Castle Hill “Henge” at Muir of Ord – A Controversial Structure

by Roland Spencer-Jones

Muir of Ord Golf Club may be unique in having a green on top of a scheduled ancient monument. Castle Hill, the 13th green, is an artificially modified mound, standing at the north end of a ridge, proud of the surrounding flat ground. Its perimeter is delimited by a raised bank inside of which is a circular ditch, with two gaps at NW and SE. This bank and ditch enclose an oval flat area approximately 28 m by 21 m. The ridge probably represents an alluvial glacial moraine before the end of it was subsequently modified.

There has been considerable discussion and debate in the archaeological literature over the last 350 years as to the nature of this feature, when it was created, and for what purpose. However, whatever its nature, it is special, recognised as such by being included in the list of ancient monuments in Section 12 of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendments Act 1913. This important act of scheduling was reported to the Right Honourable Lord Lovat in a registered letter dated 11th April 1957. In the scheduling documentation[1] it was called Castle Hill Fort or Henge. Scheduling is the process that “identifies, designates and provides statutory protection for monuments and archaeological sites of national importance”, with damage to a scheduled site potentially incurring criminal charges. This became relevant in the early 1980’s, see later.

Castle Hill in 1972 © Historic Environment Scotland: John Dewar Collection

Early Descriptions of Castle Hill

The first historical mention of this prominent feature was towards the end of the 17th century in a massive volume of archaeological recording, the Monumenta Britannica, written by probably Britain’s first archaeologist, John Aubrey (Aubrey, 1665-93). In it, Aubrey records part of a letter he received in 1692 from a Dr James Garden, Professor of Theology in the King’s College at Aberdeen. Aubrey had written to many local dignitaries and antiquarians throughout Northern Britain asking for information about stone monuments. He was delighted to receive this full response from Dr Garden in which the latter refers to a sacred grove thus: “I … have gotten information of two groves yet standing which are reputed sacred. One of them (which stands near to a place called Taradale in the parish of Killernen and shire of Nairn) is enclosed with a trench or dry ditch having two entries to it where the ditch is filled up or rather the ground has never been broken: all that live near it hold it as sacred, and will not cut so much as a rod out of it: my informer adds that, hard by, there is a cornfield where he conjectures there has been one of the Monuments, because in it there are several big stones such as those Monu­ments use to consist of, fallen down and out of order.” Taradale, now Tarradale, is the name given to the settlement that later came to be called Muir of Ord once the railway arrived in 1862. Garden’s description of the “sacred grove” fits nicely with the structure now called Castle Hill. Also note the description of standing stones in the vicinity, which we will come on to later.

Maps in the Lovat Estate archive describe the feature as “Krockcastle Hillock” in 1757, “Knock Castle” in 1798, and “Castle Hill” in 1864, at which time it was covered by plantation trees. A map of the Tarradale Estate in 1788 calls it “Knock Castle”. The Ordnance Survey’s first survey in 1872 called it “Castle Hill”. The name had become established, and appears as such on modern OS maps, where it is now designated with the descriptor, “henge”. The reason for this is clarified later.

The next historical mention of the structure was by AJ Beaton in 1883 in a scholarly paper (Beaton, 1883) entitled “Notes on Ancient Fortifications in the Black Isle, Ross-shire”, in which he describes it as The Muir of Ord Fort. He drew a fine plan of it, shown below, although, as pointed out by Woodham later, he omitted the entrances. Although he says it is called a “fort”, he then takes issue with the term pointing out that, as it is only slightly elevated from the surrounding landscape, it would not have had much defensive potential. Also, the bank is outwith the ditch, whereas a defensive structure would more likely have the ditch outwith the bank.

Plan of Castle Hill Henge, Muir of Ord © Society of Antiquities of Scotland

Beaton says: “The Muir of Ord Fort is situated in the wood 300 yards southward from the railway station, and about 20 yards west of the line of the railway. It stands on one of the numerous gravelly ridges (described as lateral moraines) so prevalent in this locality, between the rivers Beauly and Conon. From the position of the “fort” one would infer it could never have been selected as a place of defence, the surrounding grounds being more or less on the same level as the “fort”, which is of the common oval form, surrounded by a ditch, still very complete, 20 feet wide at top and 6 feet deep on average.” “If the ditch were filled with water, it must have been conveyed a long distance, as no water in the immediate vicinity is available by gravitation.”

