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Mid-Argyll Theme - 18
Understanding Dunadd's Summit

The fortress of Dúnadd stands at the south end of the Kilmartin valley, overlooking the ancient and archaeologically rich landscape.

Power and prestige

We should not think of this dún primarily as a residence, in the sense of a permanent settlement where the king of Dál Riata might live and rule. In our period kings were obliged to travel. Part of the exercise of royal power was the frequent movement of the king from one area of his dominion to another. He and his retinue would be fed by the local chiefs and hospitallers, and this in itself was part of the expression of a king's authority, a way of collecting his dues.

Dunadd was therefore an occasional settlement of the king, even if it was also in some sense his primary seat. But it had other functions, too. It was an industrial centre, for example. The plentiful brooch-moulds found here reflect the importance of metalwork, especially in gold and silver, or plated bronze, which the king of Dál Riata controlled. He distributed such goods to his client chiefs or under-kings. By this gift, their lordship was enhanced over their own clients, and their subjection to the king was likewise affirmed.

Other luxury goods would have enhanced the king's prestige, and Dunadd has no shortage of these. It imported minerals from the Mediterranean, Cornish tin, and European wines drunk from Gaulish glassware to wash down meat with foreign spices.

Royal Ritual

Even more striking than the luxury goods is the apparent use of Dunadd as a centre of rituals of Dál Riata royal power.

The fort is situated in ambiguous territory. Cenél nGabráin, usually the most powerful of the ruling kindreds, held the land to the south of Dunadd, while another, Cenél Loairn, occupied territory to the north and achieved overlordship of Dál Riata from 697 to 736 AD.

Dunadd seems to be on the border-land between these two. Perhaps its central position reflects a lordship over both territories, so that whoever was king of Dunadd would be over-king of all the cenéla of Dál Riata.

It is this kingship which was legitimated on the summit of Dunadd by rituals of inauguration. Some of the basic 'equipment' for these rituals is still visible on the site.

The three main Cenéla of Dál Riata, with Dunadd

The most striking is the footprint carved into the rocky outcrop, near which is carved a deep basin.

Such footprints are known elsewhere, both in Ireland and in Pictland, in association with royal sites, and various early modern accounts of king-making rituals make it clear what this footprint in Dunadd was for. The king would place his foot in the footprint as part of the rite, symbolically uniting himself to the land he was to rule, the land which he could see from the summit of Dunadd. The basin may have been used for libations of some sort.

On the same rocky outcrop, someone has carved an ogham inscription.

Though for a long time no one has ben able to make sense of this inscription, Dr Katherine Forsyth has recently offered a partial reading, offering an Old Gaelic personal name: Finn Manach, 'Finn the monk', or perhaps Finn of the túath of Fer Manach.

The outline of a boar is also carved in the same spot, in a style that is clearly Picitsh. There has been some suggestion that it was carved here in 736 when the king of Picts, Ungus son of Uurguist, devastated Dál Riata and seized Dunadd, as the Annals of Ulster record.

The photo shows the basin in the foreground, while the carved footprint, facing out over the valley, is seen on the further rocky surface.

However, it is possible that there were already Picts among the Dál Riata lords, just as we know there were Gaels who held land and power in Pictland. Perhaps the boar carving was made by or for such a Pictish 'immigrant'.

Or, since the boar is carved close to a symbol of Gaelic power - the footprint - we might read the pair of symbols as a sign of some kind of union between Gaels and Picts, who were finally united in the ninth century.

The ogham carving, near the footprint

Sacred Landscapes

Many Iron Age and early Medieval royal sites are located in areas rich with far older monuments. Tara in Ireland springs to mind, where Celtic kings celebrated inauguration rites surrounded by monuments which include the so-called 'Mound of the Hostages' which had been there since before 2,000 BC.

Similarly, the Pictish power centre of Forteviot was built among ancient burials and neolithic henges (probably still standing when the Picts were using the site), where the monuments create what we might call a 'sacred landscape', lending an aura of ritual power to the later Celtic royal site.

Dunadd follows this pattern, looking down from the summit to the linear cemetery and the surrounding monuments - cairns, standing stones and henges. Perhaps kings were felt to have inherited some potency from these symbols which surrounded their newly built power centres.


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