6.8 Regionality

There are regional variations in the nature and development of forts and enclosed settlements, but not sharply defined regional boundaries in space or time. Macinnes (1982) argued that the character of the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age settlement record in Fife bears more resemblance to that North of the Tay, whereas the later first millennium BC pattern has more in common with South of the Forth (although forts were hardly plentiful in Fife at any stage). Piggott‘s (1966) regional subdivision of the country is no longer to be regarded as satisfactory. Harding‘s (2004) tripartite division between the Borders and Southern Scotland / Central and Eastern Scotland / Argyll and Atlantic Scotland yet to be tested in detail (theme 3.3). Southern Scotland has seen the most research into enclosed places and Atlantic Scotland the least (except where enclosures are associated with Atlantic roundhouses), but even in southern Scotland there is a marked distinction between the amount of investigation in the South-east and the South-west.

Southern Scotland

Haselgrove et al. (2001, 25) characterised existing knowledge of the Iron Age of the sub-regions of this area as variously ‘unsorted‘ (East Lothian, Scottish Borders, Dumfries) and ‘black holes‘ (West / Mid Lothian, Strathclyde, Galloway). This is still a cogent assessment as regards enclosed places more specifically, although one could argue East Lothian is now partly sorted.

The south-east has been reasonably well served by the results of research in recent years (Lelong and MacGregor 2008; Haselgrove 2009), and as yet unfinished projects will provide opportunities for further review (e.g. TLEP; Broxmouth; Newstead Research Project). The south-west beyond the Clyde-Annan watershed has seen comparatively little recent work (Banks 2000, Cowley 2000, Cavers 2008), although this is being addressed by some researchers - e.g. Toolis (2007). Focus is needed on south-west Scotland in order to develop a more rounded picture of Southern Scotland in the Iron Age.

Forts and enclosed settlements are extensive across much of the region, although there is a lack of coherent information on the frequency and extent of unenclosed settlement. This is perhaps an issue pertaining to archaeological visibility. In East Lothian, enclosures do appear to be more frequent in some parts of the landscape than others and do not just reflect a discovery bias (Haselgrove 2009, 3). Clusters (communities?) of enclosures have also been noted in the Tweed valley (Wise 2000).

There is a significant overlap or continuum between sites conventionally termed forts and enclosed settlements, and between different sizes of enclosed settlements. There is an appreciable variety of form and scale of curvilinear enclosures across East Lothian, while rectilinear enclosures tend to be smaller and simpler.

East Lothian is arguably the only part of Scotland with a well documented if skeletal chronology of enclosed places. Some of the larger forts (Traprain Law, Eildon Hill North) presumably have Late Bronze Age origins, and TLEP has identified the Late Bronze Age origins of some of the East Lothian curvilinear enclosures  (though cf. Sharples 2011). A wide range of first millennium BC enclosure forms is present, although rectilinear enclosures appear to have their origins in the last quarter of the millennium. The number of enclosed settlements may have increased during the millennium as a result of population increase and settlement expansion consequent upon agricultural expansion (Haselgrove and McCullagh 2000, Tipping 1994); this equation merits more work. ‘Unenclosed settlements‘ were built over enclosing works from the last quarter of the millennium (e.g. at Broxmouth, Hill 1982 and Eweford, Lelong and MacGregor 2008), although enclosed places continued to be used into at least the first quarter of the first millennium AD (at e.g. Port Seton Haselgrove and McCullagh 2000). There seems to be a dearth of Early Historic fortification and more dating evidence is required.

With the Hownam sequence no longer a universal model, a complex array of individual site histories remains which it is now urgent that research addresses in order to however vulnerable a model against which to test accruing evidence as the results of research introduce further complexities. Can a ‘trend towards enclosure’ in the first millennium BC in the south-east really be identified? Other sorts of enclosures that have associations, attested or implied, with enclosed places include variously: linear boundaries (Halliday 1982, 76-8; eg Woden Law); banked / timber revetted enclosures (the Castle O‘er cattle ranch, RCAHMS 1997, 79-84; Tamshiel Rig); pit alignments associated with major hillforts (Cowley 2009, 222-3); and cord rig associated with earthwork and palisaded enclosures in the Borders (Halliday 1982). Improving understanding will require more excavation, and developer-funded work is contributing in this region (e.g. Cameron et al. 2010).

