Samuel Rutherford

Just outside Gatehouse of Fleet is Trusty’s Hill, the site of an ancient vitrified hillfort. This site was first recorded by the Minister of Anwoth in the Statistical Account of Scotland of 1794, who noted:

‘On the south side of this fort, there is a broad flat stone, inscribed with several waving and spiral lines…near it likewise were lately found several silver coins, one of King Edward VI; the rest of Queen Elizabeth.’

It is these carvings that make Trusty’s Hill unique in Galloway. This is because, as antiquarians subsequently discovered, these are Pictish symbols: a double disc and z-rod and a Pictish sea-beast and sword.

But without any historical records for the occupation of this fort, only archaeological investigations could answer the question – What are Pictish symbols doing at Trusty’s Hill?

At the suggestion of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, the first excavation of Trusty’s Hill was directed by Charles Thomas in 1960. Charles Thomas’s excavation recovered a few artefacts such as part of a quernstone for grinding meal and a substantial amount of cattle, sheep and pig bones. However, hampered by atrocious weather and a shoe-string budget, his investigation did not recover any evidence that could explain the date of the hillfort, the status of its inhabitants or what the Pictish symbols were doing at Trusty’s Hill.

Members of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society did not give up on the puzzle of this site. So in 2012 the Galloway Picts Project was launched, with new excavations, surveys and techniques to find out and understand the archaeological context for the Pictish carvings at Trusty’s Hill, as a way of explaining what the symbols are doing at this hillfort in Galloway.

‘On top of a hill, about half a mile S. E. of the church, is one of those vitrified forts which have lately excited the curiosity of modern antiquaries…’   Rev Hugh Gordon, Minister of Anwoth, 1794

‘On the south side of this fort, there is a broad flat stone, inscribed with several waving and spiral lines…’   Rev Hugh Gordon, Minister of Anwoth, 1794

Excavating Trusty’s Hill

The excavation of thick dark soil on the summit of the hillfort, in the summer of 2012, revealed evidence of the diet of the people who once lived at Trusty’s Hill. Numerous animal bones were recovered just as before; cattle were predominant, with sheep and pigs of less importance. Analysis of organic residues on a pottery sherd recovered from Trusty’s Hill suggests that the pot was perhaps used for cooking stews. Charred barley and oat grains were also found, revealing that the people’s diet probably included food and drink like beer, bannocks, broth, porridge and oatcakes.

The 2012 excavation

Other finds like a stone spindle whorl and a triple-toothed socketed iron tool indicate that the inhabitants of Trusty’s Hill also spun their own wool and prepared their own leather, very likely as preparation of textiles for clothes. The excavations also recovered a substantial amount of charcoal, mainly oak and hazel, but also ash, alder, birch and willow, much of which probably came from the timber buildings of this hillfort. But this was not just the settlement of a self-sufficient farming community. The 2012 excavation also found fragments of clay moulds, crucibles, heating trays, furnace lining, hearth bottoms, a possible crucible stand and a stone anvil. An iron metalworking file and blacksmithing debris were also recovered as were a number of fire-flints and a lot of charcoal that might have derived from the remains of fuel from forges. Altogether, these remains provide evidence for metalworking at Trusty’s Hill. Isotope analysis of a lead strip recovered from Trusty’s Hill revealed that it originated from lead ore from the Southern Uplands. It is also likely that the inhabitants were using local sources of copper and iron for metalworking. High status metalwork was also discovered during the 2012 excavation, such as a decorative thistle-headed pin and an Anglian style copper alloy horse harness mount with leather remains preserved on its reverse side, that date to the late sixth or early seventh century AD. This evidence suggests that the inhabitants of Trusty’s Hill included skilled metalworkers who made fine bronze and iron objects, such as pins, brooches and decorated horsegear.

The people of Trusty’s Hill were also well connected. A sherd of a pottery jar, dating to the late sixth century AD and originating from western France, was recovered during the 2012 excavation. Very few settlements in Britain had access to such rare imported goods from Europe during this period. A well-worn sherd of Roman samian ware was also found. This had been reused, possibly for use in metalworking, but it may have originally been part of a Roman gift to native British tribesmen during the first/second centuries AD. Radiocarbon dates from charcoal recovered during the 2012 excavation clearly demonstrate, however, it was not until the sixth century AD, after the end of Roman Britain, that Trusty’s Hillfort was constructed and occupied and it is to this period that the vast bulk of the archaeological finds from the 2012 excavation relate.

