Who was Donald?

Written by Gwen Sinclair

Dundonald contains one of the most prominent medieval sites in Ayrshire – and today we are looking into the origins of its name – which comes from the time of the Celts. This was the generic term for a conglomeration of different tribes who lived in the British Isles roughly during the Iron Age (c500BC-c500AD).  Here in Ayrshire the people are thought to have spoken the P-Celtic Brythonic language, which had branched off from its original source along with Welsh, Cornish and Breton, with other tribes in Scotland thought to have spoken the Q-Celtic language, Goidelic, related to Scottish Gaelic, Irish and Manx.

Dundonald lies in what was once the post-Roman Brythonic Damnonii Kingdom of Strathclyde, or Ystrad Clud in P-Celtic Cumbric. This sizeable kingdom controlled the south-west of Scotland roughly from Loch Lomond where a great boulder, known as the Clach nam Breatann, or the Stone of the Britons marked its northern reaches, taking in Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Ayrshire and carrying on south through the Celtic kingdom of Rheged (now Galloway) and into what is now Cumbria. Its capital is thought to have been Alt Clut or Dumbarton Rock, which is said to have been a flourishing centre of Brythonic culture where they spoke Old Welsh or Cumbric –  a language now almost entirely forgotten.

Map Showing the extent of the Kingdom of Strathclyde

We know that the first part of the word, Dun is derived either from the Q-Celtic Irish and/or Scottish Gaelic, or from  Dinwhich comes from the P-Celtic cousin languages of Cumbric or Old Welsh.  Both words mean Hill Fort.

As for the second syllable of the name, we cannot know if Donald minded his P’s and Q’s, but his name is either an Anglicised form of Q-Celtic Scottish or Irish Gaelic, Dòmhall or sometimes spelled Dòmnall –  pronounced either ‘Dawl’ or ‘Doal’ or even ‘Dunnel’ – much like it is still said locally to this day – or Donald may have been translated from the P-Celtic cognate of Old Welsh or Cumbric – Dyfnwal

Dyfnwal, was also the name of one of the Kings of Strathclyde, as well is thought to have been a common name within the Cumbrian royal dynasty.  Some records claim that our Donald was part of this dynasty, and his hill fort was named Din Dyfnwal, although, sadly, there are no records of any Cumbrian monarch who can be specifically linked to Dundonald. However it is reasonable to suppose that Donald must have been an important person to have what is thought to have been a substantial fortification here named after him – generally allowing us to think that he could have been a chieftain or sub-king – with Dundonald Hill Fort most likely being his main residence, since a glass bead and evidence of metalworking from objects found in excavations associated with the occupation of the interior, gives the indication that this was a high status site.

Model of Donald’s Dùn or Din from Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre Museum

So what would Domnall’s Dùn or Dyfnwal’s Din looked like It’s thought to have been a sizeable fortified structure on the hilltop where excavations have uncovered shale objects which imply that the site dates to at least c500AD.  It later appears to have become an early medieval dun with a timber-laced wall enclosing about 0.12 ha or 1200 square meters. Further speculation proposes that the dun had a citadel within a larger enclosure and would have had a stone and turf rampart, with a wooden palisade containing round-house dwellings made from wattle and daub, probably with conical, thatched roofs – as was the tradition of that time.  However further evidence shows a total destruction of this settlement caused by fire took place here around 1000AD – where the heat was so intense that when the wooden palisade caught fire it seems to have melted the stonework on which it was built, creating the vitrified, or melted stone, which has been found here. The reason for this destruction is not known, nor is the full extent and dates of Donald’s hill fort.

Hill forts usually had two walls – an inner wall and the outer one to enhance defence from other tribes, or from wild animals such as wolves.  Most were established during the Iron Age (c500BC-c500AD) but there are older hill forts dating to the Bronze Age – as early as 1000BC. Evidence suggests that they provided numerous functions from communal living areas to gathering spaces for trade, sport and festivals.  Work to uncover more about them continues with a recent study by Oxford University, entitled Hill Fort Atlas1 which seeks to ascertain the total number and functionality of all the hill forts in the British Isles. So far this study has found that there were around 1694 hill forts in Scotland, which is well over half the total number of hill forts found in the British Isles, with an astonishing 408 in the Scottish Borders area alone!

