Hillforts in Scotland
Scotland's hillforts were in existence as fortified hilltop villages, and defensive refuges for entire communities since the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. A calculation by some experts puts the number at almost 1,700, but it does depend on your definition of a hillfort of course. When the Romans arrived, and took England and Wales, they did attempt to take as much of Scotland as they could, for the glory of ruling all Britannia, and to punish potential raiding Picts. Despite numerous attacks, invasions, and victories, the colonial moves into Scotland's south, and the central belt, were not long lasting. Causing of course the eventual building of the magnificent Hadrians' Wall, in 122AD.
After this, the areas close to what are now Scotland's border areas actually saw some pretty large hillforts such as Traprain Law, with populations in the hundreds, or even thousands, possibly thriving off trade with the Roman Empire.
There are more pictures below
After the fall of Rome, Scotland was to see it's 3 or 4 then major ethnic or national groupings, use hillforts.
The Scots were using sites, such as Dunadd in Argyll, famed for a evocative carving of a boar in the fort's rocks itself. Plus the footprint impression in the stone there, which later was regarded as the point where Scots kings were inaugurated in fashions similar to those recorded in Dark Ages Ireland. These Scots who in tales had arrived recently from Ireland were most noted for their saints in terms of history, such as St Columba. Whose religious orders in turn are noted for the creation of manuscripts such as the Book of Kells, a masterpiece of the time. These Scots who spoke a language similar to modern Scottish and Irish Gaelic were later to merge into the Pictish population, creating the kingdom of Scotland. Before that though, in the the early Dark Ages they were more centred and limited to the west, such as the aforementioned Argyll.
The Picts of the North, probably speaking a kind of Brythonic language, though that is not certain, also used plenty of hillforts. Burghead, and Tap o' Noth, the most notable Dark Ages sites. Both of which grew to substantial sizes, at least of hundreds of people living in them. With Burghead, having fierce animal carvings on stones or plaques around the great port of a hillfort, in it's case of bull motifs. Kind of indicating that there was still wealth, and cultural display in the Dark Ages.
The Central belt, and Southern Scotland, spoke a British very similar to what was spoken in Wales, and much of England, at this time, that became Welsh. With maybe some Latin here, as of their Roman influences. So yes, British of course later became Welsh, as the Saxon language moved across southern Britain. It is likely these more southerly inhabitants of Scotland were just Picts, who had been more Romanised, or to put it another way, the Picts were just Britons who had not been Romanised. Though likely the mountains which split to a extent northern Scotland from the rest of Britain, and the bottle neck element of geography in Central Scotland had formed differences for up here comparative to the rest of Britain even in the Roman era there were as mentioned in other pages of this website there were some unique factors up here. Well the Britons of southern Scotland, known as the Old North, or Hen Ogledd, in Medieval Welsh folklore, used hillforts as well. What are now Edinburgh Castle, and Dumbarton Castle, "the Rock", likely a couple of their bases. In addition, the hillforts of the borders like Traprain Law. It has been wondered if the Rock for example was one of the 40 or so cities or bases, mentioned as important in some Arthurian folklore, and in Roman sources, about the Picts and Britons, as of similar terms to that name being alluded to.
Later these ethnicities were to merge into the Kingdom of Scotland. Though hillforts did have a part to play then as well.
The Picts as I say, have mighty bragging rights, as of course they held off the Romans. These a empire, the greatest in European history, that was partly only blocked from going further south from North Africa, by the Sahara desert. Partly blocked by going further east as of the large ancient empire of Persia, and the Arabian desert, plus the Caspian, and Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the Danube, and Rhine, and the thus well protected large tribes and nations on the other side of those boundaries. But all that blocked them off from taking Scotland were some rivers you can easily bypass or cross by foot at some points. What a achievement, though then again it was likely the protection of the Grampian Mountains that helped in their case, and the rivers are very deep at some points, but even then a amazing achievement, and yes it likely it was not hillforts responsible for holding the Romans off, but it was a land of hillforts.