How Trusty’s Hill was investigated

The Galloway Picts Project got underway with a new GPS topographic survey of Trusty’s Hill by RCAHMS. This produced for the first time a detailed measured plan of this Scheduled Ancient Monument; the most accurate plan of the site to date and a necessary preparation for the subsequent excavation. A laser scan survey of the Pictish inscribed greywacke outcrop was also carried out by CDDV to create an accurate record of the Pictish carvings for the first time. The archaeological excavation itself, comprising four separate trenches across the site, was undertaken in May 2012 by 65 volunteers in collaboration with GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

Laser scanning of the Pictish Inscribed Stone at Trusty’s Hill © DGNHAS

The 2012 excavations examined only about 1% of the site, but nevertheless recovered a substantial number of finds. This was due to a variety of techniques in maximising the recovery of artefacts. Under professional supervision, the volunteers found many artefacts, such as the copper alloy horse mount and the E-Ware sherd, during the excavation of archaeological deposits. The soil deposits were then sieved by more volunteers, again under professional supervision, using a large dry sieving table. This allowed many very small artefacts to be spotted, such as a stone spindle whorl and a thistle-headed pin. Other excavated soil were taken for palaeo-environmental assessment. The subsequent process of wet-sieving, sorting and assessment recovered several important artefacts, including clay mould fragments and a glass bead fragment, again maximising the recovery of artefacts.

The recovery of artefacts, however, was only the start of the investigation. Each class of artefact – metalwork, ceramics, glass, stone, animal bone, botanical material – was sent to an appropriate specialist for analysis. Such analyses determines things like the nature, date and function of artefacts or the character and species of animal bones and charcoal. Analyses also included a range of scientific tests. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal revealed that the occupation of the site took place during the sixth century AD. Organic residue analysis revealed animal fats on the interior surface of the E-Ware sherd and X-Ray Fluorescence Analysis of the non-ferrous metalworking debris revealed that gold, silver, copper and lead was worked at Trusty’s Hill.

Volunteers excavating Trusty’s Hill © DGNHAS

A Fortified Citadel

The archaeological investigation of the site in 2012 demonstrates that Trusty’s Hill comprised a fortified citadel around the summit of a craggy hill with a number of lesser enclosures looping out along lower lying terraces and crags. To build the strong timber-laced stone rampart around its summit and the stone enclosures on its lower slopes required an enormous amount of stone and wood, and workers too. This form of hillfort is recognised to be a type of hierarchical, high status secular settlement that emerged across Scotland during the post-Roman period. 

The Galloway Picts Project in 2012 recovered sufficient archaeological evidence to show that the archaeological context for the Pictish carvings at Trusty’s Hill is a ritualised entranceway to a wealthy, fortified settlement where fine metalwork was crafted and probably given out as gifts, and foreign imports acquired.

The 2012 excavations discovered that the end of Trusty’s Hill took place sometime in the late sixth/early seventh century AD when the hillfort was captured by enemies and its timber-laced ramparts deliberately set alight and burned to such a degree that the rubble core of the rampart was vitrified. In this way Trusty’s Hill was laid waste, its hilltop ablaze for days, in an ominous and highly visible show of power.

Reconstruction of Trusty’s Hill in its heyday © DGNHAS

The Pictish Carvings

Only two other Pictish carved stones are known outside Pictland and both are associated with royal strongholds of the sixth and seventh centuries AD. One of these, Din Eidyn, now Edinburgh Castle Rock, was the capital of the Gododdin, the Britons of south-east Scotland. The other royal site is Dunadd, the royal stronghold of the early Scots kingdom of Dalriada, in modern-day Argyll and Bute.

The Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill are inscribed into an outcrop of natural rock on the approach to its summit. While no-one yet knows exactly what the meaning of Pictish symbols are, specialists consider that they relate to individual and cultural identity. While the double disc and z-rod symbol is quite a common symbol in other Pictish carvings, the monstrous sea-beast and sword are unique to Trusty’s Hill. Specialist analysis of the carvings at Trusty’s Hill concludes that the symbols here are genuine and were very likely made by a local Briton familiar with Pictish art but confident enough to create their own symbols.

