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Formidability in the Face of Factions: The Significance of Dunollie Fort

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Snuggly enveloped within the arms of the Irish Sea, Dunollie Castle towers over Argyll from its sandstone promontory at the edge of Loch Etive in Scotland, a surviving symbol of the power and prestige of the Dál Riatan fort that once stood in its place.  The history of Dunollie is one that has given archaeologists and historians much trouble, as the archaeological evidence has suffered from both Gaelic destruction and 13th century reconstruction; meanwhile the textual evidence is, at minimum, a century removed from the actual events. Yet despite the site's elusive ancestry, the fort that once stood at Dunollie has long been noted for its promising geographical location, indicating the site's powerful role within the kingdom of Dál Riata.

Situated only a mile north of the village and port of Oban on the western coast of modern day Argyll, Scotland, Dunollie Rock—Anglicized from the Gaelic name Dun Ollaig or Dunollaich—stands eighty feet over the calm waters of the loch of Etive and, according to James Fraser, "west of Loch Awe and north of Loch Melfort and Loch Avich" in the region of Lorn. Once one of the chief strongholds of one of the four kindreds in the kingdom of Dál Riata, Dunollie was specifically home to the Lorn division (also recorded as Loarn, Loairn, or Lorne), purportedly named after Loarn the Great, the first chief at Dunollie following the organization of the Dál Riata.

It is important to note here the consistent debates over the number of kindreds into which the Dál Riata was separated; oftentimes, scholars disagree over whether it was two, three or four divisions—an important conversation when attempting to discern the lineage of the individual forts. While this debate is secondary to the purpose of this paper, it should be noted that in this work the Dál Riata will be considered broken up into four groups: Cenél nEchdach, Cenél nGabráin, Cenél Lorn, and Cenél Comgall.

Satellite image of Scotland and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded). The mountainous spine which separates the east and west coasts of Scotland can be seen.

Satellite image of Scotland and Ireland showing the approximate area of Dál Riata (shaded). The mountainous spine which separates the east and west coasts of Scotland can be seen. ( Public Domain )

Interestingly one should also take into account that Dunollie has a history older than the Dál Riata. This earlier habitation signifies a significant understanding of Dunollie's coastal location.  Archaeological evidence tells of Mesolithic (10,000-5,000 BC) hunter and gatherer communities living within the caves of Loch Etive. Though little is known about this culture—despite that the hunters were eventually replaced by a more agricultural settlement—it appears that the area of Lorn has long been recognized a very strategic spot. Such recognition becomes vastly important when realizing that the Dál Riatan culture spanned numerous islands within the Irish Sea, as well as the modern day coast of Scotland. Dunollie would have allowed easy access for trade and evacuation if necessary, and would have provided Cenél Lorn in particular with the capability to raise a naval defense. One such defense is documented in the 8th century during the reign of Selbach, a leader whose burning of Dunollie caused much of the struggle that now plagues archaeologists.

Dunollie Castle.

Dunollie Castle. ( CC BY 2.0 )

It is because of the lack of material evidence that the knowledge of the three other cenéla becomes enormously useful. Looking to Cenél nEchdach's stronghold Dunadd, believed to have been the most pertinent seat of the Dál Riata, a blueprint of the fort can be pieced together. Leslie Alcock excavated the site of Dunollie from 1974-84, and came to the conclusion that the first fort on the site was most likely nothing more than a dun—a "small, circular, oval drystone fort" on the promontory of Oban.

Furthermore, as will be discussed later, when Dunollie underwent a sufficient rebuilding process in 701 AD, it is by both Alcock and William Simpson that the small dun was replaced with a much larger drystone fort, little more than a "ring castle with a wall of enceinte enclosing it" and surrounded by "deep ditches and ramparts of uncemented stone".  Wooden huts "made of waddle and daub" were situated within the ramparts, despite that only the stonework seems to have lasted well after Dunollie was abandoned in the tenth century. 

Artefactual evidence is as scarce as the fort's remains; yet what artefacts have been uncovered indicate that Dunollie was likely an agricultural society. Querns, for example, are evidence of a need to grind cereals or grains into flour for bread making, inferred to have been grown in the nearby environment. Also found at Dunollie are whet stones, polishers, and hammers—indications of a self-sufficient, somewhat technological society, as well as rings, brooches, and pins implying the wealth sustained within its borders. Accompanied by the discovery of a metalworker's hearth by Leslie Alcock, this collection of evidence along with the implications archaeologists deduced from the site at Dunadd have lead scholars to the conclusion that the kindred at Dunollie was one of the higher status tribes within the kingdom of Dál Riata.

Photos of Dunollie Castle, picture taken February 2007

Photos of Dunollie Castle, picture taken February 2007 ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

An investigation of the timeline of the fort will be discussed in the next section of this work, primarily through an examination of surviving textual documentation. With such a lack in the material and visual evidence at Dunollie, textual analysis is necessary for archaeologists and historians, as texts can provide new information long erased from the site as well as provide confirmation of hypotheses extrapolated from what remains.

(Read Part 2)

Top image: Photo of Dunollie Castle. ( theranaldhotel.com)

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

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