Trust a Hill to be the place
to burn and bring this little place
out from the Dark.
Ages young and old inspired.
Legends re-told; All Our Stories required
to GUARD carefully what was shown
to be beyond the ‘Pictish’ stone.
Objects of fine craft
coming all the way from France.
Royalty and creativity both here.
Bowle-d over by new knowledge,
Tool(i)-s more advanced than Thomas –
the Solway landscape exceeded expectations,
uniting times and spaces ‘at the forefront of culture creation.’
The ‘Dark Age’ kingdom of Rheged has until now been a kingdom with a history – records and stories – but absent of a materiality. Many of these records are poems written by the Welsh bard Taliesin in the 6th century to praise the kingdom’s rulers Urien and later his son Owain mab Urien. An archaeological investigation in the town of Gatehouse of Fleet has now revealed promising evidence of Rheged’s material existence, so I thought I would add to the records by composing my own poem about said investigation!
On the 21st of January in Gatehouse of Fleet (Dumfries and Galloway), the results of this archaeological investigation were made widely available in the new publication which was launched that day.
The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, with audience members excited to hear more about what cultural treasures this landscape holds; presenters Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles clearly eager to be sharing the results of their research project; and hosts from the Dumfries and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society still celebrating the society’s 150 year anniversary with this investigation – the Galloway Picts Project. The presentation at the book launch, like the publication itself, was very much a collaborative effort, as Ronan and Christopher both communicated some of the highlights of what was found.
Trusty’s Hill had sparked the imagination of many who could actually find the place (sign-posting is not one of its strongpoints as a cultural landmark) for years, as there is a curiously carved stone to the side of the path to the summit. First recorded by Stuart in 1856 with the title ‘Trusty’s Hill,’ the symbols were always a key component which made this place important – linking it to hill forts with similar Pictish carvings, such as Edinburgh castle and Dunadd. The symbols have been variously classified over the years as Pictish Class I, Pictish Class II, graffiti, ‘strays outside the main distribution’, etc. But these classifications don’t give us much of an idea of the role they actually played within the landscape in which they were created, or who the people were who lived alongside them. That’s where archaeologists, and their completely scientifically justified obsession with context, step in.
Sometimes that’s done wading through mud, with a few pennies of change clinking in their pocket to fund the project and only a couple young lads from Dumfries Academy to help out – as the first archaeological investigation at Trusty’s was done, under the supervision of Thomas in the 1960s – producing less than encouraging results. But nowadays, thanks to ‘more resources (people and equipment), better techniques (modern CIfA standards and professional archaeologists) and better weather!’ (Toolis) this archaeological search for context at Trusty’s Hill ‘exceeded expectations’ (Bowles).
The carvings were found to be part of an extremely connected landscape of people and cultural interaction , representing a probable local adaptation of the Eastern/Northern Scottish Pictish art – the artist was ‘likely familiar, but not an expert’ (Toolis). The pottery too, revealed Trusty’s Hill to be the dwelling site of people with far-flung contacts, extending to Merovingian Gaul in the Loire region of France. And looking at the distribution of this Merovingian E-Ware pottery across the rest of the UK, we can see that they appear only at ‘power centres’ along the West coast, including the nearby sites of the Mote of Mark hillfort and the ecclesiastical centre Whithorn – giving the site a suggested prestige status.
The Anglo-Saxons from across the Northern Sea, were also having an impact in the activities happening at this Galloway hillfort – potentially influencing the shape of a cross-shaped metalworking mould found, and imparting the Germanic II animal motifs displayed on a circular horse head mount. Metal working was very well represented at the site, at the fine and high standard ‘hallmark of an elite power centre’ (Bowles). Christopher Bowles described the people living and working at this site as ‘at the forefront of culture creation in the Solway,’ ‘taking from the past, to create in the present, making objects for the future.’
It was exciting to hear the two principle investigators make these temporal connections when presenting the lives and products of the former residents of Trusty’s Hill. It was also exciting that they presented their discoveries from many different scales of analysis – small finds and the relationships, activities and ideas they represented; the site itself, closely related in form to the site of Dunadd royal centre of Dalriada; the local landscape of settlement and ecclesiastical centres; and the broader scale of Britain as a whole. It is from this multi-scalar perspective that the ‘lost’ kingdom of Rheged emerged – traditionally thought to have been within Cumbria, presenting interesting questions as to what will now happen to the map of ‘cultural heritage’ across the country.
There were over a hundred people present at the event, many of whom had been volunteers at the excavation or else involved in the Heritage Lottery Funded ‘All Our Stories’ project within the community which followed. The Gatehouse Development Initiative (GDI) played a key role to continue and keep up local enthusiasm for Trusty’s Hill, by encouraging the Primary School pupils to write sagas, create artwork and get up on the hill itself. An exhibition was also created at the Mill on the Fleet Museum with the assistance of Ronan Toolis, along with further guided walks. At the book launch, Ken Smyth was there as the GDI representative, encouraging increased inter-generational enthusiasm for what has been found at Trusty’s Hill, spreading word of the poetic efforts of the school children. When asked about what the future holds for Trusty’s Hill, Ronan Toolis hands it very much over to the local community – leaving many trained as tour guides, and many more enlightened by the details in the publication. So the more passion for local heritage the community can share, the better the future will look for this newly crowned ‘royal centre.’ That passion was definitely stirred at the launch of this publication.
http://www.gatehouse-of-fleet.co.uk/ - for further information on the work of the Gatehouse Development Initiative, and town news
http://gallowaypicts.com/wordpress/ - the blog of the project, including summary reports, teacher resources and research strategies
http://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/the-lost-dark-age-kingdom-of-rheged.html - where you can get yourself a copy of the publication and find out more
https://www.poemhunter.com/taliesin/ - the poems of Taliesin and some biographical information about the bard