Then again there is the brilliant story of Burnswark hillfort in Southern Scotland. It is a site that is a hillfort that sits on the Scottish Southern Uplands, overlooking the Solway Firth a few miles below. A fort that commanded the area like a great palace overlooking a a span of land far and wide below, for sure. Well it has a Roman base stuck built on the side of it, and proof of artillery being fired at it, and proper artillery, not training stuff. So it seems this was the site of a exciting Roman attack on native Iron Age Hillfort. So what other situations, peaceful and warfare related went on, is anyone's guess, or discovery to be made. Though certainly hillforts had their excitement in these times. Indeed the hillfort at Melrose, which was also historically a large fort, saw a Roman base below it, this is on the Eildon Hills, and there is a lack of remains of the large fort today, but it did have many finds there historically.
Well there were more bragging rights for the Picts. Indeed the most important battle in Dark Ages Scotland, was in 685, when a mighty Saxon army, the largest and most powerful in England, came north from the leading kingdom in England, the area which had around half it's territory, Northumberland. The battle of Dun Nechain, saw the invaders well beaten, and flee, and from here the Picts seem to have united and expanded, under the Kingdom of Fortriu, which may have been based at Burghead. This was to such a extent that Dunbar and it's fort, in far south eastern Scotland, were the last bastion of Northumbria holding off Pictish raids. With the Picts able to destroy it in the 9th Century indicating their power up to here. Eventually even it was taken within the orbit of Scotland, officially in the 11th century. Dun Necthain important as the word Dun, signifies a fort. Whether the fort was important to the battle is unsure but certainly the mention of a hillfort, was significant, as it as a name comes up in Irish and other annals. The fact the Anglo-Saxons were using Dunbar, means that all 4 major ethnic groupings in Scotland of the time were using hillforts. I am unsure if the later Vikings, so plentiful on the coasts and isles, ever did, I can not think of any they used. Indeed they more attacked them. With Edinburgh and Dumbarton Castle being national properties, for so long you could claim every ethnicity Norman and later arrivals, that came to Scotland, used hillforts, even in their modern guise as tourist spots and all in between, So of course even the most recent of arrivals, and even tourists, who have in a sense conquered Edinburgh Castle more than anybody. Just thought I would say that so nobody feels left out there. Though it is fun to think some or many of your ancestors used to use and live in these great hillforts, I think.
Dunbar may have followed Traprain Law, as a key site in the South East of Scotland, and again the word, Dun, is there, but this is as it was a fort.
Despite the name it is certain the Picts were the driving force for a united Scotland, despite the adoption of the Scots language of Gaelic. A language which was to replace old Pictish, in the Dark Ages, and the old British kind of Welsh language sometimes called Cumbric in southern Scotland over the course of the early second millennium (Cumbric possibly lasting a couple of centuries in remoter areas). Indeed when English was adopted by Scotland's kingdom more and more in the 14th Century it replaced Gaelic, not long after Gaelic in some south Scottish areas had replaced Welsh / Cumbric. It too was to see a long slow replacement, especially slower in areas further from the centre by what had become Scots English, and then a more British English, or even Global English as time went on. With some relatively smaller parts of the Gaelic speaking territory keeping Gaelic as a living language to now and the future as of continuing speaking it for so long.
What also was significant was the arrival of the Vikings, and they seem to have encouraged the union of Scotland, as of their threats, raiding a number of bases, such as Burghead and Dumbarton Rock.
