Early settlements in Orkney and Caithness

Map of Orkney & Caithness
Two fascinating archaeological projects have been going on in the far north of Scotland. Information can be found at their respective blogs via the links below.

In Orkney, this year’s summer excavation at The Cairns on South Ronaldsay ended a couple of weeks ago. The Cairns is the site of a substantial Iron Age settlement near Windwick Bay on the eastern side of the island. At its heart are the remains of a broch – a huge stone tower – which may have been built as early as the fourth century BC. The broch’s walls are 5 metres thick, making it one of the largest examples of its type. In recent years, archaeologists have been unearthing new pieces of evidence and joining them together to build up a history not just of the broch itself but of the entire site around it. What has emerged is a remarkable insight into how this place was used by successive generations of inhabitants over a period of several thousand years, from Neolithic times to the Iron Age, and from the era of the Picts and Vikings to c.1150 AD.

Link The Cairns Project

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In Caithness, a project to locate and investigate the remains of prehistoric settlements is shedding light on a previously little-known period in the area’s archaeology. Laser-scanning with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) has enabled archaeologists to identify previously unrecorded features that traditional aerial photography might otherwise fail to pick up. This new technology is revealing a rich Bronze Age landscape of hut circles, mounds and other sites which can be surveyed on the ground. The sites will now be studied alongside the chambered cairns – long regarded as the primary prehistoric evidence from Caithness – to build up a more detailed picture of how local people interacted with the land 3000 years ago.

Link Bronze Age Caithness

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Dunadd

Dunadd

The River Add from the summit of Dunadd (Photo © T Clarkson)


Many readers of this blog will be familiar with the hillfort of Dunadd. Some of you will have walked up the stony path to the famous carved footprint on the summit. It’s an enthralling place, with great views from the top and a rich aura of history all around. I’ve been there a couple of times, though my last visit was at least ten years ago.

Today I’m writing about Dunadd because I’ve recently been reminded of why it’s one of my favourite Dark Age sites. The reminder came in an article by Jo Woolf, over at her website The Hazel Tree. Jo’s reports on her visits to historic places always capture the essence and atmosphere, and her article on Dunadd is no exception. It’s worth checking out for the photographs too, which give a virtual tour of the hill and the surrounding landscape.

Jo refers to Dunadd’s importance as a place of ritual where early Scottish kings were inaugurated. She writes about the footprint, which would have played a central role in the royal ceremonies, noting that the original carving lies protected beneath a modern replica. She also mentions the carved image of a boar, which is often identified as Pictish. In AD 736, as Jo observes, an army of Picts attacked Dunadd during a major war with the Scots. At that time, the main territory of the Scots was Dál Riata, a region comprising much of Argyll and the Isles. The later kingdom of Scotland lay a couple of hundred years in the future.

Dunadd

The Pictish army in 736 was led by Óengus, the mightiest warlord in northern Britain. His main enemies in Dál Riata belonged to a royal family known as Cenél Loairn (‘Descendants of Loarn’) whose name still survives in the district of Lorn around the town of Oban. This family was at the height of its power in the early eighth century and probably used Dunadd as a major stronghold. The fortress was no doubt a key target for Óengus, whose attack upon it was noted by contemporary annalists. The record in question, written in Latin, is preserved in the Annals of Ulster:

Oengus m. Fergusso, rex Pictorum, vastavit regiones Dail Riatai & obtenuit Dun At & combussit Creic & duos filios Selbaich catenis alligauit, .i. Donngal & Feradach; & paulo post Brudeus m. Oengusa filii Fergusso obiit.
[‘Óengus son of Fergus, king of the Picts, laid waste the territory of Dál Riata and seized Dunadd and burned Creic and bound in chains two sons of Selbach, i.e. Dungal and Feradach; and shortly afterwards Brude son of Óengus son of Fergus died.’]

Not only was the fall of Dunadd a massive setback for Cenél Loairn, the capture of Selbach’s sons deprived the family of two prominent military leaders. Óengus pressed home his advantage and, within a few years, had imposed his authority throughout Dál Riata, establishing a Pictish overlordship in the heartland of the Scots. This was not the end of the story: archaeological evidence suggests that Dunadd remained in use, at least into the early 800s. By then, however, the presence of Viking raiders in the western seaways was already putting pressure on the Scots, prompting some of their leading families to migrate eastward into Pictish territory. In such circumstances, Dunadd is unlikely to have retained its status as a crowning-place of kings.

Click the link below to go to Jo Woolf’s blogpost.

Dunadd: behold the king!

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Coastal brochs

Dun Carloway broch

Dun Carloway broch on the Isle of Lewis (from a photograph by James Valentine, c.1870).


