Year of Stories Chapter 3: Vikings, Kingdoms and Fire!

c.600 AD – 1000 AD

By Gwen Sinclair

Chapter 3 of the Chronicles of Castle Hill take us into the Early Historic Period at Dundonald – which appears to have continued to be a defensible hill fort – as referenced by the period of known human settlement  c 600 AD – 1000 AD uncovered from the archaeological studies1 which took place here in the 1980s and 90s.

For the residents at Castle hill, it may seem at points in this part of their story that the sun, water and moon Gods and Goddesses of earlier times had up and left for brighter places. And might be best understood from this quote, which perhaps describes these life and times:  

“As Christendom approached the first Millennium, conflict and war prevailed throughout a troubled Scotland.  Internal feuding was rife, the population under constant threat from bloodthirsty Viking raids, and as the High Kings came and went, their brief reigns usually coming to an abrupt and violent end. 

“This is one of the most little-known, and yet violent periods in the whole history of Scotland.”  

Nigel Tranter

iTranter, N. (n.d.). In High Kings and Vkings. foreword. 

It may not then be a surprise to learn that after the 5th century AD, the hill fort at Castle Hill is thought to have been a heavily defended structure!  Evidence suggests that it contained a rectangular mound of stones of uniform size, which projected from the summit of the hill,  measuring some 7 m  x 8 m – forming some kind of citadel. It seems too that the round houses had gradually developed into straight-sided buildings, surrounded now by a solid drystone rampart, some 4 m thick at its base, with the possibility of an elaborate passage gatehouse or entranceway.

With limited written records, this part of the story begins with an Ayrshire legend which suggests that Dundonald could well have become part of the dynasty of King Coel Hen or King Coilus/Coil who ruled over this Brythonic speaking area.  Tradition tells that his descendants became three tribes whose rule extended from the Clyde to Loch Ryan –  they were known as The 300 swords of Cynvarch, who ruled over what is now parts of Cumbria and Galloway; The 300 shields of Kynwydyon who are thought to have become the Kynwydyon dynasty of Kings of Strathclyde based at its capital at Dumbarton and The 300 spears of Coel who ruled most of Ayrshire

Known as The Coeling, The Spears of Coel then divided their territory into three parts – Carrawg – becoming Carrick,  Canawon, which became Cunningham, and Coel which became Kyle – the part of Ayrshire where Dundonald resides.  We might well wonder then was Dundonald their seat of power – given that they named this area after themselves? Not so far fetched given that excavations uncovered European E-ware pottery, generally dated to 6th-7th century, that suggests the presence of high status occupants.

As for King Coel,  folklore insists he died in the semi-legendary Battle of Coilsfield which took place near Tarbolton, some 7 miles east of Dundonald, as the crow flies, against an allied force of Scots and Picts under King Fergus I (c 426-501 AD) — later King of the Kingdom of Dál Riata.

Coyle he fled,

unto the River Donne, (River Doon)

quher drowned were many,

yt thair did runn.

And northward held,

quhil they came to a muir,

and thair was stayet,

be Scots that on him fuir.

Fergus he followet,

and came right haestillie,

quhair Coyle was killet,

and all his hole armie.

The country people,

frae thenseforthe does it call,

Coylsfield in Kyll,

as ever more it sall.

John Bonar, Ayr schoolmaster 1631

It’s quite possible Castle Hill’s warriors were amongst King Coel’s substantial army camped further south near Loch Fergus – perhaps named after King Fergus, who was said to have also been camped nearby. Fergus took advantage of the obvious Yule-tide merriment taking place at Coel’s camp, and attacked by stealth under the cover of darkness, with many of Coel’s men put to the sword.  King Coel and the survivors hastily retreated around the Craigs of Kyle, leaping over the Water of Coyle, it is said, and onward to Coylton, narrowly evading capture at a place remembered as The King’s Steps. Fergus cornered them eventually at Coilsfield Mains, and a bloody battle ensued — with a nearby burn becoming known ever after as The Bloody Burn.

Loch Fergus

In an adjacent field  – known as Dead Man’s Holm – the fallen warriors were said to have been buried.  A grave-slab measuring 150 cm X by 76 cm, decorated with spirals and cup and ring marks – locally known as King Coil’s Grave Stone or Old King Cole’s Stone – was discovered near Coilsfield Mains Farm.  If this was indeed the final resting place King Coel Hen, (possibly even the Old King Cole from the traditional song) then perhaps the cremated bones found in a vessel within, could have been his.

Tradition suggests that Coel Hen lived around 350-420 AD, emerging as an important king of the Britons after the Roman’s departure. If this were the case, then it is possible that Coel’s demise came about after this disastrous meeting with King Fergus I – if Coel was very old – as Hen in his name suggests – meaning old in both Breton and Welsh!

At some point, possibly around this time, Dundonald became part of the realm of the Kingdom of Strathclyde – one of the early medieval kingdoms of the Britons, or the Brythonic speaking part of southern Scotland – which at times, may have reached as far as the tip of Wales, where they shared a common language.  Also known as Ystrad Clut or Alt Cluth – a Brythonic name for Dumbarton Rock, where the chief fortress of the kingdom once stood. The Kingdom of Strathclyde is said to have been an organised, disciplined society with hill forts, farms and palisaded manors. The Kings of Strathclyde rode to war leading powerful armies, and whose chieftains are regaled in the poem known as the Gododdin – the name of the neighbouring kingdom to the East whose stronghold was Din Eidyn (Edinburgh).  This tells of warrior bands from Strathclyde, Picts from beyond the sea of Iudeu (the Firth of Forth) and Gwynedd in Wales joining forces in The Battle of Catraeth (c 600 AD) in Yorkshire, where it seems, tragically few made it back alive.

