WHAT’S THE STORY?

A NEW book called The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged is being launched in Gatehouse of Fleet in Galloway today.

It features the work of two archaeologists, Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles of Guard Archaeology, who began excavating the Trusty’s Hill Fort site not far away, and found something very intriguing indeed.

Loading article content

WHAT DID THEY FIND?

The National:

NOT what they were expecting. Instead of uncovering evidence of Picts, as they had anticipated, the team found traces of a royal stronghold thought to have been built by local Britons around AD 600.

The evidence pointed strongly to the Hill having been the royal seat of the lost kingdom of Rheged, which is known to have been extant in the south-west of what is now modern Scotland or the north-west of modern England.

Most historians think Rheged’s capital was in Cumbria, and indeed there is a Rheged Centre in the Lake District, but the evidence is mounting up that Rheged was actually centred on Galloway.

WHAT IS THE EVIDENCE?

The National:

AS the Gatehouse of Fleet website says: “With the archaeological discovery of the royal stronghold at Trusty’s Hill, there is now a body of archaeological evidence in Galloway for pre-eminent secular and ecclesiastical sites during the fifth to early seventh centuries AD, unmatched anywhere else in Scotland and northern England.

“This archaeological evidence corroborates the meagre historical evidence for Rheged, a kingdom that was at this time pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.”

Toolis is even more convinced of the site’s historical significance: “What drew us to Trusty’s Hill were Pictish symbols carved on to bedrock here, which are unique in this region and far to the south of where Pictish carvings are normally found.

“The Galloway Picts Project was launched in 2012 to recover evidence for the archaeological context of these carvings.

“But far from validating the existence of Galloway Picts, the archaeological context revealed by our excavation instead indicates the carvings relate to a royal stronghold and place of inauguration for the local Britons of Galloway around AD 600.

“The new archaeological evidence suggests that Galloway may have been the heart of the lost Dark Age kingdom of Rheged, a kingdom that was in the late sixth century pre-eminent amongst the kingdoms of the north.”

SO WHO LIVED THERE?

THE little we know of Rheged is that its people were Britons, a tribe who once ruled almost all of Western Britain and whose ancient capital was Dumbarton – ‘fort of the Britons’ in the ancient language.

They spoke a language very similar to ancient Welsh. Some of the earliest surviving literature of Scotland is the poetry of Taliesin, the bard, praising the valour of his king, Urien of Rheged and his son, Owain.

From that poetry, we know they collected warriors from other areas in south-west Scotland and Urien and Owain led raids against the neighbouring kingdoms of their fellow Britons, such as Strathclyde. They also battled with newcomers to the east, the Angles of Bernicia, who had come across from the continent – some say they were invited as mercenary warriors – to inhabit part of what is now Northumberland.

WERE THEY PAGANS OR CHRISTIANS?

ALMOST certainly the latter. As the Gatehouse of Fleet website tells us: “The cultural vitality of Rheged also survives in the earliest Christian monument in Scotland, the Latinus Stone, erected in Whithorn to Latinus and his daughter around 450 AD.

“For it is at Whithorn around this time that Ninian, Scotland’s first bishop, established his church of Candida Casa [Shining White House] and from which literacy as well as the Christian faith spread across southern Scotland.

“Nor was Whithorn the only early Christian church set up in Galloway at this time. Further west, at Kirkmadrine in the Rhinns, survives another of the oldest Christian inscriptions of Scotland and another early Christian monastery on Ardwall Island may have had some relationship to nearby Trusty’s Hill. This hierarchical network of early Christian communities were literate, and valued Roman culture, when it was fading from western Europe.”

Rheged also traded far and wide, acquiring wine and spices from the eastern Roman Empire, foods and dyes from western France and decorated glass from the Rhineland. The remains of these have been recovered from Mote of Mark, another fortified hilltop on the Galloway coast.

WHAT HAPPENED TO RHEGED?

THE history in poetry tells us that Urien of Rheged was the dominant king of the north. He led an alliance of four kings against the Angles of Bernicia, but was assassinated by Morcant, one of these northern British kings, before victory could be sealed.

The Angles were too powerful, and the destruction of Trusty’s Hill and the other hillforts of Mote of Mark and Tynron Doon during the seventh century AD happened when much of southern Scotland became part of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria. Rheged disappeared and was lost to memory.

But then the Angles and Saxons came up against the Scots and the Picts, and were sent homeward to think again.