Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dunadd - seat of the Scots

Dunadd - Picture by the author

Dunadd rises from the Moine Mhor (Great Moss), like the gnarled knoll of a giant's brow,  heightening the sense that you are travelling amidst a sacred landscape. Little remains of the fortifications that once wound around the steep escarpments, yet  it is not difficult to imagine how it looked in its heyday.  The enclosing walls were massive, thick and stony, threading between the cliffs and banks. A circular citadel stood upon its crest, warriors watched from the battlements, flags blustered in strong winds. Once the mound of Dunadd was not so still, or silent.  Hunting hounds barked and whined, horses whinnied, people called to each other, the murmur of their voices drifted across the marsh. Once upon a time the hill was an island of habitation, rising above a treacherous marsh.   It was a mysterious place, and it still possesses an otherworldly quality.

Moine Mhor - Picture by the author

From the heights - Picture by the author
Remains of fortification walls - Picture by the author

Given the sacred nature of such landmarks in other areas, and Dunadd’s proximity to Kilmartin Glen (a site of religious importance from the Bronze Age), it is likely that Dunadd served  religious and secular functions and was not only a  military installation. Kilmartin is home to the highest concentration of cup and rings, barrows, cairns and standing stones in Scotland, with over 800 within six miles of the village itself. 

Cup marked standing stone near in Kilmartin Glen - Picture by the author

It was once assumed that the Scots invaded Pictland from Ireland but evidence, supported archaeologically,  suggests a gradual process of assimilation with strong economic ties already existing between the north of Ireland and western Scotland. As this culture mutated the peoples became a cohesive society, recognisable as the Dal Riata. The tribesmen of this growing kingdom would become known as the Scots. Their seat of power was Dunadd. Dun means fort, and -add (originally -att) is the nearby river.  

Battlements near the summit - Picture by the author

Legend has it that the fort was founded by Fergus Mór mac Eirc in 500 AD, but  archaeological finds from Dunadd predate the Roman invasion of Britain*. Obviously Dunadd existed as a site of importance long before Fergus showed up. However, by the turn of the 700 AD Dal Riata had two seats of power, Dunollie in the north and Dunadd to the south.   The fledgling kingdom of the Scots was growing!

The footprint! - Picture by the author

A carving of a Pictish boar is  located  at Dunadd near the summit. Parts of an indecipherable Ogham text can be traced running along cracks near the figure  and a footprint, carved into the stone, in which the kings of the Scots were said to place their feet when they took their oaths of kingship. It is interesting that the symbol of the boar may come from the fort’s seizure by the Picts in 736 AD, when Oengus I took the fortress.

Ogham script following the natural cracks in the stone - Picture by the author

Oengus moved against Dal Riata after his son, Prince Brude, was captured by a warband of Scots. His retaliation was ferocious: first he took Dunollie and then he moved on Dunadd. It must have been a difficult task, the hilltop was girthed by a series of thick stone walls, and to reach the citadel at its crest warriors would have had to fight their way through a series of courtyards and negotiate a narrow gully, all the while exposed to archers. Given the strong defences, it is more likely that they starved the defenders into submission… but I like the idea of a bloody slog best!  Oengus brought the kingdom of Dal Riata under Pictish dominion for a time, but of course the tide would eventually shift in favour of the Scots. 

A killing zone. A narrow defile is the only way to access the heights
 - Picture by the author

Looking back through the defile at the
lower portion, once a fortified courtyard
 - Picture by the author

The boar - I have darkened a portion because the original is so faint,
but here you can clearly see the head of the boar to the right
- Picture by the author

Were these carvings the result of a Pictish victory? Did they denote the house of Oengus? Or were they the creation of a peacetime treaty? There were silversmithing workshops within the castle walls, moulds and fragments have been found that hint at a Pictish influence in style. So was the carving created by an artist with a taste for designs he’d seen on Pictish stones to the East?  And what did such symbols mean to the people of Dal Riata? Was this a tribal motif? Did it hold religious significance? We do  know that by the tenth century AD the Pictish culture had been superseded by that of the Scots and these carvings bear a tantalising glimpse into the power such symbols once held, even if their purpose is obscure. 

* - A legend places the Stony of Destiny, upon which the Scot's kings were crowned, at Dunadd for a time too.


Find Pictish and Celtic designs at my Etsy shop


 1 - Strongholds of the Picts: The Fortifications of Dark Age Scotland - Angus Konstam

 2 - The Art of the Picts - George Henderson and Isabel Henderson

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