Scottish History Online - Burghead Pictish Iron age Fortl, Moray, Scotland

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A look at Burghead Pictish Fort, the largest 'Iron age Fort in Britain' and it's Roman Well.

Burghead Bull 1
Burghead Pictish Iron Age Promontory Fort
and (Roman?) Well

By John A. Duncan FSA Scot.  

Artists Impression Burghead Fort

Artists impression of the Fort in the 4th to 7th Century

Who would think visiting Burghead today that this now, sleepy fishing village located on the Moray Firth partially conceals ‘The biggest Iron Age fort in Britain’. Sitting on a peninsula it is easy to see why the early picts in the 4th to 7th century AD, would have chosen such a spot to build this very impressive structure which covers an inner area of 3 hectares.

Pont Map 8 1583-1596

Extract from Manuscript Map 'Pont 8' 1583 - 1596

It must have been awe inspiring for any would be assailant or visitor approaching the fort up the promontory, to be faced by the first of three huge ramparts and ditches, measuring 800 feet in length, with an overall depth of 180 feet across at the neck of the headland . The exact height of the outer defences is unknown but they were probably built of earth and rubble. It is also thought that they may be the remnants of an earlier defensive structure that the Picts re-used and improved. 

On passing through the single entrance of the three outer ramparts, you would have then been faced with an inner fortification with enclosures on 2 levels, the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’, sometimes also referred to as the ‘Citadel' and the ‘Annex’.

These two internal courts surrounded by walls are also of unknown height. The above dimensions were taken from a map that was made for General Roy in the mid 18th century. However, an excavation by Hugh Young in the early 1890’s did show that the remaining sand covered mound of the west rampart (near the Coastguard Station) on the smaller court, concealed two walls measuring 27 to 28 feet apart and 10 feet high with a rubble infill. The wall may have had a wall walk, as timber supports were also found and on later carbon 14 dating, this revealed a date of 340 to 680 AD, which gives us the possible dating for the fort. 

Destruction of the Fort is thought to have been around the 9th or 10th century AD, but obvious evidence of remnants of the Fort must still have been very visible for early mapmakers such as Pont, whose map of 1583 –1596 shows a ditch across the promontory, and  another map of 1747 that shows broad bands of collapsed stonework, indicating the fort must have been substantial and worthy of noting. The worst devastation to the fort however was the building of the planned Village of Burghead between 1805 and 1809, which obliterated over half the archaeology. The outer ramparts of earth and stone were levelled into the fort's ditches in order to flatten the area for building work and stone and rubble were reused from the ramparts to build the harbour.

During the construction of the harbour over 30 symbol stones were found of which only six remain. These  

Burghead Fort Overlay
Remnants of Burghead Fort Today
Artists Impression Fort Entrance by John Tasker
Impression of Fort Entrance
by John Tasker

remaining stones depicting what is now known as the ‘Burghead Bulls’ were thought to have adorned the ramparts of the fort or possibly around the forts gates and are thought by some to be a symbol of strength. Of the remaining stones, which are known, Burghead 3 and 4 can be seen at the Burghead Library, Burghead 2 and 6 are in the Elgin Museum, Burghead 1 is in the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh and Burghead 5 is in the British Museum.

There is no doubt that Burghead Fort played a dominant part in Pictish society and must have been an important stronghold in the North for the Picts. The fort may well have been a ‘Pictish Capital’ of Northern Pictland.


© John A. Duncan of Sketraw, KCN, FSA Scot.

Burghead Bull 6

Acknowledgements & Permissions: National Library of Scotland for the use of the map, Pont 8. CFA Archaeology, Mussleburgh, for the use of their artists impression of Burghead Fort. Burghead Community Trust, photographs, information and advice. RCHAMS, Canmore database for information and research. A special thanks goes to Ken & Catherine Miller of Burghead Trust, for all their help.

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Burghead Pictish Iron Age Fort - Scotland