I would actually include Edinburgh Castle as a hillfort site. This rock bastion, with its cliff side drop from its walls, that stands positioned, head and shoulders above the bustling main street and centre of the city today. With it today beside the Medieval little alley ways, and gradient rising or dropping, sometimes curving or spinning round little narrow lanes called “wynds”. Plus there surviving underground tunnel like homes that amazingly existed under those streets, for the poor, amid the rich, and the bakers and builders and masons guilds. With it even further above the further away 18th Century grand buildings of the New Town, and 19th Century and 20th Century industrial and modern expansions. Well in the old Welsh Medieval stories it is the Camelot-like site, where the very Welsh named fort of Mynyddog Mwynfawr is. Where a spirited feast is held at a great hall within it’s palisades, before the battle. I mean it may have been Arthur’s seat’s fort, the other hill that overlooks the city, rather than there, but who knows for sure. It is very likely Stirling Castle, a similarly placed location holding the route north, from the south, was a hillfort site at some time as well. .
The modern name Edinburgh I must add, is a Saxon mutation from the term Dun Eidyn which itself was likely a Celtic rendering of the term “fort of the Goddodin” and that old moniker gets a mention in the work too.
For Dunadd, today it sits as a 175 foot high rocky hillock, in reclaimed murky green dry lands. A geographical feature about 100-150 in width by 200-250 long in metres very approximately in size. In it's days, it sat on a promontory, or maybe a isle, it is uncertain what the landscape was like then, so a strongpoint defended by sea and ramparts. Indeed in more recent centuries it was surrounded by a great bog, that apparently would also be a aid for defence, if around in Dark Ages and likely so in Medieval times. In later years it was likely the Gaelic Irish Scots capital in Scotland, just after the Romans left Britain. Here there was the footprint shaped marking in the rocks, where their kings would be appointed in seemingly magical importance, placing their toes and such in it. It would sit by a drawing or carving of a boar. When these were actually placed here I am unsure. There is also a central citadel, for this stone ramparts fort, plus maybe up to 4 lines of defence, and it has a ancient well, maybe even of religious significance.
Another great fort would be Dunottar. in between Stonehaven and Aberdeen is a ancient medieval trackway that leads from the coastal harbour of Stonehaven to the river and estuary port of Aberdeen. Is it is a important route as it is where the mountains cause this to be a bottleneck. There has been a castle near Stonehaven, scenically placed above a clifftop promontory, called Dunottar Castle, since the Middle Ages. It or the very nearby Dunnicaer (I mention more of this below, with a representation of them) is also likely the site of a fort mentioned in the Annals of Ulster in 684, when a Pictish king defended off the “Kings of the Scots’” sieges. Seeing the road is marked by Neolithic monuments it is likely it has always been a major route as of geography, and that there would have been a hillfort there in the Iron Age. Indeed William Wallace, and the Vikings, later had adventures set there as well. So there is proof that trackway, has existed between it and Aberdeen for drovers and more since the 12th Century, and likely earlier.
In Scotland in the 1800s, journals of the time saw a greater interest in hillforts. With research and thoughts about if the Caterhuns were like capitals of their areas in the ancient times.
These are the Caterthun hillforts not far from the modern coastal town of Montrose. Which from the forts, now covered in heather today, you can see around a dozen miles away roughly 300 metres lower in elevation. They both sits a high on moor-like hills today, and site themselves 1.5 Miles apart from each other up there.
Firstly there is the White Caterhun, and it has a huge dry stone inner wall, of pale stones, and a outer wall higher than a person, plus ditches, and well-guarded entrances. This fort covers a area of 7 hectares and was a good site to defend. Then not far from here is the Brown Caterthun, so named as of the heather around it. It has 6 lines of defence, enclosing a 79 by 61 metres area, with stone walls, and bank-like ramparts, and ditches. My story visits both the forts, of which the white one has a well, and the brown one a spring, so good for sieges you may say, unlike most hillforts. I mean did the ones with water sources have a special role, thats a thought, so they could survive sieges. Then again maybe not, siege warfare was unlikely in those days the experts say. As armies were not professional, so raiding groups of warbands were more common, with them needing to return home to farm their crops, rather than be able to sit far from their home bases, for long in big enough numbers. Though maybe a capital style site of a larger Iron Age, or Dark Ages kingdoms, could see sieges from similar sized societies. I have drawn a picture at the bottom of this page to indicate my imagining of them.
