In the fifth or sixth century AD, Picts on the eastern Scotland coast set up a fort on a stone outcrop just offshore, possibly to hold sway over the seas. The ancient people had a reputation for ferocity and were one reason the Romans never established a lasting presence in what is now Scotland.
The fort on what is called a “sea stack” may have been one of a series of forts along the coast, archaeologist Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University told the Press and Journal. This particular fort, near Stonehaven, may have been a precursor to medieval Dunnottar Castle, just a few hundred meters (yards) away, on a headland onshore.
Dunnottar Castle, Scotland (Wikimedia Commons)Excavations by Professor Noble and his team showed the fort was inhabited for extended periods, so it may have been an important place to the Picts.
“The Picts were known as sea raiders and forts like this may have helped cement that naval power. It is quite an impressive site. It was pretty hairy climb to get up there and at high tide it is completely cut off. Resupplying the fort when it was inhabited would have been a challenge,” Professor Noble told the Daily Mail.
The Romans called Picts “Pictii” because they painted themselves blue when going into battle. No one knows what the Picts called themselves. They lived in east and north Scotland during the late Iron Age and early in the medieval era. They overran Roman positions several times by 200 AD and kept the Romans at bay in Scotland north of the Clyde and Forth.
A Pict looking out to sea as depicted in a 19th century book (Wikimedia Commons)“The Roman name ‘Pictii’ means “painted ones,” and the Romans believed the Picts were little more than naked savages. However, it is now thought that this is an exaggeration. Given Scotland’s climate, it is unlikely that the Picts spent a lot of their time undressed. It is believed that they wore clothes colored with natural dyes and used leather for footwear and jackets. The Picts were also thought to be excellent farmers, growing crops and keeping animals for food and clothing. Certainly, horses were important to the Picts as they are depicted on many of their carved stones,” says an article at the BBC website.
“The Painted Ones”: Hand-colored version of Theodor de Bry’s engraving of a Pict woman (Wikimedia Commons)Picts didn’t have writing, so what we know of them comes from ancient Greek and Roman texts and archaeological digs like the one at Dunnicaer sea stack.
The fort on the sea stack at Dunnicaer became known after youngsters climbed it and found rocks with markings on them. They threw some of the rocks into the sea, but one boy went back and retrieved one from the water, the Daily Mail says.
Stone with Pictish carving found at Dunnicaer hill fort (megalithic.co.uk)It’s possible the Picts built a wooden bridge to the sea stack to give regular access, Noble said. The stones of the fort were not local, so it seems likely they had some way to transport them to the sea stack, whether by a wooden bridge or by lifting them with ropes.
The team from the University of Aberdeen’s Northern Pict Project excavated what may have been a house and a hearth with some charcoal intact at the site. The house was inside the fort.
Noble speculated that there was a community living on the shore near the sea stack, but he said because Picts built their homes from wood it is not possible to find remains of their dwellings.
A professional rock climber scaled the sea stack and put ropes in place for Professor Gordon and his team, who did a five-day excavation at the site.
Featured image: View over Dunnicaer Promontory Fort from the neighboring clifftops. Credit: Les Hamilton.