On the map of Knapdale in Argyll, the word ‘Dun’ is sprinkled liberally around the coast or just inland, printed in an enticing Gothic font. But often as not, all that remains of the site on the ground is a low earthwork, barely discernible beneath a generous topping of vegetation. Unless you have X-ray vision, duns can be annoyingly deceptive.

There are, however, a few examples that have survived better than others, and on a warm day last September we took a long walk to look at one of these: Castle Dounie, near Crinan.

Castle Dounie’s name pretty much spells out what duns were intended to do.  They’re not unique to Knapdale:  they’re found right across Scotland, and also in Ireland.  They were sometimes – but not always – circular in plan, and usually positioned on good vantage points such as knolls and promontories.   Around here in particular, they had sweeping views of the sea, because that’s where most of their unwanted visitors would have come from. Dating them doesn’t seem to be very straightforward, but some local examples have been tentatively dated to the 3rd or 4th centuries BC, based on archaeological finds. Quite often, the structures were modified by later generations and occupied into early medieval times.

In historical explanations, duns are often mentioned in the same sentence as brochs. I still struggle to understand if there really is any difference between the two. I used to think that brochs were the better-preserved and more spectacular cousins of duns, because according to one train of thought, brochs were taller, wider, and had double-thickness walls that contained a staircase. However, this theory tends to get blurred, especially when you consider that some of our best examples of brochs are actually called duns. Examples that spring to mind are Dun Carloway on the Isle of Lewis, Dun Beag on Skye, and Dun Telve and Dun Troddan near Glenelg.

And the idea that duns were in any way inferior to brochs dissolves still further when you contemplate the scale and magnificence of Dún Aonghasa on the Aran Islands off County Galway. At this point, I give up. Maybe the builders called them duns to lure would-be invaders into a false sense of security. “Damn it, guys, I thought it was just a dun! That’s what it said on the map! We’d better go get reinforcements!”

Anyway, I was fairly confident that Castle Dounie would offer something substantial to look at, and after a pretty steep hike through mixed woodland and along forestry paths, I was also expecting jaw-dropping panoramas. I wasn’t disappointed. You approach it from the north-east, walking alongside it and then stepping through what remains of the entrance, and suddenly the Firth of Lorn is spread out beneath your feet. It feels like you’re flying. On the far side of a mesmerising expanse of sea are the islands of Jura, Scarba and Mull; to the north-west rise the distant peaks of Morvern, while due north lies the ragged coastline of mainland Argyll. Above the low hills I thought I could even pick out the summits of Ben Cruachan and Glen Coe.

Approach (above and below)

Above:  around the side and (below) the entrance, looking back

Above:  looking north-west with the tip of Jura and Scarba in the distance.  Below: looking south down Knapdale with Jura across the water

As for Castle Dounie itself, it’s hard to say what shape it is, or was: I would imagine it was adapted to fit the contours of the hill. A few courses of stonework survive, but it still requires a huge leap of imagination to picture it in its entirety – especially as we don’t know how tall it was. The walls vary in thickness, and apparently it is possible to detect two chambers on the east side. A Canmore survey (1979) says:  ‘A large slab at the NE end of the N chamber may be the lowest course of a corbelled roof; in the same chamber, on the S wall, there is a small aumbry.’   The site has yielded very little in the way of archaeological finds: a couple of flint fragments and an iron pin.

Above:  one of the chambers

Who occupied this place? Did they live here, or did they just retreat to it in times of danger? Was someone posted here as a lookout? Whoever it was, they must have been hardy, that’s for sure. Even on a hot day, it was breezy. I tried to picture it in a January gale, with snow blowing between the cracks. Did they light a fire to keep warm? Maybe it was cosier than we think, at least by the standards of the time.

What was more obvious, though, was the significance of its position. Ships could have been spotted many miles away, allowing enough time for evasive action. Beacons could have been lit, forming a chain of warning from one hilltop to the next, the smoke visible by day and the flames at night. That must have made an impressive sight, especially from the sea. Maybe they were even lit in times of celebration: in the Argyll OS Name Books of 1868-78, the hill directly behind our house is recorded as Cnoc Smùdain, because it was here that bonfires were kindled ‘on any occasions of rejoicing, hence the name “Smoke Hill”.’

It would be so good to know what the people of Castle Dounie saw. Fleets of Norse longships and later the small Highland birlinns, assuming the place was still occupied at those times. Earlier, in the 5th century, they might have watched boats from Ireland bringing Fergus Mór mac Eirc and the first founders of Dál Riata (if that theory is true). They could have glimpsed the curraghs of St Brendan, St Columba and their many followers, coming to settle in their island cells. Maybe, in their dreams, they also saw Brecan, son of a Norse (some say Irish) king, go down with his boat in the turbulent waters between Scarba and Jura, thereby giving his name to the fierce whirlpool known as the Coire Bhreacain or Corryvreckan. Or perhaps they witnessed the arrival of Scota, daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, who sailed from Ireland into the mouth of Loch Crinan and then mounted her steed and sprang ashore at Ardifour Point, leaving a deep and indelible hoof-print in the rock.

I think that’s what I shall have to bear in mind in the future, when I’m looking for a dun and debating whether or not it’s worth the boggy walk. It’s not about what you can see on the ground, or beneath it. It’s about what you can see in your mind’s eye when you stand there and look out.

Reference:

The hill forts of Britain and Ireland have been mapped on this incredible online resource, the result of a collaboration between Oxford University, Edinburgh University, and University College, Cork.