Another interesting hillfort site would be Perthshire's Dundurn, which in the late 9th Century was a scene of some dynastic battles between Pictish, and Gaelic claimants, for the throne, indeed the Pictish examples had become Gaels as of time in Ireland by now, according to the annals. So no doubt hillforts, were important in Dark Ages, and likely Iron Age Scotland.
Also Dundee has a fine site, Dundee Law. Which was 79 by 49 metres or so in area fort, on a formerly volcanic mound that sits in the middle of this port city as a natural landmark. It was a small Pictish settlement that overlooked the landscape, in the Iron Age, and fits with the fact that Dundee has Dun in it’s name. Roman pottery has also been found on the site indicating they may have used the site as a lookout post in the 1st Century.
So three of the 4 biggest cities in Scotland have associated forts, as Glasgow in a sense has Dumbarton, seeing after the Vikings raided the Rock’s groups, moved to Govan, so Glasgow really in the broad sense, I can just say that really.
But hillfort sites as the second millennium began were still in use in some situations, and when castles the proper stone type arrived with the Normans, many hillforts sites were to become castle sites. So today Dumbarton Castle, as of it becoming a castle, through the history of the Kingdom of Scotland, and through the history of the UK, as a coastal fort, is still a site of a fortification. It even has claims to be the longest continually occupied military site on Earth, though these kinds of things are always full of asterisks, and such thing, and today it is actually a museum site. So anyhow that is my general overview of Scotland's hillforts. By the way, my story, the one in book form, you can buy as a e book, does enter into Scotland, and see some of it's fascinating things, that occur in it’s history, some of which are mentioned here in hillforts.co.uk
It is interesting that a lot of the sites I mention, are sites which became major castle sites.
So I better have a couple of paragraphs in Scots English and Gaelic on hillforts, above my links to more great pages on hillforts, and below that more pictures of Scottish hillforts.
So the term hillforts in Scots English is hillfort, but for instance Burnswark is termed a lairge hillfort in Scots.
A line of it would be that it was attackit by the Romans in 140 AD. Another statement is that the veelage of Rhynie of Aiberdeenshire, situatit wi Tap o' Noth in the distance.
Then in Scottish Gaelic, I have heard Cnoc in is a Gaelic word for a fort, similar to the Manx term, but Dun, again like Dun Ad, is more common, and of course Dun Eidin, Edinburgh. Scottish Gaelic Dùn Ad, 'fort on the [River] Add' So here is a sentence in Gaelic on the forts. Tha Dùn Ad, an dùn air Abhainn Add, na dhroch chnuic ann an Earra-Ghàidheal, Iar-dheas na h-Alba. Gu dearbh b ’ann an seo a tha mòran ag ràdh gu robh an cacpital aig Albannaich Dal Riata, agus far an tug iad ionnsaigh air an rìgh. Bha seo mus deach na Cruithnich agus na h-Albannaich còmhla gus dùthaich na h-Alba a chruthachadh, leis na Breatannaich a Tuath.
Should add, Scottish hillforts were sometimes known as Pictish forts and even Pictish camps in some texts. Some in the south were even known as British Camps in some 19th Century texts, not in the Great Britain, context itself, more in the "Ancient Britons" context" Not too unfair as Dumbarton does mean fort of the Britons in Gaelic.
THE WEBpages on hillforts
Here are the pictures on this page, by description, and who took them. So first of all a public domain picture I found on Wikimedia Commons of the Southern Scottish fort of Traprain Law. It sits south of the central belt, in the east, so in the South East of Scotland, and was among those forts that essentially were towns, partly as of trade with Rome.
