To our pleasure, today we once again have Simon Forder, a writer, researcher and historian who specialises in castles, writing for us! Today, Simon explores pre-Norman fortifications in Scotland, and how far they may be recognised as castles. You can catch up on his first post, focusing on England, here.

Old Wick, Caithness

The ruins of the medieval castle of Old Wick, Caithness. Simon Forder.

In my previous article I highlighted the nature of defensive buildings in England and how they compared to the traditional view of the “Norman” motte and bailey castle. In the fledgling kingdom of Scotland there was also a tradition of defensive building, but one which was quite different and distinctive.

During the period after the Romans left Britannia, across Britain it became fairly commonplace for substantial defensive settlements to develop on naturally defensive sites. Often this involved the reuse of earlier defensive sites, but in Scotland some particularly distinctive forms became prevalent, one of which was the “nuclear fort”. This was a hilltop settlement which consisted of multiple walled enclosures, each containing houses, and which acted as layers of defence leading to a high status stronghold on the highest ground.

The walls of these structures were tall and thick, and were often built using a mix of timber and stone, and it would often be the case that in the “nuclear fort” was a large roundhouse or hall which served (presumably) as the residence and court of the lord of the settlement and surrounding area. In many ways these resemble castles, and served the same purpose in that they were defensive, they were a symbol of lordship and power in the landscape, and were central strong points within a territory dominated by that lord. The main difference is that the multiple enclosures served as residential areas as well as defences.

Bass of Inverurie Aberdeenshire

Bass of Inverurie, a 12th century earthwork castle created from remodelling a natural knoll – and landscaped to look more like a motte and bailey in the 19th century. Simon Forder.

Examples of these “nuclear forts” can be found across Scotland and were occupied for centuries. Most appear to have fallen into disuse during the 7th to the 9th centuries, when Norse raids combined with struggles for supremacy between the different kingdoms of north Britain resulted in most being destroyed. Some promontory sites also served as nuclear forts, with the outermost enclosure (often also the highest but not always) forming the nucleus, and outer enclosures forming a series of courtyards in a line providing defence. Again most of these seem to have fallen out of use by c850 AD.

The problem comes in understanding what happened in the period from, say 900 AD to 1100 AD. Traditionally it is said that there were no castles in Scotland before King David I (1124-1153) invited the Normans to Scotland, and their castles proliferated across Scotland. However, the evidence doesn’t match this assertion, since very few sites can be shown to date to this early period.

The Scottish kingdom in the 12th century was divided into several separate parts, each of which was culturally identifiable, although there were substantial similarities and links between them. The core was the old southern Pictish kingdom based around the Tay area, and the northern Pictish kingdom based around the Moray Firth. This kingdom had become increasingly gaelicised since the retreat of the Dal Riatan nobility from their west coast heartlands in the face of increasing Norse aggression and advance. Second was the Norse-dominated north and west. Third was the old British kingdom in the south-west, which seems to have been based around the Clyde and Solway Firth areas, and the western edges of which had become Norse-dominated. Finally was the area south of the Firth of Forth, Lothian, which had been conquered by the Angles, and heavily settled, but was experiencing an extended period of Scottish domination.

1) The Lordships of Scotland c. 1230, via WikiCommons. 2) The various kingdoms that comprised Scotland circa 1100 via WikiCommons.

David when he became king only had dominance over the core (and the extent of his authority over the Moray Firth area is a matter of debate), parts of the old British kingdom, and Lothian. The north, the west, and the south-west were outside his control, and it was only in these areas that he was able to consider making grants of land to any incoming Normans who were existing members of his circle from his earldom of Huntingdon, and control of the northern counties of England. In fact there are very few confirmed grants of land from his reign that we know about, and then only because of confirmations made in the reigns of his grandsons Malcolm IV and William. To grant land away, there had to be a losing landowner, and that in David’s reign meant the Moray borderlands or the Clyde area, where he was trying to advance his authority at the expense of existing (and rebellious) local lords. In some of these cases, it is believed that castles were erected, but in no case can we be certain this happened in David’s reign.