Example of Iron Age roundhouse

Wherever you find a place names with the pre-fix dùn throughout Scotland, Ireland and Northern England, such as Dùn Èideann (Edinburgh) and Dùn Dè (Dundee), there would have most certainly have been a hill fort there at some point.

So who was Dyfnwal or Dòmhall – aka Donald?   We might assume Donald lived here around 500AD, if we follow the evidence dating the site.  This means that Donald might have been around at the same time as the First King of Scots, Fergus I who became king in 500AD.  However, at this time Dundonald was still under the jurisdiction of the sub-kingdom of Strathclyde, as mentioned earlier, who had its own king from its own tribe named the Damnonii, who lived in these lands – with other parts of their tribe known to be in Brittany, Devon and Ireland. We know this because in 150AD the Roman geographer Ptolemy (c100–c170 AD) made a map (shown below) documenting the fierce warrior tribes who occupied Caledonia – a name the Romans gave to all of what is now Scotland – derived from the Caledonii, who were one of the northern tribes well known to the Romans.

The Damnonii were still here in Strathclyde in c540AD, as documented in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Lloyds History of Wales Vol I, where the Damnonii were noted as being a tribe of Brythons, and which is thought to have remained a distinctive Brythonic area into the 12th and 13th centuries. It is notable from Ptolemy’s findings, that the tribes to the south of the Damnonii later seem to have become enclosed within the the Kingdom of Strathclyde, indicating the dominance of the Damnonii. Furthermore, if you’ve been following our series looking at the lives of the medieval High Stewards of Scotland, the first, Walter Fitz Alan, settled at Dundonald  c1136 from Oswestry in the borders of Wales during the reign of David I (1124-1156). It may well be that this area given to him because it took in a reasonable chunk of ancient Strathclyde- with Walter’s lands roughly ranging from the edge of the River Ayr to the south, Loch Doon to the East and to the north, including what is now Renfrewshire, perhaps selected for him to undertake his duties to support Scotland’s Kings, since the language he spoke may well have been similar to the native speakers.

Map showing the tribes which inhabited Scotland during 150AD

Damnonii literally means ‘men under care of the goddess of the deep‘ and it has been suggested that this implies that they may have been miners of some sort. We would assume that Donald was a high status member of an organised society, since Celtic culture contained a hierarchy of upper classes and peasants – who were often bonded to the land, and all controlled by militaristic tribal chiefs and kings. Deodorus Siculus, who was an ancient Greek Historian known for writing the Universal Biblotheca Historica in forty volumes between 60 and 30 BC – roughly covering mythic history up to the destruction of Troy and Alexander the Great, has left us with some notes about the appearance of the Picts. This was a generalised term the Romans gave to Celtic tribes they encountered in Scotland — a name that means Picti or Painted People owing to them being found to be naked or semi-naked, other than painted or tattooed skin. The following descriptions may help to give us some idea of what Donald could have looked like…

Their aspect is terrifying…They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it, to this day, artificially, washing it in lime and combing it back from their foreheads. They look like wood demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse’s mane. Some of them are clean-shaven, but others – especially those of high rank, shave their cheeks but leave a moustache that covers the whole mouth..”

Deodorus Siculus

The Picts, whose name is taken from their bodies, because an artisan, with the tiny point of a pin and the juice squeezed from a native plant, tricks them out with scars to serve as identifying marks, and their nobility are distinguished by their tattooed limbs.” 

Cleric Isidore of Seville (c560 – 636AD)  c600AD.

