2021 was the 650th anniversary for Dundonald Castle, and we were thrilled with the response we received to our series of blogs, vlogs and events exploring many aspects of our community’s heritage, in celebration of this exciting historic milestone.
This year we’re delighted to announce that we’ll be piecing together even more chronicles from the Castle as our contribution to Visit Scotland Year of Stories 2022 – which asks community groups, museums, heritage sites and visitor attractions throughout Scotland to share their stories to help uncover:
“What gives us our unique sense of place and belonging.”
So to begin, our very first story takes us as far back in time as evidence so far allows – which will venture to uncover the earliest possible tales surrounding the very first known communities who would’ve lived on and around Castle Hill. The plot of this story is both fluid and solid, since it is an unfolding chain of events, dependent on how much of the past has so far been uncovered from beneath the layers of time. Indeed, once upon a time – in 2005 to be precise – a new piece of information emerged which literally rearranged any previous timeline – when 5000 flint objects were unearthed at Howburn Farm, near Biggar – as the crow flies, some 45 miles east of Dundonald- which dated to 14,000 years ago! These stone tools, found with evidence of a hunting campsite, show us for the first time that people were living in Scotland in the Upper Palaeolithic era (50,000-10,000 BC) – which is the time when one great freeze from the ice-age had kindly retreated, permitting habitation for about a millennium until brutal glacial conditions resumed, forcing the landmass to once again depopulate for roughly another 1000 years.
The first chapter begins at the foothills of Castle Hill where the expanse of wooded, grassland, wetland of Shewalton Moss heralds plenty of signs of Mesolithic (10,000-6,0000 BC) life in found objects such as flint implements and barbed and tanged arrowheads made using Mesolithic techniques. A Neolithic carved red deer antler, carbon dates to 3890+/- 80 BC (OxA-1947), 4050-3730 cal BC, and crop marks show the potential remains of homesteads which appear to have existed by the side of the meandering River Irvine that may well date to any point from the Mesolithic era to the Bronze Age. Along the Ayrshire coast there is also evidence to suggest that a sizeable population used the Firth of Clyde, and its surrounding landscape as a kind of seafaring gateway to Ireland and Argyll 8000-10,000 years ago!
Moving on, the story of the earliest human life at Castle Hill appears as scant evidence of Neolithic (6000-4000 BC) activity, but at the nearby village of Drybridge there seems to have been two major Neolithic ceremonial centres, with a cursus monument enclosure measuring 220 m X 50 m – thought to have been a processional route-way dating from 3600-3000 BC. Dreghorn, just a little further west of Drybridge, boasts the rare and remarkable discovery of a settlement dating from 3900-3700 BC containing what is thought to have been a timber hall. Additionally, the laying of a pipe line from Kilmarnock to Highlees, by Dundonald, in 2019 uncovered another similar discovery at Hill House Farm, just outside Kilmarnock, which dates to 3700- 3400 BC – together with 218 fragments of early Neolithic pottery and many, many fragments of hazel nutshells…
These offer us a story of early lifestyle, indicating that early residents would have used the heavily wooded Ayrshire hazel and pine forests for foraging and hunting – for meat, hides and antlers, with the steady flowing Dundonald Burn providing water and fresh fish. They may well even have had tales of encounters with wild aurochs, which were like a giant Highland cow up to 1.8 m in height, whose remains have been recorded in Scotland from Orkney to New Galloway. It’s also thought that there would have been domesticated livestock, especially cattle and sheep, used throughout the Neolithic period in Scotland.
However, the first indication of life on Castle Hill really begins when an archaeological excavation of the hill top between 1986-19931 uncovered two flints, some scattered bone, a carved quartz fragment, 3 shale beads, and a fragment of a clay crucible – which is thought to have been some kind of kiln – possibly similar to a tandoori style oven. The discovery too of circles of stones, with interior charcoal, burnt clay and stone content, appears to indicate the presence of hearths, as well as the discovery of a large pitched stone that suggests a kerb, or a threshold to a dwelling. This study also revealed over 200 shards of hand rendered, unglazed pottery, which after Thermoluminescence dating analysis, showed an estimated firing date of between 1500 and 500 BC – or the late Bronze Age – giving us the strongest tangible evidence of our very first community living at Dundonald!
People had by then learned that if they mixed copper with tin it created a strong metal called bronze – such as the 1.8 kilo section of what is thought to have been part of large circle which was found in a garden in the West side of Dundonald village in 1894. This may well have come from the same period, as opposed to the later Iron Age (500-300 BC) when advancements with metallurgy provided the stronger benefits of iron for tools and weapons. Castle Hill appears to have been continually occupied during the Iron Age, and we shall be having a look at what was happening then in our next chapter of our story.
As the first chapter ends for our first foray into the discovery of Dundonald’s unique sense of place, it’s true to say that there may not be a specific story that you recognise in the traditional style of storytelling here, however, our earliest Ayrshire and Scottish roots show us that this is the collective chronology of many, many families, and communities, who worked together in a variety of ways, gathering their sustenance from the surrounding landscape. It is also an epic story of human endurance and one which tells of all the earliest inhabitants who laid the foundations for life as we know it today, and without doubt, deserve a place of belonging in the heart of Castle Hill.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT:
Dundonald’s Pre-history: https://dundonaldcastle.org.uk/fodcwintertalkdrkennybrophyreview/
Year of Stories 2022: https://www.visitscotland.com/about/themed-years/stories/
#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: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27917525
Alexander, W. (1894) ‘Dundonald, its church, its bell and surroundings’, Archaeol Hist Collect Ayrshire Galloway, vol. 7, 1894. Page 82
Year of Stories Title Graphics by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC
Copenhagen Aurach By Marcus Sümnick from Rostock, Germany – AuerochseUploaded by FunkMonk, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18323006
Dundonald Castle Hill Earliest human habitation timeline by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC
The River Irvine downstream from the site of the old Shewalton House Image by Rosser1954 at en.wikipedia – Own workTransferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17719171
Carved stone ball from Towie in Aberdeenshire, dated from 3200–2500 BCE- By Unknown author – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6259701