Hillforts in Britain
The hillforts of Britain and Ireland, namely in the countries of Scotland, Wales, England, Cornwall, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man, are the vast majority of the content of the subject of "hillforts".
With over 4,000 across these territories which dot the map from the Scilly Isles to the Shetland Islands.
They vary in type, and categorising exists for all of them. The categorisation can be by size. With there being some so small they verge on being classed as the equivalents of defended farmhouses. With on the other end the greatest hillfort in Britain, Maiden Castle, which covers 19 hectares, and to visualise that, a hectare is about 20 percent bigger than a football pitch, so a large area to be enclosed by.
The other best way of differentiating it, is by the geography. Most sit upon hilltops, and there are various ways they do this. Some on higher hills than others, some in the middle of plains, some overlooking a pass into a valley, and all sorts. Then some though categorised as hillforts, are more coastal forts. Some of these do sit upon low hills, but others really are small peninsulas, and are less a hill, than a peninsula fort, with a rampart and ditch cutting the enclosure off from potential assailants. This kind of thing can occur inland as well. With for instance a fort having just 1 side as a rampart and the rest being enclosed by natural cliffs, or even a lake to a extent.
Then there are specific details, that separate them, such as how many lines of ramparts, possibly one, maybe 2, maybe 3. Some luckier sites as mentioned just use a natural cliff on one side, or the sea, but usually add to the natural barrier in some way.
There are also varieties of wall construction, like rubble walls, akin to dry stone walling, or use of earthworks, with greater varieties found for some continental oppidum. Pen Y Gaer in North Wales, is famed for a rare, chevaux de frise, which would be stones pointing outwards, akin to a medieval anti-cavalry tactic, to ward off attacks from cavalry. Which is strange as in part of the Iron Age, certainly parts of Britain used chariots rather than cavalry. It must mean something there. In Scotland, some sites such as Tap o' Noth, contain a Scottish Iron Age peculiarity, the vitrified wall. For a as yet unproven reason, they themselves have seen their rocks, heated to temperatures that do not seem to have made the forts stronger, or even indicate attacks, but this is something only found in large numbers in North East Scotland, and at rarer levels as you get away from there. Other structural classifiers include varieties of gate, and their number, and the type of gate. Perhaps the popular in turning entrance, to watch over attackers, like at for instance Castell Cawr above Abergele, or the narrow overbearing entrances to Tre'r Ceiri, or the mighty double entrance at Maiden Castle, to name some examples. Other markers, that divide them into groups, the region they are from, and variety of how remote they are from other forts or Iron Age sites or rivers or population centres. Plus the biggest in some ways, likely population size, how many remnants of human population have been discovered or how many artefacts have been located there. A last example could be legends associated to them, and historical references, and which sites have been excavated, for example. Though what remains of a site is a great indicator as well, as Old Oswestry, and Maiden Castle, and Tre'r Ceiri, as such are examples of the best well preserved sites, go in different categories, to most, and even more so to the list of forts destroyed by quarrying or erosion. Even if some of those sites when they were around, would be more similar to say a example, like Penmaenmawr's Braich y Dinas, than to the still surviving Tre'r Ceiri.
With another truly important differentiation being the age of the fort. Some are Bronze Age, but the high water mark of hillforts was the Iron Age, when more and more were built. Across that era, especially before 100BC, Maiden Castle, and a number of other sites were reaching large populations, that could impress even a Roman with their size. So here there you have categorizing of them for era, early and mid and late Iron Age. A extra factor that marks them into groups, could be that there were later uses of some sites. Did it become a site for a Roman base, or even Norman or such style stone castles. As may have been the case for Edinburgh and Caergwrle castles, according to some indications that they had hillfort style defences long ago, before they became the ground for castle sites.
When the Romans came, England's forts in the main were turned over to other uses, some became part of farms, and many surely were left to go to ruin, after Rome attacked and harmed some in war, and some as a process of establishing their empire, damaged some as to make them unusable again. A small number like Old Sarum, for a brief period became Roman forts, though in most cases Roman style walled towns were constructed, and also not right by hillforts. Though it is of interest that Maiden Castle had a temple built atop it, in the Roman times, as if symbolising a replacement of Celtic by Roman gods. I should not forget that whether Rome utilised a fort, or whether a fort has evidence of a Roman, or a other tribe's attack, or just evidence of Roman occupation, is another fine marker of differentiation.
