By Erica Johnson
Initially when researching the Moyle, an Iron Age Hill Fort, many hours were spent searching for information in our local libraries where sadly I drew a complete blank. This was not totally surprising as having asked our Council Archaeologist for some information on the site two and a half years ago they sent a few paragraphs which outlined the sites dimensions from a 1955 survey and a 1970 confirmatory second survey. A small plan of the site was included but no photographs had ever been taken to record the area. The vital statistics of the site show that it measures 930 foot by 500 foot surrounded by a 10 foot wide stone rampart [ruined] on the shoulder of the hill. The probable entrance is 160 metres [525 foot] from the North West corner as described in 1955, though in 1970 no obvious entrance was visible. In the South East corner is a “citadel” 120 foot by 90 foot defined by a denuded rampart. In 1970 secondary features were believed to be mainly modern field walls and small enclosures.
On the Moyle there would have been large areas of broad-leaved woodlands with clearings for agriculture, probably in the west sloping down to the Urr. Our Iron Age Ancestors were farmers and hunters who used their iron axes to chop down trees. The wood was used for their round dwelling huts, stockades for their animals [mainly goats and pigs, but some cattle and sheep] and for wooden defences. In the clearings they grew cereal crops and vegetables, taking advantage here of the fertile lands down to the river Urr. They would also have fished in the local rivers and streams. It was a tribal existence; the tribe that lived in this area would have been fairly self sufficient but would have had contact with other local tribes for small scale trading and also raiding if times were hard. Over the years the tribes in Galloway would have formed allegiances and by the time of the birth of Christ would be loosely one tribe, living in separate communities but connected through marriage, trade and warfare.
The Moyle, would have been central to tribal life, possibly not only for the settlement in this immediate vicinity, but also for the whole of the region, as it is clearly the largest Hill Fort in the area. The sides of the hill would not have been wooded, but kept as clear as possible, to enable a clear view of any attacking enemies and to ensure no cover could be used to launch a surprise attack. The most noticeable features would have been defensive ditches and a wooden palisade all around the perimeter of the fort, with a strong wooden gate to close at night or in times of attack. Inside the compound there would have been huts, food stores, a forge and possibly a Chieftain’s Hall, most likely situated on the defended mound in the South West corner. It would have been the last safe refuge for a thriving and busy community and at times of attack the Moyle would have been the site where the tribe was prepared to make its last stand.
Tribal life centred on survival, food, the making of iron implements and the other necessities of their daily life. Daylight hours would have been filled with food gathering and preparation, animal husbandry, butchery and the making of a coarse woollen cloth used for clothing. Animal skins would have been worn in bad weather as protection from the elements. Skins would have been used for footwear, horses harnesses and water bottles. The forge would have made practical iron implements such as axes, knives, spearheads, cauldrons and bridles for their horses. However they would have also produced ornamental and more desirable objects, such as brooches, necklets, bracelets, pins to fasten their clothes, mirrors and combs.
It was during raids that this hill fort would have come into its own. As a defensive site its advantages are obvious, a steep sided approach where you could pick off your enemies with spears and slingshots. However it is the network of forts stretching out from the Moyle that is not so obvious to see, yet gives the site clear advantages. Beacons or even smoke signals from these would quickly warn the occupants of the hill fort here and in other locations of impending danger and attack. The signal would go out to the workers in the fields to get back to the main defensive site as quickly as possible. Crops would be left, the animals would be herded into stockades and skilled, armed warriors would stay with them to defend the tribe’s precious assets. The others would secure the fort and prepare to defend themselves. We can only guess how often these attacks came from neighbouring tribes, but the Romans held the fighting men of Galloway in high regard. In later times many joined the Roman army and were regarded as ferocious enemies with a tendency to cannibalism where their enemies were concerned.
Iron Age society was organised and hierarchical. The tribal chief was the focus of the direction and protection of the tribe, but each person had a job to do that benefited the rest of the tribe. Their cultural beliefs were what we would call pagan. They worshipped the Gods of Nature, observing the night sky for their seasons and timekeeping. Some of their Gods were worshipped all over Iron Age Britain; others were local tribal deities. They believed in an afterlife and sent their dead to immortality accompanied by grave goods. They are believed to have held ritual sacrifices in their sacred places.
Iron Age Burials in Southern Britain were normally cremations, however in Northern Britain there were other more favoured methods. Perhaps the earliest method was bog burial and the proximity of Aucheninnies Moss is a possible site here ( Aucheninnies meaning water meadow). Areas that were partially water and partially land, were held to be of great religious importance by Iron Age peoples. They viewed them as a portal between the present life and the afterlife, and as such, sacrificial offerings were a means of communicating with dead ancestors and appeasing the Gods. Aucheninnies Moss has never been excavated to ascertain if any of these offerings survive.
