Dundurn - Ancient Pictish Fort

I mentioned in my “ blog “ of 11 September 2014 ( “Pictish Strathearn and a lost or misplaced Kingdom !”  ) the ancient fort of Dundurn at St Fillans and its historic past . I made a brief  mention of the excavations  carried out in 1977/1977 by The University of Glasgow . In this “ blog “ I will elaborate in more detail what  emerged from the dig and the importance of this odd shaped hill in Strathearn’s violent past !

Where is Dundurn ?

Dundurn lies adjacent to St Fillans Golf Club . If you take the  road past the Club you come to the ruined church and graveyard . This is the site of St Fillans Pre Reformation Chapel  which was  demolished over 400 years  ago and replaced as the mausoleum of the Stewarts of Ardvorlich .Although now roofless , much remains . Near  the door is  an inscribed “A “ which presumably  stands  for Ardvorlich . Between the  door and window  there is a recessed aumbry – the place in the pre Reformation church where the  chalices for  the sacrament were kept . From the  churchyard you obtain a splendid  view  of nearby Dundurn .

There is a curious grave stone which was once called the “ Adam and Eve “ stone  because the figures on the front were supposed  to represent that biblical couple and on the  reverse , the  Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In reality it  commemorates one of a family of MacGregors for ling , tenants of the farm of West Dundurn  nearby . At the time it  was erected ( about 1700 ) , the name of MacGregor  was proscribed or outlawed and the family  had  taken the name of their laird  or feudal superior , namely Drummond .The tree carved on the back is in fact the MacGregor arms , a pine tree crossed  by a sword bearing a crown on its point. The initials of Drummond and his wife  are carved on the front of the stone .

The Ancient Citadel

The importance of Dundurn was  confirmed by the archaeological excavations  carried  out as mentioned above  by the late Leslie Alcock of Glasgow University in 1976 /77. This “ dig “ confirmed the historical data  that had  been preserved  about the hill and  its strategic position between Pictish Strathearn and the Celtic Kingdom of Dalriata . Dundurn was mentioned in “ The Annals of Ulster “ in 683 AD and was  identified  in 1898 as being the capital of the Pictish Kingdom of  Fortren or Fortriu .In the half century after King Kenneth of Scotland took over the Kingdom of the Southern Picts , Dundurn was a royal seat .We also  know that prior  to this the Scottish Regnal Lists state  that Grig son of Dungal “ died in Dundurn “ .

History of course is  often subject to error and misinterpretation . That is  why the archaeological work carried  out by Professor Alcock and his team nearly forty years  ago is of great importance in the confirmation  of our historical knowledge .

I quote from the interim report  prepared by the archaeologists and which is in my possession :

“ The hill bares traces of very ruinous stone walls , apparently in the form of a citadel surrounded by defended terraces .These remains have long been identified as the Dundurn mentioned as under siege in the Iona Annal for AD 683 . Although it is nearly 25 kilometres west of the most westerly Pictish  symbol stone in the valley , it seems likely that it was the time an outpost of Pictish power , serving to guard the main  west- east route from Dunollie , Dunstaffnage  and Dunadd  in Dalriada to the Pictish centres of Scone and Perth . Two generations after Kenneth mac A;lpin’s unification of the Kingdoms of the Picts and  the Scots . Girg  mac Dungal  was killed at Dundurn  in AD 889 , apparently while suppressing a Pictish rising . “

In July 1976 and 1977 , the team worked on the hill and confirmed that on the summit was a dun – like structure about  20 metres x 15 metres internally , defended  by  a nailed timber – laced wall with a probable radio – carbon date after 650 AD . On a terrace below this were timber buildings . It was ascertained that the dun ( fort ) had  been destroyed by fire and the summit had  been re fortified  with a dry stone rampart , while the natural terraces lower down the hill were also  massively defended . 

“ Portable  objects were scanty , but were consistent with an aristocratic occupation in the Early Historic ( Pictish ) period . Particularly notable were well preserved timbers , wattling and other vegetable matter  , apparently belonging to  wooden buildings  which may have  even pre – dated the construction of the Dun .Also found were  a decorated leather  shoe , a base silver belt – fastener  with an animal ornament , and a glass dome  with spiral inlays  and bosses “

“ The summit had  been defended by a timber  reinforced dry – stone  rampart . This  had  been burned and the rubble subsequently dragged down the hill . A concentration of burnt  debris  still in position suggested  a width of 4 metres . Immediately to the rear were two distinct levels of heavy paving , probably corresponding  to the two periods  in the defences  . The wall of what may be described as the  “ Primary Dun “ had three remarkable  characteristics . Firstly , to judge from the debris , timber work , including both  oak beams  and hazel whattling, had  comprised a major  part of the structure . Secondly the timbers had been secured with iron nails of which 90 were found in Cut 001. The only other finding of this technique was found at the Pictish stronghold of Burghead  Moray .Thirdly , much of the rubble used in the first period of paving, and presumably in the primary defence as well , consisted of blocks and slabs of old red sand stone . On geological grounds , it seems that these  had been quarried  some 15 kilometres from Dundurn. This suggests a wide command of resources on the part of the fort builders .

Radio carbon dating was carried out on the oak beams and hazel twigs  from the primary rampart .Usin MASCA  calibration , at the 95% confidence level , the earliest  possible date  for the building is AD 650 . The conclusion is that the Primary Dun was besieged in AD 683  having been built  a decade or two earlier  as the east ward advance  of the Scots  began to seriously impinge  on the heartland of the southern Picts .