In the twentieth century the “fort” or “castle” at Muir of Ord has come to be called a henge, which has had important implications, some of which are unfortunate.

What is a henge?

The story of how this came about starts with an important paper in 1932 (Kendrick, 1932) in which the English archaeologist, Thomas Kendrick, proposed a new type of feature called a henge. He writes: “Under this rather curious heading I am going to group a number of prehistoric ‘sacred places’ which I cannot, or dare not, sort out into ‘period’ chapters. I choose the title, of course, because Stonehenge and Woodhenge come first in the list, and I daresay that some readers may not approve of my including as members of the same family certain apparently empty ‘rings’ and ‘stone circles’. I admit, furthermore, we are not agreed that all these monuments are of about the same age and are ceremonial sites, that is to say ‘temples’ or ‘meeting-places’; but on the whole 1 think myself that the chances are in favour of their having that much in common. So for the sake of simplification, I am venturing to segregate them here as being monuments that are presumably not burial-places, and belong, as far as it is possible to tell, either to the late Neolithic period or the first half of the Bronze Age …”

The circumspection and hesitancy of his proposed new type of archaeological feature was not shared by successive archaeologists who enthusiastically took up the classification and typology of henges, spawning a variety of subclasses. RJ Atkinson (Atkinson, et al., 1951), working in Oxfordshire, proposed that henges should be classified as Class I if they had one entrance and Class II if they had two. There were further subdivisions according to the number of banks and whether they were circular or oval.

However, Richard Bradley from the University of Reading, writing in a 2011 seminal work on henges (Bradley, 2011), particularly Scottish henges, entitled Stages and Screens, states: Although the name ‘henge’ was suggested by Stonehenge, Kendrick’s choice has proved to be unfortunate. The word actually describes the setting of monoliths and lintels on that site and comes from the Old English ‘stan-hen(c)gen’, meaning a stone gallows. This may have been intended literally, as an earlv medieval execution burial has been found there. Henge monuments, on the other hand, are circular earthwork enclosures. Unfortunately, the term is so well established that it is too late to suggest an alternative“.

So, curiously, Stonehenge in England would not fit the modern definition of a henge, not having the characteristic pattern of outer bank and inner ditch. Richard Bradley is also sceptical of the enthusiasm for sub-classification of henges. Scottish henges, his work shows, tend to be smaller and later in time than their larger English cousins.

However, in the 1950’s and 1960’s classification of henges became a popular activity, spurred on by authors such as Aubrey Burl (Burl, 1969) and Richard Feachem (Feachem, 1963). A local, experienced, albeit amateur, archaeologist, Tony Woodham, assessed four closely-related structures near Dingwall and concluded that they fitted the criteria of, and could therefore be called, henges. Castle Hill was one of these.  Included below are edited extracts of his descriptions and summary conclusions from his 1955 paper (Woodham, 1955).

Muir of Ord: view from NW showing the slight external bank in foreground and entrance causeway over ditch. Woodham’s 1955 photo. © Society of Antiquities of Scotland

“The description of three of the four henge sites as “forts” on the OS maps is not a true indication of their original function.  The positions chosen are in every case on low ground and possessed of no tactical value for defence. The Contin and Conon bridge sites are on flat ground in river valleys, Culbokie on a gentle slope. Muir of Ord although on a slope is overlooked by higher ground on one side and is in close proximity to several locations which would be preferable from the point of view of fortification.”

“Thus, the general plan and siting of each is identical with that of classic henge monuments further south in Scotland, and in England. The Muir of Ord henge is similar in size and plan to the Class II henge at Broomend of Crichie, Aberdeenshire. The latter is the nearest previously recorded henge monument to this group of four under consideration.” This fact is remarkable. It’s a tribute to Woodham’s putting the Easter Ross henges on the archaeological map. There are now over 20 recognised henges in Highland. It must be he who first called it a henge, in print.

