If we could hold back the soft curtains of time for a few minutes and glimpse the hilltop fort of Dunadd as it was about 1,300 years ago, we might witness a ceremony that shaped the history of Scotland.
On a flat slab of rock just below the summit a footprint is carved in shallow relief. As he gazed across the lands that were his by blood and sword, a new ruler of Dal Riata would place his foot in this hollow and swear to protect his people against all invaders. An abbot of Iona – Columba himself, perhaps – was there to bless the king and witness the oath.
That much we think we know… the rest is conjecture. Close by, the faint image of a boar, carved in Pictish style, and two lines of Ogham script have a significance which we can only grasp at like straws in the wind. A second footprint, now hard to see except in slanting light, was carved a good stride behind the first; and a couple of yards away a small boulder has been hollowed out, perhaps for use as a basin. What did it contain? What was dipped in it?
The low rocky mound of Dunadd captures your gaze as you travel north from Tayvallich through the ancient landscape of Kilmartin Glen. Below it, the River Add, from which the fort gets its name, snakes around in lazy curves through the flat peatland of Moine Mhor, the ‘great moss’, before flowing out to sea. A couple of whitewashed farmhouses nestle around its base, and away to the south are the oak woods that mark the beginning of Knapdale.
But if you were visiting Dunadd 2,000 years ago, you wouldn’t have arrived by land at all. The site was first chosen as a natural fortress around 300 BC, and at that time the sea would have lapped at its feet. How do we know? Scientists have measured the gradual uplift of the land since the last ice age, a natural reaction after the weight of ice was finally removed; and pollen samples taken from the surrounding peat have allowed them to measure fairly accurately the rate at which the island became a peninsula and then a landlocked hill. Today, the sea lies a couple of miles to the west.
Whatever significance Dunadd might have had to the first inhabitants of Kilmartin – the shadowy people who set up the stones of Nether Largie and Temple Wood and buried their people in the chamber at Dunchraigaig – its status in the early 6th century seems to have taken a huge leap up, thanks to the arrival of some new settlers. These were the Gaels, also known as the Scoti or Scots.
Who were the Gaels?
Most historians believe that the Gaels came from Ireland, just 20 miles across the sea, perhaps spurred by the need for more land or the desire to expand their territory. Curiously, their nickname, ‘Scoti’, has roots that stretch back beyond memory, to the legends that describe the birth of Ireland’s people.
“…Scoti also had unfavourable connections. For some users of the word it meant something like ‘pirates’ – and it holds within it an echo of a time when these people were viewed, at least by someone else, as marauders who came from the sea.” Neil Oliver, ‘A History of Scotland’.
The Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada encompassed parts of Ireland and much of western Scotland from Kintyre right up to Ardnamurchan and Lochaber; and for its people, Dunadd became a prime focus of ceremony and power.
“Dunadd has produced the largest, most diverse range of imported pottery of any site in the Celtic West.” Historic Scotland
We can sense the wealth of the people who came to Dunadd through the things they left behind. Precious metals were worked here – gold and silver, as well as copper, lead and tin. Findings include fragments of moulds for penannular brooches, sherds of crucibles, pieces of pottery and glass, and a 7th century garnet and gold jewel of the quality found at Sutton Hoo. Traces of orpiment, a yellow mineral used for painting illuminated manuscripts, have also been discovered – evidence, perhaps, that the occupants of Dunadd were recognising the teachings of Christianity. Did the monks of Iona obtain their pigments here as they worked on the Book of Kells?
There is also the interesting possibility, fuelled by the writings of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler Bede, that Northumbrian kings might have sought refuge at Dunadd when their lives were endangered by their own people.
I photographed the illustration on one of the information boards at the site, because I think the artwork is fantastic. It shows the fortress alive with the light of fires and humming with people. In the distance, the woods and salt marshes stretch away towards the Firth of Lorn.
The fortifications at Dunadd were wrapped around the summit of the hill in successive layers so that visitors must have had the impression of progressing through three or four distinct tiers before they gained the king’s presence. Natural passages in the rock were enhanced to make an easily guarded gateway, and you still get a sense of entering a special place as you walk up there. Ruined ramparts and the remnants of buildings can be made out, and there’s a well, now seemingly dried up, whose water – according to legend – used to rise and fall with the tide.
