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The medieval ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel

Hidden Hillfort Revealed in Scotland on Summit of Arthur’s Seat

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Archaeologists excavating on the legendary Arthur's Seat summit in Scotland’s capital city have discovered the foundations of an ancient Edinburgh hillfort. The discovery was made on the north face of Arthur’s Seat above St Margaret's Loch near the ruined 15th-century Saint Anthony’s chapel. Until now, the ruined chapel was the only significant ancient structure on Arthur’s Seat. However, recently the massive walls of an ancient Edinburgh hillfort were unearthed by archaeologists, shedding new light on the earliest periods of Scottish history.

Arthur’s Seat was described by writer Robert Louis Stevenson as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design.” In June 1836, a group of young boys were out rabbiting on the northeast side of Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, when they discovered a bizarre collection of 17 "Lilliputian coffins” containing tiny dressed dolls, concealed in a recess in the rocks of the sacred hill. According to National Museums of Scotland it was this discovery that sparked stories associating the legendary King Arthur with Arthur’s Seat.

The mythical king of Britain is said to be asleep in a glass coffin within the heart of this now extinct 250-meter high volcano. However, this article is about the ancient Iron Age Votadini people, who lived in Scotland long before King Arthur was born.

An archaeologist at work unearthing the ancient Edinburgh hillfort recently uncovered on Arthur’s Seat, in the heart of the Scottish capital city

An archaeologist at work unearthing the ancient Edinburgh hillfort recently uncovered on Arthur’s Seat, in the heart of the Scottish capital city. Source: CFA Archeology Ltd

An Ancient Sentinel Located on A Key Strategic Rise

According to a report in Edinburgh Live, though Arthur's Seat might look wild and uninhabited today, the craggy peak at one time hosted a “bustling community” of farmers and traders. These people lived here overlooking the Firth of Forth waterway that penetrates deep into central Scotland. This area of Scotland was first settled as early as 3000 BC.

Around 1500 BC, nearby Traprain Law, in East Lothian, was already a sacred hill, reserved for burials, by the ancient Votadini people. The archaeologists working at ancient Edinburgh hillfort site believe this massive defense fort was also created by the Votadini. It was during the Iron Age that the Brythonic Celtic culture first arrived in Scotland, resulting in the development of new kingdoms which were protected by strings of defensive hillforts.

The newly discovered ancient Edinburgh hillfort is being excavated by CFA Archeology Ltd in conjunction with Historic Environment Scotland. To date, the team has dug three test trenches on a plateau near the summit of Arthur's Seat where the ancient fort once stood sentinel at the southern gateway to Scotland.

The Strategic Location of The Ancient Edinburgh Hillfort

According to Canmore, all of the archaeological evidence gathered so far suggests this was a defensive fort standing amidst farm land. When the archaeologists measured the structure’s stone walls, they were found to be about 18 feet thick and up to 3.9 feet high (5.5 meters X 1.2 meters). Furthermore, the ancient fort is situated exactly to block off access to the top of the hill from its one open side. The other approaches are perfectly protected by steep, natural cliffs.

The excavations on Arthur’s Seat initially got under way in March 2020, but were put on hold following the coronavirus pandemic, according to a spokesperson from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) speaking with Edinburgh Live. The spokesperson also said the discovery will help build “a fuller picture of how the park was used and developed over the centuries and inform the future management of this amazing place.”

Silver from the Traprain Law Treasure find in East Lothian, Scotland, which is also connected with the Votadini people. (Tyssil / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Votadini Eventually Became Part Of Scottish Culture

Previous archaeological excavations of Votadini culture and burial sites at Traprain Law have produced artifacts that revealed how this ancient tribe came to an end. For example, ancient silver Roman coins discovered at the site indicate prehistoric trade with the continent. However, after the Romans invaded Britain in the 1st century, between 138–162 AD, the Votadini came under direct Roman military rule as their territory lay in the buffer zone between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall.

In the early 3rd century AD, the Roman outpost of Britannia was divided into four provinces. Valentia was one of these provinces and included the Votadini territory. When the Romans eventually withdrew from southern Great Britain in the early 5th century AD, the lands of the Votadini became part of the area known as Hen Ogledd (the "Old North”).

The ancient Votadini tribe, like all the other Pictish tribes, were, over time, Romanized and assimilated into emerging Scottish culture. Their memory lives on as one of the colorful threads that makes up the complex and colorful tartan weave that is Scottish history.

Top image: The medieval ruins of St Anthony’s Chapel, in Hollyrood Park, the only structure on Arthur’s Seat until the ancient Edinburgh hillfort was discovered nearby. (Historic Environment Scotland)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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