calum says:

    Hi Tim,
    There have been theories put forward that many of the Pictish symbol stones represent dynastic alliances. Mightn’t the carvings at Trusty’s Hill celebrate an alliance between the local royal line and a Pictish one? Possibly through marriage? Stretching this idea perhaps, but the sea beast and sword could be a motif that symbolises the self-perceived maritime dominance of the Trusty’s Hill kingdom. (The strong Roman presence at Gatehouse of Fleet could argue for the long lasting strategic importance of the town as a port and centre of Britonnic sea power within the Solway and Irish Sea). I agree that trying to fit Rheged on to the Trusty’s Hill fort might be stretching things a bit much, though. Pity.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for this suggestion, Calum. I see nothing implausible in the idea of the symbols at Trusty’s Hill representing an alliance, or that the strange beast might be some kind of nod to sea-power. Whether any of this involved people who came from what we usually understand as the Pictish heartlands is another matter. I’m starting to wonder if the folk who carved Pictish symbols on Skye could be part of some Hebridean group who roved among the western seaways as far south as Galloway.

  8. Andrew Breeze says:

    I am Andrew Breeze. I stick to my guns on Rheged’s stretching from _Aeron_ or River Ayr (not the Aire of Yorkshire) to Arechwydd or the district bordering the Ouse marshes, Yorkshire. But I am most interested to hear thanks to _Senchus_ that my review of _Beyond the Gododdin_ was published the months ago, of which I had known nothing.

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