6.4.2 High Status Sites

One aspect of Roman influence on the Iron Age communities was an accumulation of wealth resulting in increased social stratification and political reinvention (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 28–9). In secular terms this is reflected in the emergence of ‘localised’ kingships in the 5th–9th centuries, which can be seen through fortified power centres, the first of which was recognised at Dundurn (MPK346) in the 1970s (Alcock et al 1989). Alongside this, the introduction of Christianity to Scotland had increasing influence during this period. While most aspects of this conversion remain unclear, the impact of St Columba’s missionaries from the 6th century resulted in the establishment of a number of regionally important religious centres, or church settlements. Indeed, the development at sites such as at Fortingall and St Serfs (Loch Leven; MPK3030) were part of long-term strategies to underpin regional scale lordship, probably derived from these early power centres (O’Grady 2017, 24).

Hand drawn sketches of nine different artefacts in black and white. Each piece, presented in three rows of three, is drawn from different angles.
Dundurn, glass and fine metalworking (Alcock et al 1989, illus. 14)
Glass bead from Dundurn ©️ Hunterian Museum, University of glasgow

Of these early power centres, Forteviot (MPK1935) was to have a uniquely special place in Scottish history, with the death of Cináed son of Alpín (King Kenneth mac Alpín), recorded at the ‘palace’ there in AD 858. Already a major royal centre in an emerging Gaelic nation – first as the Kingdom of Alba and then its successor Scotland, the site was located beside one of the most extensive early prehistoric ritual complexes in mainland Scotland (Brophy and Noble 2020). This dynamic natural amphitheatre of memory and invented tradition was recently explored through the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project (Campbell and Driscoll 2020). As a site of royal inauguration, Forteviot was ultimately to be replaced by Scone, where radiocarbon dates suggest construction of the moothill ‘at some time either side of c.AD 1000, or less probably, c.AD 900’ (MPK5474; O’Grady 2018,142–3). It would become the inauguration and later the coronation site of the Scottish kings down to the 17th century.

While most Scottish forts are considered to be of Iron Age date (Lock and Ralston 2017; Halliday 2019), a small number were created as centres of power and elite crafts in the early medieval period. They represent elite and royal strongholds, and reflect increasing social stratification (Ralston 2006; Harding 2004; Alcock 2003). They were first proposed as ‘Dark Age Capitals’ and categorised as ‘nuclear forts’ by Stevenson (1949, 187) following his survey of Dalmahoy Hill. They are characterised by a central summit fort, or citadel, often on a rocky outcrop, with a series of outer works on descending terraces, and are usually smaller than Iron Age forts (Harding 2004, 169 and 235).

The few historic references for the period are often connected with strongholds and significant events and a series of excavations at sites mentioned in early medieval annals included Dundurn, near St Fillans (MPK346; Alcock 1978; Alcock et al 1989). Occupying a rocky knoll, controlling the pass from Loch Earn to the east, it has an inner dun-like enclosure on the summit surrounded by a series of lower terraces enclosed by walls. Radiocarbon dates confirm early medieval construction of the upper fortifications with the timber-laced wall of the summit enclosure, and stone wall around the uppermost terrace dated to the 7th to 9th centuries AD. An initial palisaded phase in the 6th to early 7th centuries AD has been suggested based on the build-up of midden deposits on the slope and the presence of structural timbers recovered from an overlying wattle floor (Alcock et al 1989).

Oblique aerial view of a large hill or mound in the middle of field systems. The mound is rocky and covered in moss and trees. A large forest of trees surround the bottom of the mound.
Aerial view of Dundurn ©️ HES

Despite limited excavation, Dundurn produced a remarkable array of high-status finds dating primarily to the 7th–9th centuries. These included imported glass and pottery, evidence of specialist craftworking, mainly non-ferrous and possibly ferrous metalworking, as well as leather and possibly glass working (Alcock et al 1989). Remarkably, waterlogged deposits accrued behind the upper enclosure defences and preserved oak timbers and a well-preserved decorated leather shoe (Alcock et al 1989). The E-ware of 7th-century date, and the later imports and finds of 9th-century date suggest a longer occupation than most hillforts excavated in Scotland so far. It supports the documentary evidence for royal occupation here as late as AD 889.  Further details of the assemblage can be found across the various sections below.

Image shows a leather shoe, with a wide toe and folded heel. The leather is dark brown-black and has lines of repeated notches across the whole shoe.
Leather shoe from Dundurn ©️ HES

The combination of the choice of site, construction and morphology, and a suite of artefacts evidencing specialist craftworking and imported goods related to feasting is recognised at other early medieval royal strongholds, notably Dunadd, Argyll (Lane and Campbell 2001). Recent and ongoing excavation at the King’s Seat, Dunkeld or the ‘Fortress of the Caledones’ (MPK5444; Jackson 1954, 14–6) has revealed a similar choice of site and morphology and ‘signature’ assemblage as found at Dunadd and Dundurn.  Here, an upper, inner enclosure was flanked by two enclosures on lower terraces. The middle and upper enclosures produced radiocarbon dates from the 6th–7th centuries, recovered from two hearths and a posthole related to construction of the middle terrace enclosure bank. The lowest enclosure produced a radiocarbon date of 5th–7th centuries from a metalworking deposit which likely post-dated the lower enclosure construction (Strachan and MacIver forthcoming). The extensive and significant finds assemblage, similar to other high-status sites of the period, includes iron metalwork, metalworking moulds, crucible fragments, E-ware pottery and imported glass. Three hearths were excavated across the site, with the excellent preservation of the large central hearth packed with animal bone suggesting feasting within a substantial structure within the upper enclosure (Strachan and MacIver forthcoming). The relevance of the assemblage from the King’s Seat to various aspects of early medieval life is further discussed below. An important point to highlight here is simply that, despite close similarities in date, morphology and assemblages, the fort at the King’s Seat was not mentioned in the sources which record events at the forts of Dunadd and Dundurn.