Central and Eastern Scotland

Haselgrove et al. (2001, 25) characterised existing knowledge of the sub-regions of this area as either ‘unsorted‘ (e.g. Perthshire, Angus) and ‘black holes‘ (e.g Grampian, Stirling, Fife). This is a reasonable assessment as regards enclosed places more specifically, although one could argue Stirling, and possibly Aberdeenshire as ‘unsorted.‘

Despite favourable topography, sites conventionally termed hillforts are few and far between in many parts of this area (e.g. NE Perth, RCAHMS 1990), except beside the Tay Estuary and in central Aberdeenshire (Ralston 2007). There is wide diversity in terms of topographic setting, size, shape and nature / scale of enclosing works of forts (Ralston 2007; RCAHMS 1997, 97; Dunwell and Ralston 2008, 61). Forts are often located peripherally to areas of denser settlement and on prominent landmarks, some ‘gateless‘ oblong forts arguably re-shaping the hills in cultural form (e.g. White Caterthun). A higher proportion of vitrified walls than other areas has been noted (Ralston 2007), and there are fewer palisaded sites compared to South-east Scotland. There are concentrations of coastal promontory forts along the Angus and Moray littorals. Lightly enclosed sites (e.g. defined by a single circuit), some or all of which are arguably enclosed settlements, are not uncommon (Macinnes 1982, Davies 2007), but numerically they are less frequent than unenclosed settlements. Armit (1997c) regarded the evidence of fewer forts and more unenclosed settlements as reflecting a more overtly ranked society than elsewhere in Scotland, though the opposite is arguable depending upon how the structure of society is modelled; this illustrates how fundamental an understanding of the role of hillforts is to an understanding of Iron Age society.

Until relatively recently, investigation of enclosed places had been scarce, although some important examinations of coastal and inland promontory forts had taken place (along the Moray and Angus littorals). A considerable amount of research has been undertaken over the last 15 years. In Aberdeenshire, the Strathdon survey (RCAHMS 2007) was followed up by the Hillforts of Strathdon sample excavation project (Cook 2010), which aimed to characterise and date one of each of the six types of forts classified by RCAHMS. The Angus Field School examined the Caterthun forts (Dunwell and Strachan 2007) and Mains of Edzell fort (Strachan et al. 2003), and the Ironshill East palisaded enclosure (McGill 2003), and began to provide some dating evidence for the mass of unsorted cropmark data in lowland Angus. In Perthshire, the SERF project is sampling the forts in the Forteviot area, although primarily in a search for Early Medieval fortifications that might be associated with the Forteviot royal complex (DES 2007, 155-6; 2008, 144).

Based upon the Strathdon survey, RCAHMS (RCAHMS 2007, 100-1) noted that the forts of east and north-east Scotland fall within six morphological groups: oblong forts; multivallate forts with strength in depth; large forts with slight defences; extensive enclosures; small forts with ramparts and ditches; and small walled enclosures. Harding (2004) preferred terms such as ‘causewayed forts‘, ‘vitrified forts‘ and ‘oblong enclosures‘, whereas Dunwell and Ralston (2008) identified ‘hillforts‘, ‘small forts‘ and ‘promontory forts‘. Underpinning these approaches is a lack of agreement on how, or even the ability, to explain the evident diversity of forms, which presumably conveyed a wide range of ideological messages.

Few forts have absolute dates, and the evidence is certainly insufficient to outline the origins and history of enclosed settlement in the region with any confidence (hence ongoing initiatives such as the Hillforts of Strathdon Project). A few reasonably coherent site sequences are available for forts of Iron Age date (e.g. Brown Caterthun; Cullykhan; Cairnton of Balbegno) and Early Medieval date (e.g. Dundurn; Clatchard Craig; Craig Phadrig).

Oblong forts are long-recognised as a coherent group (Feachem 1966, 67-8), and possibly even an event horizon (RCAHMS 2007, 103), but dating issues have clouded matters. The dating of oblong forts has been dominated by the widely variable results of 1980s TL dating (Sanderson et al. 1988 - now generally no longer believed in light of new technical information, see Kresten et al. 2003). The variable radiocarbon, archaeomagnetic, and TL dating for Finavon exemplifies this (Alexander 2002), although Harding (2004, 88) has attempted to reconcile the dating by proposing two construction phases within the wall of the fort. More dating evidence is required (see now Cook 2010).

Many forts have complex sequences of development indicated by surface traces (e.g. Turin Hill, Alexander and Ralston 1999, Dunwell and Ralston 2008, 70-2; Dunnideer, RCAHMS 2007, Cook 2010) and excavation (Brown Caterthun, Dunwell and Strachan 2007), yet others appear relatively simple. Oblong forts appear not to be a primary enclosure in any instance where sequence can be determined. At several sites fort earthworks appear to be overlain by substantial houses or small walled enclosures (e.g. Turin Hill, Alexander and Ralston 1999; Hurly Hawkin, Taylor 1982; Laws of Monifieth). Associations with field systems and pit alignments seem very rare or absent and if this is accepted as evidence of absence it contrasts again with South-east Scotland.

Parts of the region has been reasonably well served in synthesis in recent years (RCAHMS 2007, Davies 2007, Ralston 2007, Dunwell and Ralston 2008), and ongoing projects will provide opportunities for further review, but areas such as Moray have seen little recent work except on promontory forts, and excavation has overwhelmingly considered ramparts rather than interiors, so the functions of the sites remains opaque.