Much of Wales, especially in the South East, also saw the dismantling of the idea of hillforts as a base, but strangely some forts remained or boomed in use such as the aforementioned Braich Y Dinas. More so, most of the mostly unconquered, Scotland, and wholly unconquered Ireland, retained their forts for centuries.
It must be said as south east England is a little less hilly than the majority of the rest of Britain, despite it always having a high population relative to Britain as a whole, it did not have as many hillforts as the rest of the island, relative to population densities. Though it always did have some dotted there, like Bigbury Camp, in Kent, and Trundle, in Susses, which was even before Rome, was being replaced by Chichester's pre Roman, proto town, as a Celtic centre.
Then when the Romans left southern Britain, and the Anglo Saxons came in, there was a regrowth of hillforts in the remaining parts of England controlled by the Brythonic "Britons", especially the South West, or what was pushed into modern Cornwall, and just about all of Wales. This in addition to Scotland, which had seen the hillforts survive strongly while southern Britain was ruled as a province and such of Rome.
Hillforts were used by figures that must have been the inspirations for the ancient British then Welsh, then Cambro/Breton/Norman stories of King Arthur in his fight against the Saxon invaders. They were of use, with aspects of old Roman towns, but in the end, other factors, saw the Anglo Saxons take more and more territory. I
t must be said by 1000AD other structures were being used in the main other than hillforts. Though some hillfort sites specially in Scotland and Wales, still had some element of use. Certainly the castle or structures like them, were coming into play, and replacing them from after then, mainly as of the arrival of the motte and bailey and stone castles of the Normans into the British Isles after ten sixty six, not that hillforts were so common in Wales and England by then anyway. Though in a sense some sites had a rebirth from this. Certainly in Wales, a large amount of castles are built on former hillfort sites, and some which do not, have a antecedence in many cases from near hillfort locations or sometimes even are on locations which speak of hillfort style locations,
Another good way at differentiating them includes the names. Some have Welsh names, some English names, of which some stem from old Brythonic names. So there are a wide variety of differentiating ways.
The last great method of differentiation is purpose. Of course Maiden Castle must have been some kind of major population and power centre, but some sites, such as Marian Ffrith near Dyserth, or Mull of Galloway's enclosure, defy at this stage, the aim of determining effectively what they were specifically for. It has be stated that hillforts were not just army bases on a hill, and very few likely were. The majority must have been to a extent fortified villages, or hamlets, or farmsteads. With the military defensive aspect just a part of life. Some may have been mainly for guarding a pass, but for that matter, some, specially some very coastal ones, were mainly trade posts, with a rampart. Some for sure, were purely for ceremonial events, as some have speculated for Navan, Ingleborough, and for Uffington Castle. Some likely were animal enclosures, like many say Bindon Hill was purposed for, and some likely were unoccupied, and just left up there, for people to flee to in times of raids. I can imagine all were used for that purpose if need be, but some were just the equivalent of a air raid shelter in emergencies. Then of course there may have been some that were unfinished and never occupied, like Ladle Hill, in Hampshire, was to such a extent, that it's half completed earthworks are glaringly noticeable to keen observers. Indeed some were possibly, like some of Caesar's constructions in Gaul, just temporary structures for one battle. Though considering armies then were likely more temporary, and smaller, that may be unlikely. Lastly some may have been a warlord, prince, or chief's palaces, or occupying garrisons, or even colonial forays into other territories. Or maybe even some Iron Age, revolutionary headquarters, but I just add that to say, alternatives. Or they even could have in small cases have been religious centres. I think mostly they were hilltop fortified villages, places for people to flee to in times of trouble or in some smaller cases, like Moel Arthur, guard point garrisons and such like.
You know that is all I really need to say on the subject for now, and the pictures below are what I have on hillforts, That was really just to put bones on the subject of hillforts. My other pages go into more detail.
But here is the main thing to wet the appetite, they were not the barren sites you see today, they were more likely fully occupied, in many cases, with roundhouses, grain storage pits, and ramparts, and palisades, and all sorts of life going on around them. There would in many cases be a palisade surrounding the fort, and toughly constructed wooden gateways or entrances to the vast majority, that would have intimidated or welcomed arrivals for times past. Often they would be the central village of the community, and that should wet an appetite for reading more about them. My story which you can buy, is all about the events that could have occurred in and around them in the land of hundreds of hillforts, of so much variety and splendour.
So here are some pictures of hillforts. I should add, the story I have written has my adventure stepping into Wales, England, Scotland, Cornwall, Mann, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Plus as mentioned elsewhere some travel onto the continent.
