Rheged rediscovered: uncovering a lost British kingdom in Galloway

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Investigations suggest that the violent end of this vitrified hillfort was a fiery spectacle. (Image: GUARD Archaeology Ltd)
The Pictish carvings etched near the summit of Trusty’s Hill, a vitrified hillfort in Dumfries and Galloway, are as enigmatic as they are striking, located far to the south of where you would expect to find this kind of artwork. But how old are the carvings, are they even genuine, and what can archaeology tell us about their links to a lost kingdom? Ronan Toolis reports.

Take a walk in the Boreland hills, just outside Gatehouse of Fleet in south-west Scotland, and you may come across Pictish symbols carved at the entrance of a small hillfort known as Trusty’s Hill. Etched into an exposed face of bedrock we find a distinctive motif known as a ‘double disc and Z-rod’, as well as images of a dragonesque creature and a sword. Yet while some of these symbols are common representations from the Pictish repertoire, they are a unique find for this region of Scotland, located far to the south of where such carvings normally occur.

Some of the local volunteers who took part in the 2012 excavation of the hillfort. (Image: GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

It was this that first drew us to Trusty’s Hill in 2012, when the Galloway Picts Project was launched by the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations. This community archaeology project – a collaboration with GUARD Archaeology Ltd – set out to establish some kind of context for the carvings, and to see if we could shed any light on their meaning.

We were not the first to excavate the hillfort: in 1960, Charles Thomas – then of the University of Edinburgh – opened several trenches across the site. The artefacts he recovered, including a handful of stone tools, the lower half of a rotary quern, and a small quantity of animal bones, did not reveal much about the precise date of the fort’s occupation, or the nature of settlement there. However, he also uncovered sections of heat-affected ramparts and, abutting these, a promising layer of charcoal-rich soil. It was this latter feature that we hoped might yield more evidence during our investigations.

As Trusty’s Hill is a scheduled monument our excavations could be only limited in scope. We were granted permission just to reopen Charles Thomas’s trenches – but these still held the potential for unexcavated deposits that might provide some good radiocarbon-dating evidence. As it turned out, although the area we were able to investigate totalled little more than 1% of the site, our discoveries far exceeded our expectations.

Pictish pictures
The project saw the creation of new laser scans of the Pictish symbols carved at Trusty’s Hill. (Image: DGNHAS/CDDV)

Given the unusual location of the carvings, it has long been speculated that they might be modern forgeries. Laser scans carried out during our project demonstrated that they did not cut through any of the 19th-century graffiti surrounding them, however, while specialist analysis revealed detailed knowledge and understanding of Pictish artistic traditions that is inconceivable for the late 18th century when the carvings here were first recorded. Their subject matter is not entirely typical: while the double disc and Z-rod symbol is a trope familiar from other Pictish inscriptions, the dragon and sword combination is unique. It could be that we are seeing a blend of diverse elements taken from broader traditions – perhaps the Trusty’s Hill symbols were not carved by a Pict at all, but by someone among the local Britons who was sufficiently familiar with Pictish art to express local ideas in this style. There was one more surprise to come: the carvings employ a blend of traits that today are categorised as Class I and Class II – which from an art-historical perspective would imply quite a late date, perhaps in the 8th or 9th century. The archaeology tells a different story, however.

Reopening Charles Thomas’s trenches uncovered a wealth of new information about the fort’s construction: the eastern and western sides of the summit had been fortified with a timber-laced stone rampart in c.AD 600, while around the same time, the lower-lying slopes were enhanced with other defences and enclosures. These developments transformed Trusty’s Hill into a nucleated fort, a type of elite early medieval secular settlement found only in Scotland. The prodigious use of mature timber in the site’s ramparts also hints at it being a place of some importance; at a time when wood was locally in short supply, this ostentatious consumption was a clear indication of the household’s wealth and control of nearby natural resources.

X-ray fluorescence analysis of crucible and heating tray fragments showed that they were used for gold-, silver-, and leaded bronze-working. (Image: GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

Further clues to the site’s status came with the discovery of the remains of a workshop producing prestigious metalwork. Fragments of crucibles and other metalworking detritus, including moulds for fine jewellery, were subjected to X-ray fluorescence to identify the metals being worked. This revealed that lead, tin, and copper were being combined to create leaded bronzes, while traces of gold- and silverworking were also evident. Isotope analysis of a lead ingot demonstrated that it had been mined relatively close by, in the Leadhills area, and it may be that some of the sources of copper ore recorded around the site were being exploited at this time too. Evidence of ironworking, both smithing and smelting, completed this picture – clearly Trusty’s Hill was an important and productive centre for metalwork in the 6th and early 7th centuries.

