Achnasoul and Medieval Earthwork Castles in Ross Revisited

by Meryl Marshall

The moated homestead in Achnasoul Wood (NGR NH 48808 51821 Canmore ID: 274702 Highland Council (HC) HER MHG29192) 4kms west of Muir of Ord was visited by NOSAS members on a winter walk in February 2020 just before “lockdown”. The visit renewed my interest in the medieval period in this area and I began some research into the two homesteads of Davids Fort and Achnasoul with the intention of producing a blog for the NOSAS website. It wasn’t long before I realized what a complex topic I had taken on so I decided to split it into two; the first part, on Davids Fort, appeared on the NOSAS website in May 2020, this piece, focusing on Achnasoul, is part two.

The eastern half of the site showing the ditch and double banks with the mound on the right – looking SE

The Achnasoul site is a ringed earthwork with a central mound which was originally interpreted as a “moated homestead” but recently confirmed (on Canmore) as a motte and bailey. It is remarkably well preserved and has been one of my favourite local sites for many years. NOSAS carried out a planetable survey on a cold, wintery day in 2005 (report on NOSAS website at: The site remains something of a mystery and seems out of place; clearly it is fortified as it has substantial double banks enclosing a ditch but yet it is situated in low lying ground with higher knolls surrounding it – not a particularly defendable position!

In 2017 the site was scheduled by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) – SM13629. The description in the scheduling document says:               

The monument is a large earthwork enclosure comprising a ditch and two concentric banks which enclose a sub-circular area measuring around 43m northwest-southeast by 39m northeast-southwest within which is a raised mound. The ditch defining the enclosure measures 4m to 5m in width and 1.5m in depth and is broken by two causeways on the northwest and southeast. The outer bank of the ditch is complete and varies in height, reaching a maximum of 2m… Internally, the raised mound lies in the northern part of the enclosed area and is c25m diameter at its base, reaching a maximum height of 2m. The summit is encircled by a fragmentary bank, which encloses an area of around 11m diameter.

The size and form of the visible remains… represents a rare survival of a moated homestead of medieval date.

A processed image of the Achnasoul site from a lidar survey (contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licinse v3.0)

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. There are around 122 known sites in Scotland compared with around 750 in Ireland and 6350 in England. Such sites are particularly rare in the north of Scotland and only one monument of broadly similar character, a moated site 5.3km to the east northeast, David’s Fort (scheduled monument reference SM2500), can be identified in the local area.”

Davids Fort (below) (NGR NH 5394 5328, Canmore ID 12866, Highland Council HER: MHG8986), is very different to Achnasoul. It is trapezoidal in shape, has more substantial banks and is close to the River Conon “commanding” what was a crossing point in former times. Davids Fort is thought to be a royal stronghold and Earl David of Huntingdon (1152-1219), brother of King William the Lion, gains most favour as giving his name to it. Earl David was one of the leaders of the campaigns to subdue rebellious claimants to the throne in the area of Ross in the second half of the 12th century and the early 13th century.

Conflict in Ross

Between 1124 and 1153 King David 1st had brought about the Anglo-Normanisation of Moray and Ross establishing a royal presence based on a system of sherrifdoms and thanages; the most important centres in Ross were Dingwall and Cromarty. But the years which followed were marked by bitter strife and insurgencies as other contestants for the throne, particularly the MacHeth and MacWilliam families, also descendants of previous kings, asserted their claims to the throne. McDonald 2003 has:

The history of the so called Canmore kings in Scotland from Malcolm III (1058 – 93) to Alexander III (1249 – 86) is marked by an array of insurrections led by discontented dynasts and native warlords with grievances against these kings (these included as early as 1058 the hapless Lulach, stepson and brief successor of Macbeth and later Somerled, Earl Harald Maddadson, the MacHeths and the MacWilliams)… none of the challenges proved successful… the Canmore kings maintained their grip on power in large measure through the crushing and the quashing of numerous insurrections…

(P125) without question the most war-torn regions of Scotland in the late 12th and early 13thC were the large and imperfectly assimilated northern territories of Moray and Ross…

And Grant 2005 has:

(P110) over the later 12th and early 13th centuries… Ross was a much more troublesome region (than Moray) providing as it did a base and a springboard for almost all the rebellions and several times falling entirely outside Royal control. Thus the frontier between Ross and Moray (along the River Beauly at that time) wasstill in many respects, the effective frontier for the Kings of Alba.

