Argyll Scotland

Dunadd, Kilmartin

Dunadd hill, at the heart of the west coast Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, is one of the most important monuments of early Scotland.

The rocky hill of Dunadd has a long human history. Its not big, but it stands in a prominent position in the Kilmartin valley giving clear views all around, especially over the wide expanse of the Moine Mhor (the great moss), the vast bog which lies between Dunadd and the sea. The photo above shows part of this moss, viewed from the top of the hill.

photo of dunadd hill kilmartin
Dunadd hill

There was already a fort on the hill in the Iron Age (700BC to 500AD), no doubt due to the clear views and easily defended positions on the steep hill. Between the 5th -10th centuries Dunadd was at the heart of the growing Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata (anglified to Dalriada). This was part of the shared culture between Northern Ireland and Western Scotland, the sea being the means of transport rather than a barrier. The Romans called these Gaelic speakers of Scotland and Ireland the ‘Scotii’ – probably a derogatory term – and the name stuck. Dunadd became the Royal fortress, center of the kingdom of Dál Riata.

photo showing easily defended cleft in rock at Dunadd, Kilmartin
The imposing entrance rocks.

They were a fierce people, often at war with their neighbours, later with the Viking invaders who harried along the coast. Dunadd was home to the warrior elite, and was also a cultural and symbolic center with trade links far and wide across Europe. French pottery has been found, wine and spices were imported here. Traces of various dyes have been found, including a rare pigment used by monks in creating illuminated manuscripts. The kingdom certainly had close links with the monastic settlement at Iona, as Christianity spread. Evidence shows that it was a also a center of metalwork in gold, silver, bronze and iron – everything from weapons to fine jewelry was made here.

Its a short, steep walk of about 20 minutes to climb the hill. The tiny river Add flows past, winding its way through the bog. Its hard to imagine but shallow-bottomed ships made their way right up to the fortress.

A view across the moss to the sea.

If the foot fits…

Near the top is the famous foot stone – two foot-shaped depressions, a basin, and a boar symbol are carved into the bedrock. After being chosen from various contenders, the new king placed his foot into the carving, symbolising the connection between the land and the people. The ceremony is described in the 7th century by Adomnán, a monk of Iona, in his biography of Saint Columba. He writes that Columba inaugurated King Aedán mac Gabráin, showing that the Church was now at the heart of a previously pagan ceremony. The rock we see today is a well-made replica, placed on top of the original to protect it.

A Cinderella moment… oh, you mean I’m king if my bare foot fits…

The nearby Kilmartin museum gives a wealth of information about this important area.

view of kilmartin glen from dunadd
Near sunset, the hilltop pointing its shadow across Kilmartin glen.

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