And so given that the Pictish kingdoms were contemporary with the Brythonic Damnonii Kingdom, we might assume that Donald’s appearance could have been similar, and perhaps had distinguishing tattoos or painted skin. Furthermore, if Donald chose to wear clothes at all, would probably have worn woollen or animal skin trousers called bracae, with brightly coloured, embroidered shirts, gold bracelets, rings, brooches, and beads of amber, jet and glass, as was typical of this time. He would likely have worn a Celtic-style cloak which would’ve been either striped or tartan which fastened at the shoulder by a distinctive, ornate brooch.

Silver Ornaments with Pictish Designs from Norrie’s Law hoard: National Museum of Scotland

As chieftain or sub-king, Donald would’ve had servants and a trained team of horse and foot warriors to hand.  Should battles arise, his choice of weapon would likely have been the Gaesum Spear – which had a wide blade incorporating fearful secondary tangs which were used to hook enemy shields and armour in order to inflict a more damaging wound!   We might have found Donald atop a wooden or wicker chariot, drawn either by two or four small horses, with his serving charioteer driving it for him from a simple wheeled platform.

We may well have found Donald carrying a Celtic-style sword and scabbard with identifiable ornamentation. It was typical that a sword and scabbard would’ve have beaten rhythmically together, with the possible accompaniment of a Carnyx, which was a long metal horn, usually found with a stylised animal’s head – and together these would’ve orchestrated loud and terrifying sounds to pre-deliver fear and alarm to the enemy!  Carved stones from the period depict warriors carrying small shields such as the Pictish Buckler that also doubled up as an ornate circular offensive striking weapon for close hand to hand combat – similar to the targe used by the Jacobite army at the battle of Culloden in 1746. They also had  H-shields, which were made of lighter wood, designed in the shape of a letter ‘H’ which had a central boss with a metal covered grip hole used to protect the hand. Body armour was not thought to have been widely used but a higher ranking warrior or chieftain like Donald may well have been equipped with an ornate or even horned helmet and possibly chainmail – which is believed to have brought here by the Celts of Eastern Europe who developed it around 500BC.

A modern re-enactor portraying an Ancient Celt from the Vacomagi tribe from Caledonian/Pict/Briton with Carnyx trumpet, crested helmet, chain mail (chainmaille), and woad circa 100-300 AD: The costume, helmet and appearance were inspired by contemporary depictions and written accounts.

Few clues have been left behind from this period in our history, although excavations at the site at Dundonald Castle Hill have uncovered earthenware pottery which originated in Gaul, now France, which implies widespread trade or travel by the occupants.

There are also at least 350 inscribed symbols which have been left in stone from around this period, mostly found north of the Clyde-Forth line and on the Eastern side of the country. These show unique, seemingly abstract or geometric designs which often feature stylised real animals such as wolves, snakes and bears. However, a common symbol consistently left by the people from this period is that of a strange creature that appears to have a pointed snout, curling horns or antennae and fin-like limbs – much like a kelpie or each-uisge – which is a frightening water-horse creature said to haunt rivers and streams from Scottish mythology.  We wonder if there were any living in the nearby Dundonald Burn or Merkland loch where the occupants of Donald’s Dun would have sourced their fresh water fish? 

Map showing the location of 4 Duns at Dundonald

Either way, it seems as though Donald and his tribe were not alone – nearby are several other hill forts, similar in structure which might have been around at the same time. Wardlaw Hill Fort (Grid Ref: NS 3592 3276) is a small oval-shaped fortification situated on the higher peak of nearby Wardlaw Hill. This is the highest summit of the Dundonald range – some 145 m above sea level surrounded by steep sides, with the area of the hill fort measuring 70 m x 60 m. It has the remains of a stone and grass-covered rampart around the borders of the summit which appear to have stood to 1.5 m high and 5-6 m thick. 

This is a panorama from the hill fort structure at the top of Wardlaw Hill with 4-legged Friend of Dundonald Castle, Copper, helping to indicate its location by walking along one of the remaining walls.

