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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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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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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Pictish carvings at the Wemyss Caves

wemyssheader
East Wemyss is a former coal-mining village on the south coast of Fife. It is famous for a group of sandstone caves along the shoreline, these having been delved in some far-off time when the waters of the Firth of Firth were higher than today. The cave walls are adorned with ancient carvings, many of which are now hard to discern. A number of these have been dated to the early medieval period and were carved by local Picts in the sixth to ninth centuries AD.

map_fife2c

Damage to the caves by erosion, neglect and vandalism led to the formation of a group dedicated to preserving and conserving them. Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society (SWACS) was founded in 1986, after one of the sites – Jonathan’s Cave – was damaged by fire when a stolen car was driven inside and set alight. Since then, SWACS has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the caves and their unique carvings, co-operating with other organisations in projects aimed at increasing knowledge and raising awareness.

One of the latest projects is using high-tech scanning methods to produce 3D digital images and models of the caves. This began with Jonathan’s Cave and is now being extended to the others. One exciting result of the project is Wemyss Caves 4D, a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave with an interactive aspect giving detailed information. It allows the user to feel like an explorer, even giving an option to shine a torch for a better view of the carvings. This is great for those of us who have yet to experience an official tour with a guide from SWACS. See the link at the end of this blogpost if you want to try it for yourselves.

Although I’ve had a few holidays in Fife, it wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I visited the Wemyss caves for the first time. Even then, I only managed to get a brief look. In the fading light of early evening I followed the public path along the shoreline, passing the Court Cave and Doo Cave and having a quick peep inside. Unfortunately I was short of time so didn’t venture further along the shore to see the other caves, nor did I catch a glimpse of any ancient designs.

Back home, I consulted my copy of Allen & Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903) where the Pictish carvings in the Wemyss caves are described. Here’s an image from ECMS showing some of the Pictish symbols in Doo Cave, drawn by John Romilly Allen:

Wemyss Caves Pictish Symbols

I’ve selected the above symbols from Allen’s original sketch because they’re familiar and recognisable – unlike others which are more abstract or esoteric. My selection shows the double-disc & Z-rod (attached to an animal’s head), the Pictish beast or ‘swimming elephant’, the arch, the rectangle, the bird and four double-discs. All of these can be seen in variant forms on Pictish symbol stones, usually in combinations of two or more, and often with other symbols not shown here. Sadly, the double-disc & Z-rod was on a section of wall that collapsed when a gun emplacement was placed on top of the cliff during World War One.

The cave I’m most keen to visit is Jonathan’s Cave, mainly because I’ve done a bit of research on it from afar. It popped onto my radar in the mid-1990s, when I was gathering information on early medieval naval warfare for a PhD thesis. I was looking for images of Pictish ships and came across an article describing an oared vessel carved on the east wall of Jonathan’s Cave. Back then, I made a note to see this important carving for myself, little knowing that the visit would still be sitting on my ‘to do’ list twenty years later. It’s something I really should tick off before another decade slips by. A brief stroll along the shoreline at East Wemyss on a March evening, with little more than a hasty peek at two of the caves, has merely whetted my appetite.

Wemyss Caves

Looking west along the shore from Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Tree, sandstone cliff and warning sign outside Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

The entrance to Court Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

The entrance to Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Doo Cave (© B Keeling).

Wemyss Caves

Looking out across the Firth of Firth (© B Keeling).

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Notes & links

The place-name Wemyss (pronounced ‘Weems’) comes from the Gaelic word uamh meaning ‘cave’.

Jonathan’s Cave is named from a poor man who lived inside with his family in the late 1700s.
Court Cave was the site of the local baronial court in the Middle Ages. The nearby Macduff’s Castle was the seat of the earls of Fife.
Doo Cave, originally Doocot (‘Dovecot’) Cave, was once a place where pigeons were kept.
The other caves at East Wemyss are Well Cave, Sloping Cave and Gas Works Cave. Several more have collapsed.

Notices at the cave entrances warn visitors of the danger of entering. SWACS recommends booking a tour with one of their guides (see website below).

SWACS website (Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society)

Wemyss caves 4D [use the Explore option for a virtual tour of Jonathan’s Cave]

A blogpost from SCHARP (Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk Project) on the scanning project: ‘Wemyss Caves 4D continues…’

Information on Jonathan’s Cave at the RCAHMS Canmore database

From the Courier newspaper, an article on the threat of erosion: ‘Do they want to see them lost forever? — council told it needs to do more to protect Wemyss Caves.’

Lastly, the article that first drew my attention to the Wemyss Caves: Elizabeth le Bon, ‘The Jonathan’s Cave boat carving: a question of authenticity?’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology vol.21 (1992), 337-42

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Bits & pieces

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (see fourth item below). Photo © B Keeling.


Just a random selection of interesting items….