It is therefore the case that it isn’t until the mid 12th century that any kind of significant Norman (or Flemish) influence on lay society can be assumed to have been present. And in turn that means the overwhelming majority of high status defensive residences would still have followed the models of previous generations. What can we say about these really, given the lack of archaeological evidence for them?

Dundarg Castle Aberdeenshire

Dundarg Castle, Aberdeenshire. Dundarg is a 13th century castle built upon a promontory with Iron Age and medieval earthworks. Simon Forder.

A hint can be taken from the 11th century chronicles which record a number of unpleasant incidents called hall-burnings, where members of the high nobility trapped their political rivals within halls and simply burned the places down, with their rivals inside. In 1020, MacBeth’s father was killed in one such incident – by his nephews – and in 1027, Dunkeld was burned, the home of Crinan of Atholl, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. In 1032 Gillacomgain, one of the men responsible for the death of MacBeth’s father, was burned to death with his warband.

This suggests that a significant proportion of these high status residences were made primarily of timber, and were relatively easily seized by ones enemies. We know that at Dunbar, in Lothian, the fort consisted of a ditch and bank, a timber palisade, and contained two large timber halls. This was a reasonably defensive building, certainly able to repel raids – but not capable of withstanding a determined assault, and perhaps able to be taken by surprise in the night.

Fast Castle Berwickshire

The medieval Fast Castle, Berwickshire. Simon Forder.

The earliest documentary references to castles in Scotland do in fact date to David’s reign, and these refer to Roxburgh (before 1134) and Edinburgh (before 1139), both of which are royal sites. Renfrew, Stirling and Forfar, along with the “Maiden’s Castle” which may have referred to Edinburgh, appear in the reign of Malcolm IV (1153-1165). Geographically these are confined to the south and centre of Scotland, and if we strip away all the later building and levelling works, Roxburgh appears as a defended promontory, while Edinburgh and Stirling look remarkably like nuclear forts. It is only Renfrew and Forfar which cannot be said to follow an earlier template, and may therefore have been new foundations.


Steel engraving and enhancement of the reverse side of the Great Seal of David I, WikiCommons.

So what did these early castles look like? Well, not much like a castle as we would recognise it, that’s for sure. Whilst there may have been some stone walling, this may well have been archaic massive drystone construction, and most of the built defences and buildings would have been in timber. A significant part of the defence would have been natural. Roxburgh was built on a massively strong ridge and both Edinburgh and Stirling are of course on massive rocky outcrops.

This appears to have been a deliberate cultural choice; south of the border David had in his possession the earthwork castles of Huntingdon and Fotheringhay amongst others – significant motte-and-bailey structures in Norman style, and it is believed he founded the keep at Carlisle Castle. Renfrew and Forfar are in fact the most interesting sites to consider since neither site matches the earlier profile. Unfortunately neither site survives to assess in detail. So, in Scotland, we may have continuity from the early medieval period, again with structures not only serving the same function as castles, but on the same sites – and with strong similarities in design and execution.


The Mote of Urr, a 12th century motte and ditch erected within massive Iron Age earthworks. Simon Forder.

However, by the mid century, we have definite changes, with Forfar and Renfrew to consider. Forfar was undoubtedly built to serve as a royal castle and administrative centre alongside the new burgh. The presumed castle site is surrounded by housing today, and occupies a prominent hill in the middle of the town. It was almost certainly partially surrounded by water and marsh. The site of Renfrew Castle is not clear, but was probably protected in part by the River Clyde, and was actually a baronial castle built by the Stewart family (an family who were of continental origin) who were tasked with advancing royal authority in the Clyde area. It, too, occupied a large mound, now vanished.

Next we will need to consider what impact the Normans actually had – across all of Britain – starting with their castles in England and Wales.

Thanks once again to Simon for writing another excellent piece for us. Simon’s new book, The Romans in Scotland and the Battle of Mons Graupius, comes out on the 15th August 2019, so do take a look! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, or via his website.

Previous Blog Post: Monthly Round-Up: History in the News, July 2019

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