Video report: Hillfort revealed to be the largest Pictish site ever discovered in Scotland


14 May 2020
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A hillfort overlooking the village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire has been revealed as one of the largest ancient settlements ever discovered in Scotland.

University of Aberdeen archaeologists have uncovered evidence that up to 4,000 people may have lived in more than 800 huts perched high on the Tap O’ Noth close to the village of Rhynie.

Radiocarbon dating suggests the fort – a settlement within a rampart which encloses an area of around 17 acres – was constructed in the fifth to sixth centuries AD and that settlement on the hill may date back as far as the third century AD, meaning it is likely to be Pictish in origin.

Their discovery means that the area, which today is a quiet village home to just a few hundred people, once had a hilltop settlement that at its height may have rivalled the largest known post-Roman settlements in Europe.

A change of focus

Archaeologists from the University have conducted extensive fieldwork in the surrounding area since 2011 but had previously focused on the lower valley long noted for its Pictish heritage thanks to the famous Rhynie Man standing stone found on Barflat farm.

Here, at a settlement in the valley they discovered evidence for the drinking of Mediterranean wine, the use of glass vessels from western France and intensive metalwork production which suggested it was a high-status site, possible even with royal connections.

However, the hillfort overlooking it at the top of Tap O’ Noth had generally been assumed to date from the Bronze or Iron Age.

Professor Gordon Noble, who led the research, described the discovery through carbon dating that activity at the site extended into the Pictish period as the ‘most surprising of his career’.

“I was absolutely stunned when I read the results,” he said. “We took samples from the site really just to begin placing the important discoveries we have made at Rhynie over the last few years in a broader geographical context.

“Because of the sheer scale of the fort and its location clinging to the side of a hill at the edges of the Cairngorms, some scholars had suggested occupation dated from a time when the climate was warmer, possibly during the Bronze age, and our earlier excavations have shown the vitrified fort on the summit of Tap O’ Noth dated to 400-100 BC.”

“Over the last two years we have been investigating the lower fort at Tap O’ Noth which is enclosed by a rampart that encircles the lower slopes of the hill.

“The results of the dating were simply incredible. They show that the huge fort dated to the fifth to sixth centuries AD and that it was occupied at the same time as the elite complex in the valley at Barflat farm. Dating shows that settlement on the hill extended as far back to the third century, but both hut platforms excavated also had fifth to sixth century AD phases.”

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The Aberdeen team then conducted drone surveys and utilised laser technology which showed that there are hundreds of hut platforms within the fort – perhaps as many as 800 – making it one of the largest ancient settlements discovered in Scotland.

Dating the site

The distribution of the buildings suggests they are likely to have been built and occupied at a similar time as many are positioned alongside trackways or clustered together in groups. Drone surveys also showed that within these groups was one notably larger hut, indicating that there may have been some form of hierarchical organisation within the fort. 

Professor Noble added: “The size of the upper and lower forts together are around 16.75 hectares and one phase at least dates from the fifth to sixth centuries AD.

“This makes it bigger than anything we know from early medieval Britain – the previous biggest known fort in early medieval Scotland is Burghead at around five and a half hectares and in England famous post-Roman sites such as Cadbury Castle is seven hectares and Tintagel around five hectares.

“The Tap O’ Noth discovery shakes the narrative of this whole time period. If each of the huts we identified had four or five people living in them then that means there was a population of upwards of 4,000 people living on the hill.

“That’s verging on urban in scale and in a Pictish context we have nothing else that compares to this. We had previously assumed that you would need to get to around the 12th century in Scotland before settlements started to reach this size. We obviously need to do more to try and date more of the hut platforms given there are hundreds of them, but potentially we have a huge regional settlement with activity emerging in the Late Roman Iron Age and extending to the sixth century.

“It is truly mind blowing and demonstrates just how much we still have to learn about settlement around the time that the early kingdoms of Pictland were being consolidated.”

Permission to excavate and film at Tap O’ Noth was granted by Historic Environment Scotland and supported by Aberdeenshire Council. The fieldwork was funded by the University of Aberdeen Development Trust and Historic Environment Scotland.

Report and images courtesy of University of Aberdeen.

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