Trusty’s Hill is a small hillfort in Galloway, south-west
Scotland, on a craggy ridge near the mouth of the Water of Fleet, near Gatehouse of Fleet on the north shore of the Solway Firth.
Map link here
Trusty’s Hill is on the summit of a ridge running roughly north-south, with steep sides on the east and west flanks and easier gradients at the north and south ends. The hillfort has the remains of a rampart enclosing the summit, forming a rough oval, with an entrance at the south end between two rock outcrops. There are traces of further defences outside the entrance. At the north end, where the ridge drops down to a col, there are also further defences, with a rampart and a deep ditch cut in the rock across the ridge. For a more detailed description of the site, see the Royal Commission on the Ancient and
of Scotland (RCAHMS) website, and for a detailed plan of the earthworks, see the Galloway Picts Project page. Historical Monuments
Excavations in the 1960s suggested that the site was occupied in the Iron Age and then refurbished and reoccupied in the sixth to seventh century (RCAHMS).
Fortified sites occupying dramatic craggy promontories and headlands are well known in
Western Britain. Examples include Tintagel Head in Cornwall, Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde estuary, and Deganwy in North Wales. Several have archaeological evidence of high-status occupation during the early medieval period, with finds such as pottery imported from Gaul or the eastern Mediterranean, and/or fine metalworking.
The name 'Trusty's Hill' may be derived from Drust or Drustan, which is a common name in the Pictish king lists and a form of the Brittonic name Trystan (also spelled Tristan, Tristram, Drystan). Whether the place name, and/or Trusty's Hill itself, have any connection with the romantic legend is anyone's guess.
Galloway Picts Project excavation, 2012
Trusty’s Hill was excavated in the summer of 2012 by the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society as part of the Galloway Picts Project. My thanks to Beth, who mentioned the excavation in a comment on an earlier post here, and prompted me to go and look for details. There’s a short description in the September 2012 issue of Current Archaeology, and lots of information on the Galloway Picts Project website.
The excavation identified clear evidence of high-status early medieval occupation. The excavation found a fragment of pottery called ‘E-ware’, which would have been part of a container from
Gaul used to transport luxury items such as spices and dyes and dated to the sixth-to-seventh century. There were also crucibles and other equipment used in fine metalworking, with deposits on the crucibles indicating the working of silver and possibly also copper or glass, though more analysis is needed for a definitive identification of the materials (Galloway Picts Project 6 August 2012).
Radiocarbon dates from inside the fort clustered in two groups, one group spanning the early fifth to mid seventh centuries and the other group around 400 BC (Galloway Picts Project 10 September 2012), consistent with the previous interpretation of two phases of occupation at the site, one Iron Age and one early medieval.
So it seems clear that Trusty’s Hill was occupied by a high-status group or groups in the early medieval period, who had access to luxury goods both made on site (fine metalwork and jewellery) and imported from Gaul (whatever came in the E-ware vessel). This places Trusty’s Hill in the same sort of category as other known high-status or royal sites in early medieval western
Pictish symbol stone - a royal centre?
What makes Trusty’s Hill especially interesting is that it possesses the unusual feature of a Pictish symbol stone carving on a rock outcrop by the south entrance. For a drawing of the carvings, see the front page of the Galloway Picts Project site. There is also a worn Ogham inscription, which has not yet been interpreted.
Pictish symbol stones are generally found in the areas associated with Pictish kingdoms in north and east
(roughly, north of the Forth-Clyde valleys and east of the main mountain spine). According to Current Archaeology, the only sites other than Trusty’s Hill outside north-east Scotland with Pictish symbol stones are Dunadd and Dun Eidyn (modern Edinburgh), both of which were early medieval royal centres (Dunadd in the kingdom of Dal Riada, Dun Eidyn in the kingdom of the Gododdin). Scotland
So the Pictish symbol stone, combined with the recent finds, potentially places Trusty’s Hill in very select company indeed. The luxury metalworking and imported pottery indicates it was occupied by a high status group. The Pictish carving, shared only (so far) with other known royal centres, may indicate that Trusty’s Hill was also a royal centre. If so, it may have been associated with the
, which was an important early medieval kingdom, mentioned in the poetry attributed to Taliesin. (Current Archaeology is in no doubt, cheerfully headlining its article ‘Rheghed revisited’; I’d be more cautious and say this is plausible but by no means proven). Rheged was probably located somewhere in what is now north-western kingdom of Rheged England and/or south-western , but its location is not known with certainty. I’ll come back to Rheged and its royal dynasty in later posts. Scotland
If Pictish symbol stones found outside the traditional Pictish territories do indicate an early medieval royal centre, it is interesting to speculate on what they may have signified.