It is not proposed here to give more historical detail of these times, a brief outline was provided in the first blog and a bibliography for those seeking more information is included at the end of this piece.

Both Davids Fort and Achnasoul then, are thought to date from this period of conflict in Ross. Why are the two sites, so very different to each other? The case for Davids Fort being in royal hands is strong. Could Achnasoul have figured on the other side, that of the claimants to the throne? Where did the local people, the indigenous kindred of the area, fit in? Could these local native people have played a part in the conflict? It seemed worth exploring a few avenues.

The morphology of the Achnasoul site and other possible earthwork castles in Ross

I searched the databases for other moated sites in Ross with the same or similar features to Achnasoul. The site at Inchnadamph (below), (NC 2488 2196, Canmore ID: 4664, HC HER MHG12107) came to mind. Like Achnasoul it is oval in shape but at 40m x 26m it is smaller and has just one encircling bank 0.4m high and ditch. An excavation undertaken in 2013 as part of the Assynt Fire and Water Project produced radiocarbon dates indicating activity between the mid-15th and mid-17th century. Not much help there, the site itself was probably older.

At Delny in Easter Ross a possible medieval moated site (at NH 734 723, Canmore ID 14598, HC HER MHG44258) has been recorded: “The earls of Ross had a residence at Delny, ‘our manor house’ of Delny appearing in at least one 15th-century MacDonald charter”. Virtually all traces of this site have disappeared and the site is now occupied by a large farmstead and a late 19th-century villa.

I widened the search. Nearly 100 moated sites have been recorded in Scotland. Most are rectangular in shape and several were described as mottes or motte and baileys. Garpol Water (below) appeared similar to Achnasoul, but it didn’t have the same rounded mound. The term “moated site” seems to cover a multitude of types of monuments from defended homesteads and ringed earthworks to mottes and mottes and baileys. What did the archaeologists have to say about medieval defensive works?

Yeoman 1995 has:

(P86) as many as 300 or so earthwork castles have been recorded (in Scotland) although only a handful have been excavated … such castles can be loosely grouped as ringworks, mottes and moated homesteads although there are many more variations of form…

And Tabraham 1997 has:

(P20) the most characteristic type of early castle is the motte/motte and bailey…… there are certainly forms of (early) castle other than mottes in Scotland. … ”ringworks” where the castle area remained on the same level as the surrounding ground but was defended by a raised earthen bank fronted by a ditch…. Not as defensively strong as mottes or as robust these ringworks have probably been easier for farmers to remove over the past two centuries so they are now fewer in number…

There are several references to the rebels involved in the upheavals in Ross being based in Ireland and receiving support from the Irish (Oram 2011 p170, Grant 2005 p107, McDonald 2002 p82, McDonald 2003 p162). Was there an Irish influence at work in the architecture of Achnasoul? A long shot! but worth investigating. I turned to Google and searched for “Irish ringed earthworks”. Wikepedia had:

“in Ireland they are common throughout the country and known as “raths” or “lios”. Over 40,000 sites have been identified….. Earthen ringforts would have been marked by a circular bank and ditch, often with a stakewall.  According to the authoritative New History of Ireland (2005), “archaeologists are agreed that the vast bulk of them are the farm enclosures of the well-to-do of early medieval Ireland”  “From a morphological viewpoint………there is little to distinguish a ringfort from a small earthwork castle or motte. Indeed, in a number of cases it would appear that either the Normans converted existing ringforts into the basis of the future construction of mottes and earthworks, or that the Gaelic Irish, through the use of raised raths, sought to emulate the Norman example”.