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‘Cult and Kingship – Understanding the Early Pictish Royal Centre at Rhynie’ was the title of a paper presented by Dr Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University to the Royal Scone Conference. A video of this and other presentations can now be viewed at the blog of archaeologist Doug Rocks-Macqueen.

Scone with its ‘Stone of Destiny’ is famous as the place where medieval Scottish kings were crowned. The conference Royal Scone: A Scottish Medieval Royal Centre in Europe, held in Perth in November 2014, sought to better understand this important site by placing it in a wider North European context. Scholars from Scotland and beyond came together to discuss themes such as royal inauguration, state-formation and the archaeology of assembly places.

This is the kind of event I’m always sorry to miss :-(

Link Papers from the Royal Scone Conference, 2014.

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Here’s something else I’d like to see, if I can get to it between now and May…

Roman Empire: Power And People, McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee. 24 January to 10 May, 2015. Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sunday: 12.30-4.30pm.

This exhibition of sculpture, jewellery and other items from the British Museum is a showcase of the wealth of the Roman Empire. Material from outlying territories such as Scotland is also included.

Below are links to two media reports on the exhibition, followed by a link to the McManus itself.

Report from Herald Scotland website

Report from BBC News: Tayside & Central Scotland

McManus Art Gallery & Museum

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James Drummond was a renowned Scottish artist and antiquarian of the Victorian era. His illustrations of historic sites and old monuments include a number of images relating to the time-period covered at this blog.

A selection of Drummond’s work can now be seen at the Canmore database after being digitised by trainees on the RCAHMS Skills for the Future scheme. I spotted a couple of images with early medieval connections: the Cat Stane (although Drummond didn’t show the Early Christian inscription) and the Loth Stane (where the legendary King Loth of Lothian is supposedly buried). There are also some nice pictures of standing-stones from various parts of Scotland.

Link Highlights from the James Drummond Collection at RCAHMS

Link ‘Fine lines: Edinburgh-born James Drummond’s art digitised’ (BBC News)

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‘Wall of Eternity’ is the new name for Hadrian’s Wall in promotional literature to Chinese tourists.

The name emerged as the top choice during a poll in China which asked people to suggest suitable names in Mandarin for 101 tourist sites in Britain. A sign featuring the new name has already been produced for the Roman fort at Housesteads.

I quite like one of the alternative suggestions – ‘Great Wall of Britain’ – but I have to admit ‘Wall of Eternity’ does sound more evocative.

Link ‘Hadrian’s Wall given new Chinese name as part of tourism campaign’ (article in the Newcastle Chronicle)

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Last but not least, a new location for a popular blog…

Historical novelist Nicola Griffith has recently moved her excellent Gemaecca site to WordPress where it can now be found at gemaecce.com (note the different spelling). Fellow-bloggers will need to amend their links accordingly, to keep track of Nicola’s research on St Hild of Whitby and seventh-century Britain.

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Ghosts of Nechtanesmere

Dunnichen Moss

Dunnichen Moss, looking north towards Dunnichen Hill (Photograph © B Keeling).


On 20 May 685, at Dun Nechtáin (‘Nechtan’s Fortress’), an English army from Northumbria was massacred while advancing deep into Pictish territory. As well as being associated with a fortification, the battle was also close to an area of wetland known as Linn Garan (‘Heron Pool’ in the ancient Brittonic language of the Picts) and as Nechtanesmere (Old English: ‘Nechtan’s Mire’).

The location of the battlefield is a matter of debate. Some historians place it near Dunnichen Hill in Angus; others look further north to Dunachton in Badenoch. My own preference is for the Angus site, although I continue to keep an open mind.

Many years ago, while reading Graeme Cruickshank’s 1991 booklet on the battle, I encountered an intriguing tale, a sort of Pictish ghost-story. This told of a strange apparition allegedly seen by Miss E.F. Smith, a resident of the village of Letham, after her car skidded off the road on a dark night in January 1950. According to Miss Smith, she left her vehicle in a ditch and began the 8-mile walk home, taking a route along unlit country roads. Eventually, just before 2.00am, she drew near the outskirts of Letham and saw the black shape of Dunnichen Hill looming ahead. It was then that she noticed shadowy lights moving in nearby farmland. These gradually became clear, to be revealed as flaming torches held by a group of figures clad in what seemed to be medieval garb. Miss Smith glimpsed another group of torch-bearing figures in a field some distance away, and finally a third group near some farm buildings. As she watched, she saw members of the third group periodically stooping to the ground to inspect dead bodies lying face-down on the grass, turning them over as if to identify them. Continuing on her way, she left the figures behind in the darkness and soon reached the safety of her home.