Some 250 m south of Wardlaw Hill Fort is Harpercroft Hill Fort (Grid Ref: NS 3600 3252). This was set on the second highest summit of the Dundonald range and is thought to have been a minor Oppidum – meaning the main settlement may have been a minor administrative area.  It is located 144 m above sea level and has signs of an earthen rampart. Finds there have included some pottery, fragments of at least 3 Shale Bracelets and several pieces of unworked shale. There’s every reason to suppose that these two sites were occupied around the same time – as the tribe grew for example, the need for a larger settlement may have seen it branch off to another part of the same hill.

Celtic Oppidum: c 1st Century BC

Another in the nearby area is Kemp Law Dun (Grid Ref: NS 3558 3364) which is to be found within the woods, south-west of Castle Hill, situated on steep-sided promontory standing within a duo-circular enclosure. The Inside wall measures about 10 m in diameter and is surrounded by a wall of around 4.5 m thick. Its second outer wall can be found about 3 m away,  with its wall 1.5 m high at its west side, and about 0.7 m elsewhere – making the total structure about 20 m in diameter.  The name kemp means a strong, brave warrior or a contest between athletes.  Could it be that this was a sports stadium not too far from the other 3 Duns – perhaps where sparring competitions took place, or where disputes were settled, or even where councils were held? It contains a considerable amount of vitrified rock, implying that it has been burned, like Donald’s Dun.  Again, the reason for this is not known.

Even if the factual accounts of Donald’s life have been lost to written history, his name has however lasted in the geography of Ayrshire in the village of Dundonald and its still present 650 year old castle which stand 60 m above sea level cresting the landscape as a testament to those who came before us.  I wonder what Donald would think of his now semi-legendary status where his c1500 year old settlement continued to use his name for three more major fortified structures on his hill – a motte and bailey built over its remains c1136 by the first High Steward of Scotland,  a mighty enclosure castle c1241 built by the 4th High Steward of Scotland, and in 1371 a Royal Castle built by King Robert II, which remains to this day – and was part of the legacy of the Stewart Dynasty until the 1540s!

To find out more, come and see the model of Donald’s hill fort, and read more about this period of Dundonald’s history in our Museum at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre.

Find out more about:

Dundonald Hillfort: http://hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk/records/SC1297.html

Kemp Law:  https://youtu.be/iJyChnfJn7c

The Brythonic Language: https://spns.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Alan_James_Brittonic_Language_in_the_Old_North_BLITON_Volume_II_Dictionary_2020_Edition.pdf

The Pictish People – Free Read: Chronicles of the Picts, chronicles of the Scots, and other early memorials of Scottish history by W.F. Skene. (H.M. gen. reg. house, Edinburgh. Ser. of chron. and memorials) https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=SaIUAAAAQAAJ&rdid=book-SaIUAAAAQAAJ&rdot=1&pli=1





Coventry, Martin.2010. Castles of the Clans; The Strongholds and Seats of 750 Scottish Families and Clans (Reprint ed.). Musselburgh, Scotland: Goblinshead.













Imaginary Donald illustration by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC; Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay 

Kemp Law and Wardlaw Duns photos by Marysia Kolodziej

Silver Ornaments with Pictish Designs from Norrie’s Law hoard: National Museum of Scotland, By dun_deagh – CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47040656

Map of Strathclyde/Pictland By Finn (the uploader) – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northumbria_802.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22503132

Roman Map of Scotland By Primarily Frere’s Britannia (cited in the image title), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8494954

The Model of Donald’s Dun at Dundonald Castle Visitor Centre by Jason Robertson

Map of Dundonald Hill Forts by Gwen Sinclair for FoDC

Iron Age round house Image by John Smith from Pixabay

A modern reenactor portraying an Ancient Celt (Vacomagi tribe, a.k.a Caledonian/Pict/Briton) with carnyx trumpet, crested helmet, chain mail (chainmaille), and woad circa 100-300 AD: The costume, helmet and appearance were inspired by contemporary depictions and written accounts.By Kabuto 7 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17589351

Oppidum image by Kenny Arne Lang Antonsen – Own work-https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celtic_Oppidum_1st_century_B.C..jpg