Burghead Fort, Moray



The other names which I have uncovered and assigned to this site are

      • The Burch
      • Torridon
      • Breidafiord
      • Eccialsbacca
      • Burgh Olim Narmin
      • Ferna
      • Corcach Burgus
      • Bannatia
      • Tamia
      • alata castra (Winged Camp) and
      • Tuesis

The site is an early prehistoric promontory fort, the largest early fort in Scotland, covering 3 hectares. Believed to have once been a Royal Fortress of the Vacomagi Tribe and mentioned by Ptolemy, it also saw action against Norse attacks.

The fort sits on the south side of Moray Firth on a sandstone headland which was a natural rocky promontory. The citing was well justified as it could be defended from both sea and land attacks.

The fort consisted of 3 ramparts and ditches. These were constructed of turf and rubble with timber in them for support – Timber Laced Ramparts.


Rampart at Burghead One of the remaining features of the promontory fort at Burghead. Little remains of what was an important Pictish stronghold. The distinctive bull carvings associated with the fort suggest a high status location. The white building (top left) now incorporates a small visitor centre.
By Gwen and James Anderson, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13584798


The inner rampart still measures to a height of 3 m.

Divided into two terraces, the higher one, which was the smaller of the two, was believed to have been used by the ruling chief, or king; and a larger, lower area, where building foundations and evidence of livestock have been uncovered, demonstrate the rest of the tribe would have lived in this section.


Lower part of Pictish fort grounds
By Ewen Rennie, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13682102


The walled inner area was 300 m long and 180 m wide. It is estimated, due to the 8 m base, that the walls would have originally stood 8 m high.

The entrances were located midway.


William Roy – Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, 1793
Public Domain Image


The fort is thought to have been the main stronghold of the Vacomagi Tribe. They were a Pictish people who were in the area from about the 4th – 9th centuries. Not only was the site an important fort but owing to its natural harbour it is also considered to have been used by a Pictish navy, making it their major stronghold within the area.

Later in its history, a church was built within the site. The early Christian church was constructed on a rampart and dedicated to St. Aethan (St. Aiden). Included in the remains of the church which have been uncovered include sculptured crosses dating from the 8th-11th centuries, a Baptismal which had been cut directly into solid rock, and an archway.

Also uncovered within the fort was a well. Not your usual type of well but one which was located underground and accessed via stairs leading down to it. The well was uncovered in 1809 and measures 3.4 m high, 3.4 m across, 1.2 m wide and .2 m deep. Within the well were found a bull carving on a slab of rock, Spanish coins, a metal jug, and a stone carving made up of knot work and a cross.

Here is a rough timeline/outline of the forts story…..

Early Iron Age defences

Rumored to have been the Roman station of Castra Alata, later called PTOROTON.

150 AD       Mentioned by Ptolemy

3rd C          The main wall was constructed. Carbon 14 Dated to this period.

5th C          Possibly attacked (archaeological evidence).

6th-7th C    Refurbished.

830            Originally thought to have been built by Sigurd at this date.

839             Mentioned in the Annals of Ulster.

Sigurd Eysteinsson or Sigurd the Mighty, the 2nd Earl of Orkney, reigned c. 875–892, is believed to have docked his ship at the fort and his men refreshed there. He is also believed to have been buried at the fort.

9th C           A Norse incursion was recorded for the site.

9th C          Following: No evidence of occupation after this date.

1005-1034 Taken by the Danes during the reign of Malcolm II.

1040            According to McBeth King Duncan died at the site.

1805           During buildings works, stones with bull carvings were uncovered.

1809           Well uncovered.

1890’s        Mostly destroyed by town building works.

1966          Excavated.

1969          Excavated.

1977          Watching Brief.

2000          Watching Brief.

2002         Watching Brief. Evaluation.

2003          Excavated.

2005         Watching Brief.

2011         Watching Brief.

2012         Watching Brief.

2013         Geophysical Survey of site.

2015         Excavated – Northern Picts Project.

2015-2017 Atlas of Hillforts of Britain Project.