More than 20 years later, Miss Smith’s strange encounter came to the attention of Dr James McHarg, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, who interviewed her in 1971. Dr McHarg gave cautious credence to the genuineness of her tale, partly because he did not think her the kind of person who would make it up. Miss Smith did, however, admit to knowing – before the alleged sighting took place – that the battle was believed by many local folk to have been fought near Dunnichen Hill. Also, she had subsequently acquired further information from an academic article written by the renowned archaeologist Frederick Threlfall Wainwright.

So, what really did happen on that January night 65 years ago? Did Miss Smith gaze straight back through the centuries to the grim battlefield of Nechtanesmere? Did she really see Pictish warriors conducting a solemn search for their dead comrades? Or did the darkness and the cold, together with the alcohol she had consumed at a cocktail party in Brechin, cause her to hallucinate on the long walk home?

We will probably never know, but it makes a good tale nonetheless.

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Notes & references

I was reminded of this story a couple of weeks ago when the Picts Facebook page posted a link to a blogpost written by Mike Dash in 2010: ‘A Scottish spinster at the Battle of Nechtanesmere, 685 AD’. As with much of the information I find online these days, my initial source was Twitter – in this instance, a tweet by Debra Torrance (@FewArePict) on 4th March 2015.

Graeme Cruickshank, The Battle of Dunnichen (Pinkfoot Press, 1991).

James E. Fraser, The Battle of Dunnichen, 685 (Tempus, 2002).

Frederick T. Wainwright, ‘Nechtanesmere’ Antiquity 86 (1948), 82-97.

Alex Woolf, ‘Dun Nechtáin, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’ Scottish Historical Review 85 (2006), 182-201. [Woolf suggests Dunachton, not Dunnichen, as the site of the battle]

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Glenmorangie Research Project

Early Medieval Scotland
I have long held the view that an interest in Scottish history and a fondness for single malt whisky go well together. Those of you who are nodding in agreement will be pleased to know that the famous Glenmorangie Company is playing an important role in increasing our knowledge of Scotland’s ancient past. Since 2008, the company has been partnering the National Museums of Scotland in a major research project on the archaeology of the early medieval period (c.300-900 AD). The inspiration for the venture came from the Hilton of Cadboll sculptured stone, a magnificent Pictish cross-slab that formerly stood on the coast of the Tarbat Peninsula in Easter Ross, a few miles south-east of the Glenmorangie Distillery at Tain. The stone is now in the National Museums at Edinburgh but a stunning replica has been erected near the original setting. A pattern of spirals on one of the carved panels is used in the whisky company’s branding.

Hilton Of Cadboll Pictish Stone

The Pictish stone from Hilton of Cadboll (illustration in John Stuart’s The Sculptured Stones of Scotland).

Partnership with Glenmorangie has provided the project with sufficient funding to pursue several avenues of study. At the heart of the research is the material culture of the Picts and their neighbours: sculpture, metalwork, jewellery and other objects. Conservation and analysis of original artefacts is obviously a cornerstone of the project, but the work has also included the creation of modern replicas by craftspeople using traditional techniques. These reconstructions were displayed in an exhibition called Creative Spirit: Revealing Early Medieval Scotland which ran from October 2013 to February 2014. Among the items were drinking horns, hand-bells and a very striking ‘Pictish throne’.

Norries Law Pictish Silver

Silver plaque from the Pictish hoard found at Norrie’s Law, Fife (illustration in Allen & Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland).

Last year, the project received a further three years of sponsorship from the Glenmorangie Company. This new phase will enable specialists to conserve and study Scotland’s earliest silver objects, including those from two major Pictish hoards (respectively from Norrie’s Law in Fife and Gaulcross in Aberdeenshire). The Aberdeenshire hoard, unearthed on farmland in 2013, is one of the most important archaeological discoveries of recent times. It may tell us a great deal about the role of silver as a currency of gift and exchange in Pictish society. I wrote about this hoard in a blogpost two months ago and have been keeping an eye on new developments ever since, mainly by checking Alice Blackwell’s posts at the NMS blog. Alice is the Glenmorangie Research Fellow and is leading the project through its latest phase.

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Notes & links

The image at the top of this blogpost shows the front cover of Early Medieval Scotland: Individuals, Communities and Ideas, a monograph arising from the work of the Glenmorangie Research Project. An insight into the book’s contents can be seen at the NMS blog.

The Glenmorangie Research Project has a page at the NMS website.

“Glenmorangie toasts new research project after silver hoard discovery” (article in the Ross-shire Journal).

Blogpost by Alice Blackwell describing the project’s study of Scotland’s earliest silver.

Follow Alice Blackwell on Twitter: @earlymedieval.

Webpage on the replica objects produced for the Creative Spirit exhibition.

My blogpost on the Pictish hoard from Aberdeenshire.

Those of you who have seen the movie Highlander will know that the correct pronunciation of Glenmorangie stresses the second syllable (the name rhymes with orangey, as in the fruit flavour).

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