MHG45240 - Fort - Urquhart Castle


The site of an earlier, Pictish, stronghold or fort at Urquhart Castle is postulated from historical documentary evidence, finds and excavation.

Type and Period (1)

  • FORT (Pictish - 300 AD? to 900 AD?)

Protected Status

Full Description

The site of an earlier, Pictish, stronghold or fort at Urquhart Castle is postulated from historical documentary evidence, finds and excavation.

Several pieces of water-worn vitrified stone were found on the shore below the castle by Lt. Colonel A B McHardy in the nearly C20. He was carrying out field reconnaissance looking for a “…line of communication” between the known forts with evidence of vitrification. <1>

Loose finds of vitrified stone were recovered by W D Simpson along the eastern flank of Urquhart Castle during clearance work by the Ministry of Works to display the castle in the 1910s and 1920s. <2>

Documents kept in the Inverness Museum Archives indicate that a pennanular brooch portion, found 50 years previously at the castle, was sent from Inverness Museum to the NMS in 1955, having been donated by the finder's daughter. It was silver coated and retained traces of gilding and the setting at the centre of the terminal had not survived. It had previously been identified as a fragment of harness mounting. <3>

The brooch terminal is listed in the Inverness Museum catalogue under Acc. No. 00.083. <4>

There is a cast of the portion of the brooch in the NMS, which is listed under Acc. No. FC 263. This is described in the catalogue as from a penannular brooch with a setting for enamel or a stone, surrounded by a sunk ring with a circle of raised dots and three broken projecting semicircles on the edge. <5>

The castle was listed at Category A in 1971.

Urquhart Castle was claimed as the find-spot of a terminal from a silver pennanular brooch of the St Ninian's Isle type, attributed to Pictish workmanship, and datable to the late eighth century (as in <3> - <5> above). <6>

Urquhart Castle was Scheduled in 1981.

Excavations led by L Alcock were carried out at the castle in 1983 in the hope of finding convincing physical evidence for an earlier fort. He argued the case for a date in the 2nd half of the 6th century for a fortification on the strength of oblique references in the Adomnan's Life of Columba relating to mentions of a local noble or chief named Emchath. The layout of the cuttings was determined by two major considerations: if Emchath had been powerful enough to possess a fortification at Urquhart, then the rocky boss at the inner end of the castle promontory was the most likely site for it; Simpson's report of the recovery of vitrified stones in quantity along the north-east slopes of the rock boss also argued for the existence there of a fortification earlier than the masonry castle. In order to test the existence of the supposed vitrified fort, a substantive trench, 7 m long by 3 m wide, was laid out across the masonry curtain wall and down the eastern exterior slope (Cutting 100). This was extended for a distance of 7.5 m into the interior (Cutting 200) in the hope of locating traces of buildings. In order to gain more information about the interior, especially adjacent to the rear of the rampart, a 3m square (UR 300) was also opened against the masonry curtain on the west. The excavations and analysis, supported by eight radiocarbon dates, identified stratified early medieval deposits, consisting of stratified cobble and paved floors and hearths beneath a layer of burning within what was probably the interior. Alcock postulated that stones found were the basal course of the rear revetment of a contemporary defensive wall. The main evidence for a destructive fire was a bank of heat-affected stones, UR 303, up to 250 mm deep and 2 m wide, which ran across the cutting parallel to the wall. The stones were in a sooty matrix, which at the base was distinguished as UR 304. On excavation, the stones were found to consist of a dense pack of angular fist-sized cobbles of coarse sandstone. Many of them had been heavily heat-affected, to the extent that cracks had opened up in their surfaces, their shapes had become distorted, occasionally separate stones had fused together, and some surfaces bore blobs or poppling of a glassy appearance. These are all evidences of a high degree of heating, leading in some cases to vitrification. They provide the best excavational evidence of the former existence of a stone-built fort on the rock boss at Urquhart: a fort destroyed by that same conflagration of which clear traces were recovered in Cutting 200. <7>

The castle was reviewed by Historic Scotland in 2014 as part of the Dual Designation Project. The site was not visited but it was recommended that the building be de-listed but remain a scheduled monument. <8>

The postulated fort was included in the online Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland. Castle Urquhart, which since at least the 13th century has been a major stone castle enclosing a series of low eminences at the tip of Strone Point, occupies the site of an earlier fortification. The principle evidence for this structure comes from the rocky boss that is the highest of these eminences that was probably the core of the earliest castle and forms the SW bulwark of the medieval complex. Here pieces of vitrifaction were recovered along its eastern flank during clearance work to display the castle in the 1920s, and in subsequent excavations Leslie Alcock uncovered stratified cobble and paved floors and hearths beneath a layer of burning dating from the early medieval period, though the stones that he postulated as the basal course of the rear revetment of a defensive wall are unconvincing in that role. Thus, while we can be confident that this was the site of a fortification, no stratified remains of the defences have been recorded and its plan is unknown, though the summit of the boss measures a maximum of 40m from NNE to SSW by 15m transversely and the enclosed area cannot have extended much beyond 0.05ha. In accordance with his concept of early medieval fortifications, however, Alcock suggested that this was the citadel of a larger enclosure that probably took in much the same area as the later medieval castle, identifying a line of stones extending along the inner lip of the castle ditch to the NE of the gatehouse as possibly the back of a collapsed drystone wall; this remains untested by excavation, but implies an enclosed area measuring up to 140m from NE to SW by 50m transversely (0.5ha). <9>

Sources/Archives (44)



Grid reference Centred NH 5304 2860 (100m by 100m) (2 map features)
Map sheet NH52NW
Geographical Area INVERNESS

Finds (2)

  • PENANNULAR BROOCH (Pictish - 300 AD to 900 AD)
  • CAST (Undated)

Related Monuments/Buildings (0)

Related Investigations/Events (0)

External Links (5)

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