The Pictish carvings at Trusty’s Hill are located at one side of the entrance to the summit of the hill. On the other side of this entranceway is a rock-cut basin. Remembering the sixteenth century coins that the Minister of Anwoth mentions, this feature was still apparently used as a votive well in the late medieval period. Wells and watery places were much used for ritual purposes during the Iron Age in Britain and radiocarbon dates indicate that it was similarly used here at Trusty’s Hill during the sixth century AD.

The Pictish Carving at Dunadd is particularly relevant to that at Trusty’s Hill because like at Trusty’s Hill, but unlike Din Eidyn, it is carved into a natural rock outcrop and therefore in its original position. The Pictish boar symbol at Dunadd is carved into the inauguration stone of the kings of Dalriada. Like Trusty’s Hill it is opposite a rock-cut basin and at the entranceway to the summit. The layout of Dunadd, with an upper citadel and lower precincts, is also similar to Trusty’s Hill. Because of this similar archaeological context, it is likely that the Pictish symbols and votive well at the entranceway to Trusty’s Hill played some part in royal inauguration rites too.

Altogether, the archaeological evidence now recovered from Trusty’s Hill – the fine metalworking and high status metalwork, the imported pottery from the continent, the fortifications and the Pictish inscribed stone and votive well – mark this site as a royal site, as these same archaeological attributes are characteristic of other royal sites in Dark Age Scotland.

But if Trusty’s Hill was of royal predominance over this region of Scotland during the sixth century AD, what was the name of the kingdom its kings ruled?

Rheged: The Lost Kingdom

One of the most mysterious kingdoms of Dark Age Britain is Rheged, a lost kingdom, thought to be somewhere in south-west Scotland or north-west England but difficult to pin down, until now. With the archaeological discovery of a royal stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, there is now a body of archaeological evidence in Galloway for pre-eminent secular and ecclesiastical sites during the fifth to early seventh centuries AD, unmatched anywhere else in Scotland and northern England. This archaeological evidence corroborates the meagre historical evidence for Rheged, a kingdom that was at this time pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.

Its people were Britons, who spoke a form of ancient Welsh. Much of the earliest literature of Scotland is the poetry of Taliesin, its bard, praising the valour of his king, Urien of Rheged and his son Owain – poetry that may have once been heard at the royal stronghold of Trusty’s Hill itself. Gathering warriors from other hillforts in south-west Scotland inhabited at this time, such as Tynron Doon, Urien and his warband led raids against the neighbouring kingdoms of their fellow Britons and the newcomers to the east, the Angles of Bernicia.

The cultural vitality of Rheged also survives in the earliest Christian monument in Scotland, the Latinus Stone, erected in Whithorn to Latinus and his daughter around 450 AD. For it is at Whithorn around this time that Ninian, Scotland’s first bishop, established his church of Candida Casa (Shining White House) and from which literacy as well as the Christian faith spread across southern Scotland. Nor was Whithorn the only early Christian church set up in Galloway at this time. Further west, at Kirkmadrine in the Rhinns, survives another of the oldest Christian inscriptions of Scotland and another early Christian monastery on Ardwall Island may have had some relationship to nearby Trusty’s Hill. This hierarchical network of early Christian communities were literate, and valued Roman culture at a time when it was fading from western Europe.

The Latinus Stone, © Crown Copyright, Historic Scotland

It is perhaps through the extensive contacts that Whithorn had with continental Europe that the Christian kings of Rheged also acquired wine and spices from the eastern Roman Empire, foods and dyes from western France and decorated glass from the Rhineland, recovered from Mote of Mark, another fortified hilltop on the Galloway coast. Excavations at the Mote of Mark revealed this to be the fortified workshop of a mastersmith, who produced exquisite jewellery and decorated horse-gear from a range of rare materials, for the kings and nobles of Rheged.

By the late sixth century AD, Urien of Rheged was the dominant king of the north. He led an alliance of four kings against the Angles of Bernicia, but was assassinated by Morcant, one of these northern British kings, before victory could be sealed.

The violent fiery destruction of Trusty’s Hill and the other hillforts of Mote of Mark and Tynron Doon may reflect the fall of Rheged, when during the seventh century AD much of southern Scotland became part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, and Rheged faded from memory.

Gatehouse Gala Week – Guided Walk to Trusty’s Hill. Produced by Rod Smaldon for the Gatehouse Development Initiative as part of the Heritage Lottery funded All Our Stories Gatehouse of Fleet in the Dark Ages project

“Trusty’s Hill, Rheged and the Picts of Galloway” by Dr Chris Bowles & Ronan Toolis