Continuing our break in Argyll, we visited the historic sites centred around Kilmartin Glen.This remarkable area is sprinkled with historic sites, most dating to or before the Iron Age.
We made the short climb to the summit of Dunadd on a day of sunshine and showers. Today this small hill stands above marshy farmland and from a distance is unremarkable. Between AD500 and 900 however, this was the power base of the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada. The Scots were migrants from Ireland and settled here about AD500. They were in sporadic conflict with the Picts through much of the period that Dunadd was in use, eventually subduing their rivals and forming the early kingdom which became known as Scotland.
The prefix "Dun" indicates a hillfort and that's exactly what Dunadd was. Sitting above the River Add, the hill is just 55 metres high but has a commanding view over the surrounding landscape and the sea approaches to what is now the Crinan canal and to the Firth of Lorn. There are clear remains of walls and buildings on two or three levels, a natuarl fissure was exploited to provide a defended entrance and half way up the hill is a well. The hillfort would have been an easily defended stronghold, but its significance is much greater than that of a "normal" hillfort. Dunadd seems to have been the coronation place and power base of kings.
On the summit rocks, a slab has a footprint incised in it. Nearby, a bowl is incised into a smaller slab and a boar symbol and some Ogham text are inscribed on rocks close to the summit. It is thought that, following the Irish tradition, kings were crowned whilst placing their foot in this footprint.
It's not too difficult to imagine the ceremony and significance of this act, and it is fascinating to speculate on the true meaning of it. Was it a symbolic joining of a king to the land, or was it an act to demonstrate mastery over it? The overwhelming feeling I got from Dunadd was that as much as it was a place to defend and to see out from, it was also a place to be seen, an ostentatious mark of power.
Though many visitors place their own foot in this footprint, I didn't. The simplicity and symbolism invested here seems to echo down the centuries and it just wouldn't have felt right.
The early kings of Dalriada chose their site well, but they also chose a breezy spot! The north wind was chilly and after exploring the remains around the summit we came down, in the footsteps of kings.