The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Dunnottar Castle

Cliff Fort


Oh Dunnottar... the 'slope fort' (from the Gaelic 'Dun' [fort] and Fothair [slope]). At first sight the gaunt castle ruins, seeming almost to sprout from the living rock upon which they stand (between Castle Haven and Old Hall Bay, just to the south of Stonehaven), promise an interlude from the intensity of hunting the many RSC's in the area. A few hours by the sea to regain some perspective, perhaps? But then the sheer importance of this site, not only to Scottish history, but to the prehistory of this magical land becomes apparent to the interested traveller.

First, the history - the castle was established in the 14th Century, the walls no doubt incorporating elements of the preceding Pictish fort which once stood on the site, and must have been pretty well impregnable before the advent of heavy artillery. Wallace invested it, ditto Cromwellian forces between September 1651 and May 1652. It was during the latter siege that a Mrs Grainger, wife of Kinneff's minister, managed to blag herself an exit and spirit away the Scottish crown hidden in her dress. One assumes she was a somewhat hefty lass... as Private Fraser out of Dad's Army would say, 'wi' nice, firm thighs...'. But I digress.

For me, however, it is the natural defences of Dunnottar, the great crag jutting out into the sea, which make a visit here a must to all those with a passion for the past, a past which, if understood, can perhaps guide the modern Scotland towards a more balanced and confident future. Much has been written about Scots gaelic culture... not all of it to the nation's benefit, in my opinion (the ludicrous Braveheart, anyone?)... coinciding with devolution and the roaring success of the Tiger economy across the Irish Sea before the recent crash. Comparatively little has been written about the people who once inhabited Dunnottar in prehistory, a people who have arguably - to use a modern term - been retrospectively 'photoshopped' out of Scotland's story. The Picts.

So who were the Picts, these people who apparently scared the living daylights out of many a Roman legionnary, yet carved exquisite stones? Theres's apparently not an awful lot to go on. However legend has it Dunnottar was chosen by the Picts due to it's association with 'The Green Lady', no doubt some reference to a Mother Goddess?. Climb upon its rock, with the seagulls a'wheeling around your head in a cacophony of noise and I've no doubt you'll understand what they meant. Well, at least a little.....

Like Dunluce upon the Antrim coast, the castle here is almost an irrelevance compared with the rawness of nature at this site. If you're after a starting point to gauge the spirit of the Picts I'd argue here is as good a place to start as any....
8th February 2010ce
Edited 10th February 2013ce

Comments (10)

The Green Castles at Portknockie and Fettercairn are probably named after the Green Goddess. And us in our wee corner haven't forgotten the Picts at all, the big battle at Mons Graupius is still a subject of pub banter and serious debate, many of the cairns around here are still known as Picts houses, (many would rather photoshop out the Celts but thats a different story) e.g. the burial place and some place names can be traced to Pictish times. But I know what you mean lots of places are getting Gaelic names/signposts and I don't really disagree (as well as my good friend Trump another reason I left the SNP) BUT they should push the Pictish Culture as well and equally. Dunnottar, you are spot on Mr G, is a magnificient spectacle as your foties show. Right on my pal! drewbhoy Posted by drewbhoy
9th February 2010ce
The Picts have NOT been "photoshopped" out of Scotland's History. That is simply nonsense. Howburn Digger Posted by Howburn Digger
9th February 2013ce
Thanks for the, er, balanced opinion HD, which I'd suggest is perhaps a little too decisive, given the subject matter.

Note that the fieldnote was posted 3 years ago by an inquisitive Englishman at that time holding an - arguably stereotypical - point of view probably quite common south of the border.... an Englishman who nonetheless gets off his arse, driving many, many miles to see things for himself. To be recommended, perhaps.

In my (to be fair, not inconsiderable) experience - generally talking to 'ordinary' people, not academics - the 'Picts' would appear to remain very much an unknown quantity in Scotland. It seems few people on the streets, upon the hills and in the fields know much, if anything about them... save the existence of a few exquisite carvings, that they liked tattooes... and apparently gave the Romans a hard time. For me the primary question has to be 'why is this so'? Why does there appear - to me - to be this void in the national psyche? Further questions: why did the exquisite carvings cease? Why did a proud, warlike people that successfully resisted the Roman onslaught, arguably the finest military machine before the Wermacht, agree - apparently, according to what records there are - to peacefully assimilate with Irish invaders, to give up their specific culture, their art, their individuality, their very essence.... which Scotland was to fight so tenaciously to retain against the Anglo-Norman kings? Was it political expediency, the naked ambition of the elite to retain a measure of power through a compromise, uniting choice of king who happened to tick the boxes? Sure, I now understand the documents imply this occurred willingly.... but victors shape history in their own image, as the current debate relating to Richard III exemplifies only too well. So, a final question... are we sure? On what basis? Because no battles are recorded? Is there a danger we are coming to conclusions too quickly, perhaps for contemporary political expediency?