“A tradition of sanctity has been attached to these sites and has aided their survival in a practically intact condition to the present day.” Woodham then goes on to discuss the function of this structure, now called a henge. “Excavations at similar sites have revealed that in some cases their centres once contained circles of timber posts, and/or circles of stones, and/or burials.”. He argues that this henge is wrongly described as a fort, and that it was not built for defence. “For a fort it’s obvious the bank should be inside the ditch”.

“Castle Hill Henge would have been a public monument, erected as a ceremonial meeting place for the community, and may have been used for ritual activity for many centuries thereafter”. Woodham supported the suggestion that the function of the bank was at least partially to serve as a “grandstand” for the laity, who were separated from the central sanctum by the internal ditch.

This confident description of its use is far removed from modern uncertainty as to the function of henges. The title of Richard Bradley’s book sums up the dilemma. When excavated, the central area of henges has given no suggestion that they were commonly used for either burials or living in. They seem to be ceremonial. Were they Stages, platforms on which public activities occurred watched by the community standing on the banks, as Woodham suggests? Or, alternatively, could these have been Screens, private places, curtained by palisades or high banks, behind which secret ceremonial sacred activities occurred? Despite some further excavation at other sites and ongoing discussion, we really don’t know.

Tony Woodham sent his findings to the Ordnance Survey in 1965. It is perhaps from this time that the descriptor “henge” was used with the name Castle Hill on OS maps. However, making matters less certain for this “henge” is that many recent observers do not think it is a henge. Although it does have an outer bank and inner ditch, the resemblance to other local henges stops there. Those structures are flat on the ground, low-lying, unpretentious. Whereas the Castle Hill feature is raised up and prominent in the landscape. The pendulum is swinging back to considering it to be a medieval structure, dating perhaps from the 12th – 13th centuries, rather than 5000 years ago in the late Neolithic. Another “local, experienced, albeit amateur, archaeologist”, Meryl Marshall, continues the story.

Homesteads at the base of the Black Isle

In summer 2020, Meryl undertook a detailed survey of the Castle Hill site, producing the magnificent plan shown below. In her 2020 blog on the moated site of David’s Fort at Conon Bridge, just five kilometres away, she quotes Andrew Macdonald: “Without question the most war-torn regions of Scotland in the late 12th and early 13th century were the large and imperfectly assimilated northern territories of Moray and Ross…” She then adds that David’s Fort “is close to what, in the Medieval period, was a crossing of the River Conon. Here too was the old church of Logiebride (or Logie Wester), and the site of the Battle of Lagabraad in 1481. This area, at the “neck” of the Black Isle, will almost certainly have been a meeting point of routeways for centuries, if not millennia”. Whereas Conon Bridge is sited at the northern end of the base of the Black Isle, Muir of Ord has a similar position in the centre of the base, with the old church of Gilchrist close by, and the River Beauly 3 kms to the south. In the 12th century the area would have been marshy, apart from the glacial moraine ridge on which Castle Hill sits.

Meryl points out that there are several large, raised platforms, all roughly at the base of the Black Isle: a platform at Brahan[2], a recently scheduled moated homestead[3][4] at Achnasoul near Fairburn, as well as David’s Fort[5] at Conon Bridge and Castle Hill at Muir. It is possible that they could be both related, and contemporaneous.

Plan of Castle Hill, 2020 © Meryl Marshall

As part of the Historic Environment Scotland 2018 scheduling document[6] for Achnasoul there is a detailed description of the form and function of such late medieval defended homesteads in northern Scotland: “The monument represents a rare survival of a moated homestead of medieval date. Moated homesteads are relatively rare within Scotland as a whole, when compared to the frequency of those recorded in other parts of the UK and beyond. ……. Such sites are particularly rare in the north of Scotland and only one monument of broadly similar character, a moated site 5.3km east northeast (David’s Fort, scheduled monument reference SM2500, Canmore ID 12866), can be identified in the local area. Research into moated homesteads has indicated that they can mark local centres of lordship during the period in which Scotland became a feudal society during the 12th and 13th centuries.”

