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Discover The Secrets of Angus's Ancient Caterthuns Hill Forts

8 September 2009

As part of the Scottish Archaeology Month programme, there’s a rare opportunity this weekend to take a guided tour of two of the most fascinating and ancient historic sites in Angus.

The Brown and White Caterthuns near Brechin are two spectacularly large hill forts which are among the most impressive in Scotland.  For centuries, little was known about their exact purpose, although the closeness of these two hilltop enclosures - less than 1km apart – suggests a special significance.

In order to uncover this and learn why the Caterthuns were built and how they were used, Historic Scotland carried out an important large-scale field survey and excavation of both sites.  Last year the findings of these in-depth archaeological studies were published, and the report highlights the wealth of invaluable and detailed information gathered during this major project.

On Saturday 12 September, the co-author of the report, Historic Scotland Senior Archaeologist Richard Strachan, will be leading a walking tour taking in both The Brown and White  Caterthuns.  He’ll be sharing the secrets of these enigmatic sites and explaining why the studies of them were undertaken, how the work was carried out (using radiocarbon methods to date the sites and microscopic analysis to reveal something of their contemporary environment and economy), and what was learned as a result.

Richard Strachan said: “This extensive fieldwork project gave us a much better understanding of these two great enclosure sites on neighbouring hills, and it enabled us to re-evaluate our interpretation of their history.   

“Before the studies were carried out, we tended to focus on the differences between the two Caterthuns and it was thought that White Caterthun, with its clearer lines and stonework, probably succeeded the less complex-looking Brown Caterthun. As our report highlights, however, they were at least partly contemporary - they can be placed within the same pre-Roman Iron Age context.  We now know that the forts were occupied for much of the first millennium BC and probably functioned as ceremonial centres.

“We concluded, therefore, that the two sites should actually be considered together, arguably even as parts of a single entity.  Whilst there’s no evidence to suggest that both were combined in one great enclosure, two millennia ago they could have been viewed as one hill with two summits.

“We now have a much greater insight into these wonderful ancient sites and a better appreciation of them -  but there are still things that we don’t know about them, and more to discover about the Caterthuns.”

The ‘Consider The Caterthuns’ guided tour on Saturday starts at 2pm, meeting in the White Caterthun car park, and will last roughly two hours.  It is suitable for a maximum of 25 adults and older children.  To ensure a place on the tour, booking is recommended by calling Historic Scotland’s Interpretation Unit on 0131 668 8858 or emailing    Free of charge, the tour is outdoors and over rough pasture, so stout walking boots and warm, waterproof clothing are recommended.


The archaeological study of The Caterthuns

  • Brown Caterthun and White Caterthun were the subject of three seasons of extensive archaeological investigations funded by Historic Scotland and undertaken by the Centre For Field Archaeology (CFA) and Edinburgh University’s Department of Archaeology between 1995 and 1997. The investigations were carried out in response to evidence of ongoing rabbit damage to the hillforts’ earthworks.

  • The report of the findings was co-authored by CFA Archaeology’s Andrew Dunwell and Historic Scotland’s Richard Strachan, and included contributions from the team of archaeologists who carried out the in-depth studies. The report was published by the Tayside and Fife Archaeological Committee (TAFAC) - the area liaison group which aims to conserve the historic environment of the region.  

  • Whilst the archaeological studies uncovered a great deal of detailed information on the Caterthuns, very few artefacts were found during the excavations. Those of any antiquity include 16 flint items, three course stone tools, a few scraps of coarse pottery and an iron knife.

The Caterthuns’ location and structure

  • The two enclosures are on neighbouring hills. White Caterthun, oval in form with clear lines, has a massive stone rampart, a ditch and outer ramparts. Brown Caterthun, nearly circular and without such clear lines, was mainly an earthwork, comprising four earth ramparts and ditches.

  • White Caterthun’s outerworks, from their form and structure, and the multiple entrances, are broadly comparable in size and character to those on Brown Caterthun; they can now be placed within the same pre-Roman Iron Age context (rather than later than it) and be seen to reflect a sequence of development.

  • The multiple radiating entrance alignments probably embodied principally symbolic and social meaning, rather than simply practical access or defensive considerations.

The Caterthuns’ purpose and who built them

  • We will probably never know the exact reason why these spectacularly large enclosures were built on two neighbouring hilltops. The archaeological studies have shown that they do not appear to have been the boundaries of settlements; and they don’t seem to have been built specifically for defence purposes due to the multiple entrances.  That means that rather to referring to them as ‘hillforts’, they should more accurately be called ‘hilltop enclosures’.

  • They may have fulfilled a variety of functions – from practical to esoteric – eg. as places for communal or ritualistic activities.  They indicate significance of place – they are highly visible on prominent locations – and there may have been symbolic meanings to the alignments of entrances (cosmology/orientations etc).

  • The lowland areas of Angus appear to have supported a substantial population in the first millennium BC, so presumably these were the people whose labour was mobilised by a ruling elite to build and maintain these great hilltop enclosures.

For further information

Rebecca Hamilton
Marketing and Media Manager
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8685 / 07788 923871