News: Abbey Craig – a burning question

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The Wallace Monument on Abbey Craig (Photo: Janfrie1988).

The hilltop of Abbey Craig is best-known as the site of the National Wallace Monument, which commemorates the 13th-century Battle of Stirling Bridge. But while the Scottish commander William Wallace reportedly watched the armies of Edward I massing from the rocky outcrop before his famous victory in 1297, the site might have witnessed another violent clash several centuries earlier.

A hillfort comprising a single oval bank with another rampart 30m further down the slope, was first recorded on the summit in the 18th century. Originally interpreted as the camp of Wallace’s troops, recent investigations revealed the structure was much older, as charcoal recovered from the inner rampart returned a radiocarbon date of AD 560-730.

Stirling Council Archaeology Officer Murray Cook, who in September led a community excavation at the site, said this means the fort could have been one of the main centres of the Gododdin, a Britonnic people who lived in northeast England and southern Scotland. Part of this tribe formed the kingdom of Manaw, which local place names such as Clackmannan and Slamannan suggest could have included the area around Abbey Craig. But this high-status settlement also appears to have come to a dramatic end, destroyed by a fire so intense that its stones fused together.

Murray Cook said this process, called vitrification, only occurs when stone is heated above 1000 degrees centigrade for an extended period of time.

He said: ‘The fire would have burned for days and days, and there can be no question as to the process being deliberate. This would have taken central planning, large quantities of wood and a substantial workforce. The smoke would have been visible for miles, and at night the bonfire could have been seen from even further away. It would have been an enormously visible and powerful statement.’

Stone vitrifies when expose to intense heat for an extended period of time (Photo: Murray Cook).

Murray Cook added that there were two possible causes for the fire; either the inhabitants had started it themselves as some kind of closing ceremony for a settlement that was no longer needed, or it represented the site being obliterated by an enemy force.

In this instance, Murray Cook believes the fort was destroyed by a hostile force as the site was apparently refortified shortly after it burned down.

He said: ‘There is a second construction layer over the top of the first, which is not vitrified. This has not yet been explicitly dated but it seems very unlikely that a late hillfort like this would be refortified anything more than a generation or two later, if for no other reason than there are really no more hillforts after the 9th century. My interpretation is that the site was captured, destroyed by fire, and then refortified either by the victors or perhaps recaptured by the original inhabitants.’

If this is the case, it would mean that a site synonymous with the Scottish Wars of Independence was also the location of a much earlier conflict.

Murray Cook said: ‘It is often said that the Wallace Monument overlooks the site of seven battles but this may suggest that it stands upon an eighth forgotten one.’

Article by Carly Hilts