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
Figure 2 : Silver belt fastener or strap end .
Figure 3 : Glass boss possibly from chalice, crucifix or reliquary