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.


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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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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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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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]


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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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Dunbar Castle

Dunbar Castle
The image above is from the early nineteenth century. It’s an engraving by John Greig (from a drawing by Luke Clennell) and was published as a plate illustration in Sir Walter Scott’s The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland. A number of prints were made from the original and some of these were hand-coloured by later artists. I recently found one of the coloured versions, neatly mounted on white card, in a car boot sale at Falkirk Football Club.

The picture gives a clear impression of the great mass of rock upon which the Scottish earls of Dunbar built their castle, a structure now so ruinous as to be deemed too dangerous for the public. To the left of the castle – but not shown in the engraving – is the headland known as Castle Park where archaeological excavations in the late 1980s and early 1990s revealed traces of an ancient promontory fort. This older stronghold was occupied as far back as the Iron Age and continued to be used in early medieval times as an important centre of power. Originally a fortress of the native Britons, it was taken over by the Anglo-Saxons in the seventh century when its name was recorded as Dynbaer (from Brittonic din+bar, ‘summit fort’). In the ninth century it was attacked by the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (Kenneth MacAlpine) and eventually became part of the kingdom of Alba in the time of Cináed’s descendants. The site of the fortress is now occupied by a leisure centre.

Much of the history of Dunbar’s medieval castle falls outside the remit of this blog but is well worth a look, especially by anyone with an interest in the Anglo-Scottish wars. The castle’s most famous resident was the formidable Black Agnes, wife of the 9th earl, who successfully resisted an English siege in the fourteenth century.

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Further reading:

David Perry and Mark Blackburn, Castle Park, Dunbar: two thousand years on a fortified headland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2000)

The Canmore record for Castle Park can be found at the RCAHMS website.

Elsa Hamilton, Mighty subjects: the Dunbar earls in Scotland, c.1072-1289 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2010)

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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.

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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]

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

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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)

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Picts at Moncrieffe Hill

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
A new project to promote the history and archaeology of the Carse of Gowrie is set to run for the next four years, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources. One of the key sites involved in the project is Moncrieffe Hill which has a large Iron Age fort on the summit. The fort has never been excavated before, but the new project will see the first ever ‘dig’. This is likely to shed light on how the hill was used by the ancient inhabitants of Perthshire, not only in the Iron Age but in the Pictish period that followed.

The name Moncrieffe is an Anglicised form of Monadh Craoibh (Gaelic: ‘Hill of Trees’). A glance at the Latin text of the Annals of Ulster turns up an interesting item from the year 728:

Bellum Mónidchroibh inter Pictores inuicem, ubi Oenghus uictor fuit & multi ex parte Eilpini regis perempti sunt. Bellum lacrimabile inter eosdem gestum est iuxta Castellum Credi, ubi Elpinus efugit.

‘The battle of Monadh Craoibh between the Picts themselves, in which Óengus was victor, and many were slain on the side of king Alpín. A woeful battle was fought between the same parties near Castle Credi, where Alpín was put to flight.’

Castle Credi is unidentifed, but Monadh Craoibh is undoubtedly Moncrieffe Hill. The context of the battle was a power-struggle between rival claimants for kingship in southern Pictland. Four ambitious men – Óengus, Alpín, Nechtan and Drust – fought a bitter war that lasted through the 720s. By the summer of 729, a victor finally emerged in the shape of Óengus, who defeated Nechtan, his last remaining rival, on 12 August. In the previous year, Óengus had trounced Alpín’s forces at Moncrieffe Hill and Castle Credi.

Moncrieffe Hill Pictish fort
Óengus (pronounced ‘Oyn-yus’) went on to become one of the greatest of all Pictish kings. In the 730s he conquered Dál Riata, the land of the Scots, which thereafter seems to have lain under permanent Pictish overkingship. One result of the long period of Pictish supremacy was the gradual merging together of the Scots and Picts as a single, Gaelic-speaking people inhabiting a new kingdom called Alba. If we credit Óengus as one of the main architects of this process, his victory at Moncrieffe Hill should perhaps be seen as an important milestone in the birth of the Scottish nation.

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I deal with the Pictish dynastic war of the 720s in my book The Picts: a History (at pp.150-3).

