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An Introduction to Hillforts

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

Imagine you are headed to see a village chieftain for an important matter; you have made your way through dark and dangerous paths, where wolves and even bears could attack without warning. As the sun begins to set and the mist covers the hills, you see in front of you your destination: one of the many hillforts that dot the landscape. As you approach, you are greeted by the guards, on the lookout for any potential threats to the chieftain or his family's safety. As you are granted entry, you make your way through the path winding to the top of the hill, past roundhouses with smoke filtering through their roofs as you hear the sound of dogs barking and sheep bleating. You greet the guards in front of the chieftain's house and they allow you entry, where the chieftain beckons you to his table, where he and his warriors are drinking and feasting: “welcome”, he says.

Hillforts were first constructed during the Bronze Age beginning c.1000 BC, but most were built during the Iron Age from c.800-100 BC. Many seem to have actually been abandoned by c.100 BC, but a new phase of hilllfort building began in the post-Roman period beginning c.400 AD. Some of them eventually become medieval castles (such as Stirling Castle and Edinburgh Castle), but most were abandoned by 1000 AD. They remind us that at the dawn of history in Europe, it was a dangerous time to be alive, as communities felt the need to protect themselves by fortifying themselves on sometimes very high hills. This is not to say that all hillforts were necessarily defensive, some (such as the Brown Caterthun in Angus) have been noted as having such poor defences that they must have been used for ritual rather than military use. But the fact remains that most were built in positions where their builders could survey the landscape, either over their own territory, or into that of neighboring tribes.

Brown Caterthun in the foreground, White Caterthun (with much more substantial stone wall remains) in the background, Angus

My interest in hillforts began while studying for a degree in archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. At the time I lived close to Holyrood Park, which boasts a whopping four hillforts clustered around (and including) Arthur's Seat, the highest point within the City of Edinburgh. I would often wander up to the forts and imagine myself back in the Iron Age, when communities were organized into tribal groupings affiliated on the basis of shared kinship; when a man's status was dependent on his ability to raise and protect herds of cattle, or else attach oneself to such a man for protection from other warlords in exchange for grain.

Other men who pursued philosophy and were skilled in magic were known as druids, occasionally performing grizzly sacrifices to appease wrathful gods (or so Caesar wrote). Yet despite the move towards patriarchy, this system as we know it was not fully in place during the Iron Age, as women at this time (at least among the Picts) were considered to have held the sovereignty of the land, embodying it themselves, hence the Picts sometimes chose their kings from among other nations (such as the Scots or Britons) as suitable husbands for the Pictish queens.

Examples of Pictish art in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The Picts may have been inspired to carve pictures into stone by the Romans, initially they featured animals or mysterious symbols, but later they depicted scenes of battle and hunting and came to include Christian crosses like those found in Ireland and Northern England.

However, as much as I loved the idea of living in the Iron Age at the time in my life, I have gradually discovered that it was a very dark time in our history. Some historians have compared the arrangement between cattle-herders and agricultural farmers akin to a protection racket, similar to a mafia. The proliferation of hillforts across the British Isles would suggest that violence was endemic after the wealth and abundance of the Bronze Age ended, as society transformed into a less centralized system that was led by warriors. The Roman historian, Tacitus even wrote that: “at one time they owed obedience to kings; now they are divided into factions and groups under tribal leaders.”

Yet I believe it is important to explore this time period in particular, as it is poorly understood or appreciated compared to the Roman, Viking or medieval times. The Romans were contemporary with the Late Iron Age Picts, though theirs was a very different culture; it was cosmopolitan and multicultural rather than local and kin-based. While the contrast between these two societies is fascinating, I believe that the Romans have attracted enough attention from academics and the public. The period following Late Iron Age Scotland has often been dismissed as the 'Dark Ages', which, while not an inaccurate term by the looks of things, led earlier academics to dismiss the importance of the people who have contributed more to the ancestry of the contemporary natives of this land more than colonists such as the Romans.

Ardoch Roman Fort, Braco, Perthshire; unlike hillforts, Roman forts were built on flat plains close to water (in this case, the River Knaik), though they may also have been close to local hillforts.

For this reason, my aim is to bring my own expertise and experience in visiting hillforts to the public and to share with you what can be told of the shadowy beginnings of this nation's history. Those with an interest in medieval history may be curious to discover the origins of the castle in these much more numerous local fortifications, while those who are already familiar with the Romans may want to know more about the indigenous inhabitants who opposed them at Mons Graupius and who could never fully be subdued.

I draw my inspiration from the storytellers of yore: the bards, scops and skalds of Northern Europe, who preserved the lore of their folk in poetry and song. While I may not be as apt to sing songs or recite poetry as part of my tours, my aim is the same in relaying the stories of the past, but also combining them with the information gleaned from archaeological investigation of these sites. Will you venture with me back to a time of merciless warfare, when one's wits were needed in a world of wolf-ridden forests and when society valued courage and will above all else? When warriors feasted in the splendor of victory or somberly in defeat, and when herblore and spellcraft was needed in the face of disease or disaster. The choice is yours...

Conor Cummings

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