Burnt Hill Fort in Dark Ages Scotland Was Likely the Stronghold of the Mysterious Rheged Kingdom

Burnt Hill Fort in Dark Ages Scotland Was Likely the Stronghold of the Mysterious Rheged Kingdom

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For years, scholars thought a Scottish Dark Ages hill fort that met a violent, fiery end was a stronghold of the Pictish people. But new research shows Trusty’s Hill was likely the royal stronghold of the Britons’ mysterious Rheged kingdom in Galloway.

During the attack, the fire that burned the fort lasted long enough and generated enough heat that it vitrified the stones of its ramparts. The same thing happened to the Mote of Mark, another hill fort also in southwest Scotland, in Galloway.

Thus came the demise of the kingdom of Rheged in the 7th century AD. A kingdom that had once dominated Scotland and northern Britain.

GUARD Archaeology Ltd. produced this re-enactment of the conflagration at Trusty’s Hill.

GUARD Archaeology Ltd. produced this re-enactment of the conflagration at Trusty’s Hill. (GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

The location of the kingdom of Rheged had been lost to history, though one of its kings, Urien, was celebrated centuries later in the poet Taliesin’s works.

Several years ago archaeologists decided to take a second look at Trusty’s Hill, drawn there by enigmatic Pictish symbols. The symbols at Trusty’s Hill are far south of where Pictish marks are usually found, which presented something of a mystery.

Trusty’s Hill was assumed to be a stronghold of what became known as the Galloway Picts. Archaeologists, with a staff of 60 people, launched The Galloway Picts Project in 2012 to verify or refute the idea.

An article on Guard Archaeology’s website quotes Ronan Toolis, the lead archaeologist:

… far from validating the existence of ‘Galloway Picts’, the archaeological context revealed by our excavation instead suggests the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration for the local Britons of Galloway around AD 600. Examined in the context of contemporary sites across Scotland and northern England, the archaeological evidence suggests that Galloway may have been the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.

An article on the Galloway Picts site explains that when local nobles weren’t making war, they were likely marrying, hiring laborers and trading with other cultures in northern Britain and Ireland. They presumably absorbed foreign elements into their own cultures.

“This is the context for the Pictish Symbols at Trusty’s Hill, where the Pictish Inscription either represents the presence of Picts there, perhaps through marriage into a local family, or where a local family aspired to be seen as Picts,” the Galloway Picts site states.

Excavations since 2012 have shown that in the decades around 600 AD, the hill’s summit had fortifications that included a rampart of timber and stone. Other defenses and enclosures on the lower slopes of the hill made it a nucleated fort. Such forts were used by high-status people in Scotland in the medieval period, says Guard Archaeology.

People entering the fort saw a rock-cut basin on one side and an outcropping on the other, upon which were carved two Pictish symbols. Guard Archaeology calls this a rite of passage into the fort, where royal inaugurations took place. Upon entering, guests would see the king’s feasting hall to the west, and a smith’s workshop to the east. The smith likely worked with gold, silver, bronze, and iron.

One of the Pictish symbols at the gate. Because there is no Rosetta Stone for the Picts, the meaning of the symbol has been lost.

One of the Pictish symbols at the gate. Because there is no Rosetta Stone for the Picts, the meaning of the symbol has been lost. (DGNHAS / CDDV)

“The layout of this fort was complex, each element deliberately formed to exhibit the power and status of its household,” Guard Archaeology states.

Traders came from across Europe, Britain, and Ireland, lured in part by copper and lead, which were mined nearby.

Other activities on Trusty’s Hill included feasting, spinning wool, and preparing leather. The household ate beef, oats, and barley, much the same as their Iron Age ancestors. The people who lived at Trusty’s Hill didn’t farm, according to excavation co-director Dr. Christopher Bowles, Scottish Borders Council Archaeologist.

“Instead, this household's wealth relied on their control of farming, animal husbandry and the management of local natural resources - minerals and timber - from an estate probably spanning the wider landscape of the Fleet valley and estuary. Control was maintained by bonding the people of this land and the districts beyond to the royal household, by gifts, promises of protection and the bounties of raiding and warfare.”

Anglo-saxon style bronze jewelry that was originally gilded and silvered. It was probably brought to Trusty’s Hill as loot.

Anglo-saxon style bronze jewelry that was originally gilded and silvered. It was probably brought to Trusty’s Hill as loot. (DGNHAS / GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

Trusty’s Hill had the highest status in comparison to other similar forts around Galloway. Those Dark Age forts include Whithorn, Kirkmadrine and the Mote of Mark. But only Trusty’s Hill had evidence of royal inauguration and so scholars think it dominated the local hierarchy.

Galloway has been called the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, which could only be accomplished if it had sufficient lands and resources and if the locals were literate and well-connected on the international scene.

In the 7th century, the kingdom of Rheged failed and died out in apparent violent conflict. Trusty’s Hill also may have been burnt by its own people who wanted to destroy it after abandonment. To vitrify the stones of the forts, the fires had to last for days or weeks and be especially hot. Past Horizons says the smoke and flames generated by the fires may have also been meant to send a message of dominance and threat to anyone in the vicinity.

Top Image: This is a reproduction of Trusty’s Hill, erroneously thought to be a Pict site but now believed to have been the stronghold of the lost British kingdom of Rheged of 600 AD or so. Source: DGNHAS / GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

By Mark Miller

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