Year of Stories 2: The Iron Age Hillfort

c500 BC- c500 AD

By Gwen Sinclair

From early prehistory into the later medieval period, Dundonald’s naturally defensible hilltop site brings us a prime example of continued settlement and fortification. Our story now continues to the Iron Age and references the second period of known human settlement uncovered from the archaeological studies1 which took place here in the 1980s and 90s.

When life in the British Isles became colder and wetter around 2000 BC, this contributed to an expanse of wet bogland appearing across the land and heralded doom for much of the workable farmlands that had been successfully developed in the previous millennium. The coastline too had also begun to erode due to a rise in sea levels – both forcing people inland – and with it, competition for fertile land grew.

Mercifully the weather began to improve by 600 BC, and over the next 100 years, the population expanded to several million inhabitants who gradually divided themselves up into a multitude of realms, ruled over by chieftains and kings whose fortified hill-forts began to dominate the horizon…

This period of our story, dating between c 500 BC and c 500 AD, is an important part of our story since it’s likely to be the one that gave us the name Dundonald – and one which has survived throughout the centuries to this day.  The name alone tells us that there was once a hill fort which stood on Castle Hill – with Dùn meaning hill fort, named after Donald – probably its originator or most notable chieftain or king, and which translates from Dyfnwal or Dòmhnall in Celtic languages – meaning ‘one who rules the world.’ 

Donald may well have felt like a ruler of worlds when we consider that the hill fort at Castle Hill appears to have made use of its natural craggy features for an inner defensive line, and placed at its highest point some 60 m above sea level, giving panoramic vistas reaching as far as Ben Lomond and Paps of Jura, across the Firth of Clyde – its coastal shores, within a 3 mile walk – likely providing a rich and varied seafood larder and possibly seafaring travel. This is indicated by the many pieces of pottery found in excavations from this period, and whose clay is known to be produced in other parts of the British Isles and the continent of Europe, telling us a probable story of an interconnected goods exchange network, where our hill fort residents may well have travelled or traded over long distances.  Indeed, given its geographical location and topical features, this site could well have been hailed as a gift from Dagda, the Celtic God of the Earth by the Damnonii tribe who inhabited the area around this time – and whose tribal lands expanded out all across Ayrshire, Dumbartonshire and Renfrewshire and even possibly as far south as Galloway and Cumbria.

You can find out more about both Donald and the Damnonii by visiting our earlier blog:

Dundonald Iron Age Hill fort reconstruction – from model at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum at Castle Hill showing Loudoun Hill in the background.

Their iron age hill fort is thought to have been well defended, surrounded by heavy earth and wood, and later dry stone ramparts, with terracing for outer defence protecting 5 – 6 round houses, some 8 – 9 m in diameter. Evidence of additional rectangular buildings, and possibly more similar sized round houses, sited around the lower slopes of the hill are thought to form part of associated settlements – including nearby hill forts at Wardlaw Hill, Kemplaw and Harpercroft Hill – and may have even been something of a centre of power in the Early Historic period.

This tells us that this was a time when defence was essential, and in early times Ayrshire was known as Aeron – named after Agrona, the Celtic goddess of war and slaughter, said to have given her name to the River Ayr – in the typical Celtic language tradition of naming water courses.  Accounts of Urien of Rheged, a ‘defender of Aeron’ described in The Book of Taliesin Poems of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain, brings us the possibility of the first known mention of Dundonald around this time – where a battle of 100 warbands took place at Bre Trwyn – or the brae/upland of Troon – which could have been the Dundonald Hills; the specific site, “a battle before splendid ramparts” – could well have been the hill fort on Castle Hill.

“… A battle near Bre Tryn, much heated, His fury a might fire; 

A battle before splendid ramparts,
A hundred warbands trembled in Aeron.”

The Book of Taliesin of Warfare and Praise in an Enchanted Britain

Just who these 100 warbands were, we can’t be sure, but after 70 AD the story of invasion and withdrawal by the Romans began – in their attempt to conquer what became Scotland, which they documented was inhabited by wild, naked warriors running at them in battle clad only in blue paint from the leaves of the woad plant. By 84 AD the Romans had all but taken over everything up to Loch Tay, and advancing North, met with the very first ever mentioned native of Scotland, Calgacus (c 50 AD – 100 AD). He was the leader of the Caledonians, and when the advancing Roman army reached their lands and commandeered their harvested grain stores in autumn 84 AD, 30,000 of them are documented as having fought back against an army of 20,000 Roman legionnaires and auxiliaries led by General Agricola at Mons Graupius – probably in Aberdeenshire and is the first-ever documented battle on Scottish soil – and where the Grampian mountains are said to get their name.

