The Lost Kingdom of Rheged: What the Trusty’s Hill dig can tell us about Celtic Britain

Thriving in the 6th and 7th centuries, the Kingdom of Rheged was at the heart of what historians call the Old North (Hen Ogledd), the Brittonic-speaking Celtic lands of Northern England and lowlands Scotland. Knowledge of Rheged, which was believed to be centred in Cumbria, and the deeds of its kings, such as Urien, survived primarily through Welsh epic poetry, compiled in the 14th century Book of Taliesin.

Urien was prominent in the fight against the encroaching Angles, and according to myth married the sister of King Arthur, the enchantress Morgan le Fey. By the 7th century though, Rheged had been absorbed the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria, its language was displaced by Old English and its history was left largely unwritten.
 A recent excavation at Trusty’s Hill Fort at Gatehouse of Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway as part of the Galloway Picts Project has revealed that the dearth of archaeological evidence for Rheged in Cumbria may be because this mysterious realm wasn’t centred in England at all, but Scotland.

Trusty’s Hill Fort is defined by a vitrified stone rampart around it summit, an outer bank and rock-cut ditch on its northern side and a series of lesser outer ramparts on its southern side. Pictish carvings on exposed bedrock at the entrance to the fort suggest that site had ritual significance, while remains of a workshop crafting items out of gold, silver, bronze and iron are testament to the fort’s wealth and status.

Ronan Toolis from GUARD Archaeology and the Galloway Picts Project explains the significance of the site and what that might tell us about the lost Kingdom of Rheged.

What was the Kingdom of Rheged like? Was it particularly influential?

Rheged was a small kingdom that emerges in the post-Roman era (ie the fifth and sixth centuries AD) From the Historia Brittonum and the late sixth century poetry of Taliesin Rheged appears to have been the pre-eminent kingdom of the north (ie southern Scotland and northern England). Taliesin’s poetry mainly celebrates the martial prowess and generosity of its King, Urien of Rheged and his dominance over neighbouring kingdoms. This appears to be corroborated by the Historia Brittonum which records Urien as leading an alliance of other northern kings, Rydderch Hen (recorded elsewhere as king of the Clyde), Gwallawg and Morcant against the Angles of Bernicia (ie Northumbria).

What’s the significance of the Pictish markings being so far south, was it common for them to be used by Britons?

No it wasn’t common. The Pictish Carvings at Trusty’s Hill are the southernmost Pictish carvings, but they are not the only Pictish symbols out with Pictland – there are three other instances. A Pictish symbol is carved into the royal inauguration stone at Dunadd, the royal stronghold of the early Scots kingdom of Dalriada (modern day Argyll and Bute). Another Pictish stone was found at the foot of Edinburgh Castle Rock, another royal stronghold – this one belonged to the Gododdin, the Britons of south-east Scotland. Pictish symbols are also carved into the terminal of a silver chain found in Lanarkshire. Silver chains are predominantly found in southern Scotland and were probably royal regalia of the fifth-seventh centuries AD amongst the Britons of southern Scotland. So all these examples are associated with royal power; the same is likely for the symbols at Trusty’s Hill.

An artist’s impression of the stronghold at Trusty’s Hill

What sort of inaugurations or rituals could the ‘passage’ at the site have been used for?

The inauguration of kings. The ceremonial well on the opposite side of the entranceway is not strictly speaking a well – there is no spring at the bottom of it. It is more a large rock-cut basin that was used to hold water. There are records of it being used as a votive well as late as the 16th century. So we think it may have been used to anoint the kings of Rheged during the royal inauguration rites, in the same way as the kings of Dalriada were anointed from a small rock cut bowl at Dunadd, which is also located at the entranceway to the summit of the fort.

How does knowing the centre of Rheged’s trade and power was much further north change our perception of the kingdom?

The recognition of Rheged in Galloway gives a political context to other developments in Galloway in the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The earliest evidence of Christianity in Scotland, the Latinus Stone, is at Whithorn. This is also the earliest evidence of literacy in Scotland and the writing on this stone suggest that the local elite spoke Latin. There are other Romano-British latin inscribed stones elsewhere in Galloway and indeed elsewhere in southern Scotland and these may indicate the influence of the Christian monasteries of Galloway at this time. There is also some of the earliest evidence of direct trade with continental Europe and the eastern Mediterranean at Whithorn. This same trade with continental Europe is also evident at Trusty’s Hill and at the Mote of Mark (another sixth century fort along the Galloway Coast). The use of Pictish symbols at Trusty’s Hill also shows that Rheged was influenced by and interacting with the Picts of northern Scotland. The archaeology of Galloway at this time includes a complex hierarchy of ecclesiastical and secular sites that is unmatched anywhere else in Southern Scotland and northern England. So the pre-eminence of Rheged in the historical records is matched by the pre-eminence of Galloway in the archaeological records.

A laser scan image of the Pictish symbols carved at Trusty’s Hill

The site at Trusty Hill Fort was destroyed by fire, do we know what happened and is there any evidence of that at the site?

Trusty’s Hill was overrun and captured. We know this because the rampart around its summit was set ablaze in such a way that its rubble core vitrified or melted. Experiments have shown that only timber-laced stone ramparts (as found at Trusty’s Hill) can be vitrified but it takes a lot of timber and a lot of time to reach temperatures of 1000°C to vitrify the stone. So it wasn’t something that was done during an attack but only after a successful attack. Our excavation revealed that the stone face of the rampart had been dismantled before the timber framed rubble core had been fired. The entire circumference of the summit had been fired and this probably took weeks to do. The sight of the burning hill would have been visible for many miles around as a spectacular and ominous symbol of conquest.

What can the incorporation of Rheged into Northumbria tell us about the relationship between Anglo-Saxons and Britons?

Both Trusty’s Hill and the Mote of Mark, both hillforts of the Britons of Galloway, were vitrified in the early-mid seventh century AD. This accords with the historical conquest of Galloway and much of southern Scotland by the Angles of Northumbria. Indeed there are other similar unexcavated forts in Galloway that are also vitrified suggesting that the Northumbrian conquest of Rheged came with fire and sword. One of the early Northumbrian kings was called Fflamddwyn – Flame-Bearer – by Rheged’s poet Taliesin.

How did the Kingdom of Rheged – and specifically Urien – transition into Arthurian myth?

There is a collection of Welsh poetry dating to the ninth and tenth centuries in which Rheged is a metaphor for a vanished Britonnic heroic past. I suspect that poetry and stories such as this were used as sources for the later medieval Arthurian myths, which conflated Urien with other heroes, kings and villains amongst the Britons of the fifth and sixth centuries.

For more of Britain’s early medieval history, pick up the new issue of History of Royals or subscribe and save 40% on the cover price. The Lost Dark Age Kingdom of Rheged by Ronan Toolis and Christopher Bowles is published by Oxbow Books.