Other burial methods used by Northern Iron Age Peoples were burials in Cairns and the cairns at Auchencairn may be the burial site for this tribe. They were certainly easily accessible to them by boat. They also used water burial, where the dead, on a small raft and accompanied by personal goods, was sent down river and from here on into the sea. It is possible that this method was reserved for warriors and chiefs.s. In 1873, a 50-foot barge or canoe was found in Loch Arthur, Beeswing, which was probably the burial barge of a very important local Chieftain or King.
The language spoken would have been a form of Gaelic, but it would have been nearer to Old Welsh than Scots. They did not read or write, but had a tradition of oral storytelling, around the fire. These stories of their history were handed down from generation to generation and told tales of Kings, princes, giants, demons, witchcraft and battles. Irish and Welsh Celtic tradition and the roots of British Mythology are based on the Iron Age Celtic Culture that would have been told and retold on this very spot.
It was the invasion of the Romans, who marched into Galloway in 82 AD, that brought the greatest changes to the Tribe. Named the Novantae by the Romans. The Romans never colonised Galloway, but initially they subdued it, by fear and hostage taking, before working with the local tribal chiefs. The Romans demanded that tribute, in the form of food, be paid by the natives, but they helped the tribes they conquered by teaching them better agricultural methods to produce the extra food. This fed the Roman soldiers in the fort at Glenlochar, just north of Castle Douglas. The tribal people still lived in their hill forts and small defended settlements and enjoyed the protection of the Romans from attack by others. They fought alongside them to defend this area and some men joined the Roman Army to fight in Europe. Women folk may also have married Roman Soldiers. They learnt about stone defences and it is likely that at this point the earth and wooden palisade were replaced by great stone fortifications around the Moyle. Some, though probably not all, of the buildings on the site would have been rebuilt in stone. The Romans also left a legacy of tribal bonding and teamwork in Galloway, which was particularly apparent once they withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall. The local tribes lost their Roman protection but realised that if they worked together they could protect themselves better against the marauding Picts and Scots to the North.
Just as this turbulent time began, the Iron Age Romano British Celts of Galloway had one last flowering. Perhaps this is the most intriguing part of the History of the Moyle. Whilst no archaeological excavations have ever taken place on this site, the sheer size of the Moyle, the largest Iron Age Hill Fort in the Stewartry, and its connections to other local forts and motes indicates that it was a very important site, the home or last defensive refuge of a very important tribe. Excavations at the Mote of Mark have shown that in the 6th Century [the 500’s AD] the tribal chief of this area was a very wealthy man. There was found as the Mote of Mark, pottery from the Eastern Mediterranean and Western France, decorated glass from the Rhineland in Germany and Jet from Northern England. A workshop, with clay moulds and crucibles used in casting bronze and enamel jewellery was also found. Highly skilled craftsmen working to produce, on site, fine ornaments for the local chieftain or prince.
The existence of such wealth in this area is an indication of power, only powerful men could command such fabulous goods. The chieftain of the Moyle must have been a very powerful man in the 6th century. A Romano British Tribal chief, of Iron Age Celtic decent, but with civilised Roman ways. Not romanised enough to live in a villa or wiccus [village settlement], still the inhabitant of a fortified camp. His wealth and power would have made him a target for other jealous tribal leaders, unless his influence spread beyond Galloway and his power and fighting force gained him the respect of other peoples. Galloway was less isolated at this time than at any other period in history, including even today. Roman roads made the rest of Britain accessible and sea travel meant that not only Cumbria, Ireland and Wales were easily reached, but also Cornwall, the southern coast of England and Brittany in France. We know that the power here was diminished by the mid 7th century, as the site at the Mote of Mark was destroyed by fire then. It is likely that the assimilation of the Anglo Saxons and their culture by the late 7th century led to the people of the Moyle at last abandoning the hill fort to live entirely in small village settlements. However raids by the Vikings, Norsemen, Danes and Friesians, in the 8th and 9th Centuries may have sent the local people scuttling back to the security and protection of the Moyle on occasion.
Until Archaeologists decide to thoroughly investigate and excavate this site, we will never confirm its true importance. The powerful 6th Century ruler of this Hill Fort, a descendant of over 800 years of tribal occupancy of this site, probably the ancestor of the later native Kings of Galloway, such as Fergus, right down to Allan, the father of Devorgilla. Who could he be? Well, historians have long been searching for just such a man, the reality behind the myth and Hollywood hype. Could this area contain the small grain of truth behind King Arthur and Camelot? The first written reference to whom is contained in the ancient Celtic Poem “The Gododdin”, composed shortly after 600, and through dialect evidence, is thought to have been written in the Kingdom of Strathclyde, which bordered this ancient Kingdom of Rheged.