The Articles on hillforts
Here is a list of all the pictures on this page.
It is left to right then top to bottom.
Most of my pictures here are Wales ones, but Wales is as good a sample area as any.
So first of all a ditch built as a protective ring with the rampart round Uffington Castle. It is a bit like many great hillfort's deep ditches. For scale this is a footpath aside it. I got the file off Wikimedia Commons, it is a public domain photo.
The next photo is a picture of Old Sarum, a painting by Constable, by assumption is such painting pictures as they are so old are public domain.
Next is a picture by me so you need my permission to use it like all pics by me on this page, and others. It is of the walls at Holyhead's hillfort, looking over the modern harbour of Holyhead. The ferries to Ireland from this town are so big you can see them as specks on the horizon from about 40 mile away on Tre'r Ceiri in South West Gwynedd.
Below another picture of mine, of the silhouette of the ruins of Dinas Bran, the castle and hillfort above the town of Llangollen on the valley floor below.
Then Moel Arthur a hillfort on Clwydian Hills, a picture of mine, here you are in between the heather clad ramparts. There are a number of them on this steep compact little pinnacle.
Then here to the right is the entrance to Holyhead's hillfort, Caer y Twr, the walls are surrounding you here, so are pretty good. A thing about forts is they often make the entrance walls more intimidating partly as a sign of how impressive the fort is, and partly as that is always a relative weak spot that needs strength.
I did used to have pic here of where the Black Rocks fort was roughly. Now it is just a beach, or rather a patch of land eroded away by the sea. There used to be a Dinas Dinlle sized feature here. It is in North Wales, Deganwy. It is another picture of mine. Whether it was a Celtic or Roman site is unsure.You can see what I mean by that by looking at those 2 underlined links in this paragraph.
Then a 19th Century plan of Burghead hillfort, in North East Scotland, which you can see more about on it's link. .
Then a picture of Corwen's Caer Drewyn hillfort, frpm the valley floor, looking up at it, you are north of it and the town of Corwen here.
Then a nice picture of the Dark Ages, dragon shaped, rocky hill of Dinas Emrys, near Beddgelert. It controlled this valley and was surely that of a local power. In legend it of Vortigen, from the tales associated with the long ago fought battles between the Saxons and the Britons, which just to make sure here, are of a past age. I mean as a Celt, I pride in that heritage, but I do not support any Anti Englishness, or any other form of xenophobia coming from me celebrating that Celtic heritage or any other form of racism, towards any group the world over, and especially anti Scottishness, or anti Welshness, but saying that I like celebrating the history, and think there is nothing wrong with remembering Scottish or Welsh battle wins, or victories in saving their identities, from some long ago feudal invader. I like to be proud of my country, and to like other people's countries, and even support internationalism. P.S the story about this piece of Beddgelert is that the fort was where a dragon dwelt, in fact it is shaped a little as a hill like a dragon, steep sided, with a neck, like narrowness leading into the rocky sides.
Then a picture of mine along the beach by Dinas Dinlle, with it on the left, and in the distance the peaks of the forts of the Lleyn Peninsula, another of mine.
Then another of my pictures of Caer Drewyn it's ancient Iron Age walls, along the battered grassy hilltop. Then another. You can really sense the ancientness, with the moss covering it, of this barren except for sheep, rise.
Then a fun picture of mine, it is of Moel Hiraddug, Dyserth, North Wales, on the western slope atop it, with me with a playmobile fence I took up there, to imagine for a photo what it would be like looking across the valley floor from up high gazing over the valley. Then lastly the same fort from the north, as you climb it. I have lots of pictures of this fort in my story, as of it being so close to myself. Then what is so good is that there is a hut on it, it is for the small mast, but I like how there may have been roundhouses resembling it in those very long ago times. So they are the pictures for this page, but as I say, Wales as I live there, or North Wales is a good sample site. It would seem more sensible to have the great forts on a page, like this, alone, but really the bright side of this, is Wales does have many good forts, and it is better to appreciate them as the great sights they are, just like the thousands across Britain are, rather than just see the biggest and then to look down on the vast majority of forts where most lived as comparatively minor. When really they as a big unit had more people, than the bigger forts, when all grouped together, and led more area. So the true hillfort exploration looks at both small and bigger forts. As I say, I look at both in these site and my story, and the bright side of me living in North Wales, is a I have a good sample area for the typical hillfort region. So that is that there then.