Monday, May 7, 2012

Dunadd - Fortress of the Scots

by Richard Denning

I was fortunate last month to spend an Easter break in Scotland. I was up in Argyll - a land full of historical connections which along with the getting up there and back meant I passed numerous historical locations.

One place at the very top of my list of "get to" spots was Dunadd - the rocky fortress of the Scots of Dal Riata and I thought I would share some images with you today. 

Scotland gets its very name from the Irish SCOTS. The Scots were originally from Ireland and around the year 500 started to migrate across the narrow gap between Ulster to Argyll (only 12 miles at its narrow point). In Argyll they came into conflict with the Picts who occupies much of mainland Scotland as well as the Romano-British (Welsh speaking peoples of Strathclyde and Manua Goddodin (Edinburgh).

What would follow would be conflict and alliances and swinging fortunes that would eventually lead to ONE nation of Scotland. But that would take centuries. Kenneth MacAplin united the Scots and Picts in 843 but Strathclyde was not included until 1034. 

So when the scots first came from Ireland and started to carve out a land in Argyll around 500 AD the future held only conflict and strife and it was here at Dunadd near Kilmartin that they ruled from.

Dunadd may have originally been a Pict outpost but the Scots made it into a near impregnable fortress. The surrounding area is bog and marsh land along the river Add. Indeed Dunadd is located in a loop of the river. Dunadd itself though is a towering rock that rises high above the plains. Possibly this was once an island. 

Finally we forded yet another river and emerged onto a low-lying plain. The mountains were away to the north and ahead of us a river twinkled in the sunlight as it meandered across a boggy, marshy land. In the centre of the plain was a single, steep-sided hill and perched on the top an imposing fort. We had come at last to Dunadd, the capital and chief fortress of the kings of Dál-Riata.
As we approached the fortress we were under constant observation from the high stone walls that loomed above us. The path slanted uphill and entered the fortress through a rocky defile. This natural, narrow passageway had been turned into a superbly defensible portal. We passed a pair of huge wooden gates, which would have provided a challenge to any attacker, pelted and fired upon as they would be from those walls as they assaulted up though the narrow channel. 

The Scots made good use of a natural tiered arrangement of rocks and flat spaces. This meant they already had battlements made for them by nature and natural gateways which the battlements loomed over. To gain access to the King's chambers the traveller would have to pass through no less than four gateways each leading to progressively higher levels. 

Dunadd was not just a fortress. It was an economical and trading hub. To here came wine from the Mediterranean , Tin from Cornwall and rare dies from the Loire in France.  From here flowed precious jewellery.  The outer courtyards would have been full of workshops working gold and bronze. 

“Come with me,” he ordered and led us across the space full of workshops between the outer and inner walls. There was the usual array of blacksmiths and so forth, but we passed more than one hut in which men were smelting gold and silver. I paused at one to take a closer look and saw a smith pouring molten metal into moulds. Another was breaking open the moulds to reveal exquisitely detailed necklaces, almost as beautiful as my mother's had been. These lands might be wild, but their craftsmen were skilled, their kings and lords were wealthy and their coffers full of the spoils of victory. 

At the very top of the fortress is what would once have been a walled enclosure bearing a rock into which were carved a footprint. This footprint motif appears in other location in Scotland and may actually be Pictish in origin. The Scots incorporated it into their kingship rituals. 

The king would place their foot in the print and claim the land; becoming one with it. It would have been a powerful ritual and would have imprinted on those watching from a lower level as the king silhouetted against the sky came forward, that this man was their lord.

Here my daughter demonstrates.

From the lofty heights of Dunadd the kings of Dal Riata could look down on the lands below and easily spot an approaching army which would have had to camp out on the damp land below.

This then was Dunadd from which the mighty kings of the Dal Riata Scots ruled their domains. If you find yourself in Argyll near Kilmartin it is well worth the visit as is Kilmartin Museum itself. 

Dunadd appears in Child of Loki. Find out more here:


  1. Boggy land - good you bought that out. Even just a few hundred years ago, there would have been much more marshland around. It's difficult to imagine now.

    And marshland used to be a valuable resource - wildfowl, fish (eels?), thatch... probably managed as well. A major part of the land exploitation - nowadays we just think of farming as field cultivation and animal rearing, but it used to be so much more.

  2. Indeed the sea once flooded the whole valley floor - Dunadd may have been an Island in prehistory but probably by 600 was inland but surrounded by boggy marshy land - as you say Doug more so than today.

  3. Great post Richard. A concise piece of history to give readers an idea of how Scotland got it's name. Thank you


  4. Thanks for sharing this piece of Scottish history. I am really unfamiliar with much of their history, but enjoy learning more. Your post was fascinating and informative.


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