This was much more than a highly skilled workshop, however. While other industrial activities – from wool spinning to the preparation of leather – have left their mark at the fort too, there was also evidence of a more social side to the settlement, with quantities of animal bone and domestic debris speaking of lavish feasts. From their rubbish, we can tell that the Trusty’s Hill community were eating predominantly cattle over sheep and pigs, and oats and barley in preference to wheat – a menu largely indistinguishable from that of their Iron Age ancestors, and identical to what was being eaten by other high-status households in Scotland at this time.

Wealth of evidence, evidence of wealth

Although we were not able to excavate enough of the fort’s interior to reveal any complete footprints of structures, the discovery of postholes and interior stonework, combined with the domestic material as well as the concentrated distribution of the metalworking debris, allows us to reconstruct the summit as a space divided between a domestic zone – probably located along the highest portion of the site – and a workshop built on a lower shelf.

The high-quality products being made at Trusty’s Hill may have made it an attractive centre for local and further-reaching trade; the discovery of a sherd of E Ware pottery from western France places our site in a trade network stretching between western Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe. Certainly we know from previous work that Gaulish merchants were making a beeline for the Galloway coast during the 6th and 7th centuries, perhaps attracted by the local availability of valuable materials like copper and lead. Such lucrative contacts would have been a key aspect of the Trusty’s Hill household’s control over the local area – something that they may have shored up with gifts, promises of protection, and bounties amassed through raiding other groups. Whatever steps they took to ensure this primacy, however, it was not to last, and when the end came, it was a fiery one.

In c.AD 600, Trusty’s Hill was transformed into a nucleated fort. This plan shows its new layout after the timber-laced stone rampart around its summit, and additional enclosures around its slopes and an elaborate entranceway to the summit were added. (Image: GUARD Archaeology Ltd / RCAHMS /DGNHAS)

The hillfort bears eloquent witness to the fact that, at some point in the early 7th century, it had been set alight in what appears to have been an act of deliberate destruction – subjected to such sustained burning that the timber-laced stone rampart encircling its summit actually melted, a process known as vitrification. At the same time, we can clearly see evidence for the destruction of the site’s interior and an abrupt end to any occupation of the summit. What did Trusty’s Hill do to merit such a brutal end? We suggest that, as well as being a successful trading site, the fort may have been a focus of political power, perhaps attracting more dangerous rivals – something that brings us back to the Pictish carvings.

The symbols lie opposite a large sunken feature that Charles Thomas interpreted as a guard hut. We contend it was something rather less prosaic, however. Further investigation of this circular hollow revealed a rock-cut basin defined by a drystone revetment. This wall leads out towards the Pictish carvings, but is itself overlain by the foundations of another stone bank marking part of the elaborate entranceway to the summit – an entranceway that was destroyed when the fort’s timber-laced rampart was burnt. It therefore seems likely that the basin and the carvings can be tied to the site’s late 6thto early 7th-century occupation. But what do they mean?

A tale of two citadels

At first glance the rock-cut basin might appear to be a convenient source of water for the local community – yet the fact that it lies in a vulnerable, exposed spot beyond the fort’s defences suggests otherwise, as do its shallow dimensions – measuring just 80cm deep and 1.8m across – and the lack of any natural spring at its bottom. What, then, was it for? The drystone revetment around its northern edge may be a clue: it represents a significant effort to define the space, and could imply a degree of formality to the feature. Perhaps this formality might even reflect a ceremonial role: it is recorded that a number of silver coins were found here in 1794, which could hint at the water being used for votive offerings. It is known that customs derived from Galloway’s Celtic heritage continued deep into the medieval period and beyond, and the deposition of similar caches of coins in ‘holy wells’ occurred throughout the region into the 16th century. Might this too have been a site with special significance?

Certainly, the presence of carved symbols near an entranceway and opposite a rock-cut basin has parallels in other early medieval Scottish power centres: it mirrors the context of the ‘Inauguration Stone’ at Dunadd – a hillfort in Argyll and Bute that became the royal stronghold of the kings of the Scots of Dál Riata around the same time. There we find enigmatic markings including a carved footprint, a Pictish boar symbol, and an ogham inscription, close to a rock-cut basin that, like at our site, lies at the entrance to the summit enclosure. This combination of features has been interpreted as marking a place where royal inauguration rituals took place. Given Dunadd’s other similarities with Trusty’s Hill, in the imported goods it had access to and the high-quality metalwork that it was producing, might our site have had a similar role?

Pictish carvings were also found at the foot of Edinburgh Castle Rock – another site attested to be an elite stronghold of this period, and one that also lies outside the traditional territory of the Picts – while in the heart of Pictland itself we find the early 6th-century royal site of Rhynie (see CA 289), where an impressive carved stone stands at the entranceway to a complex enclosure that has yielded a familiar array of Continental imports, fine metalwork, and evidence for skilled metalworking.

