How Peebles pub chat led to discovery of a king’s capital

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Two Border archeologists may have discovered the capital of a lost Dark Age kingdom, following a chat over a pint in a Peebles pub.

Dr Chris Bowles of Innerleithen and Dr Ronan Toolis of Eddleston, met for a drink in the County Inn in Peebles, and got talking about a shared interest in the Pictish symbols carved in a rock on a hill called Deil’s Specs, or Trusty’s Hill, above Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway.

Little did they know their pub chat would lead to the location of an ancient royal stronghold, believed to be the heart of the fabled Kingdom of Rheged, whose borders, historians argued, stretched from Dumfries and Galloway, down through Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, to as far south as Manchester from the fifth to the seventh centuries AD.

“The Pictish carvings make Trusty’s Hill one of the most enigmatic archaeological sites in Scotland,” writes Dr Bowles, who worked with Dr Toolis to raise £40,000 and lead a team of 65 local volunteer archeologists on the Galloway Pict Project in May and June this year.

The study aimed to determine the authenticity and context of the symbols, but the site revealed far more striking evidence than was expected, which shed light on the lost northern realm of the early Middle Ages.

The kingdom of the Hen Ogledd (Old North) is described in early Welsh poems and genealogies, and names gave a clue to Rheged settlements scattered across the north, including Dunragit, possibly meaning “Fort of Rheged”, on the Rhinns of Galloway, Rochdale in Greater Manchester, recorded in the Domesday Book as Recedham, and near Penrith in Cumbria, where Visit Cumbria has built a Rheged Visitor Centre.

Urien Rheged, King of North Rheged (c530–590 AD), was one of the earliest Christian kings in Britain, and became an important figure in Welsh legend. His victories survive in eight songs from the Book of Taliesin, and Urien, with his son Owain who is said to have fathered St Kentigern, became heroes in the stories of King Arthur.

The Kingdom of Rheged was annexed by Northumbria in the early eighth century, and its inhabitants’ Cumbric language, a Brythonic dialect closely related to Old Welsh, was gradually lost and replaced by Old English. The name of the Cymry (Welsh people) has survived in the name of Cumberland and Cumbria.

“In recent years, many historians have begun to doubt whether the Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill were genuine,” wrote Dr Bowles.

“The Galloway Picts Project, led by the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society (DGNHAS), and funded in part by the Heritage Lottery Fund, sought to find out what Pictish symbols were doing in Galloway, so far from the Pictish heartlands in the north-east of Scotland, and if the carvings are indeed genuine.

“The layout of Trusty’s Hillfort, with an upper citadel where a great hall may have stood, and lower precincts where activities like metalworking may have been undertaken, is comparable to Dunadd, near Lochgilphead in Argyll.

The carvings are located at the entrance to the fort, opposite a rock-cut basin, which were seen as holy places, so it’s likely they had a ritual function. We have no Rosetta Stone to translate the Pictish symbols, but they show a classic ‘z-rod and double disc’, and a unique ‘sea beast and sword’.

“The archeological evidence suggests that Trusty’s Hill was not just a settlement but was also an important metalworking centre with access to significant resources and craftworkers for the production of high-status jewellery.”

Explaining why he believed Trusty’s Hill was a royal stronghold to rival Edinburgh Castle, Dr Bowles argued: “The clincher was the discovery of high-status jewellery itself, bronze and iron brooches and pins, and a rare pottery sherd from western France. This type of pottery, called E-ware, is often associated with elite sites, such as the royal capitals of Dunadd and Dumbarton Rock, and from Whithorn, the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, suggesting that it was largely only people of the highest status that acquired this pottery and the luxuries that came with it.

“While much more specialist analysis is to be undertaken over the next few months, the Galloway Picts team are confident that they have not only discovered that the Pictish carvings at Trusty’s Hill are genuine but may be connected with a royal stronghold of the lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged.

“The only two other sites outside Pictland where Pictish carvings are found are the known capitals of early medieval kingdoms: Dunadd, the capital of the early Scots Kingdom of Dalriada, and Edinburgh Castle Rock, once called Din Eidyn, the capital of the British kingdom of the Gododdin.

“The finds from the recent dig at Trusty’s Hill shows that the Britons here were of the same social status as the people who ruled from these royal capitals.

“If the artefacts and Pictish symbols point to the status of the site’s inhabitants, the vitrified ramparts shows they had their enemies too. The fort was clearly attacked, and the excavations have revealed that its ramparts were then destroyed in a spectacular show of force and power. 

“Galloway is now emerging as the likely backdrop from where powerful kings like Urien of Rheged and his son Owain ‘Bane of the East’, briefly dominated northern Britain.”

Dr Bowles added: “It’s so rare to be able to dig a pristine site like this, a once-in-a-career opportunity. Trusty’s Hill is equivalent to Edinburgh Castle.”

For more information about the Galloway Picts Project, visit www.gallowaypicts.com