2016         Excavated.

2016         Watching Brief.

2017         Excavated.

2018         Evaluation.

2019         Watching Brief.


Silver mounting of a drinking horn found at Burghead
Public Domain Image


Archaeology from the site has been very interesting and we cover the archaeology later this week!

In terms of religion – it is not only the Christian church which rules this site!! The bull carvings could suggest that the Pagan Bull Cult was alive and well at one stage; The underground well could point to the Pagan Water Cult; and the still practiced Burning of the Clavie, points to the Pagan Fire Cult. Such strong indications of Pagan ritual show that at some point in the past it may have had a very high-status role in regard to local religion. Could this be why the Christian church was built within its walls?

This site still holds on to so many of her secrets. With the town being built over most of the fort we may never know what truly went on within her ramparts, but one thing is for sure – she holds a very special and prominent part in Scottish history!


Finally the Clavie is carried to the top of the Doorie Hill and the pole is placed in a socket on top of the hill.
By Anne Burgess, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1575289


References & Bibliography

Allison. H. G. Culloden Tales: Stories from Scotland’s Most Famous Battlefield. Random House.

Anderson. J. 2019. Scotland in Pagan Times; The Iron Age. Good Press.

Barrett. J., & Slater. A. 2009. New Excavations at the Brough of Deerness: Power and Religion in Viking Age Scotland. Journal of the North Atlantic, 2, pp. 81-94.

Blackwood. W. 1835. The New Statistical Account of Scotland. Volume VIII. William Blackwood and Sons.

Breeze. D. J. 1991. ‘Agricola in the Highlands?’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities, Scotland, Vol. 120, 1990. P. 58.

Clarkson. T. 2012. The Picts: A History. Birlinn.

Cordiner. Rev. C. 1788. Antiquities and Scenery of the North of Scotland in a Series of Letters to Thomas Pennant, Esq.. Alex Smellie, Edinburgh.

Davidson. G. M. 1947. A Stone Flaking Site at Burghead, Morayshire. Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, 1947, NEW SERIES, Vol. 11 (1947), pp. 28-30.

Dunbavin. P. 1998. Picts and Ancient Britons: An Exploration of Pictish Origins. Third Millennium Publishing.

Ferguson. J. 1911. The Pictish Race and Kingdom. The Celtic Review, Feb., 1911, Vol. 7, No. 25 (Feb., 1911), pp. 18-36.

Foster. F. M. 2014. Picts, Gaels and Scots: Early Historic Scotland. Birlinn.

Harding. D. W. 2004. The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders. Routledge.

Hudson. B. 2014. The Picts. John Wiley & Sons.

Jones. R. H., & Ralston. I. 2010. Artefacts and sites: A Long and Problematic Relationship. Scottish Archaeological Journal, 2010, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2010), pp. 1-13.

Keys. D. 2004. Rethinking the Picts. Archaeology, September/October 2004, Vol. 57, No. 5 (September/October 2004), pp. 40-44.

Konstam. A. 2013. Strongholds of the Picts: The Fortifications of Dark Age Scotland. Bloomsbury.

Lang. A. 2012. The History Of Scotland – Volume 1: From The Roman Occupation To Feudal Scotland. Jazzybee Verlag.

Macdonald. J. 1860. Burghead: Singular Custom: Clavie: Durie. Notes & Queries. Bell & Dowdy.

Macdonald. J. 1863. Historical Notices of “The Broch,” 0r Burghead, in Moray, With An Account Of Its Antiquities. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. IV, 1863, pp. 321-369.

Rhys. J. 2014. Celtic Britain. Cambridge University Press.

Skene. W. F. 1876. Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban, Volume 1. D. Douglas.

Steers. J. A. 1937. The Culbin Sands and Burghead Bay. The Geographical Journal, Dec., 1937, Vol. 90, No. 6 (Dec., 1937), pp. 498-523.

Taylor. C. 2015. On The Trail of the Real Macbeth: King of Alba. Luath Press.

Turnock. D. 2016. The Making of the Scottish Rural Landscape. Routledge.

Waldman. C., & Mason. C. 2006. Encyclopedia of European Peoples. Infobase Publishing.



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