An important aspect of these forts is their strategic location on both a local and regional scale. It may be significant that both Dundurn and Dunkeld are located on the Highland Fault line, and that both control access through important riverine/terrestrial passes. The King’s Seat controls the north-south route, known as King’s Pass, into the uplands on the region’s main river, the Tay, and this may be significant. Dundurn occupies a similar, narrow valley where an important route through the southern Highlands links Perth and Kinross to the west coast (Alcock et al 1989, 195).

Forts were not simply places where high-status goods were consumed, but were also the centres for production of the material culture that conferred such status. Hearths and debris attest to an intensive phase of non-ferrous metalworking at the King’s Seat fort, Dunkeld, including crucibles and ingot moulds, which point to the working of precious metals in the 6th–7th centuries (Strachan and MacIver forthcoming). A complete silver ingot from a 7th-century context at the Clatchard Craig fort, Fife, attests to similar production at comparable sites (NMS X.HHC 121; Close-Brooks 1986, 163). It suggests that the raw materials themselves, as well as the high-status objects crafted, were exchanged at these sites. Similarly, the varied E-ware pottery assemblage that represents a number of different vessel forms and Anglo-Saxon glass beads indicates engagement with wider trading networks to the west and south.

Without excavation, it is difficult to assign early medieval dates to other forts in Perth and Kinross, although there are other possible examples. Dunison, mentioned in the Pictish king lists, has been suggested to be Dunsinane Hill (MPK4823). The summit enclosure is defined by three concentric ditches, while an outer enclosure encompasses a number of lower terraces. The fort attracted early antiquarian interest as ‘MacBeth’s Castle’ (Atlas) and the site remains heavily scarred from the early excavations around 1799 and the 1840s (Strachan et al forthcoming). No early medieval material was identified during the early excavations, so the date of the fort remains uncertain (Alcock 1981). Conversely, the fort at Moncreiffe Hill, long suggested to be early medieval, primarily through association with a Pictish dynastic battleground, has been confirmed by excavation to be Iron Age (MPK3203; Strachan et al forthcoming; see PKARF Iron Age Section).

The uplands west of the River Tay contain a notable concentration of massive, stone-walled roundhouses, found on high ground associated with pasture overlooking upland passes. They have previously been referred to as ‘ring-forts’ (Stewart 1969), ‘homesteads’ (Taylor 1990) and ‘monumental roundhouses’ (Hingley 1992; Strachan 2013). Stewart suggested they represented early medieval migration into Highland Perthshire from the west coast in the 8th–10th centuries (1969, 31). Since then, three examples have been shown to be constructed in the Iron Age. One of the two at Aldclune  dates to between the 1st and 2nd centuries BC and other between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, with two phases of occupation at each site (MPK3; Hingley et al, 1998). The Black Spout was constructed between the late 3rd and late 2nd centuries BC and occupied until the end of the 1st century BC (MPK1607; Strachan 2013, 53). Both sites have indicated some early medieval activity or reuse. At Aldclune, post-occupation deposits contained a spectacular 9th-century silver penannular brooch (NMS X.FC 304; Stevenson 1985) and a rare iron ‘fire steel’, now identified as a purse mount of likely 7th-century Anglo-Saxon origin (Blackwell 2018, 128).

Black and white image taken from a high point of view of a white building surrounded by trees. In the forefront of the image, the dark shadow of a large wall or building in imprinted on the ground.
Moothill at Scone ©️ HES

At the Black Spout, a phase of rebuilding of a collapsed section of the enclosure wall at the entrance was dated to AD 870–1000 (Strachan 2013, 53). Early medieval activity and evidence of metalworking from the 7th–9th centuries AD has been noted (Strachan 2013, 36–7) at other sites of this type, including Litigan (MPK413) and the Queens View (MPK1212; both Taylor 1990), and at Bunrannoch, Kinloch Rannoch (MPK239, MPK14637-8; MacGregor 2010). It has been suggested that the nature and scale of these abandoned structures may have made them suitable for reuse for this purpose in the early medieval period. A handful of 5th–10th century AD radiocarbon dates are also known from crannogs with radiocarbon identified phases in Loch Tay. These could be viewed as analogous to the reuse of the terrestrial sites (Dixon 2007; Hamilton pers comm). A number of more irregular duns, such as Dun Geal (MPK4400), above Fortingall, have been found in the uplands west of the Tay. As yet undated, they may prove to be early medieval, or perhaps of Iron Age construction with similar reuse as at the monumental roundhouses.

Open-air assembly mounds, used as judicial courts throughout medieval Scotland, have their origins in the early medieval period (O’Grady 2008). The area includes the ultimate expression of the form in the moothill at Scone (MPK5474), constructed at some point in the late 9th or early 10th century AD (O’Grady 2014; 2018). Some were adapted prehistoric barrows and cairns, and were closely associated with early church sites. There are records of at least ten possible ‘moot’ and ‘assembly’ sites, including sites with ‘court’ in the name field, in the Perth and Kinross HER, with place-names indicative of others. These are discussed more fully in the PKARF Medieval chapter.