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Dun Athad, fort, Islay

A Scheduled Monument in Kintyre and the Islands, Argyll and Bute

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Coordinates

Latitude: 55.5839 / 55°35'2"N

Longitude: -6.3104 / 6°18'37"W

OS Eastings: 128470

OS Northings: 640686

OS Grid: NR284406

Mapcode National: GBR BFTY.LBD

Mapcode Global: WGYHS.1XB5

Entry Name: Dun Athad, fort, Islay

Scheduled Date: 6 June 2013

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Source ID: SM13271

Schedule Class: Cultural

Category: Prehistoric domestic and defensive: dun; Secular: dun (with post-prehistoric use)

Location: Kildalton

County: Argyll and Bute

Electoral Ward: Kintyre and the Islands

Traditional County: Argyllshire

Description

The monument comprises the remains of a multi-period promontory fort, visible mainly as a massive forework cutting off the NE end of a narrow promontory. The remains occupy the summit of a large and impressive coastal promontory, with sheer cliffs on its NW, SW and SE sides, and a narrow causeway on the landward side to the NE. The promontory lies approximately 2km SE of the Mull of Oa. It rises to around 105m above sea level and has commanding views across the North Channel to the S, SW and SE.

The enclosed area is an irregular linear platform measuring 90m in maximum extent from NE-SW and varying in width from 6m to 23m. The forework is 17.8m in length from E-W, with a return at each end. It has a well-defined outer kerb of facing-stones, but is otherwise reduced to a bank of stony debris up to 5.8m wide. Within the rubble core of this wall are the remains of at least one intramural circular chamber. Immediately behind the forework, to the SW, are the remains of a rectangular building, measuring 11m E-W by 3m transversely, within low turf-covered walls with an entrance in the W wall. A smaller oval-plan building lies to the S, measuring 5m (maximum length) from E-W within low, scarped banks, and again with an entrance in the W. Both structures lie within a relatively sheltered and hollowed interior defined by traces of a dyke and upstanding rock-cut walls. The remainder of the promontory is a narrow and exposed plateau with much evidence of rig cultivation; it retains portions of turf dykes along the W flank and the SW boundary.

The area to be scheduled is irregular on plan and extends to the base of the rock outcrop on which the monument is sited. The scheduled area includes the remains described above, an area around them within which evidence relating to the monument's construction, use and abandonment may survive, and adjoining land essential for the monument's support and preservation, as shown in red on the accompanying map.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Statement of Scheduling

Cultural Significance

The monument's cultural significance can be expressed as follows:

Intrinsic characteristics

The fort at Dun Athad takes full advantage of the impressive natural topography. It is protected on its NW, SW and SE sides by near vertical rock faces. The approach is from the NE (landward) side along a sunken way lined with earthen banks and across a narrow natural causeway only 2m wide. The headland is cut off at the narrow causeway by the massive forework, which was constructed of rubble, but has well-defined facing stones still visible. The enclosed area of the headland measures approximately 90m NE to SW by up to 23m in width. Much of the headland is now under rig and furrow. Numerous earthworks, enclosures and low turf and stone dykes also survive and, while most of these are thought to relate to the later re-fortification of the site, the visible remains here demonstrate multiple phases of use. The natural advantages of the site mean that it was almost certainly fortified in the prehistoric and/or early historic periods, but the visible remains of the massive forework and associated buildings were probably built rapidly during a politically unstable period in the late 16th and early 17th century. The large rectangular building at the NE end of the site, close to the entrance, is likely to be earlier in date.

Overall the fort is in good condition. The site has not previously been excavated and is largely undisturbed, with high potential for the survival of important buried archaeological remains. Although the date of the original occupation here is unknown, it seems likely that there were several phases of occupation and re-use. There is good potential for the presence of archaeological remains dating from later prehistory up until the 17th century. Future examination of the fort could provide detailed information about its date, form and construction, and its probably long period of use and re-use. Investigation of the interior could contribute to our understanding of how it was used and how this may have changed over time. Buried artefacts and palaeoenvironmental evidence can contribute to our understanding of how its occupants lived and worked, the extent and nature of trade and exchange, and the nature of the agricultural economy.

The monument has the potential to contribute to our understanding of the character of settlement and fortification at different times throughout prehistory and history, and the design and development of defended enclosures. Dun Athad is particularly important as it has the potential to add to our understanding of how Iron Age and early historic defensive sites were subsequently re-occupied and re-used, and to provide information on an unusual type of defended site of the later 16th or early 17th century. The monument has significant potential for answering questions on defensive sites from a range of periods in the west of Scotland.

Contextual characteristics

Many duns and forts in Argyll have spectacular settings, but Dun Athad is particularly impressive. The fort occupies a narrow precipitous promontory on the southern tip of The Oa, in a position of considerable natural strength. It commands extensive views across the seaways of the North Channel and as far as the Antrim coast and the Mull of Kintyre. It was almost certainly visible from the sea by approaching vessels. The outstanding topography and exceptional seaward views strongly suggest that defence and visibility were chief among the factors which determined the siting of a fort here. The location of the fort can perhaps also tell us something about the political and social interactions with Ireland and beyond. Its presence reminds us of the strategic geographical location of Islay at a time when most travel and trade was by sea.

This type of location and setting characterises much of the coastal occupation of Argyll and Atlantic Scotland in later prehistory and the early historic period, although most of the surviving visible remains at Dun Athad are later in date. The early remains on the site, most probably that of a dun, belong to a much broader category of later prehistoric settlement, which includes brochs, forts, crannogs, duns and hut circles. Altogether, over 500 later prehistoric settlements are known in Argyll. Duns and forts are believed to have been occupied by single families or larger groups, depending on their size. They are mainly a coastal phenomenon and tend to be located on locally high ground, along prominent coastal routes or within easy reach of the coast, as in this case. This site is particularly interesting as it is demonstrates clear evidence for later re-fortification of an earlier site, a phenomenon common to the islands but with few good examples. Displays of medieval secular lordship were notably different in Islay to mainland Argyll, with re-use of earlier fortifications being much more common than castellated architecture ' it is possible that Dun Athad is an example of such re-use. Its setting as a stronghold is comparable with Dunivaig Castle, on a promontory off the SE coast of Islay, although Dunivaig is a far more complex example.

Associative characteristics

Historic sources suggest the site may have served as one of the beacon-stances used by the supporters of Sir James MacDonald in 1615. A later topographical account refers to 'the great fortress called Dunaynt', which with 'small expensis ' might be maid ane Invincible strength'.

National Importance

This monument is of national importance because it has an inherent potential to make a significant addition to our understanding of the past, in particular, the design and construction of defended settlements in western Scotland, and their place in the wider economy and society. It is particularly important as it demonstrates evidence of later re-use of a defensive site. There is good potential for well-preserved archaeological remains surviving within and immediately outside the fort. These buried remains can tell us much about the people who built and lived in the settlement and the connections they had with other groups. The loss of the monument would significantly diminish our future ability to appreciate and understand the occupation of Argyll in the later prehistoric and early historic periods, as well as in the late 16th or early 17th century.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

Sources

Bibliography

References

Lamont W, 1959, 'From the Islay Archaeological Survey Group', Discovery Excav Scot, p. 154.

RCAHMS (1984a) The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Argyll: an inventory of the monuments volume 5: Islay, Jura, Colonsay and Oronsay, Edinburgh, p. 264-5, no. 401.

Walker F A, 2000, Argyll and Bute, The buildings of Scotland series, London, p. 559.

Source: Historic Environment Scotland

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