Highland Hillforts

by Meryl Marshall (NOSAS)

The Atlas of Hillforts in Britain and Ireland project

Hillforts are one of the most prominent types of prehistoric monument seen across many parts of Britain and Ireland, and this hillfort project has recently been set up with the aim of producing a paper atlas and an online searchable atlas linked to Google Earth. It is a collaborative four year project between the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, and contributions from members of the public, either as individuals or as part of local field groups, are welcome.

Several members of NOSAS were interested in this project and a field day took place in May which nine attended. We visited three forts in the Drumnadrochit area which James McComas had suggested. The day was a great success even though the weather didn’t exactly co-operate and the overall impression was “damp” to say the least! The three forts of Dun Scriben, Craig Mony (Craigmonie) and An Torr were very different from each other – we took photos, made rough sketches and filled in the (reputedly) tortuous form provided on the website. The form proved to be not as formidable as we had anticipated and has been submitted to Strat Halliday who is the Scottish and Irish end of the project. If any members are interested in participating in the project or in joining the next NOSAS field day please contact Meryl Marshall.

More information about the project is available on the website

http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/hillforts-atlas.html

The form to fill in is available at

http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/files/hillforts/survey%20pro-forma%20web%20final%20v2.pdf

and notes and guidelines are at

http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/files/hillforts/survey%20notes%20for%20guidance%20web%20final%20v2.pdf

Producing drawings of hillforts

A drawing or sketch of a site, even if it is not precisely to scale, gives so much more information than a written description. Ideally it would be good to produce a plane-table drawing but this is not always a convenient method as it is time consuming and involves carrying heavy equipment to remote and inaccessible places. So when doing the recent surveys at Drumnadrochit we experimented with several methods of survey: using tape and offset, pacing and GPS waymarks. A draft sketch on permatrace was produced but, as usual, it was a bit messy – the words “dog’s breakfast” came to mind! A tidy final drawing was needed, so using a further piece of permatrace and a 4H pencil, I traced the site using hachuring as per RCAHMS guidelines, with annotations to clarify some of the features; I then scanned the result, see sketch of Craig Mony Fort. For me this method of drawing up is new and I have not perfected the technique yet, but Ian Parker of RCAHMS was helpful in giving advice and suggestions, and also his own drawing below.

Craig Mony Fort Meryl Marshall

Craig Mony, Drumnadrochit, by Meryl Marshall

Craig Mony, Drumnadrochit, by Ian Parker

Craig Mony, Drumnadrochit, by Ian Parker

For those who are interested I’m sure Ian wouldn’t mind me sharing some of his comments: “In general it is important to make clear distinctions between man-made features and natural features especially with hachures, adding a bit of stipple on a rampart to indicate a stony bank for instance (in his drawing Ian has traced my drawing of Craig Mony showing how he might have drawn it – MM). One thing I have found over the years surveying these types of sites is that a great many have been robbed and very often what you are surveying is a demolition site with a bit of archaeology remaining. So it’s important to try to tease out what is quarrying and robbing and indeed antiquarian howking. The longer you spend on a site the better you get your eye in and start to understand the site. This is the advantage of doing measured drawing survey as it forces you to spend time on site and make decisions about depiction. Every time I go back to a site I surveyed in the past I think I would do it differently if I was to start again!”

Tor Alvie Fort

This newly recorded hillfort is at NGR NH 87701 08854 (Canmore ID 339862, Site Number NH80NE 104). It is situated on the summit of the obvious hill just to the SW of Aviemore; the hill is also topped by the prominent Duke of Gordon’s monument. The fort has a commanding position at the centre of the valley and was previously unrecorded until 2011 when NOSAS members recorded it, drawing the sketch below at the time. In April of this year Ian Parker from RCAHMS and a group of interested local volunteers surveyed it using planetables and made a much better job of the drawing – see the digital image at http://canmore.rcahms.gov.uk/en/site/339862/

Tor Alvie fortification

Tor Alvie fortification

The fort is more or less surrounded by a stony bank which encloses an area of roughly 85m x 30m, very much the same shape and size as Craig Phadrig hillfort near Inverness or Barry Hill fort near Alyth in Angus, both recognised as being Pictish forts. However no vitrification was found at Tor Alvie and it is not possible to date the fort from the surface remains. But what is exciting is that it is just 5kms NE of Dunachton and Loch Insh. For those with an interest in Pictish history, Dunachton is now thought to be the site of the Battle of Nechtansmere – see “Dun Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts” by Alex Woolf in The Scottish Historical Review Volume LXXV, 2: No 220: October 2006, 182-201. The battle of Dun Nechtain was fought in 685 AD between Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria and the Picts. A quote from Bede writing 50 years after the event tells us that “the enemy (the Picts) feigned flight and lured the king into some narrow passes in the midst of inaccessible mountains; there he (the king) was killed with the greater part of the forces he had taken with him.”

For the last century or so the battle was thought to have taken place at Dunnichen in Forfar-shire but Alex Woolf in his paper argues very convincingly for it to have been fought in the North. Dunachton in Strathspey fits the bill admirably and, if it was Pictish, Tor Alvie Fort must surely have played a significant part!

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2 thoughts on “Highland Hillforts

  1. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #3 | Doug's Archaeology

  2. Pingback: NOSAS Archaeology Blog « Senchus

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