“When kings of Dal Riata placed one foot in the footprint to be inaugurated, they were betrothing themselves to the land that fed their people. In Ireland, where six such royal footprints are known, records claim that the stone recognises and proclaims the rightful king.” Historic Scotland
“Tradition says that this is the footprint of Oisin or Fergus Mor Mac Erca, the first King of Dál Riata who died in 501… Colmcille [Columba] is said to have taken part in the inauguration ceremony of King Aidan here at Dunadd in 574.” St Columba Trail
It’s impossible to resist imagining the ceremonies that took place here. But we know so little. To me, the footprint looked small enough to be a child’s, although records say that it’s approximately a size seven. Try as I might, I couldn’t make out the full extent of the boar carving – you probably need the slanting light of morning or evening to photograph it successfully. The Ogham symbols continue to baffle archaeologists as to their meaning.
And then I learned something else, half-remembered from reading ‘A History of Scotland’, which I dismissed as being impossible the first time I heard it. In recent years, Historic Scotland has carefully placed a replica slab – complete with carvings – over the top of the original one, after laser-scanning it and preserving it with a protective layer. This was necessary to protect the old stone from constant erosion, as increasing numbers of visitors were naturally tempted to try their own feet for size. I would imagine that lichens were also beginning to obscure the carvings.
I’m a bit ambivalent about this. I can fully appreciate the decision, because no one wishes to see a unique part of Scotland’s heritage being worn away. The work has been done exceptionally well, and after all the original footprint is still there, in its original spot. But at what stage in time will someone think it’s safe to remove the top layer and expose the old stone again? It’s always a compromise, I can see that… but part of me wishes that we didn’t have to make it.
While I was taking photos from the summit, Colin was wandering around the lower slopes in search of wild flowers and insects. He stumbled upon a carving that he first thought was graffiti, but I’m not so sure. It looks like Ogham to me. It’s on a vertical rock face, above head height. It would be so good if it said ‘mind your head‘ in Ogham! If you are an expert on this period of history, I’d be grateful for your opinion.
Just like the tide, with every rise there has to be a fall. In the Annals of Ulster it is recorded that Oengus, son of Fergus, King of the Picts, seized Dunadd in 736 AD; and although this may not have been the end for Dunadd, and it may well have been regained by the Scots, it was a sign that change was coming. In the late 9th century Dalriada and Pictland were absorbed into the newly powerful kingdom of Alba; the details are hazy, and the process can’t have been peaceful, but the result was that the old Pictish centres of Scone and Dunkeld were preferred to Dunadd. By this time, anyway, the island of Dunadd was probably being reclaimed by the land, making it appear more vulnerable. Some sources state that the Stone of Destiny, upon which all British monarchs are still crowned, was taken from Dunadd to Dunstaffnage for safe keeping, and then moved to Scone.
Dunadd may not have been abandoned immediately. British Archaeology says that “one radiocarbon date suggests use of the summit as late as the 11th/13th century”, and the site was still important enough to warrant the reading of royal proclamations here in 1506.
The kings and their court have long gone, and the priests and the goldsmiths, the cooks and servants and the splendid visitors with their rich robes and jewels, but the sense of purpose is still here. At midsummer, with a cuckoo calling from the oak woods across the marsh and the scent of bluebells and hawthorn drifting on the breeze, Dunadd holds you in its thrall.
Dunadd is in the care of Historic Scotland, and is open all year; admission is free. To get there, follow the A816 north from Lochgilphead for a few miles and keep an eye open for the signpost which directs you down a narrow road to a car park by the river. You’ll see Dunadd from the main road.
After that, you can drive a bit further north and explore all the other archaeological wonders of Kilmartin Glen!
More information about visiting can be found on Historic Scotland’s website.
Postscript, 20th July 2015:
I am very grateful to Dr David Dorren for sending me this wonderful photo from 1962, which was taken when he visited Dunadd with the Dunoon Scouts. It shows the original rock surface, and a glass case which was being used to protect some of the carving. Amazingly, this case was first installed in 1928. Copyright © David Dorren.
- Historic Scotland
- ‘A History of Scotland’ by Neil Oliver
- Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland
- BBC History
- St Columba Trail
- British Archaeology
- The Heroic Age: Sea Level Change Around Dunadd and Dumbarton Rock
Photos copyright © Jo Woolf