Translated to English, the mysterious and legendary figure of Donald for whom the hill fort was named, shares its title with several important figures from the dynasty of the Kingdom of Strathclyde such as DYFNWAL Domnagual Hen of Strathclyde (died c 490 AD),  DYFNWAL Hen ap Cinuit King of Alt Clut (died c 530 AD) as well as King DYFNWAL ab Owain (c 941-973 AD).  It could well be that one of them either built, or occupied the site, or that it was named after them in their honour.

Meanwhile, perhaps attributing to the need for strengthening measures at Dundonald, from Eire came the Gaels who burned and looted Scotland’s western shores, and by the mid 7th and 8th centuries, Strathclyde found itself with yet another enemy. This time expansion by the Angles of Northumbria into Ayrshire in 750 AD where Bede’s Ecclesiastical History records the conquering of “the plain of Kyle, with other districts by King Eadberht of Northumbria.” It seems 6 years later, King Eadberht (737 – 758 AD) probably still held the territory when in 756 AD, with help from the Pictish King Oengus (c 732-761 AD), he marched upon and took its capital at Dumbarton. Later, the tides turned once again in favour of Strathclyde who fought back, and won, but all was not exactly plain sailing, for within the wings of time lurked a new and terrible enemy…

Like magpies delirious for shiny things, in June 793 AD at Lindisfarne, at Iona, Skye and several other islands in 795 AD, Scandinavian raiders came to murder and plunder.  By 870 AD, in partnership with Olaf the White, Danish King Ivar inn beinlausi or Ivar the Boneless (died 873 AD), attacked Dumbarton, laying siege to its fortress for months, before their armies overran the capital of the kingdom. Somehow, though, Strathclyde survived, as did five 2Hog back grave stones left by Vikings in Govan – the place where the Strathclyde kings were said to be buried, marked by 20 recumbent and intricately carved slabs — perhaps telling us a story of a convergence of power between Strathclyde and Norse.

However, the death throes of the Kingdom began when its last known independent King Owain Moel or Owen the Bald died at the at 3The Battle of Carham, near Coldstream in the summer of 1018. The date of this battle, as dramatic as Strathclyde’s story, seems to have coincided with the passing of a huge comet alighting the night sky, and even though it was a victory for the Scots and their allies, Owain’s death saw the southern part of the Kingdom, most likely including Dundonald, for a time, pass into the hands of Edward the Confessor (1042 – 1066), one of the last Anglo Saxon Kings.

In 945 AD Welsh records assert Strat Clut vastata est a Saxonibus – that Saxons laid waste to Strathclyde.  It could well be that Dundonald was caught up in this destruction, and whether by accident or design, evidence from thermo luminescence study of rocks found at Castle Hill shows that there was a fire around c 1000 AD so severe that it lasted for several days, causing a total annihilation of the ramparts! We can but speculate that  orders were given to destroy it completely, lest it be used again to defend the territory, or indeed fire itself was the weapon of war used to end a siege, but excavations indicate that this fire was started from outside the ramparts. Fragments of vitrified stone left behind imply that most of the wall effectively became molten with the progressive build up of heat, with the walls simply collapsing, and flowing down the east side of the hill!

As archeological evidence suggests that it wasn’t rebuilt after this time, we must assume these were the last days of the hill fort, which in various shapes and forms, was home to countless families over its known 1500 year legacy.  As the sun blinks through the long line of trees, a magpie chattering a cry from its forest edges,  shards of light sparking gold on the matriculation point at the summit of Castle Hill – looking west, we might well imagine when the foam formed black frowns from a great wake of longships, emblazoned with the dread of three ravens. 

Tales of dark deeds, of heroes and legends, most now lost to time, and yet there is still a story to be found within vitrified stones left from the hill fort blaze, which you can pick up and ponder at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum.

#Year of Stories #YS22 #DCYearofstories 

Find out more about:

2The Hog Back Stones from Govan

3The Battle of Carham:


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:

Caldwell, D. Scotland’s Wars and Warriors – Winning Against the Odds; from Discovering Historic Scotland series for Historic Scotland. 1998. The Stationery Office.

Prebble, J; The Lion in the North – one thousand years of Scotland’s history.  1974. Book Club Associates. Robert MacLebose & Co Ltd, Glasgow.

Boyle, A; Ayrshire Heritage; 1990. Alloway Publishing Ltd Darvel, Ayrshire. 

Olwyn, O. The Sea Road – a Viking Voyage Through Scotland; 1999, The Making of Scotland series; Cannongate Books with Historic Scotland. 

Clarkson, T. Strathclyde and the Anglo Saxons in the Viking Age. 2014. Birlinn Publishing Robert M Gunn 1996-2012

Tranter, N; High Kings and Vikings. 1998. Hodder and Stoughton


Cover image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC inspired by The Govan Horseman– from the Pictish style carvings found at Govan – reputedly they are gravestones showing something of the story of some of the Strathclyde’s Kings.  I love the idea of a grave stone illustrating a person’s story.  

Timeline image by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Cover stone and urn from a cist, which is thought to be King Coil’s grave- sketch by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC inspired by sketch by James Simpson 1866 as published in

Govan Viking Hogback Stones by By Archaeology Scotland – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Dumbarton Rock by By Stephen Sweeney, CC BY-SA 2.0,

View from Dumbarton Castle in the mist 1 by Gwen Sinclair

View from Dumbarton Rock with frozen plant by Gwen Sinclair 

Warrior image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay 

Loch Fergus By Rosser1954 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,