Argyll and Atlantic Scotland

Haselgrove et al. (2001, 25) characterised existing knowledge of the sub-regions of this area as variously with established frameworks (Northern Isles, Western Isles), ‘unsorted‘ (Caithness) and ‘black holes‘ (Sutherland, West Highlands, Argyll, Ross and Cromarty). However, as regards understanding the context of enclosed places, Argyll and Atlantic Scotland is almost entirely a ‘black hole‘, so little is known that any work in this area would be beneficial.

Forts are more common occurences in some areas (e.g. Argyll or Caithness) than others. Promontory locations are proportionately more common than in other parts of Scotland, and in some locations (e.g. Isle of Lewis; Islay) are frequent but very little understood (Harding 2004, 145; Henderson 2007b, 308-9). Extreme locations in some cases were utilised (e.g. narrow precipitous ridges, stacks).

Enclosed settlements are in the minority, but occur in some areas, for example Atlantic roundhouses (brochs and duns) within enclosures on Inner Hebrides and Skye (e.g. Dun Mor Vaul, MacKie 1974, 1997) and West Highlands (e.g. Dun Lagaidh, Loch Broom, MacKie 1976); brochs associated with ‘villages‘ on the Orkney Islands (e.g. Gurness; Howe; see 6.2 for questions of contemporaneity), and cropmark enclosures emerging in Kintyre (Halliday and Ralston 2010). Some of the Western Isles promontory forts incorporate Atlantic roundhouse architectural traits (galleries, intra-mural cells), as do Shetland ‘blockhouses‘. Whether the apparent lack of evidence for palisaded enclosures or the use of palisades across the area is real or a visibility issue requires further exploration.

Gob Eirer promontory enclosure, Uig, Western Isles © Uig Landscape Project

The emphasis of site investigation in this area has been firmly on settlements (including some enclosed examples), with comparatively little examination of forts. A lack of excavation and dating was identified by Hingley (1992), and has not been seriously addressed since, although there has been limited examination of promontory forts as yet not fully published ( Gob Eirer, Isle of Lewis; The Landberg, Fair Isle). There is an overlap between larger duns and smaller forts, although classifications based upon size based distinctions (e.g. RCAHMS 1971) - are now recognised to be unhelpful (Halliday and Ralston forthcoming).

There is little good dating of forts, as there has been little investigation. Ben Griam Beg has been assumed to be of early date (possibly Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age), given its high altitude (Mercer 1991), but firm dating evidence is needed for this. It is such an exceptional site that it must have something important to say about the nature of society at the time it was created and in use.

The dating of enclosed brochs and duns is better (although incompletely) understood in most areas as part of the currently understood chronology of Atlantic roundhouses more generally, although this chronology is not without debate. In Argyll, significant issues remain as to the classification and dating of duns. Harding (1997, 2004) proposes circular roofable dun-houses as part of the Atlantic roundhouse tradition with 1st millennium BC origins, and larger often non-round dun-enclosures that contain buildings as Early Medieval. Others (e.g. Alcock 2003, 186-8) dispute this, preferring to interpret nearly all Argyll duns as Early Medieval, citing Rahoy (Childe and Thorneycroft 1938) as the only certain Iron Age structure. The evidence from those excavated sites that drive these competing models (e.g. Ardifuir; Dun Kildalloig; Dun Fhinn; Kildonan) is variously unpublished, of poor quality or equivocal. More recent excavations at Loch Glashan dun, as yet unpublished, provide another securely Iron Age example of an Argyll dun (DES 2005, 166).

The complexity of relationships between forts and duns was discussed by Hingley (1992, 18). Nieke (1990) has argued that in Argyll forts predated duns, based on a few demonstrable examples (e.g. Dun Skeig; and note also Dun Lagaidh further afield, Mackie 1976) - but Harding (1997, 132-3) has warned against presuming a general rule based on importing models from other parts of Scotland. The classification and dating of Argyll duns remains an important research issue.

As a result of the lack of investigation and the focus on brochs and duns, there has been little recent attempt at regional synthesis of the context of enclosed places apart from Argyll (e.g. Nieke 1990 versus Harding 1997, 118 on the nature of ‘occupation‘ of forts), Henderson‘s (2007a) consideration of promontory forts (also Lamb 1980 on Northern Isles promontory forts), and MacSween‘s (1985) study of the brochs, duns and enclosures of Skye.

Dating evidence remains a problem overall.

What lies behind the diversity of enclosure forms in some areas?

Focus is needed on south-west Scotland in order to develop a more rounded picture of southern Scotland

Is the rarer use of enclosure (e.g. in north-east Scotland) an indication of a more or less ranked society than elsewhere (Armit 1997, 61)?

The dating of and nature of activity in Ben Griam Beg is a specific issue of concern as it is of considerable significance.


See also the ScARF Case Study: Kintore, Aberdeenshire: shining light into a black hole