So then lower down we have Stirling Castle. This is a picture I took so you need my permission to use it. Now yes of course it is medieval castle, but I do remember reading in a small history of it, a speculation, that it was a fort site before it became a castle, at some period. Whatever the case, if Iron Age people missed this opportunity of a site, there were hillfort sites aplenty in Scotland like this. To it's right is a public domain picture I found on Wikimedia Commons, this is of the Medieval and more modern improvements Edinburgh Castle. So this site is also a Medieval castle but likely was used beforehand.
Then to the lower left a picture I took, so you need permission to use it off me, well it is a site that has a strong claim to being the longest fortified site in the world, though surely other sites can claim this, it is Dumbarton Castle, which sits on the mouth to the Clyde, guarding it. Now a heritage attraction, but for so many years before a defensive bastion. Then to the right, another picture by me, so you need my permission to use it, Burnswark Hillfort, right on the Scottish border area with North West England. This a site where it is very likely looking at evidence that there was a attack by red and silver figured Romans, versus well entrenched Celts. It scans majestically above the hills, looking below onto the Solway Firth, in a way that to me speaks of prestige and power projection by visible aspects alone. Below to the right is another picture taken by me, where you can see a view from a road near Burnswark, looking south, that to a extent mirrors the view it also would have held. It is the case when you drive north across the border, just south from here, passengers, but drivers should not look really they should concentrate, can see the fort rises prominently above the hills, round there, if you know where to look. Though only if you know where to see it.
Then to the left of there is the view from the lower parts of Dumbarton Castle, showing how it could hold sway over the Clyde's trade route, again another picture I took myself.
Then, not far from Edinburgh Castle, is Arthur's Seat, this is a public domain pic I found on Wikimedia commons. The site of a Iron Age Hillfort, surely among the most exalted in height of any large British city. From it you can see right across the Edinburgh locality, even to the famous Forth Bridges and the county of Fife.
Then, a picture I took, so you need permission to use it, a picture of the bank and ditch at the Mull of Galloway, a structure, of undefined age but which create a enclosure of a peninsula on the Mull of Galloway. making it potentially the biggest enclosure in Scotland for the age it is from, unless it is quite recent, though it is of a undefined age. Could be very ancient or quite new.
Then the last photo a picture I took again, from Galashiels. As I say the borders of Scotland have a high amount of hillforts per area, and actually as many were built during increases of trade with Roman Britain, some are pretty large, Here in the distance from a park in that border town, is a view of the 3 hills above Melrose, which possess the hillfort known as Eildon Hill North. These can be seen from as far east as near the coast, and for quite far south. Like many forts, and maybe there is a reason for this, they cast a wide area to be seen from. I do think that is not coincidental, partly as they were good to look impressive but partly as the areas they were protecting were often the trade routes or such so maybe that is why so many look at their best above a town or a main road, it's as part of their job was to protect them, so they were by accident finely placed for a good view of it. So anyhow, this is a fort, which still has ramparts visible from a distance and as the local museum states had quite a population even before the Romans.
Well I added a last trio of pictures drawn by myself, the third is least bad.
First of all is Dunnottar Castle, which was a caste near Stonehaven in between Dundee and Aberdeen, from at least the 12th Century. Traditionally thought to have been a site attacked by the Vikings in the Dark Ages. Well now it is felt a peninsula up the bay that has now been reduced to a stack by erosion, and the sea, was that site. Dunnicaer is the name. Indeed it has Pictish stones, and walls that have been located on it.
