by Marion Ruscoe (NOSAS)
In around 2000 Janet Hooper, Allan MacKenzie and I undertook a survey of David’s Fort, a rather enigmatic site in Balavil Wood, near Conon Bridge. Our intention was to survey the site, clarify its purpose and investigate the related documentary and contextual information. We did arrange a geophysical survey which was cancelled due to Foot and Mouth, and that was replaced with a later walkover of Balavil Wood. David’s Fort itself is scheduled, but there are other features in the immediate area which may be related and which are worthy of notice.
David’s Fort (NH5394 5328; HER MHG8986) is essentially a large earth mound surrounded by a ditch, surrounded by an embankment. The mound and embankment were created by digging out the ditch. It’s trapezoidal in shape, and the top of the mound measures approximately 80 x 85 feet. The moat is around 15 feet deep and is partially filled with water. There’s no sign of any structures on the top of the mound, but these would probably have been wooden and evidence would not have survived the trees and bracken which have invaded the site.
There is a dip on the west end and a corresponding dip in the embankment with a track running down to the mediaeval road which runs from Tarradale on the Beauly Firth to the ford over the River Conon. It’s been assumed that this is where the entrance was, though, since the embankment is considerably lower than the top of the mound, any bridge would either be very sloped, or mounted on a framework which raises the question “why the dip in the embankment and the very obvious path leading from that dip?” The embankment surrounding the mound has been extended for a short distance at three of the corners. The purpose of this is not clear. Water was fed into the moat via a channel leading from a lochan to the east of the site and controlled by a sluice but this channel has been damaged by the embankment which carries the power lines.
The eastern lochan seems to have been deliberately constructed to act as a reservoir for the moat. It’s likely that the area was already boggy, as two burns come down the slope to that point, and the water has been retained by a broad embankment on the west side (which is the downhill side). A single burn carries water out of the lochan through a fine stone culvert.
To the south west of the fort is a larger lochan, which has also been encouraged by the construction of an embankment on the downhill side to hold the water. This feature has the remains of a wooden jetty and an artificial island, and is very like what we find near large houses to provide food for the table. This may suggest that this lochan is later than the motte.
There are also several walls, ditches and dried up ponds in the woods between the motte and the large lochan, all of which are probably considerably later in date than the motte. One feature in the ditch which runs south-west from the moat suggests some kind of water management, but unfortunately this has been destroyed by timber-clearing operations.
When I first visited David’s Fort in 1998 it was surrounded by forest. Some trees which had been growing on the top of the mound had been felled and the top was covered in bracken. Access was via a dry part of the moat on the south side. On subsequent visits we found that the trees were being felled and the foresters did not seem to be too concerned about respecting the scheduled area. Now the site is much more accessible and easily seen, where before it could be easily missed. As a result some damage has been done to the mound with a path etched in the side giving access to the top.
Interpretation of this site was not easy due to the lack of any primary evidence. Mottes are Norman-French features and most date to C11 and C12. But the earliest documentary evidence relating to David’s Fort is C19. While I’m happy with a C12 or C13 date for this site, it became clear that the site and perhaps its name are the only primary sources. However, our search of the documentary evidence clarified the social and political context of the period demonstrating that in the mediaeval period this area was ‘frontier country’ with the McWilliams from the north, the MacDonalds from the west, the Moray men from the east and the supporters of the Scottish crown from the south all vying for superiority. Dingwall Castle at this time was one of the most important in Scotland.
David’s Fort is a name which has been in use since the C19 at least and suggests a military structure, while the archaeologist’s label – ‘homestead moat’ – has domestic connotations. Following the name ‘David’ has not really thrown any light on the subject. There are surprisingly few Davids among the great and the good in the C12, but a possible candidate is David, Earl of Huntingdon, William the Lion’s brother, who accompanied the king to Ross to quell disorder in the area in the last quarter of C12. David I founded the Bishopric of Ross (1124) and imposed feudalism on Moray with the building of the first timber and earthwork castles (1135à). Two Bishops of Moray are recorded by Dowden – David de Moravia (1299) and David Stewart (1462) – though there is no indication that they had any connection with the David’s Fort area. David de Dunhowyn signed a charter at Dingwall Castle in 1380. But there’s no clear evidence that any of these candidates gave their name to this site.
Possible interpretations are –
- This is a site which was attached to the monastery at Allanfearn – a kind of holiday home for the monks where they could recharge their batteries. Associated with this interpretation was the suggestion that there was a hospital in Conan Wood. The evidence for this was the number of medicinal plants identified in a small area close to the present single track road. Since the name Spittal occurs on the other side of the Black Isle, I wonder if it’s likely that there was another at Conan.
- This may be a political/administrative site associated with Dingwall Castle, and situated to overlook both the mediaeval road and the ford over the river. There are examples of watchtowers along the Cromarty Firth coast to protect the ferry crossings, e.g. at Ryefield above Alcaig. I tend to favour this interpretation and like the idea of the builder being David, Earl of Huntingdon.
- This may be the focal point of an estate, a forerunner of Conan House. For a period this area was in Munro hands and David Munro (died 1192) was the third son of Donald Munro. If this is the case, the south-western lochan may well have been part of the policies.
- Some archaeologists, with one eye on the good preservation of what is essentially a mound of earth, have suggested that this isn’t a mediaeval site at all, but rather an C18 folly. But would guests at Conan House have got excited about a mound of earth! Associated with that idea is the suggestion that building the motte was a job creation project to provide work for unemployed tenants. If it is an C18 folly then memory of its construction would surely have surfaced when the ordnance surveyor was asking about it, or when Beaton was investigating it in C19. I would have expected someone, not least Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, remembering its construction and certainly if it was constructed as part of philanthropic activity, I would expect Sir Kenneth to wish to memorialise his ancestor’s act of kindness. J. Beaton, writing in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland in 1883-3 noted that an old man knew the fort as Tigh Diabdh, or house of David but he also notes further that there was no tradition associated with it and this is confirmed in the OS name books.
This is a fascinating site, all the more interesting because information is so elusive. There are other mottes and moated sites in the Highlands and it’s interesting to compare David’s Fort with these, e.g. Borgie Bridge (NC6711 5872; HER MHG12597) and Proncy Castle (NH7712 9258; HER MHG11745). Other sites in the area include Conan House (NH5342 5379; HER MHG16151) and Conan Mains Farm (NH5326 5345; HER MHG16572) which are probably built on the two townships recorded in Roy’s map. There is also the churchyard of Logiebride (NH5353 5407; HER MHG39644) and several chambered cairns indicating plenty of activity in this area from an early period.