These parallels make a persuasive case that we could view the approach to the Trusty’s Hill summit as a symbolically charged entranceway, a literal rite of passage for the inauguration of kings – and it is in this context that we suggest the site’s carved symbols should now be viewed. While their literal meaning will probably never be known – short of finding a Pictish Rosetta Stone – the evidence from Trusty’s Hill and the known royal sites provide significant clues to cross-cultural exchanges taking place between Britons, Scots, and Picts; connections that helped to forge notions of kingship in early medieval Scotland.

Fragments of moulds that were used to make leaded bronze pins and brooches were also found. (Image: GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

If Trusty’s Hill was a royal stronghold, though, which kingdom did it belong to? Historical documents provide no easy answer – unlike almost all the other kingdoms of Scotland, there are no written records attributed to Galloway during this period. Might archaeology hold the key?

Of all Britain’s 6th-century kingdoms, Rheged is the most elusive. On one hand, it was the cradle of some of the earliest surviving medieval poetry to be composed in Britain, inspiring the bard Taliesin, who composed praise poems extolling the prowess of its king, Urien. Fragmentary historical sources also tell of Urien’s dominance of southern Scotland and northern England. On the other hand, however, little material evidence for the kingdom has been found, meaning that its actual location has long been shrouded in mystery. So much so that some historians have dismissed its existence entirely.

For those who do accept the existence of this powerful kingdom, some have sought to trace it through the place-names mentioned in Taliesin’s poetry, championing areas as diverse as Carlisle and Cumbria, Galloway, and Lancashire as the focus of its influence. This is by no means an exact science – many of the names are non-specific topographical words that are easy to apply to anywhere – but the archaeological record is less ethereal. If we are looking for a contender for a kingdom that was pre-eminent among the northern powers in the 6th century, Galloway has a persuasive claim.

Across the region we find monastic settlements – Whithorn, Kirkmadrine, Ardwall Isle – that provide evidence not just for a sophisticated ecclesiastical hierarchy, but the earliest evidence of Christianity and literacy in Scotland, as well as some of the oldest evidence of direct trade between Scotland and Continental Europe. On the secular side, we also have elite centres like the Mote of Mark, a fortified workshop with abundant evidence of high-status metalworking and Continental trade links, while numerous other vitrified and nucleated forts are clustered in Galloway, awaiting excavation. This evidence for a dynamic and wellconnected network of sacred and secular 6th- to 7th-century sites is unmatched anywhere else in southern Scotland and northern England, and entirely absent from Cumbria where Rheged is normally said to have been: taken together, we can argue that this archaeological kingdom without a historical record in Galloway, and Rheged, a historical kingdom without an archaeological record, may in fact be one and the same.

How the mighty fell
A reconstruction of the royal stronghold atop Trusty’s Hill as it may have appeared c.AD 600. (Image: GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

If this identification holds true, it provides a political context to the wealth and sophistication of post- Roman Galloway, explaining why the region was so attractive to Continental traders, and why Christianity seems to have flowered here so early – something that could not have happened without a powerful secular presence providing land and resources to the fledgling church. In drawing together literary, historical, and archaeological evidence, we begin to hear tantalising echoes of a vibrant and influential culture that is entirely consistent with a powerful kingdom like Rheged.

Despite its success, however, the spectacular destruction of Trusty’s Hill and its nearby contemporary, the Mote of Mark – a fate that can also be surmised for the other, as-yet unexplored, vitrified forts in the region – is a visceral reminder that the demise of this once-mighty kingdom came with sword and flame. As for who their conquerors were, while there is plenty of evidence for aggression by various groups of Picts, Scots, and Britons during this period, it was in the 7th century that the kings of Northumbria finally overwhelmed the British powers to the north – including Galloway – turning them into tributary states. The fact that all the area’s vitrified forts lie within or very close to parishes with place names suggesting concentrations of early Anglian settlement corroborates our laying this destruction at Northumbria’s door. It also tallies with accounts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, and the Life of Wilfred, which attest that Northumbrian dominance was achieved largely through violent overthrow and the subjugation of the local ruling elite. In that respect, it comes as no surprise that one Anglian noble associated with these events, who might be identified with King Ida of Bernicia, was known to his British enemies as Fflamddwyn – ‘the Flame- Bearer’. Perhaps Ida brought fire and destruction to Trusty’s Hill too – and perhaps what attracted his attention was its status as the main power centre of the kingdom of Rheged.

Further reading

Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles, The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged, Oxbow Books, £35.00, ISBN 978-1785703119.

This is an extract from a feature published in CA 327. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

1 Comment

  1. Fascinating! Half way through Rory Stewart’s, The Marches. Love his writing, sharing of research of others. My roots are English, my mother born 5 miles from Stonehenge in Steeple Langford.
    Martha Mitchell, Amherst, Massachusetts.

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