Anyway the second is of my imagining of Dunadd when it was surrounded by bogs and pools in the era before 1000AD, and you have there a royal ceremony, with the footprint and boar there. It looks a bit like Mont Sant Michelle, in a way, in my drawing, though of course mine is only a guess. It is felt Dunadd was mentioned in the Annals of Ulster in the 7th Century in terms of sieges. Also the site was used as a sight of royal proclamations as late as 1506. There was actually a water colour of it from 1833 by a James Skene, which I saw in my British Archaeology edition December 2001, but I did not want to copy it as it had a copyright notice by it, though I fail to understand how that works for such a old image. It seems late Medieval images from Ireland indicate the custom of confirming a king as thus, and this is seen as evidence that the rock carving at Dunadd is also such a thing. Indeed that is why it is felt it was the capital of the Scots. It seems the site was even taken by the Picts in 736 off the Scots, though later they became a merged people How long the Picts kept it I am unsure. There have been excavations there in the 1904 period, and at times such as more recently. Such as 1929. It seems Dunadd was used in the Iron Age, and also the "Dark Ages". The site like Dundrum, in Northern Ireland, (not that I am saying the Scots here were or were not from there, but they did have links with them) had a central citadel, and like that sight has been seen as a capital site. It seems the site had use from likely 300 BC to the 8th Century. with possible times of less use in between. Possibly those dates are not precise, and different groups may have held it in those periods, but there is evidence it was still used to the 9th and even 10th Century, some even feel it was used to the 13th Century. That may be uncertain though, maybe the 11th was more likely. It does seem the 6th to the 8th Century were it's major usage times according to finds. It is not certain if the Scots of Dal Rita and Argyll were entirely a group who arrived from Ireland, but it is certain they had massive links with their neighbours over the sea, as later history mirrored that connection. It is also not certain to what extent influences from Saxon refugees from infighting in their lands in the Dark Ages, and Viking attacks had on this particular site as excavations have seen evidence of some Saxon affectations on the art, and can not work out yet if the Vikings were as devastating to here as Dumbarton.
Then my own drawing imagining of the Caterthuns, in North East Scotland, it's southern portion, near Brechin and such like, I often miss spell it the Caterhuns. I tried to depict the 2 forts close together, which they are relatively, but maybe not this close, and with the moor hills, falling away to the coast, and sea, though I have not been to these forts so this may be the wrong direction. No problem, it conveys the reality that both are there. Today there are no palisades on the white one, which is why it's rocks and stones give it that name, whereas the colour of the land, the heather give the other fort it's name. To my mind Scotland's notable hillforts are often less impressive in terms of surviving elements of ramparts, than some to the south, as many prime sites were so well turned into castles, but many of these are more impressive in appearance from afar, as of their rugged geographical locations. Misspellings of the Caterthuns, include White Caterhun, Brown Caterhun, the Caterhuns, plus the Catherthuns, Catherthun, Catherhun, and Katerthuns, I thought I would put that as I have seen some miss spellings of it.
But anyhow, that ends this page on this subject, but I have more related articles on this site on Scottish hillforts. and those pictures and links below on the hillforts of Scotland.
Sometimes you have to press enter/ return key, on your keyboard on the address bar to go to a page after you pressed on it.
For sale on Barnes and Noble, The 47th Part, of the Land of Hillforts, most of the pictures and maps, for Scotland, related to my story the Land of Hillforts. I have here my Iron Age and Dark ages themed map of Scotland, in portions, which is also on part 46. Plus some amateurish pictures of, some of these sites. I have over 200 pictures here, mostly by me, and of those, most of mine are of not that great a level. Ones taken by me are not public domain, but I got some from public domain, from websites. So of mine, around 20 or so are of the area around Burnswark Hillfort, and around almost half a dozen each of the fort by Gretna Service station and the Eildon Hills, each of those 3, are not in the forts themselves but from outside of them. Then I have some crannogs and broch pics, mostly by others, not many. Then about 50 pictures of mostly by me, of Dumbarton Rock / Castle, really of the castle as I did not get to the top. Then about 35 pictures by myself of the area, of the enclosure known as the Mull of Galloway enclosure. Then some of some random Scottish hillforts, barely 1 or 2 each, you can see, but most of those unlike my pics are public domain I got off the internet. Then also some pictures of Scottish countryside, mostly by myself again, as it fits the scene. Then lastly over 62 pictures of my walk towards Torwoodlee broch and hillfort.
So this is not anything too special, but may be of use to people who read my work, or who can not get to Mull of Galloway, or Torwoodlee Broch