Armchair travelling 2: To Dunadd, the Citadel of the King

If St. Columba is one of the stars of my series The Chronicles of Iona, Aedan mac Gabran is surely the other. He was the king of the Scots kingdom of Dalriada in the 6th century and was arguably the greatest warlord of his age.

In fact, my lightbulb moment in writing these books was the day I happened upon Aedan while reading the Vita sancti Columbae, the principal source for Columba’s life. Though the Vita is Columba’s story, Aedan also leapt from the pages fully formed, living and breathing. And I thought, “these novels need to be about both of these men”. It was together that they laid the foundations of the modern Scottish nation; you cannot have the one without the other. To my mind, that spirit of collaboration for the common good, of friendship, is something that needs to be celebrated (and not just then, but now).

Which brings me to Kilmartin Glen and the citadel of Dunadd, which was the hillfort-capitol of Aedan’s kingdom. Dunadd is a distinctive volcanic plug that rises from the Crinan Moss just outside of the town of Lochgilphead, Argyll. On Dunadd’s summit are the remains of an early-mediaeval hillfort, begun in the 4th or 5th century and substantially enlarged during and after Aedan’s reign.

Dunadd Hillfort, Kilmartin Glen, near Lochgilphead, Argyll

I first visited Dunadd in 1994. My husband and I had just moved to the U.K. for work and for school, and I had picked up a copy of the Vita sancti Columbae from a second-hand book shop in Cambridge. I read it in a day, had my lightbulb moment, and then cheekily requested a quick road trip up to Dunadd for my birthday.

Now the thing to understand is that my birthday is in early February–probably the worst time to visit Scotland for a “quick birthday-weekend get-away”. It’s a 9-hour drive from Cambridge, it’s cold, it’s dark, the days are super short, and it was snowing. But we went because that’s what we do. (Barring pandemic, the first thing we ask each other on a weekend is “where to next, love?”.)

And good thing, too. Because back in 1994, climbing up Dunadd for the first time in the dark and in the snow, I froze to death but fell in love. What a magical place! The hillfort itself reeks of atmosphere and history. It’s where the kings of Dalriada were acclaimed and it commands its surroundings. But Kilmartin Glen is also Britain’s richest, densest archaeological landscape. There are over 800 Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments in the glen. There’s something of the past everywhere you look.

That fascinates me. Why did countless generations of people devote so much of their precious time and energy to building in stone and wood just here, monuments that survive to this day? Their lives were short, compared to ours. What is so special about this particular landscape that they sought to immortalise it in this way?

For one, there’s an energy to it, that’s for certain. The interplay between the mystical and the material is so obviously at play in Kilmartin Glen. There is so much to see, so much “time” to contemplate–all the ages of humankind, embedded underfoot in the moss.

Every time I hit the curve of road down from Tayvallich to Crinan and the hillfort of Dunadd comes into view, my heart just lifts. Every single time. Doesn’t matter if you can see for miles or if the mist has stubbornly set in and you can’t see a thing. I don’t know if it’s the light, or the shifting tides, or the stacking levels of horizons, or all that water. There is something quite special about it.

This is Aedan’s point of view as he rows Columba up the meandering river Add to Dunadd for the first time:

“Taking up the curragh’s oars … they rowed from the harbor to the river, nosing into its mouth to follow its meander. About them stretched the dun-coloured bog, an expanse of grass and turf and mud and the day’s last flush of sunlight sheening on sluggish water. Gulls massed on the moor, shrieking. Low hills, cloaked in woodland, peeked out above the vegetation either side … Following a few more of the river’s twists, reeds parting, they came finally upon what they had come to see: on a precipitous outcrop, a hump of rock, the fortress of Dun Ad rising … “

The Chronicles of Iona: Exile, pp. 25-26.

Dunadd, Kilmartin Glen, and the Moine Mhor National Nature Reserve are certainly worth a visit. If you do get there, make sure to visit the world-class Kilmartin Museum. It is currently undergoing a major renovation, as is fitting–it deserves to be much better known, as does the whole of Argyll.

In the meantime, the museum is hosting a number of online talks, including one tomorrow, Thursday, 28 January, on the glen’s famous rock art like the cup and ring marks at Achnabreck, below. (See its website to register)

Achnabreck Cup and Ring marks, Achnabreck, near Lochgilphead, Argyll

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