MacNeill 1997 (p8) concurs:

More complex, because less well understood, are the variety of sites which appear to be more strongly fortified raths… Their perimeter, however, is defined not by a bank and ditch but by elevating the whole area on to a mound the result gives us sites which appear now to be very similar to the mottes.

Clearly I needed to focus on mottes!

Mottes or mottes and baileys are centres of local administration and justice but primarily served as lordly residences within the feudal system (Yeoman (1988). They provide a potent symbol of a culture introduced into the country by the Normans in the 11th and 12th centuries. A motte comprises a mound of earth, often an enhanced knoll, with a surrounding ditch and sometimes with an enclosure, the bailey, at a lower level. Excavation has revealed that the timber superstructures and timber buildings in the baileys could be very sophisticated constructions (Oram 2011, p317), at Mote of Urr for example, the excavation of the summit area by Hope-Taylor in 1951 and 1953, revealed a central tower of timber with a heavy timber palisade, reinforced with rough stone. King David 1st campaigning along the Moray Coast (1124-1153) had introduced the Anglo-Norman feudal system granting land to loyal lords, often incomers from England and the Continent, who were to settle alongside the native aristocracy. These magnates established mottes or mottes and baileys as fortified bases; Elgin (below), Duffus, Forres, Auldearn, Inverness are just a few examples.

My search of the databases for mottes or motte and baileys in Ross revealed very few. Dingwall (Canmore ID: 12774) and Cromarty (Canmore ID: 14439) would have had their mottes from the time of David 1sts thanages; a mound appears in the position of Dingwall Castle on the 1st edition OS of 1872 and on Woods town plan of 1824 and “permission was granted to build a tower on the motte of Cromarty” in 1470. The strongholds of Eddradour (Redcastle) and Dunscaith, established in 1179 by King William the Lion, would have been mottes but subsequent activity has swept any evidence of them away. Two other “possible” motte sites were identified in Ross:

  • Castle Leod (below) (at NH 4860 5933, Canmore ID: 12469, HC HER: MHG25203) The present castle sits on an earlier mound believed to be a motte.
  • Foulis Castle (at NH 5888 6393, Canmore ID: 12909, HC HER: MHG8945) Described as a possible motte, this is a circular manmade mound with a flat top c19m in diameter and 1m to 2.5m height situated in the landscaped policies of Foulis Castle.

Both of these would appear to be associated with later native power centres but neither had the surrounding banks and ditches.

My wider search for “motte and bailey” produced a multitude of sites, both big and small eg Bass of Inverurie, Rattray near Perth and Tarbolton, but the best example by far was the Mote of Urr (below) (at NX 81526 64684, Canmore ID: 64982) described (on Canmore) as “covering an area of about 2 hectares, this truly impressive earthwork is the most extensive motte-and-bailey castle in Scotland… it was built between c. 1130-1160”. It is very similar in form and features to Achnasoul but much much bigger!!

Local native Gaelic landholding in Ross

Grant 2005 has:

(P111) The Ross-Moray frontier is neatly highlighted by the different treatment which the two provinces received from the Scottish crown. After the Earldom of Moray was suppressed in the 1130s the province was organised into sheriffdoms and along its coastal plain royal burghs were established, religious houses founded and several incomers, notably the Flemings, were granted land by feudal tenure. In contrast after the earldom of Ross was supressed (in 1168) that did not happen. Twelfth century Ross had no new sheriffdoms burghs or religious houses.

 (P111) The absence of ‘Norman” settlement in 12th and 13th century Ross did not mean that there were no local lords there at all. Frustratingly there was once a ‘roll of twelve membranes of recognitions of old charters of the time of King William and King Alexander his son, (concerning?) those to whom the said kings formerly gave their peace and those who stood with MacWilliam. This would no doubt have provided a great deal of detail about local lordship in Ross around the end of William 1st reign had it not been lost in England after 1296 along with the rest of the Scottish state muniments.

