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Kilmartin Glen: Dunadd Fort

Well-preserved hill fort of Kilmartin Glen

Kilmartin Glen: Dunadd Fort

This spectacular site has been occupied since the Iron Age. The well-preserved hill fort was a stronghold of Dalriada, the kingdom of the Scotti. On top of the hill there are two footprints, a boar and an ogham inscription have been carved into the natural rock.


Royal stronghold

The natural rocky hill of Dunadd, ‘fort of the Add’, rises up from Moine Mhor, or ‘great moss’ – the expanse of bog that carpets the southern end of the Kilmartin Glen and through which the River Add threads its way to the Atlantic.

Excavations in the 1980s found evidence that Dunadd was serving as a fort in Iron-Age times over 2,000 years ago. But it is the site’s re-use as a royal power centre by the Gaelic kings of the Dál Riata in the 6th to 9th centuries for which it has become internationally renowned.

Dun At first appears on record in AD 683. By then, according to the excavated evidence, the fort was already a major power centre, maybe even the chief royal stronghold of Dál Riata. This might also be the spot where St Columba is reported to have met a merchant from Gaul in the later 6th century.

Dunadd’s location, close to the boundary between the Cenél Loairn and Cenél nGabráin (the two leading tribal groupings of the Dál Riata), suggests as much. In the late 9th century, the Gaels of Dál Riata merged with the Picts, their former enemies in the east, to establish a new kingdom, Alba (later to become Scotland). After that, Dunadd quickly declined.


Above all, the king

The fort’s designers made good use of the hill’s natural contours and configurations to create a hierarchy of space. This reflected the importance of its owner, the king. As you climb the hill, you become conscious of passing through a series of terraces, each one entered through a narrow defile and enclosed by once-formidable stone walls. At the summit is an enclosure once surrounded by defences noticeably stronger than those below. This was surely the citadel, from where the king held sway.


All hail the king!

On the terrace immediately below the citadel you will discover some extraordinary features carved into the rock – a basin, an image of a boar, an as-yet undeciphered inscription in a Celtic alphabet known as ogham and, most extraordinary of all, two human footprints.

These features may well have been used in ceremonies to inaugurate a new king, the footprints symbolising the new ruler’s dominion over his land and people (a similar footprint exists at Clickimin Broch, Shetland).


Royal trappings

The excavations of the 1980s produced an outstanding range of artefacts, including an impressive array of high-status metalwork and weapons. Some objects were imported from the Continent (Dunadd has produced the largest, most diverse range of imported pottery of any site in the Celtic West).

But Dunadd was also a major production centre, including one of the most significant metal-working workshops in Europe. The quantity of its moulds is matched only by the royal site at Lagore in Ireland, and the quality of the finished products (including Hunterston-type brooches) is unsurpassed.


Highlights
  • The fort’s location – rising dramatically from Moine Mhor, ‘the great moss’.
  • The walk to the summit – follow in the footsteps of St Columba up through the various courts to the citadel at the top.
  • The carved footprints – imagine the spectacle during the inauguration of a new king.

Facilities

Strong Footwear Recommended

Location

Region – Central and West

2m South of Kilmartin off the A816.

Grid reference
NR 837 936.