A project called Scotland’s Coastal Heritage At Risk (SCHARP) has been running for the past three years. Its aim is to obtain information from archaeological sites threatened by coastal erosion.

The latest post on the project’s blog looks at the ancient stone towers known as ‘brochs’. These imposing structures were probably built around 200 BC and have been found in many parts of Scotland. Some were re-used in the ensuing centuries, with a number of them being occupied into early medieval times as places of power or refuge. Ancillary structures such as houses, courtyards and ramparts were sometimes attached to the original tower, turning it into the nucleus of an extended settlement.

I’ve only skimmed this topic in my own research on early medieval Scotland but I’m particularly fascinated by the popular idea that a broch is a ‘Pictish tower’. This not-quite-accurate label was promoted by historians 200 years ago but had probably existed in local folkore long before then. It belonged to the same bundle of legends that included the idea of the Picts as a secretive race of pigmies who hid themselves away during daylight.

The SCHARP blogpost is an excellent introduction to brochs. The illustrations are especially informative, using photographs to show how these huge towers were made and how they were added to over time. Click on the link below to read more.

SCHARP blogpost on coastal brochs
SCHARP is also on Twitter at @CoastArch

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Kirkmadrine stones return to Galloway

Kirkmadrine map
Last month, a group of early medieval sculptured stones returned to their home at Kirkmadrine in the Rhinns peninsula, a quiet corner of Galloway. They had spent some time at Historic Scotland in Edinburgh where they were cleaned by specialist conservators. This important work gave other experts an opportunity to re-examine the stones with new technologies such as laser scanning.

Three of the stones were carved in the sixth century and have long been recognised as among the earliest Christian monuments in Britain – perhaps even the oldest. All three are tall monoliths, possibly originating as prehistoric standing-stones. It is believed that they were erected by members of a religious community who established a major monastery at Kirkmadrine.

Two of these monuments commemorate named individuals: Florentius, Mavorius and Viventius. Florentius seems to have his own memorial but the other two appear together on one stone. While Florentius is not specifically identified as a cleric, Mavorius and Viventius are described as sacerdotes (‘senior priests’ or ‘bishops’).

Kirkmadrine stones

The sacerdotes and Florentius stones at Kirkmadrine (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Little is known of the early religious settlement at Kirkmadrine. Unlike the great monastery at Whithorn, situated on a neighbouring peninsula, Kirkmadrine has left no trace in the surviving chronicles. Yet its sculpture suggests that it was a place of considerable wealth and status. Its monks were overseen by high-ranking clerics who must have secured protection from a local ruler – probably a king whose realm included the Rhinns peninsula. The name of this kingdom, like the story behind the stones, is part of Galloway’s lost Dark Age history.

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Links

The Herald newspaper: Historic stones return to their origins
Historic Scotland: Kirkmadrine stones come home
Visit Scotland: Kirkmadrine Early Christian stones

My previous blogpost on Kirkmadrine: A major monastery?

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The Northern Picts Project

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack

Tarbat Old Parish Church, Portmahomack, Easter Ross (© B Keeling)


The Northern Picts Project is a collaborative venture involving the University of Aberdeen and the Tarbat Discovery Centre in Easter Ross. The main focus of research is the archaeology of Fortriu, a major Pictish kingdom that was once believed to lie in southern Perthshire. In 2006, a groundbreaking article by Alex Woolf suggested that Fortriu lay further north, beyond The Mounth (the eastern part of the Grampian Mountains). Woolf’s revised geography has generally been accepted, with the result that the kingdom’s heartland is now seen as Moray and Easter Ross rather than Strathearn.

As well as investigating the archaeology of Fortriu, the Northern Picts Project also looks at the kingdom’s history. This is the topic of A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts, written by Nicholas Evans and issued by the project as the first in a series of publications.

One area of particular interest for the project is the Tarbat Peninsula. This contains not only the major Pictish monastery of Portmahomack – reputedly founded by St Colman in the seventh century – but also a number of hillforts and carved stones. The site of the monastery is now occupied by Tarbat Old Parish Church, now home to the Tarbat Discovery Centre – an award-winning museum and heritage venue.

The wider context of the Northern Picts Project is an international study called Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North which encompasses a broad swathe of North European peoples and cultures. This larger project enables historians and archaeologists to consider how the early kingdoms of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and elsewhere interacted with one another as they evolved during the first millennium AD.

Further information can be found via the links below.

Northern Picts Project
Tarbat Discovery Centre [follow on Twitter @TarbatMuseum]
Pathways to Power: Rise of the Early Medieval Kingdoms of the North
A Historical Introduction to the Northern Picts [book by Nicholas Evans]
Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts [book by Martin Carver]

Reference:
Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201.