It is well established that earthwork castles can mark the local centre of a lordship; the HES scheduling document for Achnasoul has:

Fairburn Tower (A-listed LB14030, Canmore ID 12479), a tower house, lies about 2km to the northwest of Achnasoul. The close proximity of these two sites is of interest and may indicate an ongoing focus of local power. Although the relationship between the tower house and Achnasoul is unclear, relative dating suggest Fairburn Tower may represents a successor residence.

So perhaps Achnasoul was a forerunner to Fairburn Tower. We will never know whether it was included in the roll of charters mentioned above. Tantalisingly the lands of Achnasoul appear to have been under royal control in the 15th and 16th centuries when they are mentioned in the Exchequer Rolls (1479, 1486, 1504, 1515 and 1523) and awarded by James V as part of a charter of lands in 1542. Was it possible to link any other sites in Ross with later landholding?

Here it seems relevant to diverge a little. We have already seen how two possible motte sites, at Castle Leod and Foulis, are associated with later centres of power. Over the years NOSAS have surveyed three other ringed earthworks in the Conon basin. Two of these are almost certainly associated with nearby power centres:

Above, the ringed earthwork at Brahan looking NE and below, an extract from a plan of c 1770 (NRAS RHP 1458) with the “Fine little Eminence called Beech Mount”
  • At Brahan (GR NH 52383 54412, Canmore ID:   HC HER: MHG55081) a ringed earthwork 300m to the SE of the site of the castle occupies a position overlooking a former crossing point of the River Conon. The earthwork is circular, roughly 90m in diameter and surrounded by a single bank which has been planted with beech trees. The site has been developed as a garden feature in the designed landscape of the castle and is marked on a plan “Proposed layout of Gardens” c1770 (NRAS RHP 1458) where it is annotated “a Fine little Eminence called Beech Mount” and also on a plan “Survey of Brahan Policies” 1787 by David Aitken (NRAS RHP 142804).
  • At Conan House (GR NH 53208 53714, Canmore ID: 351707) a ringed earthwork (above) is located 200m to the SW of the house. Sadly it has been badly mutilated, less than two thirds of the bank remains. The site is roughly circular measures c50m diameter overall and has a single earthbank 1m in height surrounding it. A mound is marked on an estate plan of 1830. Like Brahan the site has probably been a feature in the designed landscape. Interestingly it is 800m to the west of Davids Fort, much closer to the River Conon with its medieval crossing point
  • At Muir of Ord, Castlehill (GR NH 52724 49719, Canmore ID: 12670, HC HER: MHG9180) A ringed earthworksimilar in form to Achnasoul has sometimes been interpreted as a henge, sometimes as a defended homestead. It is situated on a raised spur of ground with views eastwards over the fertile land at the head of the Beauly Firth. It is oval, has double banks and measures 40m x 36m overall; the central area is circular, 18m in diameter and occupied by the 13th green of the Muir of Ord golf course.

Loyalties of the local Gaelic lords in Ross

For four decades, between 1179/1181 and 1220, several generations of the MacWilliam family pressed their claim to the throne harassing the Scottish Kings using Ross as their base. There is evidence to suggest that some of the local lords supported the cause of the MacWilliams. Grant (2005 p111) has told us of the “roll of twelve membranes of recognitions of old charters (of Ross) of the time of King William…….. (concerning?) those to whom the said kings formerly gave their peace and those who stood with MacWilliam”.

Referring to Donald MacWilliams invasion of 1187 Oram, 2011 has: “According to Howden ranged against William (the king) was “a coalition of certain powerful men of the kingdom of Scotland” who supported Donalds claims and who had invited him to return to Scotland” (p142).

And in the challenges of the next generation Walter Bower observed that Guthred MacWilliam had invaded Scotland from Ireland as part of a plot (hatched by) “the thanes of Ross” (Macdonald 2003, p156) and “when he (Guthred) landed in Ross in 1211 he is said to have had the support of the leading men of the region” (Macdonald 2003 p159).