The image below shows the Israelite king David, as depicted on the eighth-century St Andrews Sarcophagus. It is possible that the stone-carver tried to capture the likeness of Óengus, king of the Picts, who may be the person commemorated by this famous monument.

St Andrews Sarcophagus

The new heritage project for the Carse of Gowrie is described in an article in The Courier. The project also has its own website.

Check out these photos of Moncrieffe Hill in a blogpost by Keith Savage.

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The location of Rheged

Pictish symbols Trustys Hill

Pictish symbols carved on a rock at Trusty’s Hill (from John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland, 1857)

Back in May, in a blogpost about the hillfort on Trusty’s Hill in Galloway, I wrote the following:

‘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.’

Galloway is not the only area proposed as the heartland of Urien’s kingdom. The English county of Cumbria is another popular candidate, frequently appearing alongside Dumfries & Galloway as part of ‘Rheged’. This idea that Urien’s rule encompassed lands on both sides of the Solway Firth has recently received a boost from two different quarters. Cumbria’s claim is strongly endorsed by Professor Andrew Breeze in the published version of a 2011 lecture on place-names, while archaeological data from the Galloway Picts Project has prompted a suggestion that Trusty’s Hill may have been a key centre of power for Urien’s family.

I continue to regard Rheged as an elusive territory whose precise location is unknown. I’m not convinced we can even call it a ‘kingdom’. All we can say with confidence is that the poetry attributed to Taliesin associates a place called Rheged with a North British king called Urien. We have no evidence that Rheged was a large territory of greater extent than, say, a river valley of sufficient size to support one or more aristocratic estates. It may have been Urien’s core domain, to which he added other territories (such as the equally mysterious Goddeu and Llwyfenydd) as his power expanded.

Modern maps of sixth-century Britain often show Rheged as a huge realm straddling the Solway and parts of the Pennines. Sometimes it stretches down into Lancashire, prompting some mapmakers to divide it into sub-kingdoms called ‘North Rheged’ and ‘South Rheged’. This goes way beyond the information provided by Taliesin, and is as far away from serious historical scholarship as the maps in The Lord Of The Rings (which are at least consistent with textual evidence relating to the kingdoms of Middle Earth).

It’s actually quite rare to see the lack of certainty about Rheged’s location being acknowledged. One writer who has taken a cautious approach is Carla Nayland, whose blog includes many useful thoughts on historical subjects. Carla examines the geography of Rheged in a couple of recent posts, both of which I recommend to anyone who has an interest in this controversial topic. While voicing her own preference for a Solway location, Carla points out that nobody really knows for sure. This is an important point which can’t be brushed aside, regardless of how many people preface their theories with ‘Historians now accept that Rheged lay in the Eden Valley….’ [or in the Lake District or Galloway or wherever]. Carla summarises, in a few words, what we actually do know: ‘Rheged could have been anywhere on the western side of Britain from Strathclyde to Lancashire’.

Until we can be certain where Urien’s kingdom was situated in relation to other kingdoms (and we’re unlikely to ever know) a reconstruction of sixth-century political geography based on where we think he ruled won’t get us very far. We also need to keep in mind the sobering fact that many specialists in medieval Welsh literature have now moved away from the older view – held by Sir Ifor Williams and other Celtic scholars of his generation – that the Taliesin poems can be used as valid sources of North British history.

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Carla Nayland’s blogposts:
Rheged: location
Location of Rheged: the poetry

Galloway Picts Project – New exhibition on the Trusty’s Hill excavation (an information board on ‘Rheged: the lost kingdom’ can be glimpsed in one of the photos)

Andrew Breeze: ‘The Names of Rheged’, Transactions of the Dumfriesshire & Galloway Natural History & Antiquarian Society, vol.86 (2012), pp.51-62. A summary of the lecture upon which the article is based can be found at the DGNHAS website.

P.S. As I’ve said in a comment at Carla’s blog, I’d be more than happy to locate Urien in the Solway area, mainly because he’d conveniently fill a gap in a part of Northern Britain where plenty of elite activity was going on in the sixth century. But other areas can’t be ruled out, and I believe a no-less-plausible case can be made for the upper valley of the River Tweed around Peebles (on which I hope to say more in a future blogpost). This won’t mean I think Rheged was centred on Peebles. It will merely demonstrate that the conventional theory is not the only one we can explore.

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