Presumably whoever carved the symbols expected that they would be recognised and understood by at least some of the people who saw them, which implies to me that at least some of the people in or around Dunadd, Dun Eidyn and Trusty’s Hill could understand Pictish symbols. This is quite plausible at royal centres, as maintaining any diplomatic, trading or other communications with neighbouring kingdoms would be easier if at least some people knew the neighbour’s language and script. (The Ogham inscription at Trusty’s Hill may imply that Irish was also in use there, which is likely given the location).
As the carvings are still there and have therefore survived from whenever they were carved until now without being destroyed or defaced, this suggests to me that the carvings were made with the consent, or at least acceptance, of the locals. I interpret this as indicating that the symbols are unlikely to represent a Pictish conquest. Even if Dal Riada and southern
were conquered by the Picts at some time in their history, they did not stay permanently conquered during the early medieval period, since they appear as independent kingdoms in historical sources. Symbols of dominion carved by a hated occupying power might be expected to be damaged or removed when the locals got their independence back and threw out the occupiers; since this did not happen to the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill, Dun Eidyn and Dunadd, that suggests to me that the locals did not object to the symbols and that the symbols, whatever their meaning, did not represent subjugation. Scotland
Pictish symbol stones in the Pictish territories are often free-standing stones, and it has been suggested that they may be memorials and/or grave markers, erected to commemorate an important person (“Here lies X”) (see my earlier article on Pictish symbols). However, the Trusty’s Hill and Dunadd inscriptions are both carved on rock outcrops near the fort entrance, rather than being free-standing stones. So these are not stones deliberately raised as grave markers, and it seems unlikely (though not impossible) that the fort entrance would have been the site of a grave. Possibly the symbols could represent the name of a Pictish king or leader who was killed in an attack on the fort, in which case the fort entrance might have been a suitably symbolic location. This would be the exact opposite of the interpretation of the symbols as signs of Pictish conquest; instead of representing a Pictish victory, they would represent a notable Pictish defeat. Whether such a scenario would represent the honouring of a respected fallen enemy, or a warning to future would-be attackers, or some other meaning is anyone’s guess, and indeed may have varied according to circumstances.
Possibly a Pictish symbol stone may have been a fashion statement, indicating the importance and status of the fort’s occupants and/or their connection with a glamorous foreign culture. Inscribed stones in Latin and with Roman-style titles occur in early medieval
Wales, and presumably indicate that whoever raised them wanted to signal a connection with . By analogy, perhaps Pictish culture had a similar aspirational status in neighbouring early medieval kingdoms. Rome
Possibly the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill could represent some sort of diplomatic or political agreement between the local kingdom and the Pictish kingdom. It has been suggested that the ‘Kingdom of the Picts’ was a confederacy between more or less equal regional or tribal groups (Cummins 1995). If so, presumably the confederacy was accustomed to organising some form of agreement between its members, and may have been able to form other agreements with neighbouring kingdoms from time to time, as occasion arose. Such an agreement may have been formally recorded on stone in Pictish symbols at the royal centre.
A variation of this is that the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill could record a marriage alliance between the local royal dynasty and the Pictish royal dynasty. If the Picts practised a form of matrilineal succession (see my earlier article for a discussion of Pictish matriliny), then the children of a marriage between a prince from a neighbouring kingdom and a Pictish princess could have rights in the Pictish succession. This would make a Pictish marriage alliance different from a marriage between patrilineal dynasties, and may have been formally recognised by some sort of treaty or agreement recorded by Pictish symbols at the royal centre.
If the place name Trusty’s Hill preserves the name of someone called Drust or Drustan who was associated with the fort in some important way, one or more of the symbols on the carving could possibly preserve the same name. It is logical that a carving recording a diplomatic, political or marriage agreement would record the names of the parties. If so, the hypothetical Drust or Drustan could have been the name of the Pictish king who made the agreement; there are several kings with that name in the Pictish king-list. However, since an inscribed stone in
also records the name ‘Drustanus’, the name was not necessarily confined to Pictish areas. Presumably if Pictish aristocrats or royalty married into other kingdoms some of the children of such marriages may have been given Pictish names, or if Pictish Christian monks and priests travelled as widely as their Irish contemporaries local children may have been named after them in far-flung places. It may be equally possible that the ‘Trusty’ of the place-name was a non-Pictish local ruler named something like Trystan. Cornwall
No doubt there are many other possible interpretations.
Current Archaeology, Issue 270, September 2012, p 9.
Galloway Picts Project, available online
Royal Commission on the Ancient and
of Scotland (RCAHMS), Trusty’s Hill, available online Historical Monuments