So it seems clear that the uprising had the support of some of the local lords, at least for some of the time. But it was not to last. In June 1212 “(Guthred) was betrayed by his followers…. captured and beheaded”. And in 1215 Donald Ban MacWilliam, a son of Guthred, and Kenneth MacHeth together with an Irish Prince joined forces in their opposition to the King of the Scots but were defeated by Farquhar MacTaggart a native northern magnate (McDonald 2003 p43). Farquhar MacTaggart was knighted for his role in subduing the MacWilliams. He was granted lands in eastern Ross which included Balconie and Delny and when the MacWilliams were finally supressed in 1230 Farquhar was created Earl of Ross.

Macdonald (2003 p166) states:

The establishment of Farquhar as Earl of Ross is significant and shows how by the 13th century even native dignitaries in the far north were being integrated and assimilated into the new socio political order established by the Scottish kings from the time of David 1st…..(Farquhars) creation as Earl of Ross boosted him into the uppermost rank of the Scottish nobility

Unfortunately there is little physical evidence for Farquhars lordly mansion at Delny: The earls of Ross had a residence at Delny, ‘our manor house’ of Delny appearing in at least one 15th-century MacDonald charter” (quote from Canmore). All traces of this have disappeared but at the time Farquhars influence seems to have allowed peace and an expansion of feudal settlement in the North after 1215.


Oram 2011:

(P232) New research indicates that (by 1150)… the principal beneficiaries from the overthrow of Morays native rulers in the 1130s were instead other Gaelic magnates”…(p312) “it has long been recognised that Gaelic families embraced aspects of the cultural trappings of the colonial lords from their personal names to their clothing their style of fighting to their preferred diet”…(p317) “it is difficult to see them (mottes) as a marker exclusively of colonist-knights for it is now understood that by the 1180s – if not earlier – Gaelic lords who were adopting elements of the incoming culture were also building mottes of their own as symbols of their enhanced social status”…(p368) “popular images of distrustfully conservative Gaelic chieftains pulling back from contact with brash young knights and their foreign ways … need to be tempered with recognition of the growing enthusiasm with which some of those foreign ways were greeted by natives who saw in them something attractive and not just a means of consolidating their grip on power.

It is highly probable that the motte and bailey of Achnasoul was the seat of one of the native Gaelic lords and it would seem that the two sites of Davids Fort and Achnasoul are different because they were constructed by people of different cultural and perhaps political backgrounds and for different purposes; one was a strong defensive royal position controlling a river crossing and the other was the centre of power of a local lord who wished to make a statement. Other possible medieval power bases of local lordship in Ross have also been brought to attention; moated homesteads, ringed earthworks, mottes and motte and baileys. All seem to have played a part as local lordly power centres. Perhaps their differing forms of architecture point towards the loyalties of those who occupied them?


Alston David, 1999 Ross and Cromarty, A Historical Guide

Grant Alexander, 2005 The Province of Ross and the Kingdom of Alba in “Alba – Celtic Scotland in the Medieval Era” (Edited Cowan and Mcdonald)

Higham Robert and Barker Philip, 1992 Timber Castles

McDonald R Andrew, 2002 (reprint) The Kingdom of the Isles – Scotland Western Seaboard, c1100 – c1336

McDonald R Andrew, 2003 Outlaws of Medieval Scotland – Challenges to the Canmore Kings 1058  -1266,

McNeill P and MacQueen H, 1996 Atlas of Scottish History to 1707

McNeill Tom, 1997 Castles of Ireland, Feudal Power in a Gaelic World

Oram Richard, 2011 Domination and Lordship Scotland 1070 – 1230

Tabraham Chris, 1997 Scotlands Castles, published by Historic Scotland

Yeoman Peter, 1988 Mottes in North-East Scotland – Scottish Archaeological Review

Yeoman Peter, 1995 Medieval Scotland, published by Historic Scotland

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