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Yeavering report online

Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor
The full report of the excavations at Yeavering by Brian Hope-Taylor (1923-2001) is available as a free download.

This monumental tome runs well beyond 450 pages and is one of the most frequently cited texts on post-Roman and early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. Originally published in 1977, it has remained a standard reference tool for researchers working on the history and archaeology of Northeast England and Southeast Scotland in the fifth to seventh centuries. The downloadable version has been made available by English Heritage via the Archaeology Data Service at the University of York.

Yeavering was a major centre of power for the Northumbrian king Edwin (died 633) who established a royal palace there. It was mentioned in the following century by the Venerable Bede, who called it Gefrin – a native Celtic name meaning ‘Hill of Goats’. The hill in question loomed above Edwin’s palace and was formerly used by local Britons who had a fortified settlement on the top. One unusual feature unearthed at the palace by Hope-Taylor’s team was a timber grandstand which accommodated spectators at formal public events. This has long been regarded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries from Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

As well as describing the excavations, the report also includes an extensive historical discussion which – nearly 40 years on – is still a valuable source of information on the early kingdoms of the North.

Link Yeavering: an Anglo-British centre of early Northumbria [free download]

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Picts at Dunnicaer

Pictish symbol stone Dunnicaer

Fish symbol and triangle on a stone from Dunnicaer.


Archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen have recently discovered a Pictish fort on the summit of Dunnicaer, a ‘sea stack’ near Dunnottar Castle. Dunnicaer lies approximately 1 mile south of the town of Stonehaven but is isolated from the mainland at high tide. A number of stone fragments inscribed with Pictish symbols were found there in the nineteenth century, suggesting that it was a significant place in early medieval times. However, with steep slopes and rugged cliffs, it is hardly the most accessible archaeological site in Scotland – which is probably why it had never been excavated before. The Aberdeen team needed the guidance of a professional climber to help them get to the top.

Dunnottar Castle, situated a quarter of a mile further south, stands on a prominent headland jutting into the North Sea. Built in the twelfth century, it served as a stronghold for Clan Keith from the 1300s to the 1700s and was an important strategic site. References in medieval texts show its frequent involvement in warfare and dynastic politics. Older sources relating to the Dark Ages refer to a fortress called Dun Foither (the Gaelic name for Dunnottar). Contemporary annals state that this was besieged twice in the seventh century – in 681 and 694 – probably during wars between rival Pictish kings. It has long been assumed that the fortress in question stood on the headland now occupied by the castle. However, excavations conducted thirty years ago failed to reveal any evidence of Pictish settlement, prompting a suggestion that the original Dun Foither might instead be Dunnicaer.

Dunnottar Castle
[Above and below: two nineteenth-century views of Dunnottar Castle]

Dunnottar Castle

The recent excavation at Dunnicaer has now confirmed that this remote sea-stack was indeed the site of a small Pictish fortress. It was built sometime between c.400-600 and comprised a timber house or hall defended by an outer rampart of stone. Upon this defensive wall the symbol-inscribed stones discovered in the nineteenth century were probably displayed. It is also likely that the occupants devised a more convenient method of access than a scramble up the steep sides. They may, for example, have built a wooden bridge as a link to the mainland.

Archaeological finds – including charcoal from a hearth in the house – are now being anlaysed by experts. These may give clues about how, when and by whom the site was used. Was it perhaps the residence of an important local family, or some kind of military lookout post?

Pictish stone Dunnicaer

An ornate double-disc & Z-rod symbol on a stone from Dunnicaer.

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Links

These are a mixture of news items and database entries:

‘Significant’ Pictish fort found off Aberdeenshire coast (BBC News) [includes a video showing how the archaeologists scaled the steep sides of Dunnicaer]
Pictish fort discovered on remote sea stack (Daily Mail)
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the settlement at Dunnicaer
Aberdeenshire Council – Sites & Monuments Record for the Dunnicaer symbol stones
Dunnicaer promontary fort (The Modern Antiquarian)
RCAHMS Canmore database entries for Dunnicaer and Dunnottar Castle

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References

Thomson, A (1860) ‘Notice of sculptured stones found at “Dinnacair”, a rock in the sea, near Stonehaven’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 3, pp. 69-75.

Alcock, Leslie & Alcock, Elizabeth (1992) ‘Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84; 5: A, Excavations & other fieldwork at Forteviot, Perthshire, 1981; B, Excavations at Urquhart Castle, Inverness-shire, 1983; C, Excavations at Dunnottar, Kincardineshire, 1984′, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 122, pp. 215–287.

[Both articles can be accessed via the PSAS online archive]

dunnicaer_map

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Note: The two symbol-stone illustrations shown in this blogpost are from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland (1856).

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