” …To all of us slavery is a thing unknown; there are no lands beyond us, and even the sea is not safe, menaced as we are by a Roman fleet. And thus in war and battle, in which the brave find glory, even the coward will find safety. Former contests, in which, with varying fortune, the Romans were resisted, still left in us a last hope of succour, inasmuch as being the most renowned nation of Britain, dwelling in the very heart of the country, and out of sight of the shores of the conquered, we could keep even our eyes unpolluted by the contagion of slavery. To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.”

Part of Calgacus’ speech before the Battle of Mons Graupius, as documented by Tacticus, Roman biographer of General Agricola.

From Tacitus’s account of the battle, some 10,000 Caledonians were killed, and just 360 Romans – with the remaining 20,000 Caledonians disappearing into the hills…

The Iron Age points to a culture of master craftspeople and metalsmiths – as iron steadily began to replace bronze as a stronger, easier to mould, easier to source upgrade – when the ploughing of a new field could uncover decent amounts of bog iron from the peat. Finds from this period show that iron had arrived at Castle Hill with a short, leaf-shaped spearhead, a chisel blade, a knife blade, a nail, a tinder striker or fire steel – or early lighter, and a crucible or mould for use in the metalworking process – an impressive scientific advancement developed in the iron age when we consider iron has a melting point of at least 1500 degrees centigrade – a much higher temperature than earlier furnaces would have coped with!

Iron Age life was well organised with evidence telling us that their roundhouse homes were carefully constructed from upright wooden poles dug in and packed tightly into the ground. These were then surrounded by woven wattle walls made by a process similar to basket making, packed tightly with daub – or the all-important weather-proofing made from soil, clay, straw, and dung.

Roofs were made from reeds or straw carefully attached to wooden rafters which were set at a 45-degree angle to ensure rainwater rolled off beyond the walls, with no need for a chimney since smoke eventually made its way out through the thatch, before being utilised to help keep midges away, and to smoke meat and fish which hung in the rafters. Bones and fire debris were found in the excavations, and bedrock showed signs of direct heat in places – possibly from hearths used for cooking meat, oats, barley, spelt and wild food collected from the surrounding landscape.  The fire was placed in the centre of each home to allow heat to enter areas separated by woven screens where built-up wooden boxes, with handspun and woven wool blankets were set above mattresses made of straw and skins. Much domestic life would have centred around gathering food,  kindling and firewood, taking care not to become fast food for wolves, which probably lurked in the woods surrounding the hill.

Almost universally across the British Isles roundhouses were positioned with their one door facing east, most likely to take full advantage of the early morning light.  The top of Castle Hill brings the line of sight to the Irvine Valley where Loudoun Hill, some 15 miles due east, stands proud as another prominent Ayrshire volcanic plug. This too had a hill fort tribe – who lived on its southeastern slopes – not too far from the remains of Allanton Beg – a defensive Roman fort structure – probably built to keep an eye on local Damnonii tribes, who may have been part of a continued effort of brutal guerrilla tactics which aimed at grinding the Romans down – until they finally left Scotland in 215 AD.

There is also good reason to assume that Dundonald was an important site at the time, since it shares many geographical similarities to those of principal hill forts in Scotland such as Dùn Èideann Edinburgh, Dùn Ad and Alt Clut at Dumbarton Rock  – which became the capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde and encompassed Dundonald within its realm.  This will be the subject of the next fascinating chapter of our story.

Find out more:  

Here are some sites you may want to check out (online and in person) if you’re interested in learning more about the Iron Age in Scotland:

#TalesOfScotland #YearofStories2022 #DCYearofStories


1Dundonald Castle Excavations 1986—93
Author(s): Gordon Ewart, Denys Pringle, David Caldwell, Ewan Campbell, Stephen Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Dennis Gallagher, Tim Holden, Fraser Hunter, David Sanderson and Jennifer Thoms
Source: Scottish Archaeological Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1/2, DUNDONALD CASTLE EXCAVATIONS 1986—93 (2004), pp. i-x, 1-166
Published by: Edinburgh University Press
Stable URL:

Watson, WJ. The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926

Hingley. R. Settlement and Sacrifice: The Later Prehistoric People of Scotland. 1998. Canongate Books for Historic Scotland.


Hill Fort Model at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum by Jason Robertson edited by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

The Celtic Tree of Life Image by

Timeline by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Cover image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Fire image by 12019 / 10257 images from Pixabay