The  excavations were now carried out a lower level and findings  included  burnt timbers , rubble  and occasional nails . Below these  were  a deep layer of vegetable matter including  broken timbers , twigs , bark , wood shavings  , grasses , ferns and mosses all which suggested  collapsed roofing  or other debris . At the base  they discovered sheets of  wickerwork  pinned down by vertical pegs  and solid beams of oak  and other timbers carefully fitted into one another . That these  timbers  were structural was proven by  the presence of  clay lined  stone slab tank . Within the limits of the excavation , no coherent  plans  could be established but it is possible   that the tank , wickerwork and beams belonged to the buildings on the top most terrace under the protection of  the Primary Dun .
Stone rubble and massive boulders were found behind the inner  face of the terrace wall . It was  deduced that this rubble and  the large stones  were deliberately place there not long aftger the wall had been built  in order to support the face  which was  already showing signs of collapse . Twigs of charcoal dfrom this rubble  were carbon dated and suggested the wall had an earliest possibility date of  AD 760 . In historical terms this suggest  that some time after  the early 8th Century ,  Pictish ascendancy over Dalriada had been lost and that it had been necessary to  re fortify Dundurn , this time with massive walls enclosing terraces  all around the hill  in addition to the citadel .The conclusion reached was that these terraces had  been cultivated with crops and confirm th  agrarian  economic base of the Pictish people .

St Fillans Well

In the 1976 dig the archaeologists excavated what was thought to be St Fillans Well To quote  from their report : “ In Cut 601 , about half the supposed  well – basin was cleared out . No excavated well  was discovered , nor was  there any trace of a spring , but it was evident  that water collected in  a natural hollow in the rock  immediately after rainfall: that is under normal Highland weather  conditions  . This rock hollow  had been walled  round at  two different periods . The only finds  were recent  coins of low denominations , but the  well is known to have been cleaned  out by village  children within the last decade . “

St Fillans Well was a popular  place  for pilgrims  to come  prior  to Dundurn being developed as a fort . Early Christians seemed  to have  a strong affinity  to holy wells and the reputation of Munster man St Faolan or Fillan was widespread . There is an interesting  account  of the Well published  by a Presbyterian Minister , the Rev William Marshall DD of Coupar Angus in 1880 . It smacks of the narrow minded  Calvanistic attitudes  to the Catholic , Pre Reformation , Church but if one  ignores this  inbred  bias it  is an interesting account !

Historic Scenes of Perthshire (Marshall, 1880)
Parish of Comrie

As we approach Loch Earn, we come to a scene consecrated by its connection with the famous St Fillan, who evangelised the country here and in the wilds of Breadalbane, and whose arm did such wonders on the field of Bannockburn. The beautiful hill covered with verdure to the top, and the green of which contrasts so strikingly with the brown and the grey of the adjacent heights, is Dunfillan, the hill of St Fillan. The rock on the top of it was the Saint’s Chair. The spring, now days at the foot of the it, was the Saint’s Well. It was originally on the top of the hill; but, disgusted with the Reformation from Popery, which, like Archbishop Laud, it regarded as rather the “ Deformation “, it removed to the foot of the hill. St Fillan drank of the waters of this Well, and blessed them. The consequence was that they were endowed with miraculous healing powers; and, till even a late date, crowds resorted to them for cures, more especially on the first day of May and the first day of August. They walked, or, if unable to walk, they were carried around the well three times from east to west, in the direction of the sun; and they drank of it and were bathed in it. Then, as now, rheumatism was a peculiarly obstinate malady; and for a cure, rheumatic patients had to ascend the hill, sit in the Saint’s Chair, lie down on their backs, and be pulled by the legs down to the foot of the hill. The Well was an infallible remedy for most of the diseases, which flesh, is heir to. It was especially efficacious for barrenness, for which it was most frequented.  When it was at the hilltop, the Saint most considerately and kindly spared certain patients the labour of climbing to it. He made a basin, which he placed at the foot of the hill, inn that there was generally some water even in the driest weather; and those afflicted with sore eyes had only to wash them three times in the basin, and they were made whole.

Finds in the Dig

The Report describes in some detail what  was found in the “ dig “ and included sketches  of these to illustrate them  more graphically ( see below ) .

In both years  , small finds  were relatively scarce  but tended  to be   of distinctly  high quality . Outstanding from Period 1 was a leather  shoe from the vegetable  layer . This was well preserved , except that the stitching had  gone . It was  a  one piece turn- shoe , with  all- over  stamped ornament . Other finds from Period 1 Class E .
Finds  from higher levels  may belong to Period 2 , or may be  rubbish surviving from Period 1 . They include  glass inlays  for the making of jewellery , and the rim  of a glass beaker . Of special interest  was a belt- fastener or strap- end of base silver . The stem, which has a single rivet ,was ornamented with a horse’s head  with bulging eyes and nostrils , reminiscent of  the horse – heads  on early cruciform brooches . The free end  was in the shape of a letter B , decorated  in low relief with an animal biting  its fore – leg .
The most remarkable find  was unfortunately made  just below the surface . It was a glass boss . 15 mm high , in the form of a dome  of swirled  black and white glass, decorated  with five inlays and five bosses  of blue  and white spirals . The base is perforated . The delicate a nd virtuoso  object  may have been the head  of a pin  , and Irish parallels  are known for this . But it is perhaps more likely  that it  was one of  a series  of  ornamental bosses for a chalice , crucifix  or reliquary .The design  of spiral – decorated bosses , massed  on a larger  boss , finds its  closest parallel  in the Nigg cross- slab.

Other more mundane objects  included  upper stones  from two rotatry Querns ; several whetstones of fine – grained rock ; parts of two iron padlocks ; and an iron knife- blade  of Late Saxon  or Viking type .

Figure 1 : Leather Shoe 

Figure 2 : Silver belt fastener or strap end .

Figure 3 : Glass boss possibly from chalice, crucifix  or reliquary


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