That times weren’t always as peaceful as nowadays can be determined by the large numbers of forts (Gaelic: Duns) on Islay, the silent witnesses of days gone by. Islay had around 80 forts and fortified sites, from which most of them are ruined and hardly visible in the landscape. These forts were built in the Bronze and Iron age from 1000BC to 400AD although it is believed that some forts date back to Neolithic times, but that doesn’t seem to be the case on Islay. Islay’s forts were scattered all over the island, and most of these forts were hill forts. “A hill fort is a fortified refuge or defended settlement, located to exploit a rise in elevation for military advantage. The fortification usually follows the contours of the hill, consisting of one or more lines of earthworks, with stockades or defensive walls, and external ditches”. Other types of forts on Islay are sea promontory forts and sea cliff forts. Some of their names, often derived from Norse and Gaelic, are Rhinns Point, An Dun, Dun Athad, Cnoc Eabriic, Dun Bheolain, Beinn A’Chaisteal, Beinn Sholaraidh, Port Ellen – The Ard, Dun Nosebridge, Borrichill Mor, Dun Guaidhre, Rubha Bhollsa, Sgairail, Gortantaoid, Dun Nan Gall and Trudernish Point. Luckily not all the forts are in a derelict state and the remains of some of these forts are visible on several places on Islay and below are two examples of these ancient forts:
Dun Nosebridge near Bridgend is located on the right bank of the Laggan river and is clearly visible from the Bridgend to Cluanach road just after the bridge over the river on your left side (Picture top right). A few metres before the bridge is a small track that leads to the fort. The fort was described by RCAHMS as follows: Dun Nosebridge fort (picture right) is situated 1km east-south-east of Neriby farmhouse on an isolated ridge about 15m high; aligned NE-SW the ridge has a steep rocky SE flank, but there is relatively easy access from other directions. To the N and NW the site faces rising ground, but to the S and SE it offers a wide view over the upper reaches of the River Laggan. The defences consist of a wall, which encloses the summit, and two outer ramparts extending along the NW side and round each end of the ridge, but not continuing along the SE side; a terrace behind each rampart gives the site its distinctive tiered profile. The RCAHMS Database also contains some very interesting aerial photographs of Dun Nosebridge from which some of them also show the ruined township of Nosebridge.
Robert C. Graham, author of the book Carves Stones of Islay written in 1885, described the fort as follows: The name is an elaborate corruption of the Icelandic words Hnaus and Borg, meaning Turf fort, and apt description, as the whole structure is covered with a most beautiful and velvety sward. The top of the hill has been cut away so as to form a level quadrilateral platform, 90 feet long by 50 feet wide. The longer sides run east and west and the platform is protected by earthworks. The slope towards the river on the south side is so steep as to render artificial defences unnecessary, but on the other sides the fort is strongly protected. On the west there are four trenches one above the other, with high earthworks between. One of these trenches if continued round the northern and eastern sides, to which from the nature of the ground it would form a sufficient protection. At the east end, however, a projecting lump of hill, below the main trench, is again protected by a smaller ditch. This is a most interesting place and well worth seeing.
Another example of a fort is Dun Guaidhre (picture right) situated near Kilmeny. Dun Guaidhre is a hill fort and also called the fort of Godfrey or Godred. It is situated on the northern outskirts of the chain of hills which separates the valleys of the Sorn and of the Laggan. The south side of the Dun is almost precipitous, and about a hundred feet from top to bottom. The top is a semicircular area about one hundred feet by fifty-seven feet. On the north side of this plateau there are indications of a rectangular building twenty-six feet by eighteen feet. Round the hill, except on the north side, run three lines of defence, appearing partly as embankments and partly as trenches. In places the trenches are cut out of the rock. There are also the remains of what may have been guard houses both to the north and south of this fort.
The aerial photographs are courtesy of RCAHMS
Following is a report, which appeared in the Ileach, from a visit to Dun Nosebridge by the Islay Archaeological Group: The first outing of the Islay Archaeological Group took place on Sunday 5th February and the organisers were pleasantly surprised to find over twenty people keen to join the walk over the hills surrounding the fort at Dun Nosebridge. The weather was relatively clement at first, which was a relief to us all but particularly perhaps to those who had been dancing the night away to Skerryvore at the NFU Dinner Dance the night before. Walk leaders Duncan Stewart and Donald Bell led us up the brae through the scrub woodland from our start point near Mulindry. The views from the top were not bad, although on a clearer day we would have been able to see much further.
Archaeology attempts to build up pictures of what life was like in the past by interpreting evidence from overviews of the landscape and combining it with evidence from the things that are found in association with that landscape. If this sounds complicated that’s because it is and all sorts of things can distort the picture. For example, there have been quite a lot of tools found from stone-age man on Islay, but there is very little evidence of where stone age man actually lived. This is because stone tools last very well – they dont deteriorate much even after thousands of years have passed. However, if the nomadic craftsmen that made those tools lived in light wooden shelters, then these will have rotted away in a very short space of time leaving no trace behind. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of evidence of where Iron Age man lived on Islay, we can see the remains of their hut circles and forts, but all of his tools have rusted away to nothing, so although we know quite a bit about where Iron Age man lived, we dont know so much about how he lived.
Laymen like myself are always keen to put labels on things – to give things a date, but Duncan and Donald (plus several other extremely knowledgeable local folk) gently eased their audience away from these simple conclusions. We were told that Dun Nosebridge has never been officially excavated – so there are no dates. We were instead encouraged to look at this extrordinary monument as something that will have been developed by a complicated mix of peoples over a very long period of time. It is not known exactly when the site was first occupied. Was it the shadowy, little known tribe called the Epidii, the ‘Men of the Horse’ who populated these parts at the time of the Romans? Or perhaps tribes of Scotti from Ireland or Pictish peoples from the north? Possibly it was the later waves of Vikings or the Norse-Gaels of Somerled who first threw up the mighty ramparts.
Whoever it was, they were an extremely powerful and well organised people. It is the scale of the place that grabs the visitor. The huge banks and ditches were all dug by hand, the stone and turf walls erected by a highly organised people with considerable political and economic clout. This level of construction required serious co-ordination, supply and organisation over a long period of time. This was not built by some neo-stone age band. Dun Nosebridge has to be the work of a sophisticated and powerful people with considerable resources at their disposal. We all asked many questions as we shivered behind the ramparts to obtain a little shelter from the steadily rising wind. Why was this huge place built? Was it simply a fort constructed to keep the enemies at bay? If so, who were these enemies? They must have been a powerful foe indeed to have threatened a people capable of building such a system of defences. Was it ever attacked? If so, where did the attackers some from? From the sea in ships? Or was the enemy constantly present just over the hill on another part of Islay? Or was Dun Nosebridge perhaps not a fort at all? One of our number came up with an intriguing suggestion, that maybe the place was really a giant status symbol. Perhaps, it was suggested, Dun Nosebridge was built as a sort of Iron Age stately home – a massive monument to wealth and influence erected by a people who were so powerful they had no serious worries about enemies charging up the crags to disturb their opulent existence.
Whatever the truth of it all, I was so caught up in all the different stories and ideas I could have sworn I could hear the sound of the wooden waggon wheels clattering on the stone road as we trudged back down to our present day.