We've subsequently had this 'discussion in the forum since the post was made; the points raised were helpful to my understanding but - in my opinion - by no means conclusive. Far from it. I'd suggest there is scope for a lot more debate, if only to judge by the reactions of Scots I've met the length and breath of the nation... and beyond.

9th February 2013ce
It isn't "a void in the national psyche" I'm afraid. Just that Edward II burned most of our books. Giric, Donald II, Constantine II, Malcolm were all Pictish Kings who united with some various tribes of Britons and Angles to fight the Gall-gaels when it suited. These Pictish Kings and latterly Kings of Alba did NOT choose to "peacefully assimilate with the Irish Invaders". The Gall Gaels (who were the mad bastard sons of Vikings and Gaels of what is now Ireland and the Western Isles of Scotland) were constantly at war and harrying the new Kingdom of Alba along its Western Seaboard. This continued right through beyond the Scottish Wars of Independence and Wallace and Bruce. The Lordship of the Isles was not surrendered to the Scottish Crown until about 1490. Alba never made peace or agreed...
"- apparently, according to what records there are - to peacefully assimilate with Irish invaders, to give up their specific culture, their art, their individuality, their very essence".
Oh lordy! The Western Isles and the Gall-Gaels were not even assimilated into Scotland until the reign of James IV. They were pirates brought to heel by making a dubious pact with a loser English King which then blew back in the face of the last Lord of the Isles. He lost the lot. In 1490.
The exquisite carvings didn't cease. There are many types and varieties of Pictish Carving. It changed over the centuries. Some distinct styles and images directly relate to images used on manuscripts found at Lindisfarne, Iona and Dublin. Many of the stylised motifs bear strong similarities to other cultural art like Anglo-Saxon and what is loosely described as "Celtic" (aargh...). The idea that culture is totally isolated, never changes or is frozen and dies is just plain silly. Exquisite carvings never ceased simply when the Pictish Kings became Kings of Alba any more than exquisite drawings ceased when Jessie M King died and Alasdair Gray started doodling in his school jotter margins.
In the churchyard at Kilmartin you will find stone carving by the descendants of Pictish Carvers. There is another much less known religious site near there which has many exquisite stone carvings which look like a cross between an illustration from Book of Kells and Classic Pictish Carvings.
There were plenty of Battles recorded over the Centuries from the 6th to the 12th. There is an extensive Pictish King list from Iona which runs a line of succession right down through the Kings of Alba to the time of Duncan. The Normans like Wallace and Bruce were fighting turf wars like all the newly-arriveds at the time, but it was the genocidal campaigns of Edward Longshanks which did more destruction to written history, books and culture North of Hadrian's Wall than anything else ever had.
Howburn Digger Posted by Howburn Digger
31st August 2017ce
As I said years ago....thanks for the, er, 'balanced opinion'. But that is all it is. Your opinion. For what it is worth. As is mine. Although you seem to believe you are definitive in every aspect of Scotland and its history... my Scottish friends frequently find your views biased. In the extreme. Dogma. Irrelevant to meaningful discourse.

The field note and my response represented my opinion over SEVEN years ago. A reply might have meant something to me then - maybe assisted with my education; however, through reading, extensive touring and talking to diverse people, I have adapted my opinions on many subjects - Scotland being but one. Suffice to say my views do not accord with yours. I find one needs to accept that bad things are not always the fault of some convenient scapegoat across the border...

I disagree with some of your 'facts' - Ok, a lot of them - but that is fair enough. We should/could learn through debate. I object to your extreme insularity, lack of any context. But, again, that is just my opinion.

However what I really object to is your harangues, your condescending, aggressive manner. Unless you revise this and engage with people in a civilised way, I will not address comments to you again. There is nothing to learn from a closed mind.
1st September 2017ce
It had to be said............well put, Sir. Posted by tomatoman
1st September 2017ce
Certainly ordinary people in the hills in the NE of Scotland will not allow the Picts to be forgotten. The digs at Barflats, Burghead, Dunnicaer etc backed by their local communities are evidence of this. drewbhoy Posted by drewbhoy
2nd September 2017ce
Well, you've a lot of 'Pit-xx' place names your way. As I recall from some farmer I asked to park sometime or other - I forget now - that supposedly signifies a Pictish foundation. Not a linguist myself. GLADMAN Posted by GLADMAN
2nd September 2017ce
Nor me, but the farmer was heading the right direction. drewbhoy Posted by drewbhoy
2nd September 2017ce
Link to a couple of pages about the word pit. Interesting as I didn't know about the meanings of pit and bal. I like stuff like this on place names. Thanks for making me have a little google Gladman/Drew :-)
thelonious Posted by thelonious
3rd September 2017ce
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