Although Castle Hill has a ditch within the perimeter bank, this is unlikely ever to have been filled with water. So, it is not moated. A more satisfactory description, therefore, would be a “defended homestead”. This is the current state of conjecture concerning its origin and nature. Such is the difficulty of knowing how pre-historic structures were used. Without careful excavation we may never be more certain. astly, personal communication with Dr Eric Grant of Tarradale highlights the importance of the Castle Hill site with respect to local estate and county history. It lies at the apex of a thin splinter of Lovat Estate land, in Kilmorack parish, in Inverness-shire that is surrounded by other estates (Tarradale, Ord, Highfield) in Urray parish in Ross-shire, as shown below. This curious arrangement might reflect ancient boundaries. The Time Team archaeologist, Mick Aston, saw the feature in 2008 and thought it was not a henge. His suggestion was that it could be a medieval boundary defensive or lookout station right on the boundary of the two estates (personal communication, Eric Grant).

Portion of 1872 OS map, showing the position of Castle Hill Henge and the parish boundaries

Other archaeological remains survive elsewhere on the golf course or in the vicinity. Towards the bottom right of the July 2010 aerial photo[7]  below is a circular crop mark. Cropmarks are visible sub-terranean features that show up in dry weather conditions. This one reveals a circular ditch, which may represent a pre-historic (ie >3000 years old) burial barrow or a hut circle. In addition, Woodham in 1955 drew attention to “two standing-stones still to be seen situated about ¾ of a mile from the henge, and visible from it.” Garden mentioned these too in the 17th century. The stones are no longer visible from Castle Hill Henge, although they do exist. One is in the open field near Wind Hill, the other is in the Muir of Ord Industrial site. Again, their date and function are unknown, although they are certainly “pre-historic”.

July 2010 aerial photograph showing circular crop mark (at bottom right) south of Castle Hill (at top right)

The development of the Castle Hill green in the 1980’s necessitated some alterations to the original form of the monument. These included levelling the central part of the henge to improve the existing green and constructing four sand bunkers in the outer ditch. The large rock now lying between the 13th green and the 12th box tee was dug out from this central area during the work. It had been buried just below the surface of the green and prevented the hole being cut in the area where it lay. The photograph immediately below was taken in July 1972, before the modifications[8].

Castle Hill on a July 1972 day, before the 1980’s development © Historic Environment Scotland: John Dewar Collection
Development work in progress on the Castle Hill, early 1980’s © Highland Council Historic Environment Record
The large stone removed from the green on Castle Hill © Rif Clarke

Historic Scotland (now called Historic Environment Scotland) became concerned when they heard that this work had been done without permission. It is after all a legally protected scheduled monument. Historic Scotland, the police and the Procurator Fiscal were all subsequently involved, although ultimately no charges were brought.

Further information on Castle Hill and other henge sites can be found in the following references:

Atkinson, R., Piggott, C. & NK, &. S., 1951. Excavations at Dorchester, Oxon. Oxford: Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum.

Aubrey, J. (with notes added by Evelyn, J and Gale, T),1665-93. Monumenta Britannica. Oxford: Bodleian Library.

Beaton, A., 1883. Notes on the Ancient Fortifications in the Black Isle, Ross-shire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 17, pp. 414-423.

Bradley, R., 2011. Stages and screens: an investigation of four henge monuments in northern and north-eastern Scotland. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Burl, A., 1969. Henges: internal features and regional groups. Archaeological Journal, Volume 1, pp. 1-28. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00665983.1969.11077434 (Accessed 24th May 2021)

Feachem, R., 1963. A guide to prehistoric Scotland. 2nd ed. s.l.:Batsford Ltd.

Kendrick, T. H. C., 1932. Archaeology in England and Wales 1914–1931. Methuen & Co.

Marshall, M., 2020. David’s Fort Revisited – and a Strange Coincidence?.  Wordpress. https://nosasblog.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/davids-fort-revisited-and-a-strange-coincidence/ (Accessed 24th May 2021)

Woodham, A., 1955. Four henge monuments in Easter Ross. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 87, pp. 72-79.


[1] http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/SM1665

[2] https://her.highland.gov.uk/monument/MHG55081

[3] https://her.highland.gov.uk/monument/MHG29192

[4] https://canmore.org.uk/site/274702/marybank-achnasoul-wood

[5] https://canmore.org.uk/site/12866/davids-fort

[6] http://portal.historicenvironment.scot/designation/SM13629

[7] https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1221748

[8] https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1773743

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